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International Relations (Long Read) Opinion

How Russia built its new narrative of war

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On Friday, January 28, Eduard Basurin, defence spokesman of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic appeared on the most watched TV station in Russia – Rossiya 1- and accused Britain and the United States of plotting with Ukraine to launch an imminent attack on territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

The offensive operation, BBC Monitoring quoted him as saying, was being developed by the Ukrainian General Staff “with the support of specialists from the United States and Britain. And when it has been put together, when it is completely ready… It is supposed to be put into action.”

For weeks, US and British officials had briefed this the media that they believe Russia might instigate some kind of “false flag” incident to justify an all-out invasion of Ukraine. The truth, however, is that something much larger was already underway, a months-long campaign of messaging, military moves, disinformation and probably deception unfolding in plain sight.

For more than a year, media outlets and leaders based in the twin Donbas separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk have been telling those that live there that a Ukrainian offensive was being prepared. In recent weeks, that story has also become a ubiquitous feature of almost every daily Russian news broadcast, reaching millions across the former Soviet Union and beyond.

The first three weeks of February 2022 saw what appears a pre-planned narrative of escalation.  Quite often disingenuous statements from Russian and separatist leaders, false accusations of Ukrainian and allied actions and a drumbeat of a military activity that appears designed to permanently shift global geopolitics against the West.

Understanding what Russia has just done is key to working out how the UK and its NATO allies should approach this confrontation going forward. It highlights a number of likely misconceptions that continue to bedevil Western planning, including oversimplistic assumptions that have often focused on individual items of Russian online disinformation at the cost of the bigger picture.

In other areas, however, Britain in particular has played this well. What Britain and its allies must now do is learn from those successes and play its part in building a united and cohesive allied effort to confront an almost existential threat.

As the US and Britain have been briefing, despite Russia’s overwhelming firepower, not everything in the first 72 hours of the war went as Moscow might have hoped.

Russia’s narrative of escalation was almost certainly planned

For all Russia’s half-hearted attempts to its actions look like a response to aggression from Ukraine, the pattern of escalation looks increasingly like a planned schedule, the sort of messaging “grid” Western political operatives have long used for electoral communications to deliver a rolling narrative that serves their ends.

It is a campaign that reached its pivotal moment in the final week of February with an orchestrated series of events ranging from real-world shelling along the Donbas frontline in Ukraine to “live” political theatre from the Kremlin, TV and social media broadcast from the front and what appears to be primitively faked and prefilmed “incidents”.

On Monday, February 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin assembled his top advisers in a cavernous, gleaming white-painted hall in the Kremlin to discuss Russia’s options on Ukraine. It was described by Russian TV as an “unprecedented” “live” broadcast – although images of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu’s watch suggest that, like so much else released, it was actually recorded earlier, although in this case likely the same day.

In a somewhat rambling speech that evening that questioned Ukraine’s existence as a nation, Putin announced his decision to recognise the separatist republics and send in military “peacekeepers”. By the Wednesday – Defender of the Fatherland Day, a public holiday in Russia – Russian TV bulletins were broadcasting from the forming up points of Russian armour in Donetsk.

By then, Putin had Parliamentary approval to use the military outside Russia’s borders, was talking of the importance of “disarming” Ukraine and accusing it of preparing to build atomic arms. After weeks of criticising the US for its talk of imminent invasion, Ukraine’s government was mobilising reservists and calling for the three million Ukrainian nationals within Russia’s borders to flee immediately.

This confrontation has been a long time coming

On February 10, 2007, a 54-year-old Putin took to the stage at the Munich Security Conference in front of a smiling Chancellor Angela Merkel and launched into a savage evisceration of what he described as a dangerous and disingenuous unipolar world order led by a US already “destroying itself from within”.

As well as attacking Washington’s recent military interventions in Iraq, he expressed particular anger at NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe, saying it broke an explicit pledge made in 1990 by NATO Secretary General Manfred Warner. Seen in Russia as a defining point for Kremlin foreign policy, Putin’s Munich speech was referenced explicitly by all three of Russia’s top-viewed weekend new shows on Sunday, February 13, who referred to it as “prescient” and tied it directly to the face-off with Ukraine.

To an extent, Putin’s prediction of a more multipolar world from the economic shift to the BRIC economies of Brazil, India, China alongside an energy-rich Russia is exactly what has come to pass. But Putin is now also doing exactly what he accused the US of in 2007 – attempting to use the threat or reality of force to reshape the world as he might wish.

This is a long-running trend. At several points since 2007 – during a confrontation with Estonia over the movement of a Russian war memorial later that year that prompted a suspected Russian cyber attack, in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and Syria the next year, Russia has proved willing to escalate and use force faster than anyone expected.

As Moscow has shown twice in the last year, nothing grabs the attention of the world like moving tanks, troops, jets and ships in a way that suggests their use might be imminent. In both April last year and more lately from November, Russian media coverage of its mobilisation along Ukraine’s borders has been limited – and Russian officials have accused the US and others of “hysteria” for highlighting them – but the Kremlin clearly knew that by moving these forces, they would grab global and regional attention.

Ukraine has clearly long been a particular preoccupation, going back at least as far as the 2004-5 “Orange Revolution” that saw a pro-Russian government swept from power.

A July article by Putin on the Kremlin website using multiple historical examples to present Ukraine as part of Russia in what the Institute for Modern Russia described as less academic argument than declaration of intent.

Russia will continue to use every argument and lever at its disposal

As late as the evening of Wednesday February 23, there was still talk Russia might stage a last minute “false flag” event to justify military intervention, with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba warning an incident might be underway in Crimea with the reported evacuation of a chemical plant.

Warnings over an alleged Western-backed Ukrainian “chemical attack” Have been a periodic feature of separatist and other Kremlin-backed media in recent months. Those that live in the separatist-run regions were a particularly paranoid diet of news – enough for Ukraine to successfully get both Donetsk and Luhansk TV stations banned from YouTube.

Within Ukraine itself, the Kremlin lost one of the most powerful pro-Russian voices in February last year when it closed down the live broadcasts of several TV channels owned by Victor Medvedchuk, an oligarch, politician and personal friend of Putin. More recently, Ukraine has also restricted channels belonging to Yehvan Murayev, the Ukrainian businessman who Britain accused in January of being a potential Kremlin puppet after an invasion.

But that hasn’t stopped a torrent of disinformation from a network of other sites, channels and social media feeds, particularly on Russian networks Telegram and VK, the latter also banned within Ukraine.

In more normal times, Russia’s most egregious disinformation tends to be broadcast on terrestrial television and fringe websites such as RIAFAN, one of several platforms owned by Yevgeny Prigorzin, a former Kremlin catering contractor and friend of the Russian leader dubbed “Putin’s chef” also accused of running the Wagner mercenary group.

Such feeds – as well as pro-Kremlin “war reporters” such as Semon Pegov – a.k.a. “War Gonzo”, whose Telegram channel is often cited by other media – have pushed multiple false narratives in recent weeks, including multiple “incidents” in the days before the invasion that often appear to have been lazily delivered and filmed days in advance. One image of a burnt-out skeleton in a car contained a skull that appeared already subject to autopsy.

In his justification speeches for war on Monday night and Thursday morning, however, Putin made no reference to these cases.  Falling back on his larger preoccupations with Ukraine’s supposed lack of statehood and claims that it needed to be disarmed and prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons.

With fighting underway, Russian messaging has moved to pushing stories of Russian victories and Ukrainian defeats and cowardice. Pro-Kremlin website Politnavigator claimed Ukrainian civilians dissatisfied with the government welcomed Russian troops and encouraged them to “drive to Kyiv”. Other stories claimed the capture of Chernobyl prevented an attempted Ukrainian “dirty bomb” and accused Russian pro-peace demonstrators in Moscow of being “liberals repeating Ukrainian Nazi slogans.

Claiming Ukraine is controlled by neo-Nazi elements have been a long-running feature of Russian propaganda. This intensified last April during Russia’s military mobilisation and again more recently. As Russian forces advanced on the Azov Sea port of Mariupol on February 25, “War Gonzo” Pegov was pushing that line again, accusing local neo-Nazi groups of using Ukrainian citizens as human shields and attempting to turn the town into “a new Grozny”.

The most important narratives now are about who will truly win

As the BBC Radio Four Today programme broadcasting live from Kyiv spoke to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace in London on the morning of Friday, February 25, Ukraine’s government was handing out assault rifles and encouraging residents to stockpile Molotov cocktails as Russian armour approached the capital.

Wallace pledged to help Ukraine “fight for every street with every piece of equipment we can get them”, but made it clear neither UK personnel or aircraft would fight Russia is that would lead to “a war across Europe”. The previous night, BBC correspondent Frank Gardner was even blunter on the World Service – the involvement of Western forces in combat and Ukraine would lead to a world war that no one was willing to risk.

In the last year, the UK has carved out a reputation as Ukraine’s most solid backer within Europe alongside Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The January 27 media day showcasing the end of the first UK-run NLAW anti-tank rocket training was particularly successful, footage run across multiple Ukrainian TV and also picked up by Russia and foreign broadcasters.

The real fight, however, is only just beginning. Previous UK and US support to Ukraine – particularly the JOINT ENDEAVOUR parachute drop in September 2020, HMS Defender’s transit last year and US RAPID TRIDENT drills both this year and last all appeared an attempt to push a narrative of Western support outside NATO membership. That is being tested, and has risked feeling hollow – in the Baltic states, the site of Western embassies closing and evacuating brought growing speculation the same might happen there.

The great unknown that will determine what happens next, however, is how the invasion of Ukraine plays out. For now, Russian broadcasters are pushing a relentless narrative of success, the easy surrender of Ukrainian forces and Russian overwhelming firepower. Advances in the Donbas have been credited almost entirely to the forces of the separatist “People’s Republics”, while elsewhere Russian channels have stressed that cities and civilians have not been targeted.

On a talk show on Channel One on February 25, host Artyom Sheynin said events were “horrible” but that the situation in Ukraine – particularly for those of the separatist republics – had become “absolutely hopeless and no other options were left… Using the terminology of military surgery, sometimes you have to cut off, amputate the foot to stop gangrene spreading to the whole leg.”

That has not, however, been enough to stop dozens of protests in Russian cities and thousands of reported arrests. If UK and Ukrainian claims of 500 (according to Wallace) or up to a thousand Russian dead in the first two days are accurate, that would raise serious questions as to how long Moscow could maintain its military effort without a domestic backlash that appears already underway.

The largest question is how the battle will play out – social media footage of broken-down Russian vehicles and Ukrainian soldiers mocking Russian military equipment might be widely shared, but will likely need to be balanced against stories of Russian success elsewhere, particularly if the Kremlin becomes willing to use its Chechen war playbook of much more savage firepower.

For Ukraine, the fight is only just beginning. Initial – and possibly only fleeting – victories such as the apparent temporary eviction of Russian airborne forces from Hostomel airport on the morning of February 25 prompted brief rejoicing on local social media, while the 13 border guards killed on Snake Island in the Black Sea who told a Russian warship crew to “go fuck themselves” were lauded. Russia still took the island, and later broadcast footage of what it said were further captured Ukrainian personnel.

Ukraine and its Western backers – including the UK – now need to find a narrative that pushes back against that of Russia, but they will only be able to truly do so if the war goes in the right direction. NATO allies like Estonia are stepping up support for one simple reason – the future of Europe may be decided in Ukraine, and there is much to lose.

Peter Apps

Peter Apps is an experienced foreign correspondent and British Army reservist.

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