Why Russian propaganda isn’t as persuasive as you might think

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the Kremlin has used its control of the news media to justify its war as defensive, a necessary response to Western efforts to destroy Russia. Recently, when Putin announced that he was mobilizing Russian reservists, he again accused the West of trying to weaken and undermine Russia.

Some analysts have claimed that Russians support the war in large part because they believe state propaganda like this about a hostile West. That may have been at least partly true earlier in the war. But thousands of young Russian men are now fleeing the country for fear of being forced to fight in the war — suggesting that Putin’s warnings about an imminent threat to the homeland and grandiose yet baseless accusations are not swaying an important part of the population.

That’s in part because propaganda is not always intended to persuade its audience. Sometimes its primary purpose is to intimidate.

Some propaganda aims not to persuade but to silence dissent

Many people typically think of propaganda as intended to win public support through manipulation. Leaders, especially those with control over the media, overwhelm their citizens with lies, exaggerations and unfounded claims to fashion themselves as the good guys while concealing their flaws. Russian state media has bombarded its viewers with claims that Putin was forced to invade Ukraine to defend Russia and its citizens against NATO aggression, Ukrainian Nazis, bioweapons and new ways of understanding gender.

At the same time, viewers semiconsciously receive a parallel message: that a government capable of dominating the airwaves and so committed to its alternate reality must be a powerful one. The fact that other people appear to support the status quo even though they are equally subject to outlandish propaganda reinforces the belief that the government is firmly in control. Viewers therefore may not believe what they see on television and social media — but they infer from those messages that the government will not brook any dissent.

The flight of Russian men shows Russian propaganda failures

As in any autocracy, it is difficult to know in Russia why people claim to support the “special military operation” in surveys and refrain from protesting. Is it because they agree with the government — or because they fear the consequences of opposing it?

For this reason, the response to the military call-up last month was revealing. Tens of thousands of fighting-age men rushed to Russia’s borders to exit the country; those who could afford last-minute plane tickets flew wherever they could. Ordinary citizens attacked military recruiting offices and held demonstrations in regions where they were previously rare.

If people actually believed the official rationale for the war and the Kremlin’s repeated claims of battlefield successes, we would expect that eligible draftees would voluntarily, even enthusiastically, sign up for the cause — as Ukrainians did after the invasion, or as so many Americans did after 9/11. But we saw the opposite. People with skin in the game revealed they did not buy the claim that Russia was fighting an existential battle against the West.

Why are Russians skeptical?

People might be skeptical of Kremlin propaganda for several reasons. First, while state television is the most common way people get their news, Russians, especially youths, are also active on social media, which is not censored as thoroughly.

Second, tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded in the war, according to the U.S. government. Military recruiters have sought new troops most aggressively in the parts of Russia that have already lost the most young men. Seeing relatives and neighbors return in body bags can be a reality check against televised propaganda about the war.

Third, Russians have been exposed to baseless claims for years — which may have numbed them to it. The West has been portrayed as an enemy for so long that the war rhetoric may have lacked the urgency it might have had otherwise. People may have accurately discerned Putin’s resolve while discounting his rationale for the invasion.

Incendiary rhetoric may lose its persuasive power while still being intimidating

Many Russians may still support the war, whether or not they believe Putin’s rhetoric. Others may go along with the regime simply because they feel that is the safest attitude.

But as Russian casualties mount and ordinary people are asked to sacrifice for the war, the propagandists’ job becomes more difficult. The Kremlin will need to rely increasingly on policing and surveillance to maintain stability.

To alert people to the fact that dissent will be punished, Putin may further intensify his rhetoric, even as it rings ever more hollow. His recent speech accusing the West of “Satanism” and issuing nuclear threats was probably intended not only to signal his resolve to the West, but also to deliver a warning to Russian citizens.

Once a regime loses its ability to persuade, ruling becomes more costly. But the Kremlin apparently hopes that as long as it can instill fear, including through strident rhetoric, it will be able to deter massive resistance — even as the consequences of its invasion hit closer to home.

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Scott Radnitz (@SRadnitz) is the Herbert J. Ellison professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Washington, a Jean Monnet fellow at the European University Institute and author of “Revealing Schemes: The Politics of Conspiracy in Russia and the Post-Soviet Region” (Oxford University Press, 2021).

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