As the diplomatic efforts to stop aggressive escalation along the Ukrainian borders continue, the pro-Kremlin media keeps stoking the tensions with inflammatory and misleading messages. The bulk of these are directed primarily at domestic Russian audiences, which are told on a daily basis that the West, NATO and the US are threatening Russia.
Polls by the independent Levada Center show that most Russians (around half of the respondents) blame the US and NATO for the current escalation and only around 4 per cent think it is the responsibility of the Russian leadership. Nearly eight years after the illegal annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the armed aggression in Donbas, the recognition that the Kremlin is in fact threatening Ukraine is a marginal position in Russia.
These attitudes are the fruits of labour of Russian state-controlled media, which has been cultivating the myth of an “encircled” Russia for years, fuelling fears (according to Levada, 56 per cent of Russians are afraid of world war) and deliberately misrepresenting the values, history and policies of Ukraine, EU and NATO for millions of Russians.
Amid the continuing build-up of Russian military firepower along Ukraine’s borders, several NATO members have begun supplying short-range and clearly defensive weapons to Ukraine. For the pro-Kremlin media though, this was an occasion to claim that NATO was pushing Ukraine into a conflict.
At the same time, sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 following the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula and destabilisation of Ukraine continue to be portrayed as an illegitimate tool “against Russia”.
The Kremlin uses disinformation and information manipulation also to create space for political and, crucially, military manoeuvring.
To keep the option of direct military aggression open for the Kremlin, disinformation outlets along with pro-Kremlin pundits and politicians have been cultivating narratives about imminent atrocities against the population in Donbas.
These include unfounded allegations that the Ukrainian military was preparing “provocations” including explosions at industrial plants with dangerous chemical production facilities and deployment of the nerve-paralysing agent botulotoxin. The US was also accused of planning a “false flag” chemical weapons attack on Donbas involving the poisoning of drinking water.
Notably, the pro-Kremlin media have a long history of distortion of facts about chemical weapons, including denial of chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime and accusations that the US has been stockpiling chemical weapons.
To ensure that Russian domestic audiences believe such gruesome disinformation narratives about Ukraine, the pro-Kremlin media has been hammering the image of an inhumane “Nazi” Ukraine for years.
For the Kremlin, it took years of systematic destruction of independent media to arrive at the place where disinformation can be freely used in direct support of aggressive military posturing and hostile operations abroad.
Recently, we saw the Kremlin taking further steps in eliminating access to independent media in the country, as the Russian authorities banned the public international broadcaster Deutsche Welle and closed its office in Moscow.
The Russian state-controlled media was quick to announce that Deutsche Welle was a source of NATO propaganda, following up with broader efforts to establish a false equivalence between the respectable global media outlet Deutsche Welle and RT DE.