06.03.23 Propaganda Review

The Non-Mobilising Web: How pro-Kremlin media laid the groundwork for the invasion of Ukraine

Experts from the Atlantic Council have mapped the intricate web of the largest pro-Kremlin media outlets. These outlets are being utilised to promote and bolster the credibility of anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western narratives, which have become the ideological justification for the ongoing war. Since 2014, these narratives have been spread through a complex network of media resources which cited and amplified one another to expand their influence. In the final five to seven days before Russia’s full-scale invasion, there was a noticeable surge in publication activity across all five of the main propaganda narratives. However, despite the scale of the Kremlin's information campaign, it appears to have been relatively ineffective. In fact, survey data indicates that the outbreak of the war took the Russian public by surprise and they also remain uncertain about its ultimate objectives and motives. According to the Atlantic Council’s research, in preceding years, Russian propaganda was expansive and occupied a peripheral role, it was not specifically centred on the task of mobilisation.

The American Atlantic Council has published an extensive report, titled ‘Narrative Warfare: How the Kremlin and Russian News Outlets Justified a War of Aggression against Ukraine,’ based on a comprehensive analysis of over 9,000 Russian publications produced between 2014 and 2021. This analysis was conducted as part of the StopFake and EUvsDisinfo projects. The experts involved in this research meticulously selected 367 allegations made by propaganda regarding Ukraine (Meduza covered this issue here). They then scrutinised the publication activities of a group of Russian news agencies and publications (this corpus consisted of approximately 10,000 articles) in the lead up to the Russian invasion. The study specifically focused on the period between December 16, 2021 and February 24, 2022.

The study reveals how the five primary narratives projected by Russian propaganda, namely ‘Russia wants peace,’ ‘Russia has a moral obligation to protect the region,’ ‘Ukraine is the aggressor,’ ‘The West is responsible for regional tensions,’ and ‘Ukraine is a puppet of the West,’ were widely circulated in the public sphere by 14 major publications and media agencies. To bolster the credibility of these narratives and maintain a continuous flow of information, these outlets frequently quoted one another and made reference to each other’s materials. Remarkably,  6,368 articles cite only one source of information, which was one of the 14 media outlets analysed. In 4,493 articles, the primary source referenced was a prior publication by the same media outlet. The remaining 1,875 articles, comprising 18.4% of the entire database, cited other sources of information, yet still contained 2,502 links to the same 14 news resources.

On the basis of this analysis, the experts constructed a web-like schema that showcases how the desired narrative is crafted through the use of cross-citation and self-citation techniques.

The frequency with which each media outlet is quoted by other members of the ‘web’ is represented by the size of the circles in the diagram, while the thickness of the arrows indicates the frequency and direction of linkages between the outlets. TASS was the most frequently cited, with 982 references, followed by RIA Novosti, with 808 citations. RT news agency was the third most cited outlet, but it primarily referenced TASS and RIA Novosti.

Each news outlet had its own agenda when it came to the promotion of specific narratives. The most frequently covered topic was ‘Russia wants peace,’ with 2,201 articles published on this theme. This narrative was most prominently employed by news agencies such as Gazeta.Ru (206), Izvestia (331), Kommersant (124), RT (182), Lenta.Ru (173), Nezavisimaya Gazeta (34), RBC (105), Vedomosti (37), and Vzglyad.Ru (99). Interfax and RIA Novosti predominantly focused on the narrative of ‘Ukraine is an aggressor’, publishing 106 and 546 articles on this subject, respectively. A total of 1,888 articles on this topic were published across all of the media outlets sampled. The narrative ‘Russia has a moral obligation to protect the region’ was prevalent in articles by three publications: Regnum.Ru (463), Rossiyskaya Gazeta (194), and TASS (290), and ranked second overall in terms of the number of publications (2,086) across all the aforementioned media resources.

The narrative ‘Russia Wants Peace’ was most commonly presented through interviews. Meanwhile, articles on the topic of ‘Russia has a moral obligation to protect the region’ were often written as columns or interviews. The narrative ‘Ukraine is the aggressor’ most commonly appeared in analytical articles and news pieces. The researchers created a comprehensive timeline of publishing activity for each narrative, spanning from December 16, 2021 to February 24, 2022. There was a consistent output of publications on the topic of ‘Russia wants peace’ over a two-month period, and on certain days there were up to 100 articles published on this theme. From December 16 to the end of January, 20 to 50 articles per day were printed on the topic of ‘Russia has a moral obligation to protect the region,’ with the exception of the January holiday period. As the invasion drew closer, the number of articles on this topic surged, with up to 400 articles being published per day in the week before Russia launched its full-scale invasion. Before the last week of February, the narrative of ‘Ukraine is the aggressor’ had low publication activity, with a maximum of only 10 articles per day. However, during the fourth week of the month, there was a significant increase in the daily number of publications on this topic, with 250 to 400 articles being published per day. The peak of publication activity for ‘The West is responsible for regional tensions’ occurred at the end of December, when there were up to 100 articles per day.

The analysis presented in the study does not provide conclusive evidence that Russia was using these outlets to lay the groundwork for war, according to the experts at the Atlantic Council. Instead, it serves as an illustration of how the Kremlin's propaganda machine operates — namely, through the manipulation of tensions in the media sphere. Despite the scale of this activity, the overall impact of this propaganda appears to be relatively low. According to survey data, the outbreak of the war came as a surprise to the general population, and its goals and motives remain unclear. According to the study, in the years preceding the full-scale invasion, Russian propaganda employed a more extensive approach, and was a constant hum in the background of the media sphere. It was not, however, focused predominantly on the mobilisation of society.