"Spetzpropaganda" in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict

(To Nicola Cristadoro)

By adhering to the "hybrid warfare" model, the Russians introduced the use of infowar on an unprecedented scale. Already in the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict, for example, Russian forces made extensive use of cyber warfare and intense propaganda activity to neutralize Georgians' fighting options and vilify them in the press as aggressors, even accusing them of genocide. The Russian military led journalists to the area of ​​operations to reinforce the message of protecting the population from Georgian aggression. Moscow carefully handled television broadcasts both at home and in the area of ​​operations highlighting the atrocities the Georgians allegedly inflicted on the people of South Ossetia.

These procedures, which date back to the Cold War, are named spetzpropaganda and are taught at the Department of Military Information and Foreign Languages of the Military University of the Ministry of Defence. As an academic discipline, they are aimed at military personnel, officers of theintelligence, journalists and diplomats.

The doctrine provides that an information campaign has a multidisciplinary nature and includes politics, economics, social dynamics, military, intelligence, diplomacy, psychological operations, communications, education and cyber-warfare.

In general, Russia's information warfare aims to influence the consciousness of the masses, both at home and abroad, to condition them for a civilizational clash between Russian and West Eurasian culture. Through the coordinated manipulation of the entire information domain (newspapers, television, websites, blog and other media), Moscow operatives attempt to create a virtual reality in the conflict zone that affects perceptions or replaces the truth with versions that fit the Russian narrative.1

In Crimea and subsequent operations in Donbass, the spetzpropaganda developed the theme of the need for pro-Russian intervention to save the Ukrainian people from submission to the imposed Kiev regime “by the Banderite and Maidan fascists".2

Despite the long-standing tradition of disinformation perpetrated by the Kremlin, the surreal content and crude naïveté that characterizes the Russian propaganda narrative in support of the war campaign waged in Ukraine never ceases to amaze. I paused to analyze 6 videos, listed below:

Воспитанные фашизмом (Raised by fascism) -  https://disk.yandex.ru/i/HLbNEF1-pgxfGw;

Ядерный террор (Nuclear terror) - https://disk.yandex.ru/i/O3_qtDmsQtNsvQ;

Donbass on line every (Donbass under fire) - https://disk.yandex.ru/i/wFShYceHCvAcjw;

Read more (Ukraine and its path) - https://disk.yandex.ru/i/9zWbXS0lFxyW5A;

Azovstal (And stopped) - https://disk.yandex.ru/i/kbeaEBUQhWFZiA;

Russophobia (Russophobia) - https://disk.yandex.ru/i/YaR6SRjiJKc3Gw;

The videos are approximately 25 minutes long, except for the last one, which is 50 minutes long. The first video essentially explains the gradual transition of Ukraine - induced by the West, in particular by the Anglo-Saxon world - towards that “regime polluted by the Nazism that it is today”. The line of the narrative is quite simple and clear: while Ukraine was a region of the Soviet Union these problems were solved internally, while now that Ukraine is a sovereign state the “Nazi minority” it received subsidies from the United States and Great Britain and progressively seized power in the already weak Ukrainian state apparatus.

La second clip dwells on the hostile policies that Ukraine, over the years, has implemented against the population of Donbass and which now, in an even more serious way and always by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, witnesses the indiscriminate bombing of the inhabited areas of the cities and villages.

Il third video illustrates one of the pillars of the Russian narrative onoperation special, or the humanitarian support provided to the “poor people of Ukraine”, based on the activities performed by a civilian.

Il fourth argument dealt with by the videos is the spiritual one, linked to the attack perpetrated on Russian Orthodox monasteries present on Ukrainian soil, complete with the protest of a covered-headed lady.

The first four video they are an emblematic example of the integrated information campaign carried out by the Russian Federation, aimed more at one target audience internal and external to the country. In this regard, the choice of testimonial invited to express themselves on various topics. In the first video emerges the figure of an elderly man (presumably an expert in political history) who represents the voice of the past; he is the icon of those who have experienced the tragedy of the Great Patriotic War and the furious Nazi-fascist aggression. All the other interviewees, judging by their age, weren't even born in those years, but the message they want to convey to a public that is inattentive or, in any case, vulnerable to the strategy of induced perception, is that of a direct testimony to the horrors of Nazi-fascism .

In the following video, people are presented who speak with dismay about the discriminatory policies implemented by Kiev despite the attempts with which Moscow, through diplomacy, has tried to broker a solution for these lands that are nominally Ukrainian, but inhabited by a sizeable Russian community. All the interviews are carried out in an environment that presents a high level of destruction and would date back to September 2022, a period in which this level of infrastructural damage can hardly be attributable to Ukrainian counterattacks alone, even if on positions occupied by Russian forces. The long sequences on the atomic power plant of Zaporižžja with the specter of a nuclear accident caused by the Ukrainians, are intended to arouse the emotions of the users of the message, due to their high evocative value of apocalyptic scenarios.

Equally interesting is the aspect relating to the use of religious propaganda. Until 1991 religious were certainly not relevant figures in the society of the republics of the Soviet Union. Subsequently, they appeared and grew exponentially in number and, in the video in question, tell how the turn of Kiev endangers the sacred Orthodox faith. Let us not forget the "consecration" ofspecial operation by the Russian Patriarch Kirill3 which, probably, considers the Ukrainian Orthodox faithful as children of a lesser God. On the opposite front - it was inevitable - the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has declared its "break" with the Muscovite patriarchate. It could not have been otherwise, with reference to the decision of the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church of 25-27 October 1990, which recognized the full autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.4

In this game of roles, the subtitling of the images in Serbian takes on a particular meaning, a choice that underlies an attempt to create a strong empathy among those who are most sensitive to these issues. The objective seems to be that of consolidating the historical alliances between the Orthodox churches of the various countries which historically gravitate within the orbit of the Russian Federation. This is the climate in which the partial destruction of the Transfiguration Cathedral in Odessa - blessed by Kirill himself in 2010 - also took place following a Russian attack on the city on July 23, 2023. The Russian forces, in this case as in other cases, did not fail to attribute the responsibility for the damage to the historic building with a high symbolic value for the Orthodox community, to the ineptitude of the Ukrainian armed forces.5

The last two videos are interesting for the operational aspects shown. In the titled one Azovstal the dynamics of the siege is noteworthy which, as presented, provides a framework in which the Russian aggressors are represented as the merciful party who offers humane treatment to those who surrender, while the Ukrainian defenders holed up in the factory are described as the villains who hold the local people hostage, in order not to be captured. The analogy with the defense of the Brest Fortress in Belarus by the Red Army in June 1941 is immediate. Let's think, however, of what embarrassment it would cause to the machine infowar Russia to recall that event: a parallel between the Soviet defenders (evidently not only Belarusians) of Brest and the fighters of Azovstal, who in this story must somehow be the "bad guys", would bring down the already fragile scaffolding of the narration adopted by Fly. In a war defined as "denazification" playing the role that belonged to the Nazis seems slightly contradictory.

More banal is the narration described in the last video on the historical phenomenology of Russophobia. It is known that Russia has historically placed itself in a position that puts it in competition with Europe and Asia at the same time and that the shift in Moscow's geopolitical positions has occurred on and off, first in one direction, then in the other. It seems undeniable, however, that in the Putin era the idea of ​​fueling the sentiment of the “everyone is angry with us” represent an easily viable way to convince theaudience internal of the justified reasons that led to thespecial military operation, distracting public opinion from the real costs that this entails.

Except for the titled video "Nuclear Terror", where appears the logo of the satellite broadcaster RT (funded by the Kremlin), the videos produced cannot be considered as report of professional journalism. The lack of circumstantial references to the scenes shown weakens the credibility of the arguments presented. This aspect, however, does not affect the communicative effectiveness of the campaign: these videos are packaged for an audience that is ready to understand the motivations of the campaign.special military operation; the more difficult it is to convince aaudience external to Russia, perhaps Western, unless those who are inescapably infatuated with the choices made by Putin.

Ultimately, we can say that the Russian population, not free from perplexity in the aftermath of what happened on February 24, 2022, now more than ever needs a motivation to be able to go ahead and substantiate its support for the only political figure who for over twenty years has given a sense of pride to the country and who therefore, in the eyes of the average Russian, cannot be considered a criminal of war or, even worse, a fool. If we then look at the members of the numerous PMCs active in the conflict called to fight - first of all Wagner, at least until May 2023 - in addition to pay, sentence reductions or the promise of obtaining Russian citizenship, evidently there is an intention to offer them ethical motivation of comfort to face the enterprise not as mercenaries, but as soldiers standard bearers of justice.

A final consideration arises in relation to the numerous videos disseminated on the net by the PMC's financier Wagner, Yevgeny Prigožin, in the period prior to the famous "revolt of the mercenaries" of which he became the protagonist. He is an interesting figure because from his call to action and his militiamen in the ongoing war, he has always presented himself as both a successful businessman and a champion of the national cause, above all by virtue of the difficulties constantly demonstrated by the Russian armed forces. In short, he seems to embody a winning expression of the "new Russian".

Prigozhin represents for internal communication what Medvedev represents for the international one, i.e. characters who express uncomfortable thoughts aloud, perhaps exaggerating a bit, but interpreting what Putin cannot or will not say himself. In the case of Prigozhin, to be clearer, the idea is that the heavy accusations directed against the defense minister and the chief of the defense staff were also a way to make a non-institutional element say that these two institutional figures are not working well .

This type of communication provides a bit of a figure of how much Russia has changed in the last thirty years. Until Gorbachev's times (inclusive) anyone who dared to criticize the work of the state structure would have been unceremoniously jailed; in this case, however, the criticism can be functional to the policy of the Tsar, provided that his figure is not in turn the target of criticism itself. We have all seen how on June 23, 2023 the limit has been abundantly exceeded.

1 J. Darczewska, The anatomy of Russian information warfare the Crimean operation, a case study, Point of View no. 42, Center for Eastern Studies (OSW), May 2014.

2“Little Green Men”: a primer on modern Russian unconventional warfare, Ukraine 2013-2014.

3Moscow Patriarch Kirill: the war in Ukraine is against those who support gays, Rai News, 07/03/2022. https://www.rainews.it/articoli/2022/03/il-patriarca-di-mosca-kirill-giu....

4 M. Neapolitan, Patriarch Kirill and the war in Ukraine, The Mill, 17/11/2022. https://www.rivistailmulino.it/a/il-patriarca-kirill-e-la-guerra-in-ucraina.

5 G. Ruggiero, Moscow denies hitting Odessa Orthodox cathedral:“Blame the illiterates of the anti-aircraft in Kiev”, Open, 23/07/2023. https://www.open.online/2023/07/23/guerra-ucraina-raid-russo-odessa-mosc....