The hypocrisy of the Kremlin’s propaganda is preposterous. Putin accuses Ukraine of “genocide” while Russian missiles destroy civilian infrastructure and residential areas. He blames the West of colonialism while waging imperialist wars to control ex-colonies. He uses Hitler’s propaganda tactics to justify the war (see my post about Putin-Hitler similarities identified by AI) and at the same time labels the Ukrainian government as “Nazis”.
But perhaps an equally shocking fact is that these narratives have been spread by Russia for at least 15 years and were not taken seriously until recently. Already in 2007, at the Munich Security Conference, Putin criticised the “unipolar” world under the hegemony of the USA (see more on his fake commitment to multipolarity in this post). The purpose of his speech was to demonstrate that Russia is back on the geopolitical stage and will fight for its “Lebensraum”.
In her fascinating book, “How to Lose the Information War”, which I have already advertised, Nina Jankowicz describes the Russian propaganda war against Georgia during the invasion and occupation of this former Soviet republic in 2008. I have also learned a lot from an illuminating paper by Jadwiga Rogożan. The parallels with the recent events in Ukraine are stunning.
Similar to Ukraine, Georgia wanted to become a part of the West, build democracy and join the EU and NATO. Similar to the “special military operation” in Ukraine, the main aim of the Russian war against Georgia was to prevent the latter from becoming a member of NATO. According to the rules of NATO, a future member must demonstrate the capacity to resolve any international, ethnic and territorial disputes peacefully. With a neighbour like Russia, this becomes an impossible task. This rule is in fact dangerous and counterproductive because it invites military conflicts as a way of preventing a country’s membership in the alliance and should be replaced, as argued in this article in the Washington Post.
Instead of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, Russia used the self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 as its foothold. In both cases, Russian media accused their opponents of “genocide”. Russia was presented as the only protector of the oppressed:
The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime. To this end, we will seek to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.V. Putin, 24.02.2022. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/67843
The Georgian government was depicted as a puppet aggressor, who is subservient to the interests of its “bosses” in Washington. This is very similar to the role of Ukraine according to Russian propagandists.
The Nazi theme was central, as well. Mikheil Saakashvili, the then president of Georgia, was compared with Adolf Hitler. This trick is more difficult with Zelenskyy, a Russian-speaking Jew, but for the Foreign Minister of Russia Lavrov nothing seems impossible. He speculated once that Hitler was partly Jewish. And one of the official objectives of the Russian invasion in Ukraine is so-called “denazification”:
Focused on their own goals, the leading NATO countries are supporting the far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine, those who will never forgive the people of Crimea and Sevastopol for freely making a choice to reunite with Russia.V.Putin, 24.02.2022. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/67843
In both conflicts, Russia used and still uses the narrative that the West hates cultural diversity and “traditional values”, forcefully imposing such things as homosexuality, pedophilia and obscenity, on everyone. That’s what Putin and Russian propagandists threatened with in 2008 and more recently:
Let me repeat that the dictatorship of the Western elites targets all societies, including the citizens of Western countries themselves. This is a challenge to all. This complete renunciation of what it means to be human, the overthrow of faith and traditional values, and the suppression of freedom are coming to resemble a “religion in reverse” – pure Satanism.V. Putin, 30.09.2022. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/statements/69465
Some similarities border on insanity. Russian media claimed that the USA was conducting experiments on Georgian citizens to test biological weapons. In 2022, they spread the equally ridiculous conspiracy theory about US-funded biological labs in Ukraine. Moreover, Saakashvili was ridiculed as a sex addict who cannot control his drive, whereas the Ukrainian leaders have been depicted as “junkies”:
Once again, I am appealing to the military of the armed forces of Ukraine. Do not allow neo-Nazis and Banderites to use your children, wives and elders as a live shield. Take power into your own hands. It seems it will be easier for us to come to terms with you than with this gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis that have settled in Kiev and that have taken the Ukrainian people hostage.V.Putin, 25.02.2022. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/67851
From a linguistic perspective, it is interesting to note that in both cases Russian propaganda exploits toponyms. In the Russo-Georgian war, they stopped using the original Georgian names of the cities “Tskhinvali” and “Sukhumi”, replacing them with the Russian versions “Tskhinval” and “Sukhum”, respectively. In the Russo-Ukrainian war, you can with nearly 100% certainty predict someone’s political views from the preposition they use with the name “Ukraine” in Russian. Supporters of Ukraine say v Ukraine “in Ukraine” and iz Ukrainy “from Ukraine”, whereas pro-Russian journalists say na Ukraine “on Ukraine” and s Ukrainy “off Ukraine”, which reflects the interpretation of Ukraina as okraina “borderlands, outskirts”.
What can we conclude from all this? First, we have ignored the warnings. On a more positive side, the Russian propaganda machine is so uncreative, the same ideas and labels are recycled so many times that it is very easy to identify them as such and predict what will be said next. This lack of creativity is an indirect indicator of the fascist nature of the Russian regime. Fascist societies cannot produce anything truly creative because they stifle freedom of self-expression. Ideology is no exception.
But probably the most important lesson from the Russo-Georgian war is the following. In August 2008 Nicolas Sarkozy, the then President of France, negotiated a ceasefire. Georgia and Russia agreed to withdraw their forces to the pre-war position. Russia never fulfilled what it promised. South Ossetia and Abkhazia are still occupied. People who seriously believe that peace negotiations with Putin will solve all problems should keep this fact in mind.