Many Russians support the war against Ukraine, and propaganda plays a key role in that.

Propaganda generates falsehoods and distorts the truth. Sometimes it seems that all we need to do to counter it is tell the truth.

But it is not that simple. Propaganda is not always about outright lying. It is about creating a lens through which we perceive everything around us. Including the war.

We analysed over three million articles by Russia’s main propaganda outlet RIA Novosti to understand how this system works.

In propaganda’s web

What do Russians think about the war against Ukraine? Much suggests that the majority of Russia’s population did not want this war. Nevertheless, surveys and social experiments show that since the invasion began, at least half of Russians support both Putin and the actions of the Russian army.

Why is this the case? The question is a complicated one. And part of the answer is Russian propaganda. To understand how it works, we examined over three million articles published between 2002 and 2023 on RIA Novosti’s website, arguably Russia’s main online propaganda outlet. What we saw truly astounded us.

    For many, the war began with Putin’s speech in the early hours of 24 February. At 5.50 AM Moscow time, RIA Novosti published the crucial part of his address:

    “In accordance with the UN Charter’s Chapter VII, Article 51… I have decided to launch a special military operation… Its purpose is to protect the people who have been subjected to abuse and genocide by the Kiev regime for eight years. For this purpose, we will strive for the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine, as well as attempt to bring to justice those who committed numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation.”

    Since then, RIA Novosti has been running scores of news stories every day about the “special military operation” or the “situation in Donbas” — two euphemisms Russian propaganda uses to refer to the war.

    Many of these stories contain the same sentences.

    They are repeated time and time again.

    In different combinations.

    Day after day. Month after month.

    Whichever story RIA is telling us — be it about how Russian troops are advancing (never mentioning retreats), how Ukraine is shelling its own citizens, Western sanctions or military aid to Ukraine…

    ... readers are inevitably confronted with the same text. 

    More than 10,000 times.

    To better understand how background sentences relate to each other, we have depicted them as dots whose size depends on how often they are used in RIA Novosti texts.

    On 24 February, Russia launched a military operation in Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin said its goal was to “to protect people who have been subjected to abuse and genocide by the Kiev regime for eight years”. For this purpose, he said, Russia plans to “demilitarise” and “denazify” Ukraine and bring to justice those who have committed “numerous bloody crimes against the civil population” in Donbass.

    If sentences occur in the same texts, we also show the connections between them.

    We analysed hundreds of thousands of recurring sentences on RIA’s website.

    And we saw that some sentences are repeated in different combinations thousands or even tens of thousands of times.

    Some of them endure for years and undergo only minor changes during that time.

    Most of these recurring sentences refer to Ukraine.

    Many of them do not just explain the context of the news, but form a very specific view of events — a view that prepared Russians for war against Ukraine. This strategy was first employed in early 2014, as mass protests rocked Kyiv and RIA Novosti became part of the Rossiya Segodnya media group headed by star propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov.

    On the night of 22 November 2013, about 2,000 people gathered on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv’s central square. Chanting slogans such as “Ukraine is Europe”, they protested against the government’s unexpected refusal to conclude an association agreement between Ukraine and the EU.

    Thus began the largest protest movement in Ukrainian history, which has since become known as the Euromaidan, or the Revolution of Dignity. Over the following months, the events in Kyiv were front and centre of Russian media coverage — including that of RIA Novosti.

    RIA’s early reporting of the topic exhibited certain peculiarities, but in general the background produced under Svetlana Mironyuk was fairly neutral, and the sentences that were repeated several hundred times were at least factual in content.

    Supporters of European integration launched large-scale protests in Kiev and other regions of Ukraine on 21 November, after the government announced that it had frozen plans for an association agreement with the EU, which was to be formalised at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. On Saturday, the Interior Ministry’s Berkut special forces dispersed the Euromaidan in central Kyiv. On Sunday, up to half a million people rallied in Kiev, which resulted in protesters seizing the city hall and clashing with the police.

    However, in mid-January 2014, RIA began replacing neutral sentences about the protests with a completely different rhetoric. This appears to have been due not to the events in Kyiv, but to radical changes in RIA’s own editorial policy.

    While at first RIA wrote about “supporters of European integration” and “protesters”, since 21 January 2014 it nearly always called them “radical opposition activists” or just “radicals”, emphasising their use of Molotov cocktails and firearms. The protests themselves are thus referred to as “clashes between armed radicals and law enforcement”. The most frequent sentence about this recurred 4,301 times and was in use until 2019. In total, this rhetoric racked up over 10,000 repeats.

    In late 2013, a political crisis erupted in Ukraine. Mass protests known as the Euromaidan took place across the country, resulting in clashes between armed radicals and law enforcement. The opposition repeatedly used firearms and Molotov cocktails, which resulted in dozens of human casualties.

    On 22 February 2014, the country saw a violent coup d’etat. Crimea did not recognise the new authorities. Crimea held a referendum on joining Russia in full compliance with international law.

    In late February, mass protests against the coup erupted in Ukraine’s southeastern regions. In April 2014, the Ukrainian authorities launched a military operation against the residents of the southeast of Ukraine who were dissatisfied with the coup. More than 9,000 people were killed during the conflict.

    Moscow is not party to the conflict and seeks a peaceful solution to Ukraine’s internal crisis. Peace talks are being held with Russian mediation. But Ukraine has not complied with the agreements.

    The West and NATO are spreading fakes about Russia’s aggression and using them as pretext to deploy military equipment near Russia’s borders.

    Kiev is shelling Donbass daily, including with NATO-supplied weapons, and is preparing to resolve the conflict by force.

    Russia has launched a military operation in Ukraine. Its goal is to protect people from genocide and to demilitarise Ukraine.

    All these sentences, repeated between 250 and 16,000 times, have been used as background information in at least 56,384 news items published between 2014–2023.

    RIA’s articles reiterate the claim that Russia has launched a “special operation” at least 18,031 times in various forms.

    On 24 February, Russia launched a military operation in Ukraine.

    They also constantly emphasise that Russia only targets military infrastructure and that Ukraine’s civilian population is not in danger. This occurs in 11,628 texts.

    According to the Russian Defence Ministry, the Armed Forces only target military infrastructure and Ukrainian troops; the civilian population is not in danger.

    At the start of the war, RIA Novosti claimed in hundreds of articles that Ukrainian border guards were offering no resistance, Ukrainian soldiers were surrendering, and Ukrainian military defence infrastructure had been incapacitated.

    About two hours later, the Defence Ministry added that Ukrainian border guards were “not offering any resistance”, Ukrainian air defence had been suppressed, and the infrastructure of military air bases had been put out of action.

    Putin initially put forth the “denazification” and “demilitarisation” of Ukraine as the Russian invasion’s main goals, a somewhat vague phrasing that made it into tens of thousands of boilerplates.

    By the end of March, the Russian army had retreated from the suburbs of Kyiv and Kharkiv, and it became clear that the war was now limited to the south-eastern front. At this point, RIA tweaked the goals of the “special operation”: to include “liberating” Donbas. A bit later, “guaranteeing Russia’s security” was added to the list. Putin would later claim that both had always been the ultimate goals of the “special operation” and assured the Russian people that “nothing had changed” in that sense since 24 February.

    In general, it seems that the guidelines for covering the war began being radically revised in late March 2022. In Russian propaganda’s distorted reflection of reality, Russia had “successfully completed” the “first stage of the special operation”, and its success was measured by the “significant reduction of Ukraine’s military potential”.

    At the same time, RIA gradually began portraying the war as more of a defensive effort in which Russia was now not only fighting Ukraine, but the whole of NATO as well.

    Before the outbreak of war RIA regularly repeated claims that NATO was supplying Ukraine with weapons — averaging 12 mentions a day. Those boilerplates all but disappeared after 24 February, in what was likely a deliberate move to prevent panic spreading domestically about a potential military clash with NATO.

    However, in the aftermath of Russia’s initial military reversals, RIA’s articles gradually began placing more emphasis on what it described as Russia’s confrontation with NATO.

    This was done in a seemingly more subtle manner: since late March, RIA Novosti published hundreds of background paragraphs about various Ukrainian territories under Russian control — Horlivka, Yasinuvata, Zaitseve, Avdiivka — indicating their location and pre-2014 population. Such boilerplates were usually accompanied by the daily news that Ukraine had once again shelled Donbas using 155-millimetre munitions – NATO artillery’s standard calibre. RIA Novosti reiterated these sentences in 1903 texts — more than five times a day.

    The West in general and NATO in particular being party to the conflict in Ukraine can gradually be seen taking root in most boilerplates. Arms supplies hold a special place here. In RIA articles, they go hand in hand with threats to the West: by supplying Ukraine with weapons, NATO is “playing with fire” and prolonging the war. RIA usually adds that Russia considers any vehicle transporting weapons to be a legitimate military target.

    Sanctions-related boilerplates also crop up in hundreds of hundreds of articles. RIA Novosti calls them “an unprecedented economic war” and part of the “policy of containing and weakening Russia”. The latter, according to Putin, is the basis of the West’s long-term strategy. 

    All the while, any negative impact caused by sanctions on the Russian economy is denied: Russia has prepared for them in advance. It is not Russia that suffers from the sanctions, but primarily the US and Europe. By disrupting supply chains, they have dealt a serious blow to the entire world economy.

    RIA Novosti constantly has to adjust not only to changes on the frontline, but also to the changing opinions of Russia’s political leadership. The most striking example of this was when Putin changed his views on the fate of Ukraine’s occupied territories. From 28 February 2022, RIA Novosti had been actively reiterating that “the occupation of Ukraine is out of the question”. In different iterations, the sentence appeared 3,576 times.

    By August, such phrases had disappeared. A month later, almost simultaneously, we see the emergence of a cluster of sentences about the so-called “new regions” becoming part of Russia. Annexing vast tracts of a neighbouring country’s territory is an extraordinary and consequential event, and yet RIA did not publish that many stories that mentioned it. The most frequently seen sentence on the matter only appears in 477 texts and contains a fairly unconvincing justification for Russia’s unilateral absorption of land belonging to a sovereign state: the protection of civilians from Ukraine and NATO.

    The whole world is being destabilised: radicals are staging mass riots and overthrowing (or attempting to overthrow) legitimate governments — in Syria, Libya, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Venezuela.

    The West is usually behind this. It adheres to double standards and fuels armed conflicts around the world. Moreover, the West and the United States spread fake news about Russia’s crimes and pursue a policy of deterrence.

    Russia rejects all accusations and, unlike the West with its double standards, always acts in accordance with international law and the UN Charter.

    Russia is a peaceful country and tries to resolve conflicts peacefully.

    Unlike Ukraine, where a junta has seized power and is pursuing an aggressive policy: shelling its own population, harassing the church and Russian journalists.

    If Russia is unable to resolve a conflict peacefully, it resorts to force. But only to protect civilians. And it does so successfully.

    Russia is an important world power with good intentions.

    Written by Leonid Klimov and Katya Lakova with contributions from Sonya Richter
    Data visualisation: Artyom Schtschennikow
    Data collection and analysis: Daria Talanova, Roman Beketov, Artyom Schtschennikow, Leonid Klimov, Katya Lakova
    Editors: Arnold Khachaturov, Julian Hans, Tom Masters
    Design and coding: Daniel Marcus, Artyom Schtschennikow
    This project was created with the help of Natalie Sablowski (Süddeutsche Zeitung).