The whys and wherefores of the success of Russian propaganda

The war in Ukraine has been going on for more than two months. During all this time, a large part of the Russian population openly supports the “special operation”, as the Putin government calls it, despite the murders and rapes, the bombings, the destruction and the millions of people who have lost their homes.

Apparently, “political technologies”, the euphemism used in the former Soviet states for the industry of political manipulation and propaganda, play a very important role in this phenomenon.

As Robert Ottung, a Swiss expert on media technologies, put it: “Russia does not have the military and economic potential of the West. And to compensate for this weakness, the Kremlin uses propaganda.”

control over everything

For a long time now, all media in Russia have been controlled by the state. This makes it possible to mount an unprecedented campaign, combining traditional propaganda methods with elements of neuro-linguistic programming and other modern techniques of persuasion.

It is described very well in this interview by Natalia Sindéyeva, founder and general director of Dozhd, the last independent television channel in Russia that survived until the beginning of the war (it stopped broadcasting as of March 1, 2022 by order of the Russian Government). ):

“They have been saying for eight years that there are enemies around us, that the whole world wants to defeat Russia, that in Ukraine there are only Benderovist-fascists… (…) After spending four hours (watching Russian state television) even I think to myself: ‘ Maybe we live in a wrong world? Here is an expert, there is evidence, there are maps… (…)’. They have learned to do it so professionally that one simply gets lost. Especially when you have a channel that uses a media language and you go to a different one and it tells the same thing (…). Even I, who know reality, at some point start to think: ‘Maybe this is true? Maybe we don’t know something, we don’t understand something? Maybe we don’t have enough information?’”

An interview with former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Dozhd in 2011. / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

How is it done?

There are many attempts to classify propaganda methods, from Yourman’s (1939) classic list to, for example, Dilts & DeLozier’s (2000) compilation of neuro-linguistic programming techniques.

It is also necessary to mention the model of Milton Erickson. This model describes the linguistic patterns that cause moments of hypnotic trance in the listener and make him more susceptible to persuasion.

Erickson highlights transderivational language (words and associations that make us search through our memories and mental representations), ambiguities (words, phrases or structures that can give rise to multiple interpretations) and derived meanings (sentences that implicitly take something for granted, that are perceived by the subconscious as indirect commands).

For example, the headline “Europeans running out of money and patience for refugees” from the official RIA Nóvosti news channel contains many derived meanings: refugees from Ukraine require a lot of patience and money; Europeans don’t have them, they are bad and poor; do not go to Europe because there is nothing good there.

ways to convince

Speaking of the methods of propaganda more traditional, in the Russian media you can find a great variety of them. Here are some of the most striking examples:

  1. open lies. Even falsehoods presented in correct and repetitive can persuade. According to many researchers, the most important tenet of Russian propaganda is that everyone lies, especially in the media space. Any news can be false and this is normal, but the deception of the Russian media is less misleading than the deceptions of the West.

    As Alexander Artamonov, the military expert of the holding company media (pravda it means TRUE in Russian), one day before the war:

    “The military process in Donbas has started and it is difficult to stop it. It’s also hard to stop because in this situation everyone is fooling pretty much everyone. Westerners who provide weapons to Ukraine create the impression among Ukrainians that they are fighting for Ukraine to become part of Europe (…). NATO members have their own approach, they believe that we are all idiots and we will die for them, and they continue to push the Ukrainians to slaughter.”

    This same method is used to discredit any information coming from the foreign media (for example, about the massacres of Mariúpol and Bucha). And if there is evidence that the data provided by the Russians themselves is also false, it can always be said that they are less fake than alternative information.

  2. The lesser of two evils. The Government’s decisions are presented as the best possible in the adverse circumstances created by Western countries. For example, Dmitri Peskov, the press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation, states in his speech that “the special operation in Ukraine is designed to prevent the Third World War.”

  3. Asymmetric definition. It consists of supplanting the meanings of important words for propaganda. It must be remembered that a simple mention of the word war referring to the invasion of Ukraine can cost Russia up to 15 years in prison. You can only say “special operation” or “demilitarization of Ukraine”.

  4. Normalization or movement of the Overton window. It is a propaganda technique in which something absolutely unacceptable little by little is integrated into the social perception and in the end it is perceived as possible and even normal. The most brilliant and macabre example is, perhaps, the standardization of the possibility of nuclear war.

    Putin’s words that the Russians will “go to paradise” by destroying the world were at first shocking to the entire population, but then they were repeated frequently, gradually replacing rejection with forced acceptance. Lately they date routinely and without causing any protest from listeners.

Obviously, this list is not complete. A range of techniques is used so wide and in such a coordinated way that the effects are multiplied, creating an unprecedented propaganda environment.


From the splash screens of TV shows to the bot who appear on popular blogs to comment on each post, everything is very well thought out so that anyone, immersing themselves in this sick media environment, perceives it as something normal and consistent and even unconsciously avoids information that contradicts what is instilled in them.

in your article Go into the dark and find people thereRussian opposition journalist and sociologist Shura Burtin shares the results of interviews with supporters of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Based on more than 50 interviews, it highlights some tendencies, from the repetition of slogans instead of personal opinion to aggressiveness when hearing a question. uncomfortable for which there are no answers in propaganda programs.

But perhaps the most interesting trend is the insensitivity to contradictions. Burtin cites some sentences from his respondents: “Has Russia attacked Ukraine? Yes of course. Or it could be that no, we are not the first (to start the war)”; “We freed them (Ukrainians). And if the population is against… well, we are not against the civilian population, they simply live there, what can we do…”; “The war was inevitable. A month ago no one thought this could happen.

As one of the possible explanations for this, Burtin cites the words of one of the women interviewed:

“People in Russia now are like a child who has been told that his father is a homicidal maniac. He can’t believe it, he defends himself, gets angry, justifies his behavior, looks for the culprits. Of course, he is very very sick.”

In another article, anatomy of hatethe Russian sociologists L. Borusyak and A. Levinson study an interesting objective (and at the same time a resource) of Russian propaganda: to divert the protest against the situation in which the country finds itself under the Putin dictatorship in another direction, turning it in aggression and hatred of any external force, be it the West, the immigrants, the queer or the Ukrainian “nationalists”. The social tension of recent years and the dissatisfaction with life in general make, paradoxically, public opinion more manipulable, especially when it comes to war.

Russian society, after the Second World War, is used to considering war as a sacred experience that can destroy everything and restore some kind of true meaning to their lives, liberate them from what they find themselves in.

The whole country repeats words like “denazification”, “demilitarization” and “liberation”, and, apparently, it is not a coincidence. Citizens really want it, but they can’t get it. And they express it in the form of aggression towards those who they think are most like them: the Ukrainians.

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