How Russian Propaganda Informs Its Domestic and Foreign Policy

Written by: Audrey McGrory

Like banyas, Matryoshka dolls, and dachas, propaganda has been prevalent in Russia for centuries, defining itself as not merely a well-used political tactic, but a cultural fixture as quintessential as other Russian practices and customs. The use of propaganda by the Russian government has been potent in Russian society—withstanding the political, cultural, social and economic changes that the country has endured for over a century. While certain ideologies have come and gone in Russian politics, the use of propaganda to influence public opinion and justify policy choices endures.

From 2006 to 2013, the Russian people pointed to the United States as the country that is “most unfriendly and hostile” towards Russia. During this period, an average of 36% of the Russian population identified the United States in such a way. But in 2014, like many things in Eastern Europe, things changed. 

Revealing a dramatic increase in anti-American sentiment, 69% of the Russian population named the United States as the most unfriendly, hostile country towards Russia in 2014. From 2014 to 2020, an average of 70% of Russians identified the U.S. in such a way. 

The 34% increase in anti-American sentiment among the Russian population—both rural and urban—is significant. It serves not only as an indicator of U.S. popularity (or lack of popularity) abroad, but as a force from which Russian policy choices can be better understood. 

American sanctions on Russia as a result of Russia’s invasions into Crimea and Georgia certainly contributed to the substantial increase in anti-American sentiment, yet Russian propaganda has effectively cultivated such sentiment, using it to shape policy choices and subsequent action.

Russian propaganda has been especially effective at pushing blame on irrelevant actors, particularly for events for which the Russian government itself was responsible. Despite the novel characteristics of current Russian propaganda tactics, this specific quality has existed since before the Cold War

In a 1946 speech in Moscow, then-leader of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin blamed the First and Second World War on the capitalist systems of the West, declaring, “as a result of the first crisis of the capitalist system of world economy, the First World War broke out; and as a result of the second crisis, the Second World War broke out.” This is not to say that, in turn, the Soviet Union was to blame for these wars, but rather, Stalin’s comments misrepresent the complexities of World War I, and World War II by placing sole blame on the West. 

In the 1980’s, when many Russians demanded change in response to a number of severe economic, political, and social challenges, the government shifted blame onto the United States, naming U.S. political barriers as a contributing cause for the strife. 

In recent years, the Russian government has followed suit, blaming the U.S. for uprisings in Ukraine and pushing unsubstantiated claims against the U.S., like, for example, that the CIA was responsible for the Chernobyl disaster. 

To understand how propaganda is effective in Russia, it serves to understand where people get their news. According to a 2018 poll by the Levada Center—one of the few independent polling centers in Russia—70% of Russians get their news from television programs, with 51% of Russians citing television news as the source they trust most. While still used to promote state propaganda, other sources, like online publications and social media are significantly less trusted by the Russian population, garnering 19% and 15% of support respectively. Of the most popular television news sources, Channel One, Rossia, and NTV—all state-owned entities—were described as most trustworthy. 

With the majority of Russians receiving their domestic and global news from state-owned television programs, it is easy to see how a government intent on controlling the narrative could use such programs to push specific talking points and influence sentiments. 

By examining state TV coverage of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin’s attempts to persuade the public become clear. The coverage is distinctly anti-Western, blaming NATO and Western nations for the conflict, with Russia justifying its involvement by claiming to prevent a “fascist coup.” While such a claim could not be further from the truth, it is undoubtedly effective.

By following a four-point method, Russia’s propaganda network—assisted by pro-Kremlin hosts and sympathetic commentators in the West—can significantly influence public opinion. The method—which entails dismissing the critics, altering the facts, distracting from the issues, and frightening the audience—is especially effective at pushing one particular narrative: the United States is seeking world domination and only Russia is brave enough to stop it. 

While the claim might seem outlandish, disregarding it would be a mistake. First, consider the Russian narrative regarding the U.S. and NATO. According to the Kremlin, the U.S. uses NATO as a tool to achieve its foreign policy goals. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. used NATO to change international dynamics, cementing itself as the world’s only superpower. In order to weaken Russia, which posed a threat to its superpower status, the U.S. supported attempts to directly weaken the Russian state; this included supporting separatists in the Caucasus and seeking to expand NATO influence to the countries surrounding Russia.  

Next, consider the role of Russian President Vladimir Putin in “stopping” the U.S. from achieving world domination. Upon rising to power, Putin stood as an obstacle in the U.S.’ plans for world domination. As a result, the U.S. sought to destroy Putin, using personal attacks, setting up missile defenses in Eastern Europe, and encouraging Ukraine and Georgia to apply for NATO membership. The European Union supported the U.S. in its efforts, and thus it became not only an American goal to isolate Russia, but a European goal as well.

Finally, consider Russia’s role in Ukraine, particularly in 2014. As understood by the Kremlin, NATO and the European Union invited Ukraine to apply for membership, presenting the country with the option to either enter the organizations, or retain its close relationship with Russia. The then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (who later fled to Russia in exile) rejected the West by declining the offers, siding with Russia. In response, neo-Nazis staged a coup in Kyiv, targeting Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine, and NATO moved ships into Crimea. Russia then intervened, “saving” Russian-speaking Ukrainians from the supposed onslaught. 

Despite being completely untrue or gross exaggerations of the truth in nearly every sense, this narrative was perpetuated not only on state TV, but by prominent government officials, including (but certainly not limited to) Russian President Vladimir Putin; Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov; Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, Nikolai Patrushev; and the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Alexander Lukashevich. 

In 2014, Putin used this narrative to justify the Russian invasion into Ukraine. Lavrov used it to go after US missile plans, the existence of the European Union, and Ukraine’s domestic policy. Patrushev used it to explain declining oil prices. Lukashevich used it to criticize the decline in Russia’s credit rating by Western financial institutions. There are countless other examples.

At the rise of many problems in Russia, the country is quick to push blame on the West. While it would be unfair to suggest that Russia blames all of its problems on the West—one might point to genuinely crippling effects from Western sanctions on the Russian economy and irresponsible economic policy pushed by Western economists advising Soviet financial leaders at the fall of the Soviet Union—many of the problems for which Russia blames the West have been falsely attributed to it. 

Furthermore, it is also important to realize how politically advantageous it is for a leader, like Vladimir Putin, to push anti-Western sentiment.

In January 2022, as Russia began sending troops to the Russian-Ukrainian border, Putin experienced an uptick in his approval rating, which grew from 65% in December to 69%. The same poll also noted an increase in trust in Putin, Lavrov, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The poll, as well as many others, have suggested a clear correlation between increases in Putin’s approval rating and growing anti-Western sentiment among the Russian population. For example, a year after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Putin’s approval rating hit 89%, reaching an all-time high—so did anti-Western sentiment. 

While not every Russian military campaign has been as successful in terms of its effect on Putin’s approval rating, the employment of various propaganda tactics can help rally public opinion and increase approval ratings, allowing Putin to reap the political rewards. As Putin seeks re-election in 2024, his political motivations are clear, bringing Russia’s recent invasion into Ukraine to attention.

Despite the warnings that preceded Russia’s most recent invasion into Ukraine, the public and even Ukraine seemed caught off-guard by the attack, initially underestimating the validity of the intelligence. While it is too soon to determine if the invasion would have unfolded differently had more trust been placed in the intelligence, Russia’s hostilities towards NATO expansion in Eastern Europe can be easily detected in 2008 when NATO offered membership to Ukraine and Georgia. 

Researchers who study Putin note his intent to blend history and policy, keen to instill the ideal that “we are one history, we are one people” within the Russian population. His declared mission of “saving the Russian state,” as noted in his 2000 essay “Russia at the Turn of the Millennium,” makes such actions by the West (like offering NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia) seem like attempts to divide Russian society, thus posing extreme risks to the “survival of the Russian state.” Russia’s justification of its most recent invasion in Ukraine is consistent with the foreign policy and broader anti-Western ideology that the country has adopted since Putin became president.  

The public and the West might have also underestimated the scope and impact of the misleading rhetoric aired on Russian state TV, which was widely reinforced in speeches by Russian officials in public forums. One notable example remains Lavrov’s 2015 speech at the Munich Security Conference, in which his convoluted rhetoric regarding Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine highlighted a disinterest in appealing to the West on such a matter, and made clear that Russian foreign policy answered to one person and one person only: Vladimir Putin. 

If there is any uncertainty regarding Russia’s foreign policy goals, one would have to look no further than state TV, or other mediums carrying state propaganda to understand them. The pro-Kremlin, troll-farm operator, Internet Research Agency—which is run by Russian oligarch and Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin—produces the most notable and widely-shared Russian propaganda on social media platforms. 

The organization is frequently mentioned in the Mueller Report, where it is claimed to have “operated social media pages and groups designed to attract U.S. audiences…for purposes of interfering with the U.S. political system, including the presidential election of 2016.” As the Russia’s recent invasion into Ukraine has endured, the Internet Research Agency has served as an apparatus of the much-larger Russian propaganda network, creating social media accounts that have shared false information, such as that Ukraine is “fabricating” civilian deaths, and posting orchestrated, or out-of-context videos.

On state TV, propaganda regarding the invasion is overwhelming, replacing entertainment programming and completely mischaracterizing the conflict and Western support for Ukraine. For example, Olga Skabeeva, a host of Russia’s 60 Minutes, argued that “Americans don’t really care about Ukraine and are concerned only with rising gas prices,” describing Americans as “indifferent towards saving Ukrainian Banderites.” The term, “banderites,” is one often used by Russian state media to describe adversaries of the Kremlin, and is in reference to Stephan Bandera, who fought for Ukrainian independence before his assasination by the KGB in 1959. 

Other programs on Russian state TV, such as Sunday Evening with Vladimir Soloviev, have further disparaged the U.S., debating the future of Ukraine and NATO following the invasion. One guest, Russian parliament member, Oleg Matveychev made the argument that “there isn’t a single country in the world that is as easily manipulated as America,” adding, “After Ukraine’s demilitarization is completed…we’re going to raise the stakes…For example, the lifting of all sanctions…The dissolution of NATO, because the presence of NATO in some countries is getting in our way.” 

While on the program, Vesti Nedeli, Matveychev added to his original list of demands, stating, “We should be thinking about reparations from the damage that was caused by the sanctions…The return of all Russian properties, those of the Russian empire, the Soviet Union, and current Russia, which has been seized by the United States and so on…” In clarifying this statement, Matveychev cited Alaska as Russian property falsely claimed by the U.S..

Perhaps the most frequent claim perpetuated on Russian state TV and by government officials regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine involves Russia’s attempt to “denazify” Ukraine. The memory of World War II remains prevalent in Russian society and understandably so, as famine, disease, treacherous conditions, and intense combat killed nearly 24 million Soviets—the most of any country in the war. By drawing on this sentiment, the Russian state seeks to muster support for the invasion, using state TV to tie the two events together. 

As a result, images and accounts of perceived Soviet heroism during World War II are frequently aired on Russian state TV—like on Vesti Nedeli, where scenes of public executions of German Nazi soliders in Kyiv’s Independence Square have been broadcasted. One unnamed European intelligence official described the showing of such images as an attempt by the Federal Security Service, or FSB—Russia’s intelligence agency—to “normalize” the idea of public hangings, as the FSB has reportedly drafted plans for public executions in Ukrainian cities after their capture. In discussing the prospect of public hangings of Ukrainians, a guest on the program, Doctor of Political Sciences Elena G. Ponomareva advised to “never let morality prevent you from undertaking correct actions.”

While Russian politics has changed overtime, one aspect of it has not: the government’s heavy use of propaganda. The reliance and use of propaganda is so extensive, it is nearly synonymous with other aspects of Russian culture, reflecting its deeply-ingrained presence in Russian society. While searching through the exaggerations and plain mistruths spewed on Russian state TV is an arduous task, Russia’s domestic and international policy can be found there, hiding in plain sight.