A warm bath of defeatism for Ukraine: a monitoring of Russian propaganda narratives
The Institute of Mass Information experts have never observed such an emotional uplift in the Russian media as in December 2023: neither pre- nor post-invasion. Russian media outlets have been racing to boast of their victories while reporting failures and defeats on all fronts on Ukraine's side. It is evident that this uplift is yet another of Russia's psychological operations aimed to boost the morale at home and within the Russian military.
These are the results of the IMI study for December 2023, which covered nine popular Russian online media outlets.
The central narrative in the Russian pro-state media in December 2023 was about Ukraine's supposed inevitable defeat and Russia's victory in the war. It accounts for 30% of all the mentions of Ukraine.
Two others – the "rift in Ukrainian society" narrative and the "Ukraine as a bargaining chip" narrative – rank second, accounting for 22.5% each.
Narratives pushed by the Russian media: Ukraine's inevitable defeat (lack of motivation in the UAF, Russia's power and victory) – 30%; a rift in Ukrainian society (a conflict between the military command and the political leadership, a coup d'état, a third Maidan) – 22.5%; Ukraine as a bargaining chip (the Western partners have betrayed Ukraine and Ukrainians, further aid is impossible) – 22.5%; Peace talks are only possible on Russia's terms (the Western partners are pushing Ukraine into peace talks) – 10%; Other narratives (issues with Ukraine's EU accession, foreign mercenaries) – 15%. The study took place on December 6 – 10, 2023 and covered 9 Russian online media outlets: Komsomolskaya Pravda, Izvestia, RIA Novosti, Lenta, RBK, Moskovskiy Komsomolets, Gazeta.ru, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, NEWS.ru.
Narrative 1: "Ukraine's inevitable defeat"
Ukraine's supposed future defeat is a complex narrative covering several main themes. Of course, we will first address the military aspect, which focuses on Ukraine's battlefield losses and defeats.
- "Total strikes. Kyiv sounds alarms due to the UAF's frontline disaster" – RIA Novosti
- "WSJ: Ukraine may not have a major offensive until 2025" – KP.RU
- "Asia Times: Zelensky's visit to Argentina is difficult to explain amid the failures of the UAF" – "Rossiyskaya Gazeta"
- "The trend is bad": the UAF admit the difficult situation and their readiness to surrender positions" – KP.RU
"Gazeta.ru" boldly claims that "the Russian army has switched to the tactic of total UAF annihilation." Their article confidently states that Russia will successfully achieve its goal: the occupied territory "will be separated from Ukraine, including Crimea" and Ukraine will become "a weak state, cut off from all resources."
KP.ru reports that the Russian army outdid itself. "Russia outdide itself and surpassed all expectations in terms of defending its own positions," the media outlet writes.
To mobilize the population at home, the Russian media emphasize the lack of morale in the Ukrainian army. "Komsomolskaya Pravda" claims that the soldiers refuse to fight for the corrupt "Kyiv regime."
The Russian pro-state media claim that more and more Ukrainian soldiers are surrendering and lack an overall understanding of what they are fighting for.
- "The Ministry of Defense reports UAF soldiers fleeing during the Artemovske village storm" – MK
Headline: Officer points out the signs of the UAF morale deteriorating. Subheadline: UAF soldiers have been surrendering more often, says Captain Dandykin.
Screenshot from Lenta.ru by the IMI
The Russian media cites experts to substantiate their claim that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are disastrously short of weapons, which also impedes the UAF morale. RIA Novosti reports this, citing war expert Oleg Soskin.
The Russian experts platformed by Russian mass media also claim that the Ukrainian military lacks motivation and emphasize the poor training of the conscripts, which allegedly makes them abandon positions and leads to defeat. "The panic-stricken soldiers 'drop their wounded, their dead, their weapons and flee,'" says Yuriy Knutov, director of the Russian Air Defense Forces Museum.
Multiple Russian media outlet used the phrase "inevitable defeat" at the same time:
- "InfoBRICS: The West is preparing for Ukraine's inevitable defeat" – Rossiyskaya Gazeta
"Western officials and media are preparing the public for Ukraine's inevitable defeat, writes expert Lucas Leiroz in his article for InfoBRICS."
Screenshot from RIA Novosti by the IMI
Such simultaneous use of the same phrase may indicate a deliberate promotion of this narrative.
Narrative 2: "A rift in the Ukrainian society"
This narrative, much like the previous one, encompasses several topics at once: first of all, the propagandists promote the idea that there is a conflict between President Volodymyr Zelensky and the UAF Commander-in-Chief, Valeriy Zaluzhny. The Russian pro-state media purposefully put Valeriy Zaluzhny in opposition to the President, calling him Zelensky's main rival.
- "Ukraine's Presidential Office is considering dismissing Zelensky's main rival" – KP.RU
At the same time, the propagandists have noticed that the Commander-in-Chief has had little to no contact with Zelensky lately. "Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky stopped attending important events with the UAF Commander-in-Chief Valeriy Zaluzhny," write KP.RU, RIA Novosti, "Rossiyskaya Gazeta", "Lenta.ru", etc.
According to the pro-Kremlin media, Zaluzhny's increasingly high ratings could lead to a military coup in Ukraine. For instance, they claim that a drop in Zelensky's rating has made Kyiv seriously concerned about a possible coup d'état. However, they note that Zaluzhny has not declared any political ambition and call the Commander-in-Chief's actions on the political front "awkward".
The Russian media cite their own sources in the Verkhovna Rada to claim that Zelensky is reportedly trying to shift the blame for the failed counteroffensive onto Zaluzhny while the latter is dropping hits about corruption in the government, and that his ever-higher ratings scare Zelensky.
However, the propagandists did not dwell on the "Z vs. Z" conflict alone, instead going as far as to claim that there is a confrontation between the political authorities and the military at large. For example, they cite the ex-US intelligence officer Ritter (a known Putin supporter. – Ed.) to claim that the UAF officers are increasingly dissatisfied with Zelensky, which may later turn to the President's disadvantage.
"After all, they feel betrayed by Zelensky's incompetence. The situation will become worse when it becomes clear how corrupt he is and how corrupt his government is. Everyone knows about it, and it causes an increasing dissatisfaction," Ritter was quoted as saying by pro-Kremlin resources. The only option for Zelensky, as seen by Russian propagandists, is to flee, as this is the only move that can save him.
According to the IMI experts, Russian political technologists bet on the Ukrainian society being prone to protest and are trying to play it up.
Narrative 3: "Ukraine as a bargaining chip"
This narrative, same as the previous one, accounts for 22.5% of all. The propagandists promoting this message claim that the Western partners have "abandoned" Ukraine and perceive it as a "buffer state" between Europe and Russia which they are ready to sacrifice.
The Russian media attribute the low success of the summer counteroffensive to the failed strategy of the United States: the Americans had insufficient experience in such conflicts and were pushing the UAF to go on fruitless assaults, claims "Komsomolskaya Pravda". And the difficulties with providing further aid to Ukraine put it at an even greater risk.
- "Orbán's allies to meet with US Republicans to end the aid to the Ukrainian Armed Forces" – KP.RU
- "The US confirms the arms supplies to Ukraine will cease when the money runs out" – "Rossiyskaya Gazeta"
- "Kirby: The US will exhaust the possibility of helping Ukraine in a few weeks" - KP.RU
- "Colonel Thiele: The UAF to face a critical situation due to the shortage of Western weapons" – "Rossiyskaya Gazeta"
- "Borrell: EU military aid to Ukraine remains blocked" – KP.RU
The article by the Russian media outlet TASS titled "Putting Ukraine out of sight: is Kyiv losing its significance for the USA" says that Ukraine has lost its special status in the eyes of the Western countries and they no longer consider the conflict a matter of their own security.
"Moscovsky Komsomolets" writes: "Ukraine has turned out to be expendable material at the hands of Western countries. Kyiv paid a high price for taking part in this Western adventure: thousands of people died or were left disabled, and the country faced heavy losses."
Oleksiy Arestovych made a sudden appearance in the Russian media: he also predicts that Ukraine will lose due to the lack of aid from partners. "About 50% of Ukrainians still believe that the UAF will reach the 1991 borders, although it is reasonable to talk about a possible collapse of the front," "Moskovsky Komsomolets" quotes Arestovych. According to Arestovych, only "global peace talks between Russia and the West" can put an end to the conflict.
Narrative 4: "Peace talks are only possible on Russia's terms"
This narrative accounts for 10% of all pro-Kremlinn propaganda materials, and its primary message is that the conflict is bound to end in peace talks between Russia and the West, with Ukraine losing a significant part of its territory.
The analytical article titled "Peace talks next year and effective delivery of draft notices. The situation around Ukraine", posted on the website TASS, says that Ukraine will be forced to agree to a "Korean scenario" of exiting the conflict with Russia by giving up territory.
This narrative promotes the idea that Ukraine has no agency, as it suggests that the peace talks should be happening between Russia and the West.
Headline: France determines when Zelensky is to be put at the negotiation table. Subheadline: Zelensky will be forced to begin peace talks at the Davos meeting, says Florian Philippot.
Screenshot from RIA Novosti by the IMI
The several key findins of the study point to a radical shift in Russia's information war on Ukraine. For now, propaganda has focused on toning down its aggressive rhetoric about Ukrainians, as narratives about the supposed Ukrainian Nazis no longer seem to work. Instead, the media has been promoting messages that can find a response in the Ukrainian society. All the narratives can essentially be boiled down to a single statement: "The West has dragged Ukraine into a losing war to weaken Russia while refusing to help it, dooming it to internal conflicts and effective disintegration."
The study was carried out on December 6 – 10, 2023, in nine Russian online media outlets: Komsomolskaya Pravda, Izvestia, RIA Novosti, Lenta, RBK, Moskovskiy Komsomolets, Gazeta.ru, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, NEWS.ru.
The Institute of Mass Information (IMI) is a public media organization that has been operating since 1995. The IMI defends the rights of journalists, analyzes the media field and covers media-related events, fights propaganda and disinformation and has been providing media outlets with safety gear for trips to the combat zone since the start of the Russo–Ukrainian war in 2014.
The IMI carries out Ukraine's only freedom of speech monitoring and keeps a list of high quality and sustainable online media outlets, documents Russia's crimes against the media committed in the course of the war on Ukraine. The IMI has representatives in 20 oblasts of Ukraine and a network of "Mediabaza" hubs to provide journalists with continuous support. The IMI's partners include Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House; the organization is a member of the International Organization for the Protection of Freedom of Expression (IFEX).
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