Putin’s Propaganda Power: Examining Putin’s Ukraine War Speeches Published Aug. 3, 2023 By Lt Col Anthony P. Rizzuto, USSF & Dr. Robert S. Hinck Wild Blue Yonder, Maxwell AFB, Ala. -- The propaganda machine in Russia is alive and well. While Western media highlight the disastrous state of the Russian armed forces, the perception of the war effort within Russia remains much more favorable. Although commentators note the unreliability of Russian public opinion polls, in the metrics that matter—the ability to mobilize the power structure in Russia to support the war and prevent foreign nations from fighting directly—Russian propaganda strategies have proven successful.  As renown international relation theorist E. H. Carr argued, propaganda is one form of power equivalent to economic and military might. In his three major speeches during the first year of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin has demonstrated mastery of this instrument evident by his use of emotionally charged language, mythologizing of Russian strength and Western hostility, ability to shift messaging to support battlefield conditions, and balancing messaging for internal and external audiences. As war is a political action undertaken to subdue the hostile will of an adversary and not just about the physical destruction of enemy troops, it is imperative to understand how and why Putin’s propaganda has resonated with key stakeholders despite repeated failures on the battlefield. Rebuilding the Russian Propaganda Machine The Russian propaganda machine has over a century of experience shaping the views of the Russian people. During the Soviet era, the state not only controlled all forms of mass media but also the educational system and culture industries to control public discourse and inspire its population to take pride in the Soviet Union’s prestige. The result was a system reaching and enveloping nearly every citizen within its borders, to which propaganda scholar Jacques Ellul theorized as the ultimate means by which propaganda exerts its influence. With the collapse of the Soviet system, however, came the fall of its propaganda apparatus. The following decade saw renewed competition for the commanding heights of Russian media with eventual President Vladimir Putin witnessing firsthand the power of media oligarchs to shape and define the realities of Russian politics to the Russian people. Thus, upon coming to power in 2000, Putin immediately began reconsolidating government control of Russian media while re-introducing new symbols and myths of a strong, paternalistic Russian state that Russians could rally behind. By the 2010s, Russian propaganda began focusing outwards as well. Disillusioned by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations and facing new domestic political challenges to Putin’s control over Russia, Moscow embarked on multiple strategic narrative campaigns designed to extend Russian influence, challenge US global leadership, and ultimately cement Putin’s position as the sole leader capable of protecting and defending Russians from an imagined immoral, hypocritical, and spiritually corrupt West. Such actions laid the seeds upon which Putin grew his propaganda messaging in support of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Across multiple speeches during the first year of the 2022 conflict, Putin has demonstrated a mastery of propaganda techniques enabling him to maintain extraordinary levels of domestic support. Emotionally Charging the Russian Batteries of Conflict Perhaps the most clearly visible technique Putin employs in his recent speeches discussing Ukraine is the use of emotionally charged language portraying Russia in favorable terms, generating hostility toward the Ukrainian government, and displaying the US and West as nefarious opponents wishing Russia and the world ill will. According to Hadley Cantril, propaganda garners support by tying “objects” to emotionally charged symbols and using them to elicit feelings of superiority. Putin does both throughout his speeches by contrasting characterizations of Russia as “persistently and patiently” trying to work within international law, while the West engages in “deception,” “pressure and blackmail,” “lies and hypocrisy.” Likewise, whereas the Ukrainian people are “neo-Nazis,” supported by a Ukrainian government “threatening schoolteachers and women” and backed by a Ukrainian military that enacted “eight long years” of “genocide, shelling, and blockades;” the people of Russia are “generous and compassionate,” supported by a Russian government trying to resolve the Ukraine crisis “in a peaceful way,” and backed by Russian soldiers labeled as the “heroes of great Russia.” Such characterizations of Ukraine and the West reflect what Harold Lasswell describes as effective propaganda in that it “arouse[s] hostilities” by “presenting the other side as a menace.” Further evidence of such messaging includes Putin’s consistent references to the Ukrainian government as “Hitler’s accomplices” who came to power in 2014 via a “coup d’état” and committed “genocide” in the Donbass region. This carefully selected language mobilizes Russian support for the war by drawing upon historical memories of Russian resistance to Nazi Germany in World War II while delegitimizing the Ukrainian government. These historical analogies are also employed against the US and the West, who Putin claims want to set up a “neo-colonial system” to “plunder” the world. Although this language doesn’t resonate with Western audiences, it does for many Russians who have extended exposure to such messaging over several decades, with emotionally laden language more persuasive than objective, fact-based messaging. Taken together, Putin’s messaging, regardless of the veracity of his claims, effectively boosts Russian domestic support for the war. Setting the Foundation and the Making of the Myth The second technique Putin uses throughout his speeches is advancing the myth of a strong Russia in an existential conflict with the West. For instance, on the day of the invasion, Putin said that Russia “cannot feel safe” with the situation in Ukraine and the westward expansion of NATO. Accordingly, Russia has “no other choice” but to get involved because of the “fundamental threats” that endanger the “security of Russia itself.” Thus, he warns that the “very existence of our state” and the Russian “future as a people” are threatened. Despite facing such a threat, Russians need not worry as Putin “reminds” them of Russia’s past prevails against determined foes like Nazi Germany, thereby arousing and strengthening deeply held cultural mythologies of Russian society. In doing so, he specifically links the Ukrainian regime with Nazi Germany, including referencing the exact date of Hitler’s attack against the Soviet Union in World War II and bragging about how the Soviets first “stopped and then crushed” the Nazi invaders. Adding a spiritual dimension to his messaging, he notes how the “sacrifices made by our people on the altar of victory over Nazism, are sacred” and then concludes by exhorting Russians to stand up to the current “aggressors.” As the conflict draws on, Putin continues to reiterate the myth of a strong Russia and a hostile West. Russians, he says, have a “common destiny” from a “thousand year history” and have “passed this spiritual connection on to their children and grandchildren,” whom all “carried love for Russia” that “no one can destroy.” By contrast, he warns that the West wants to “strike a blow” against Russia and “condemn” the people to “poverty and extinction.” Targeting the US specifically, he claims that the US wishes to “de-sovereignize” countries and force them to “surrender their sovereignty to the US.” In Putin’s myth, the West “does not care” about the harm it causes, claiming that the US has a history of causing “destroyed states” and multiple “humanitarian disasters” that have “wrecked and mangled human lives.” Adding a spiritual dimension, he characterizes the West as not only promoting “centuries of colonialism and dictatorship,” but also pushing a “satanic” culture seeking to “enslave” and “cripple minds and souls.” Despite this challenge, Putin claims that Russia is strong enough to resist because of its centralized political control, strong support for traditional family values, and unwillingness to do the West’s “bidding.” The repetition of this myth runs through all three speeches, leading to its familiarity which facilitates greater acceptance of the message, both supporting Russia’s domestic political institutions and arousing fears of a unified enemy seeking the end of the Russian way of life. Strategically Shifting the Story Although the overall myth of Russian enemies and Russian strength remained consistent throughout his speeches in 2022-2023, the specific objects upon which the myth is applied changed to suit Russian national objectives. For instance, at the start of the conflict, Putin claimed that Russian “plans do not include the occupation of Ukrainian territories,” adding that “We are not going to impose anything on anyone by force.” However, after subsequently taking and holding new territory and holding alleged referendums on Russian annexation, Putin’s rhetoric changed. In his September 2022 speech, he justified the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territories by referring to the region of southeastern Ukraine as part of “Novorossiya” (new Russia), connecting the cities and regions to the same territory held by Imperial Russia. Eliciting the region’s historical past of repeated foreign invasions, Putin named various Russian military leaders who successfully overcame the Turks, Poles, and French to control the area, adding references to the specific names of cities founded by Russian rulers like Catherine the Great. Such messaging connects Russian mythology from past to present by offering specific historical details permitting Russians to view the territory as having been Russian all along. Finally, by February 2023, battlefield dynamics required slightly new messaging as Russian forces reached a stalemate against the surprisingly stiff Ukrainian resistance. Thus, in his one-year anniversary speech, Putin drew heavily on symbols praising Russian unity. Putin again focused on a sense of Russian history and resilience by calling for Russians to look back at “the example of our ancestors” who demonstrated “dedication to our unity [and] to our motherland” during a “very difficult path.” Like their ancestors, Putin promised that Russians today “are overcoming all difficulties together.” In regards to the recent conscription of Russian soldiers, he deflected concerns over their lack of training and resources by romanticizing their efforts, claiming that “hundreds of volunteers…came to the conscription in order to fight for the truth, for the justice, for the interests of the people in Donbass.” Thus, despite shifting policies and battlefield defeats, Putin’s repetitive usage of myth enables continued Russian unity—or at least mitigates outright resistance to Putin’s war efforts. Munitions of the Mind: Targeting Internal and External Audiences Putin successfully crafts his speeches so that they can be consumed by both internal and external audiences. In Putin’s invasion day speech, he clearly took aim at disparate audiences both home and abroad. For instance, as discussed above, Putin used highly provocative language framing the conflict as a “matter of life and death” for internal Russian audiences. However, the speech also targeted foreign audiences, both neutral and adversarial. For neutral audiences, Putin couched Russia’s hostile actions with references to international law and global values. In his invasion speech, Putin cited the UN charter twice. Drawing upon the beliefs of political self-determination, Putin justified Russian military action by claiming that the “People’s Republics of Donbass…asked Russia for help.”Such appeals, regardless of their veracity, were intended to persuade neutral third parties to remain neutral by offering them justifications to rationalize their inaction toward Russia’s hostile activities. For adversarial states, Putin invoked dramatic, saber-rattling rhetoric aiming for deterrence. Putin warned that Russia is “one of the most powerful nuclear powers in the world,” and if anyone tries to intervene, “Russia’s response will be immediate” and lead to “consequences that you have never experienced in your history.” Similar tactics had already been successfully used during Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, belaying Western response for fears of retaliation. Again, regardless of the veracity of such claims, such messaging provides Western leaders with rationalizations to avoid conflict while simultaneously resonating with Russian domestic populations wanting to believe in the myth of Russian power and strength. Taken together, this speech, while appearing internally inconsistent or factually inaccurate, reflects an effective piece of propaganda targeting multiple audiences. As Cantril explains, propaganda uses suggestion rather than facts and reason to make its case and uses explanations to mask an opinion or agenda. In this sense, Putin’s speeches use both, enabling his message to spread by offering dramatic, short sound bites easily retransmitted by international news outlets. Once news networks begin reporting and commenting on such statements, the propaganda message garners greater credibility, changing from mere propaganda to “news.” National media outlets then package the events and comments in ways that resonate with their own national viewership, allowing them to select and reframe the comments in ways supporting their own national interests, thereby inhibiting a global national narrative aligned against Russia to emerge. Putin’s multi-audience targeting is present in his other two speeches as well. First, in his annexation speech in September 2022, Putin spoke to his domestic base by focusing on the myth of a peaceful, benevolent Russia and a malevolent West “pushing the world into new wars” and forcing countries to “permanently accede to its dictates.” For neutral foreign audiences, the message highlighted Russia’s just support for ethnic Russians living in the newly annexed territories who have an “inherent right” for “self-determination” per the UN Charter and have “decided” to join Russia. For hostile countries, the message emphasized the cost of resistance, like warning European leaders of their supposed inability to meet the needs of their citizens. In response to European boycotts of Russian energy, Putin explained that “you can't feed anyone with paper, you need food, …you need [Russian] energy.” Finally, in his anniversary speech in February 2023, Putin used internal messaging praising Moscow’s efforts to aid and rebuild Russia, specifically in its newly annexed Ukrainian territory, by re-constructing “cultural facilities” like museums and improving the education system “so that our [Russia’s] young people learn as much as possible about Russia, its great past, its culture and traditions.” For hostile audiences and neutral parties, Putin invoked fear by announcing that Russia will “suspend” its participation in the 2010 New START treaty and promising that Russia will be ready to resume testing nuclear weapons. Taken together, in all three speeches, the intent of the internal messaging is to maintain support for the war while the external messaging aims to keep others out, or at least limit their participation. In both cases, Putin has been effective, allowing Russia to take and hold territory despite battlefield losses and low morale across Russian forces. Conclusion Putin’s public speeches about Ukraine are a classic example of effective propaganda. They advance Putin’s interests by helping maintain domestic support for the war, present a plausible pretext for the invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory to neutral parties, and help deter others like the US and NATO from directly intervening. This success is due to Putin’s skillful use of symbols and emotionally charged language, ability to advance a consistent myth while adapting to changing situations, and balance of both internal and external messaging. Although successful, it’s important to recognize that rarely do words alone win wars. While Carr notes the importance of propaganda as an instrument of power, he also notes that “propaganda is ineffective as a political force until it acquires a national home and becomes linked with military and economic power.” Putin’s propaganda has attained a national home, but its linkages with Russia’s military and economic power are attenuating. Thus, how long Putin can keep up his propaganda messaging is unclear. As no narrative of success can last forever if completely devoid of reality, the power of Putin’s propaganda will increasingly fall to his ability to deliver some sort of material success on the battlefield. Lt Col Anthony P. Rizzuto Lt Col Rizzuto is a US Space Force officer and 2023 graduate from Air War College. He has held a variety of positions as both a developmental engineering and acquisition manager, including electro-optical sensor research and development, satellite design, manufacturing, and testing, command and control software development, enterprise systems engineering, and support to launch and on-orbit operations. He is transitioning to a follow-on assignment on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. Dr. Robert S. Hinck Dr. Hinck is an Associate Professor of Leadership and Deputy Director of Research at Air War College’s Leadership and Innovation Institute (LII). He also serves as Deputy Director of AU’s Quality Enhancement Plan responsible for developing and assessing curriculum on ethical leadership across the continuum of learning. He received his PhD in Communication Studies from Texas A&M University and is lead author of two books, the most recent entitled: “The Future of Global Competition: Ontological Security Narratives in Chinese, Russian, Venezuelan, and Iranian Media.” His teaching and research have been recognized for excellence from multiple institutions, including most recently being awarded the Ira C. Eaker Center’s 2022 Educator of the Year. NOTES [1.] Yasmeen Serhan, “Why Russian Support for the War in Ukraine Hasn't Wavered,” Time, August 24, 2022, https://time.com/6208238/why-russian-support-for-the-war-in-ukraine-hasnt-wavered/. [2.] Erol Yayboke, et al., “AI Can Tell Us How Russians Feel About the War. Putin Won’t Like the Results,” Politico Magazine, February 25, 2023, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2023/02/25/ai-russians-feel-war-putin-ukraine-00084145. [3.] Edward H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1939; reissued 2016): 120. [4.] Martin van Creveld, “The Transformation of War (New York: Free Press, 1991): 196-205; Richard Szafranski, “A Theory of Information Warfare: Preparing for 2020,” Airpower 11, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 56-65. [5.] Todd C. Helmus, et al., Russian Social Media Influence: Understanding Russian Propaganda in Eastern Europe, RAND Corporation, 2008, 8, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2200/RR2237/RAND_RR2237.pdf; Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner (New York: Random House, February 1973), 11. [6.] Robert S. Hinck et al., The Future of Global Competition: Ontological Security Narratives in Chinese, Iranian, Russian, and Venezuelan Media (London: Routledge, 2022). [7.] Hadley Cantril, “Propaganda Analysis,” The English Journal 27, no. 3 (1938), 218. [8.] Vladmir Putin, Address by the President of the Russian Federation, February 21, 2022, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67828 [9.] Vladimir Putin, Signing of Treaties on the Accession of Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics and Zaporozhye and Kherson Regions to Russia, September 30, 2022, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/69465. [10.] Vladimir Putin, Presidential Address to Federal Assembly, February 21, 2023, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/70565. [11.] Harold D. Lasswell, “The Theory of Political Propaganda,” American Political Science Review 21, no. 3 (1927), 630. [12.] Putin, Address by the President of the Russian Federation, February 21, 2022. [13.] Putin, Signing of Treaties, September 30, 2022. [14.] Christopher Paul & Miriam Matthews, The Russian “Firehood of Falsehood” Propaganda Model: Why it Might Work and Options to Counter it, (Rand Corporation, 2016), 4-6, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PE100/PE198/RAND_PE198.pdf. [15.] Putin, Address by the President of the Russian Federation, February 21, 2022. [16.] Putin, Signing of Treaties. [17.] Christopher Paul & Miriam Matthews, The Russian “Firehood of Falsehood” Propaganda Model: Why it Might Work and Options to Counter it, (Rand Corporation, 2016), 4, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PE100/PE198/RAND_PE198.pdf. [18.] Putin, Address by the President of the Russian Federation, February 21, 2022. [19.] Putin, Signing of Treaties. [20.] Putin, Presidential Address to Federal Assembly, February 21, 2023. [21.] Putin, Address by the President of the Russian Federation, February 21, 2022. [22.] Ibid. [23.] Ibid. [24.] Maria Snegovaya, “Putin’s Information Warfare in Ukraine: Soviet Origins of Russia’s Hybrid Warfare.” Washington, DC: The Institute for the Study of War, September 2015. https://www.understandingwar.org/report/putins-information-warfare-ukraine-soviet-origins-russias-hybrid-warfare. [25.] Cantril, “Propaganda Analysis,” 217-219. [26.] Christopher Paul & Miriam Matthews, The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model: Why it Might Work and Options to Counter it, (Rand Corporation, 2016), 2-3, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PE100/PE198/RAND_PE198.pdf. [27.] Putin, Signing of Treaties. [28.] Jeromin Zettelmeyer, Simone Tagliapietra, Geor Zachman, and Conall Heussaff, “Beating the European Energy Crisis,” International Monetary Fund Finance and Development, December 2022, https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/fandd/issues/2022/12/beating-the-european-energy-crisis-Zettelmeyer. [29.] Putin, Presidential Address to Federal Assembly, February 21, 2023. [30.] Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 126.