Bandera, bats and birds: Change and continuity in the pro-Kremlin Ukraine discourse

January 25, 2023
  • Lisa Gaufman 

    Assistant Professor of Russian Discourse and Politics, University of Groningen

Lisa Gaufman traces some of the major elements of the Kremlin propaganda used to portray the war against Ukraine as legitimate and unify the nation. Among them associations with the Soviet victory in World war II, anti-western conspiracy theories and the "Gayropa" narrative.
A pro-war event in Sevastopol, Crimea, April 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
There are many great studies on the content of Russian state-sponsored discourse. While since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the messaging of the state-sponsored media ecology has become much more messy and muddled, there are several trends in its narratives that should be highlighted. Having monitored pro-Kremlin channels since 2013, I offer in this article several micro-level examples of pro-Kremlin rhetoric that exemplify Russia’s foreign policy.

The Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russia, commemorates not just the defeat of fascism. It is, first and foremost, the most important heroic and unifying event in Russian history and has been actively used in nation-building efforts. It is not surprising that the Russian government instrumentalized it in order to justify the annexation of Crimea and the subsequent war in the Donbas, where Ukraine was represented as a neo-Nazi state threatening Russian speakers. The same rhetorical devices and tropes were then used to legitimize the “special operation.” However, judging by the growing anxiety over, and even a sense of moral responsibility for, the war in Ukraine among Russian citizens, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Russian government to sustain the so-called “Donbas consensus.” The linchpin of the Kremlin’s approach is almost entire mass media control and ever-widening repression against anti-war resistance and critical war coverage.

Russian mass media framing of the Euromaidan and annexation of Crimea

State television’s framing of the Russian war against Ukraine is especially important given that even in 2022, the majority of the Russian population (64%) still relied primarily on federal TV news broadcasts as their main source of information. In 2014, at the time of the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, Russian TV coverage put much emphasis on the role of radical right-wing activists. The labeling of them as “fascists” can be viewed as a bid to activate and instrumentalize the collective memory of the Great Patriotic War.

This was especially noticeable in Channel One(Pervyi kanal) news reports, which frequently included video footage of armed men wearing arm bands of Right Sector (Pravyi sektor), a Ukrainian far-right nationalist organization, and abundant references to Stepan Bandera.
"Indeed, practically every report on the Euromaidan on Channel One featured references to 'fascism' and its main embodiment, according to the Russian media, Stepan Bandera."
This was markedly different from previous years, where the frequency of “fascism” references was generally linked primarily to the Great Patriotic War’s key anniversary dates (May 9 and June 22).

In the Russian media coverage, the pro-Russian militarized groups in eastern Ukraine were referred to as “militia” (opolchentsy). This term, employed by the fighters themselves (the Ukrainian government called the same groups “terrorists”), conveniently obscured the role of Russia’s own military in the hostilities. Opolchentsy is associated not only with the Great Patriotic War and the popular resistance to fascism, but also harkens further back, to the militia led by Minin and Pozharsky during the seventeenth-century Time of Troubles, and, in turn, to the celebrations marking the end of the Troubles on the so-called Day of National Unity holiday on November 4. It thus serves to create a patriotic image associated with the notion of defending one’s homeland from foreign invaders.

When it came to describing the Ukrainian side during the first phase of the military conflict, the brutality and inhumanity of the forces fighting the pro-Russian militia were constantly underlined. In addition, sometimes instances of such brutality were simply invented by Russian journalists. The most notorious example here is the Channel Onereport on the “execution of the small son and wife of an ‘opolchenets’ on Lenin Square in the center of Slavyansk. The obvious point of this fictitious report was to show the “barbarity” of the Ukrainian side, while despite multiple refutations, it is still available on Channel One’s website.
A "For Victory" billboard. Volsk, Saratov Region, January, 2023. Source: VK
Justifications for the current war

Whereas in 2014 the Crimea takeover was a practically bloodless operation with scores of shops peddling T-shirts that called Putin the “polite” president of a “polite” army, the 2022 invasion has resulted in horrendous casualties, which the Russian government is actively trying to hide. Moreover, at early stages of the war, the civilian casualties in particular were actively justified by the “where-have-you-been-for-the-last-eight-years” narrative employed by the Russian state media. Most pro-Kremlin pundits characterized the events preceding the full-scale invasion (“the last eight years”) as a time of “genocide” and atrocities in the Donbas (despite the fact that even the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic reported significantly reduced civilian and military casualties up until February 2022). Almost a year into the full-scale war in Ukraine, it is still supposedly a “special military operation.” Those who call it a “war” in Russia face criminal punishment, while the intensified references to the memory of fascism are slowly eroding the main social glue that is the memory of the Great Patriotic War.

Whereas in 2014 the Russian government was trying to push the narrative that it was the Nazi Ukrainians who were trying to kill Russian speakers in Ukraine, in 2022 the narrative has undergone several changes. The first was related to the word “fascist.” Early in the war, the Russian government consistently pushed the term “Nazi” and the phrase “denazification of Ukraine.” However, this created confusion among the Russian population, which did not have a clear idea of what “denazification” was supposed to imply. Consequently, the Russian government has gradually opted for much more other dehumanizing language strategies, such as “ukrofascists” and “banderovites” to make it clear who no longer counts as people and thus need to be “erased.”

Another continuity in the narrative is related to the designation of the EU as the “Fourth Reich.” This was already visible in 2014, when the Russian propaganda equated the association agreement that Ukraine signed with the EU as another forced European integration, illustrating it with photographs from 1944 where German prisoners of war were paraded throughout a liberated Kyiv. In 2020, the Komsomol’skaya pravda newspaper, for instance, published an article titled “In 1941, it was not Germany who attacked the Soviet Union – it was Hitler’s European Union,” which shows that the equation of EU integration with Hitler’s attack on Europe was not uncommon among the pro-Kremlin mass media before it became mainstream in 2022.

The major difference from 2014 was that in 2022 many more countries and stakeholders were called Nazis. In 2014, it was Obama who was supposed to take his “bloody hands” off Novorossiya, while
"In 2022 almost the entire Western world is considered Nazis who fought against the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War and are fighting against Russia in 2022."
A large "Z" sign at the entrance to Gorky Park, Moscow, December 2022. Source: VK
This evokes a popular conspiracy theory in Russia that the West has for hundreds of years hated and envied Russia and been trying to destroy it. In 2022, the Russian propagandists actively toyed with the idea of dropping nuclear bombs on Western European countries

In 2022, one of the ways to astroturf the support for the “special military operation” is to brand it with the letters Z and V. The letter Z has been used to mark military trucks and equipment that were supposed to go to the Western (Zapad) Front as opposed to the Eastern (Vostok) Front. There were sculptured images of Zs erected in the squares of some cities, and on some occasions government employees forced children to line up in Z-like formations in kindergartens, hospices and schools. Another example is a burger joint in Syktyvkar (Komi Region) where burgers received so-called patriotic titles with Latin Zs in their names. There is some evidence for the limited success of this campaign in Russia’s far-flung regions. Still, most of the highly publicized Z-campaigns have been so far sponsored by the Russian government or staged by people employed by the state, as the majority of the population has not been especially responsive to them and is trying to disassociate from the war.

To legitimize the war among the population, the Russian government has also drawn on conspiracy theories. As Ilya Yablokov and Precious Chatterje-Doody have pointed out, conspiracy theories were incredibly important communication strategies before the war and even a tool of public diplomacy. With the full-scale invasion, the scale of government-funded “conspirology” has increased as well: birds and bats that are somehow infecting only ethnic Russians with diseases; runes on bracelets that are supposed to be indicative of the Nazi ideology subscribed to by the Ukrainian high military command; and “planted corpses” in Bucha. These examples represent a fraction of the theories circulating in the Russian media as the Russian government tries to skirt responsibility or find justification for the carnage. It is unclear how much the Russian population actually believes these explanations, but there are grassroots fears of poisoned soda and pastries that align not only with Soviet urban legends about sabotage (vreditel’stvo) but also with a broadly conspiratorial foreign affairs culture.

Another continuity in the rhetoric that blends sabotage, conspiracy and the West is exemplified by the “Gayropa” narrative. In 2013-14, one of Russia’s arguments against the European integration of Ukraine was that the EU would legalize gay marriage in Ukraine and force gay men to work in kindergartens. This was coming on the heels of the win by Conchita Wurst in the Eurovision Song Contest, over which the Russian propagandists expressed outrage that a non-binary person won. In 2013, pro-Russian social media users opposing the Euromaidan portrayed it as a festival of gay men who use drugs and worship Hitler, versus the Russian world of the traditional family, Christianity and the cult of the Great Patriotic War.

In 2022, the Gayropa narrative has been further strengthened by the adoption of a new anti-LGBTQ law that bans any kind of queer representation in the Russian public space.
"The narrative is common in Putin’s speeches, as well as those of Patriarch Kirill, who framed the battle in the Donbas as a struggle against legalizing gay pride parades in the region."
Putin, for his part, repeatedly rallied against the supposedly Western-imposed replacement of the mother and father by “parent number one and parent number two.” In 2022, both the patriarch and the president have spoken about the “special operation” in terms of a civilizational struggle against an immoral Europe, though the latter point had been made by Putin almost a decade ago in Valdai. Several Russian pundits have also proclaimed “de-satanization” as Russia’s goal in Ukraine, ramping up the anti-Ukrainian rhetoric to a metaphysical level.

Above I traced some narrative continuities and discrepancies within the state-sponsored anti-Ukrainian rhetoric. Several experts have noted that there is a lack of consistency in the different narratives and legitimation attempts by the Russian government. Though it does build on the years of inculcated anti-Western sentiment, as well as capitalize on the anti-American and anti-imperial sentiment in the Global South, it is unclear to what degree these narratives resonate with the Russian population. As Jeremy Morris emphasized, public opinion is highly managed via polling to produce clear results that are usable and useful to the “political technologists” (spin doctors) in the Kremlin, meaning any polling about the war is suspect. Analysis of the dynamics of pro-war narratives indicates that the government is trying to intensify the support for the war. However, by ramping up the propaganda the Kremlin is failing to ensure a broad public consensus around the war against Ukraine and is destroying the shaky consensus that existed before.
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