20 years under Putin: a timeline

For weeks leading up to February 24, as Russian military equipment moved into position around Ukraine’s borders and as U.S. government spokespersons warned of an “imminent” attack, foreign and domestic Russia analysts did not expect that an actual war was about to begin. Many pointed to the lack of a “rally around the flag” propaganda campaign as evidence that the Kremlin was not preparing the public for a potentially generation-defining conflict. This expectation was a mistake. The Kremlin propaganda’s goal was not to rally support, but to suppress opposition. At least for now, this campaign has been a success.


 According to Mediascope, Rossia-1's 60 Minutes is one of the top evening talk shows on Russian television. Photo: smotrim.ru


For the month leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kremlin propaganda worked to convince the Russian population that the Russian forces gathering around Ukraine’s borders had no intention of going on the offensive. As usual, Kremlin propaganda did this by producing a cacophony of competing “versions” of events. According to one of these narratives, all of the Russian tanks, troops, rockets, helicopters, armored vehicles, and field hospitals concentrating within striking distance of Kyiv were merely taking part in a training exercise. According to another, the invasion force did not in fact exist, but was simply an invention of “Anglo-Saxon” information warriors. Or else, maybe, the invasion force did exist, but what obligation did Russia have to justify military maneuvers which were taking place within the confines of its own borders? Or else, maybe, the invasion force was simply a diplomatic weapon aimed at improving the Kremlin’s negotiating position in hypothetical arms control talks. Or else, maybe, the invasion force was in position north of Kyiv just in case it became necessary to respond to some sort of Ukrainian “provocation” in the Donbass. Viewers at home were free to choose their favorite reason for not believing the increasingly insistent U.S. government statements about the imminence of a Russian attack on Ukraine. 

The picture changed on February 24, when Russian rockets began striking Ukrainian military targets in and around the cities of Kharkiv, Kramatorsk, Sumy, Dnipro, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Odessa, Vinnitsa, Mariupol, Kyiv, Melitopol, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Lutsk, among others. Kremlin-controlled propaganda was also mobilized, with Russian federal channels canceling regular programming in order to focus on breaking news and geopolitical talk shows. In the opening days of the war, Russia’s main domestic channels were covering the conflict from morning to night, but with a twist: in their make-believe world, Russian forces were not on the offensive, but were merely helping the armies of the newly recognized Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to repel an attack from the “fascist junta” ruling over Kyiv.

In a clear sign that the Kremlin was very anxious about controlling that message domestically, the standard talk show format was modified. Under normal circumstances, programs like “60 Minutes” on Rossiya-1 and “Time Will Tell” on Channel One keep viewers’ attention by creating the maximum amount of acceptable controversy. Prior to February 24, 2022, these talk shows typically featured a group of very loud “patriots” shouting over an overmatched token “liberal” or two about the international news of the day. The spectacle resembled a bullfight, with the “liberals” playing the role of the bull; in order to keep things interesting, the bull was expected to draw a little bit of blood before inevitably being slaughtered in the end. Starting February 24, however, the “liberals” were absent from the studio. Any semblance of debate ceased. Opposing opinions about the war had evidently been deemed inappropriate for the Russian airwaves. Under the circumstances, the maximum acceptable amount of controversy was precisely zero. 

As a result, viewers tuning in to Russian television in the hours following the Russian attack were treated to authoritative-sounding accounts portraying the Russian invasion as a limited “special military operation” aimed only at repelling a (nonexistent) Ukrainian attempt to take back the recently recognized Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics by force. Until presidential press secretary Dmitri Peskov acknowledged that Russia’s “de-nazification” mission would have to involve Russian attacks on Ukrainian military targets outside of the Donbass as well, Kremlin propaganda obediently ignored every example of Russian offensive operations on the territory of Ukraine proper. And yet, as Russian troops made advances on Kherson, Kharkiv, Sumy, and Kyiv, the narrative accessible to most Russians remained one of a defensive humanitarian intervention aimed at protecting innocent Donbass civilians from “nazi” attackers.

Kremlin propaganda might not have been capable of convincing many Russians to rally in support of an unprovoked attack, but it has thus far successfully manipulated a critical mass to silently suffer the consequences of the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine.

Significant information resources were also devoted to refuting any examples of Ukrainian heroism. When an audio recording circulated of overmatched Ukrainian border guards on Snake Island refusing to surrender to the Russian navy, their famous last words—“Russian warship, go fuck yourself”—turned into a rallying cry; within a day, Russian propaganda had taken the trouble of manufacturing an alternative version of events in which the border guards had surrendered and were in the process of being returned to their families (those border guards, suspiciously, were not available for comment; they were believed to be killed, later said to have been taken prisoners of war). When Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky heroically refused to be evacuated from the besieged Ukrainian capital, Russian propaganda asserted that Zelensky had already been removed to a secure location and that his videos addressing the nation from the government district of Kyiv had been filmed in advance as part of the information war. While videos of burned-out Russian armored columns circulated on social media and captured Russian soldiers were encouraged to call their mothers back home, Russian propaganda focused on minor damage to a school building in the Donetsk region and broadcast recordings of captured Ukrainian soldiers mumblingly encouraging their former comrades in arms to surrender.

Most frighteningly, Russian propagandists were rigorously laying the groundwork to prepare the domestic audience for the worst that was yet to come. On Monday, February 28, as columns of Russian armored vehicles gathered around the Ukrainian capital, Russian federal channels hyped videos purporting to show Ukrainian territorial defense forces abusing innocent civilians. According to the propaganda version of events, there were no Russian troops in the vicinity of Kyiv, and yet the Russian Ministry of Defense was opening a humanitarian corridor to any Kyivans seeking to escape the “armed bands of marauders, bandits, and nationalists” who, in the words of official Moscow, were “preparing to use innocent civilians as human shields” (shields against whose shells and rockets was not made clear). In short, ordinary Russians were being primed to accept the lie that any subsequent irrefutable evidence of attacks on Ukrainian civilians could only have been the result of actions taken by Ukrainians themselves. 

At this point, there is every reason to conclude that this propaganda campaign is having the intended effect on its target audience, Russians themselves. Kremlin propaganda might not have been capable of convincing many Russians to rally in support of an unprovoked attack, but it has thus far successfully manipulated a critical mass to silently suffer the consequences of the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Yes, several thousand brave people in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, and many other cities in between have in recent days risked arrest in order to protest the war, but there is little reason to believe that these isolated acts of resistance represent the start of a mass movement capable of affecting the Kremlin’s prosecution of its war in Ukraine.

There is not yet any reliable polling about ordinary Russians’ attitudes toward the war, but speaking anecdotally, there has been no movement in my acquaintances’ political opinions. People who were “patriots” last week remain supportive of the regime today. Apolitical friends are posting neutral “No to War” sentiments on Instagram while calling for “both sides” to sit down and negotiate a peaceful compromise. Dissidents exiled abroad are recounting the same old frustrated stories about the impossibility of convincing relatives back home that the Kremlin is openly lying about its role in the latest atrocity. A collapsing economy combined with several thousand Russian soldiers killed in action is, thus far, insufficiently horrible to inspire meaningful change in Russia itself. If there is a line past which the majority of the Russian public might no longer be willing to suffer silently, then that line still has not been crossed. 

As a consequence, the wider world can and should do everything in its power to punish both the Kremlin elite and the population that acquiesces to its crimes. So long as Russians themselves do not come out en masse to demand that their leadership cease taking actions which work directly against the economic and security interests of the Russian state and its people, there is little hope that a large enough faction of the Russian elite will break with the ruling regime. This is where domestic propaganda has its greatest effect: for the men in the Kremlin, a confused, apathetic, frightened population is sufficient to ensure that “collective Putin” can hold onto power even after launching an unprovoked, poorly planned war of aggression against Ukraine, a country full of people who Russian patriots have a habit of claiming as “ours.” Against all the actual facts, Kremlin propaganda is still “winning” this war on the home front.


* Michael Wasiura is a political analyst based in Moscow.