Even before the conflict in Ukraine and recent actions in Syria, Russia has been known as a country with powerful propagandistic apparatus. After the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia inherited all the know-hows of the Communist regime including a network of spies, propagandistic toolkit, institutions and structures, and people whose mindsets were used to the totalitarian treatment. The government provided financial support to Russia Today TV Channel broadcasting all over the world; its aim was to maintain a positive image of the country abroad. According to financial papers, in 2010, international propaganda cost Russia $1.4 billion. Even if before 2014, Russia’s propagandistic actions had not been vivid to an average American TV viewer, after the annexation of Crimea, it became obvious that the way Russia fed information about its presence in Ukraine was very inconsistent with the American and European broadcastings. As a subcategory of persuasion, propaganda has its aim in intentionally and forcefully making people believe in what its makers choose. It has a systemic character and does not have people’s welfare as its basis. The way how the Russian television and other mass media deal with the image of Russia and its method of feeding information reveals a powerful propagandistic machine and the application of all known propaganda methods.
The principal difference of propaganda from persuasion is that the first does not rely on voluntary actions. Propagandists “shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior” whereas persuasion is an “interactive process, […] through which the persuader attempts to influence the persuadee to adopt a change in a given attitude or behavior”. While both propaganda and persuasion transmit information and engage people in a communicative process, their resemblance is phantom because propaganda aims at coercing its objectives rather than giving time and space for people to come to the own decisions.
While persuasion can be used individually, propaganda requires a scope, and it is usually institutional in nature. In terms of a state, television, radio, the Internet, press and other types of mass media perform propagandistic tasks; otherwise they are not able to exist. In Russia, in the last five years, all the major TV channels moved under the Kremlin’s wing and became its mouthpiece. Those TV channels that refused to follow propagandistic directives from the government were banned from broadcasting and had to become the Internet-only channels. By 2013, very few independent mass media had survived in Russia and, in early 2014, the only independent TV cable channel left, TV Rain, was shut down and had to go on the web because it asked online a question about the expediency of Russia’s losses in World War Two.
Unlike persuasion, propaganda has a strong ideological bent. In the Soviet Union, the ideology was communist; now, Russia is returning to elements of communism, Stalinism, an extreme Orthodoxy. Voicing the preoccupation with a lack of spirituality and religiosity in the West, the country proclaimed itself Holy Russia that intends to combat Euro-Sodom. Despite being, in fact, a country deep in poverty and corruption, the Russian propagandistic machine continues to tar with a brush America and Europe for their problems. Russia opposes itself to the Western world firmly believing that it promotes universal values of purity and faith while the West is immersed deep into sodomy and pedophilia. Meanwhile, Russia has high rates of prostitution, abortions, and abandoned children.
Propaganda relies on mass persuasion by means of mass media. One of the prerequisites for successful internal propaganda is the control over the information flow. First, the government controls mass media to feed people the information charged with propagandistic messages. Second, information is taken from allegedly credible sources and is distorted according to propagandistic objectives. In Russia, not only television and radio are under the Kremlin’s control and TV programs are provided with a list of admissible guests who are favorable for the Russian government but also comedians can joke on a limited number of topics excluding the government and the President.
Propaganda heavily relies on unethical methods of influence such as deception, distortion, misrepresentation, or suppression of information. In the situation with Ukraine, Russia could have achieved its goals only with psychological methods because, in this case, the goal of propaganda was to make Russian soldiers engage in the offensive against their fraternal people in the neighboring country. One of the methods to make other people act is to dehumanize the adversary, which was done systemically and continually by associating Ukrainians and their new government to Nazis and Fascism. One of the most outrageous examples of blatant Russian propaganda was the story of a three-year-old boy allegedly crucified by the Ukrainian soldiers told by a female refugee on the central Russian TV channel. Even though it turned out that there were no proofs, no boy, and no witnesses to the crucifixion, the notorious TV channel did not apologize but insisted that there were more other atrocities from the Ukrainian part. Furthermore, the Kremlin actively uses not only misrepresentation but also blatant disinformation when the knowingly false information is presented as credible, and only a wide coverage and broadcasting the information can be refuted. For example, after Malaysian Airlines MH17 was downed over the Ukrainian territory, the Kremlin attempted to dampen rising suspicions that Russia was behind it by spreading conspiracy rumors through its Internet trolls. To make its disinformation more credible, the Russian propaganda apparatus even created a Carlos, an air traffic controller, who wrote in his Twitter account that Ukrainian forces intended to down the Malaysian airplane.
Another known characteristic of propaganda is pointing at another when the propagandist persuades the propagandee, “I’m persuading; it is the other guy who is using propaganda”. Establishing Russian Today TV Channel in 2005, the Kremlin has been using it to promote its anti-American agenda and to contrast Russia, or its satellites, to its opponents: “Turkey bad – Syria good; […] shale gas bad – Gazprom good; […] U.S. bad – USSR good”.
Besides its powerful propaganda machine, the Russian government is noticed to use all the most common propaganda techniques. The plain folks appeal “I’m one of you” is used, first of all, in the image of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Although in many cases, Putin acts out the role of a macho riding a horse with a naked torso, being photographed with hunted large animals, and going to save wild birds, he also adopts the common man persona. Many have noticed that in his speeches, Putin often uses street slang and crude language. His referring to terrorists with a call to "wipe [them] out in the outhouse" has been notorious since the war in Chechnya. Additionally, Putin also employs such phrases as “clubbing on the head” and “get a club on the noggin” . Such a colorful language may put off intelligentsia but, for the common people, who are the majority, it is very pleasing to hear their leader’s speaking this way. It shows them that he is one of them, and they can associate themselves with him and feel themselves a part of something big and important.
Putin enjoys immense support from the population, and here a bandwagon effect can be in action. In the case of Russia, people may feel obliged to act in the same way as other fellow citizens because they can have a kind of genetic memory that remembers violent political repressions by Stalin when neighbors reported on neighbors and people lived in the atmosphere of total fear. Apart from this feeling of fear, people may experience the bandwagon effect “Everybody’s doing it, and I will do it” . Maybe it can explain why 84 percent of the population supports Putin.
Four other propaganda techniques can be explained by the example of the war in Ukraine. The Russian biased television has been widely using testimonials, card-stacking, and transfer methods, and name calling in its Internet wars with Ukraine. First of all, modern Russian journalists are known to use footage from other hot spots when the war is ongoing to present their version of the situation. They show fast-changing pictures of violence, and the viewer cannot understand who runs where and does what. It is presented with dramatic musical tunes and voiced with subsequent commentaries, which usually present only one side of the story. This technique is called card-stacking. Often to add credibility, news feature witnesses that can testify everything from witnessing a murder to seeing aliens. The technique of transfer is usually in action when the viewer is able to associate a visual symbol of power and the speaker. For example, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi can be one of the illustrations to the technique of transfer used in propaganda. Knowing that his country is on the verge of economic and political collapse, Putin staged spectacular and very expensive Winter Olympic Games in the summer holiday resort, Sochi. It required a lot of financings because it was quite expensive to build skating rinks and skiing slopes on the shore of the Black Sea. The purpose of such a lavish gesture was to show to his fellow citizens and to other countries that Russia was a rich and powerful country that was able to host such massive events. Seeing the splendor built up by order of the President, Putin intended to unite people with the idea of Russia’s grandeur while, in fact, it was leading a mean war against its neighbor. In order to reconcile its citizens with the idea of the war, the enemy, Ukrainians, are called bad names. It is another propaganda technique called name calling. References to the World War Two are a powerful trigger for both Russian and Ukrainian people to develop negative attitudes against each other. When calling the Ukrainian army ‘fascists,’ ‘Nazis,’ and ‘punitive troops,’ the Russian TV does not need to ground and explain its evidence because the viewers have already developed a negative attitudes. An inherent part of any propaganda is ‘glittering generalities,’ which is idealistic or loaded language, such as “freedom,” “family values,” “patriotism,” among many others. Whereas Russia proclaims itself ‘the last beacon’ of the Orthodox values, the moral state of its citizens is far from ideal. According to statistical data, “Only 4 percent of those who call themselves Orthodox attend church weekly”. The country has high rates of alcoholism, child abandonment, and prostitution. While Russia seems to promote family values, the government voted for the anti-U.S. adoption law in 2012. In Russia, there is a critical situation with abandoned children with special needs, and it is very difficult for them to be adopted in their country. The only chance they had was to hope that some Western families would adopt them. However, now, the law prohibits the U.S. citizens adopting Russian children.
In the last several years, the propaganda actions of the Kremlin intensified. The reason for it is the inconsistency between the image that Russia wants to exhibit and the real situation within the country. Trying to reconcile its population with the growing number of financial and political problems, the Russian government toughens up its propaganda in order to make people believe that they live in the best of the worlds. In 2014, it was easy. The population was elated after the annexation of Crimea and Putin’s population support soared. However, it is getting more difficult to keep the masses under control because the actions of the government cause inflation, financial sanctions, and a lack of produce. The population support of Putin’s actions is still 84 percent, though. It can be either a sign that the propaganda is effective, and the population really supports the President so much or it can be distorted information that aims to continue propagating him as a powerful and strong leader; it is also a part of propaganda.