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Painted debris of rockets by local artists in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv, 31 May 2022.
©EPA-EFE/MYKOLA TYS  |   Painted debris of rockets by local artists in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv, 31 May 2022.

How official narratives about the war have shifted in Russia and Ukraine in the three months since the conflict broke out.

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The war in Ukraine was launched by Russia under the pretext of de-nazifying the neighboring country. From Moscow's point of view, it should have been a quick operation ending with a regime change in Kyiv. For the Ukrainians, on the other hand, the priority in the early days was survival. Developments on the ground - and the success of the Ukrainian defense - have led to the adjustment of these objectives, which can be seen in the narratives of the two camps.

Ukraine: from resistance to victory

Messages in Ukrainian media and the discourse of Kyiv politicians were dominated by the idea of resistance in the first month of the war – Ukrainians must mobilize and make every effort to avoid their country getting occupied by Russia.

A case in point is the discourse of the former president, Petro Poroshenko, who three months ago told the defenders of Kyiv to hold up for another 2-3 weeks, arguing that the Russians will then be forced to withdraw. Getting actively involved in supporting the territorial defense units, Poroshenko’s messages echoed those of president Volodymyr Zelensky regarding nationwide resistance against the Russian aggression.

It was a historic chapter in the history of Ukraine, seeing Zelensky’s speeches aligned to those of his political rival, Poroshenko.

On May 27, after Russian troops had withdrawn from Kyiv and other Ukrainian regions, Poroshenko stopped speaking about resistance, and rather invoked the need to defeat Russia: “We are getting closer to defeating Putin with every day that passes, and Ukraine’s victory is at hand”.

The former president is by no means a singular case: the discourse of politicians and journalists in Ukraine has become emboldened in recent months. Narratives about resistance are gradually being replaced (completely or at least in part) with messages about victory and the need to recapture the territories occupied by Russia.

Russia: “a special operation” with unknown objectives

In Russia, the most radical transformation occurred in the sphere of public discourse about the “special military operation” on the territory of Ukraine. At first, the Kremlin claimed that the goal of this operation was to denazify and demilitarize Ukraine, including by installing a more Russian-friendly regime in Kyiv.

During the three months of the war, both the Defense Ministry, as well as pro-Kremlin journalists have tried to gradually change the old objectives of the “special operation” with new ones that should reflect the reality on the ground. The withdrawal of Russian forces from the regions in northern Ukraine, the huge losses sustained by the Russian army, correlated with the sanctions introduced by the West have prompted the Kremlin to reconsider the tactical objectives of the “special operation”. The focus shifted progressively from the Kyiv Oblast to Donbas and Odessa.

This war with unknown objectives for Russia is at any rate a victorious one, irrespective of the situation on the battlefields – the pro-Kremlin media writes. Day by day, people are told how the army is killing Nazis and saving Russian speakers.

Three months after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, no one knows for sure what the exact and official goals of the Kremlin’s “special operation” truly are. Regardless of the developments on the battlefield, Russians read in the media that “everything is progressing as planned” and that everything is as it should be.

Portraits of Ukrainian defenders

While Volodymyr Zelensky was addressing the Parliaments of Western states, calling for help and invoking political symbols and historical arguments, the Ukrainian media wrote about ordinary people who abandoned their families and businesses to enroll in the army. To encourage more people to mobilize in defending the country, the media would publish information about young freedom fighters who would risk their lives to ensure the future of their country.

Kyiv is trying to raise public awareness, arguing that defending the country is all that matters these days. While Moscow refrains from providing details about the activity of its forces in Ukraine, Kyiv has been promoting an increasing number of stories about the army and its fearless servicemen.

Russian Nazis versus Ukrainian Nazis

Both Russian and Ukrainian media outlets have employed this term to characterize the opponent’s army. Whereas in Ukraine the word Nazi was used to refer to the atrocities and war crimes committed by Russian military, in Russia the Kremlin-linked media has been writing about neo-Nazism in Ukraine for quite a few years.

Everything that goes against Russia’s vision of this war is labeled as “Nazi” or “American”. With every day that passed, the words “Nazi” and “American” became synonymous in the political messages and press articles in Russia.

In Ukraine, president Volodymyr Zelensky has often used the words Nazi and fascist to describe Russian invaders. Both states want to rally more public support by appealing to negative historical sentiments regarding Nazi troops in World War II. Ukraine has been retaliating to Russian propaganda quite efficiently by fostering its own narratives, designed to demoralize the enemy.

More and more propaganda in Russia

In the last three months, the Russian media has produced an increasing number of propaganda narratives and less fake news. The most commonplace are less elaborate narratives which are also easier to debunk. A good example in this respect is a piece of war propaganda already disproved by Veridica, according to which the West is investigating the atrocities committed by Ukrainian nationalists on the territory of Ukraine. The Russian media deliberately left out important fragments from the original press release published by the US State Department that spoke of the responsibility of Russian military for the atrocities in Ukraine.

Therefore, news articles from the West are deliberately misrepresented, stripped of excerpts criticizing Russia, without including hyperlinks to original articles in English or French. The same methods were employed by the USSR as well. Russia uses propaganda narratives to reinterpret external news through the lens of its own false messages, disseminated over the course of recent years.

If the current situation persists, Russia will gradually become a country with no real access to external information, completely isolated on the global stage, just like North Korea.

More weapons for Ukraine

After Russia began to concentrate its efforts on the offensive in Donbas and withdrew from the Kyiv and Sumy oblasts, Ukraine reverted to the narratives employed in mid-April, when it was calling on more shipments of weapons. Journalists and politicians alike have pointed out that the army will put up a heroic fight, but that Ukraine’s victory largely depends on the weapons Western countries are able to provide.

The Ukrainian media is actually genuinely “hunting” for countries that have stopped supplying Ukraine with weaponry or that prevent military and non-military shipments to Ukraine from transiting their territory. Hungary in particular is a target of vocal criticism.

The issue of weapon deliveries to Ukraine is painful for the media and politicians in Russia, who conversely reprimand the countries that have been actively involved in supplying the Ukrainian Armed Forces. One such example is Poland, one of the most ardent supporters of Ukraine during the three months of war. The Russian media describes this country as an enemy of “the Russian world”, a state that wants to annex Ukrainian territories, concealing “its aggressive intentions” with messages of solidarity for the Ukrainian people.

Perceptions on peace: Kyiv expects victory, Moscow will settle for demilitarization

In both Ukraine and Russia, people talk about peace, although this concept carries different meanings for each side. President Volodymyr Zelensky and media institutions in Ukraine believe peace will be possible only after Russia is defeated. Victory in the war means Kyiv must reclaim Russian-held territories. Ukrainian society also exerts an enormous amount on pressure on the authorities against ceding even an inch of Ukrainian territory.

To Moscow, peace can be achieved only in the wake of “demilitarization” and “denazification”, which means cleansing the territory of a neighbor and sovereign state of political elements hostile to the Kremlin. The Russian leaders and the media perceive peace as defeating Ukraine and turning the country into a new Belarus, with a puppet regime and a formal autonomy. It doesn’t matter how many lives will be lost in the shelling of Ukrainian towns, all that matters is the peace Moscow wants.

Ukrainian media reporting on the developments in Ukraine includes such terms as invasion, war, genocide, aggression, whereas the Russian media speaks of a special military operation, demilitarization or saving the Russian-speaking population from genocide. Using the term “war” in any discussion about Ukraine is forbidden.

Instead of peace – signs the war has entered a new phase

After three months of war, the discourse of media institutions and political figures in Ukraine and Russia has undergone a series of transformations in response to military developments. What is certain is that the tendencies in the public and political spheres of the two countries provide no sound reason to foresee an end to hostilities in the near future. On the contrary, they signal the fact that the conflict has entered a new phase, a phase of extended confrontation at military, information and psychological levels, a genuine war of attrition.

Tags: War in Ukraine , propaganda
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  • During the three months of the war, both the Defense Ministry, as well as pro-Kremlin journalists have tried to gradually change the old objectives of the “special operation” with new ones that should reflect the reality on the ground. The withdrawal of Russian forces from the regions in northern Ukraine, the huge losses sustained by the Russian army, correlated with the sanctions introduced by the West have prompted the Kremlin to reconsider the tactical objectives of the “special operation”. The focus shifted progressively from the Kyiv Oblast to Donbas and Odessa.
  • Kyiv is trying to raise public awareness, arguing that defending the country is all that matters these days. While Moscow refrains from providing details about the activity of its forces in Ukraine, Kyiv has been promoting an increasing number of stories about the army and its fearless servicemen.
  • In the last three months, the Russian media has produced an increasing number of propaganda narratives and less fake news. The most commonplace are less elaborate narratives which are also easier to debunk.
  • After Russia began to concentrate its efforts on the offensive in Donbas and withdrew from the Kyiv and Sumy oblasts, Ukraine reverted to the narratives employed in mid-April, when it was calling on more shipments of weapons. Journalists and politicians alike have pointed out that the army will put up a heroic fight, but that Ukraine’s victory largely depends on the weapons Western countries are able to provide.
  • In both Ukraine and Russia, people talk about peace, although this concept carries different meanings for each side. President Volodymyr Zelensky and media institutions in Ukraine believe peace will be possible only after Russia is defeated. Victory in the war means Kyiv must reclaim Russian-held territories. Ukrainian society also exerts an enormous amount on pressure on the authorities against ceding even an inch of Ukrainian territory. To Moscow, peace can be achieved only in the wake of “demilitarization” and “denazification”, which means cleansing the territory of a neighbor and sovereign state of political elements hostile to the Kremlin. The Russian leaders and the media perceive peace as defeating Ukraine and turning the country into a new Belarus, with a puppet regime and a formal autonomy.
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