Research reveals long-term failure of Russian propaganda in Ukraine’s Donbass region

Newswise – A study of thousands of media articles spreading propaganda in Ukraine’s Donbass in the years following the first Russian invasion suggests that the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign has long neglected any coherent or compelling messaging to foster support for Russia in the war-torn region.

After 2014, when media outlets in the so-called “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, which make up much of Donbass, were forcibly taken over by Russian-backed insurgents, efforts to instill a pro- -Russian were lazy and half-cooked and shattered within a few months.

That’s according to University of Cambridge researcher Dr Jon Roozenbeek, who says that – based on his analysis of more than four years of media content – such limited efforts have likely had little effect on the consciousness of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Donbass.

For example, Vladimir Putin has long trumpeted the idea of ​​”Novorossiya”, or “New Russia”, in an attempt to resurrect the terminology once used to describe Donbass during the reign of Catherine the Great, when he temporarily sat within of the Russian Empire, and claim that the region belongs to Russia.

While waves of propaganda demonized the Ukrainian government, the study shows that “Novorossiya” was barely mentioned, and that Russian disinformation lacked a real “in-group” story, the “we” to oppose a “them” – a fundamental flaw in any attempt to generate a lasting division, says Roozenbeek.

Instead of constructing an identity, almost the entire Russian propaganda effort has relied on portraying kyiv’s leaders as fascists – the basis of outlandish “denazification” claims – to create what psychologists call an “outgroup”. on which to focus hostility.

However, as Russia shifts its war to Donbass, Roozenbeek warns it could turn to spreading Novorossiya-style propaganda narratives in the region and far beyond to justify land grabbing and wartime atrocities. , and affirms that these actions are supported by the local populations.

It calls for a preventive global demystification – or “pre-bunking” – of the idea that ideological projects such as “Novorossiya” have deep roots in the region, and that the people of Donbass have always adhered to these myths.

Otherwise, he says, we risk such lies taking hold in the West via pundits and politicians who toe the Kremlin line. The findings from Roozenbeek are publicly available for the first time today on the University of Cambridge website.

“Eight years of Russian propaganda have failed to provide a convincing alternative to Ukrainian citizenship in eastern Ukraine,” Roozenbeek said.

“The Kremlin’s decision to favor outgroup animosity over ingroup identity construction, and its gross overstatement of the extent to which its lies about nonexistent Ukrainian ‘fascists’ have promoted pro -Russian, are the main reasons why the invasion was a strategy. and logistical disaster.

“If Novorossiya nonsense or other half-baked ideological narratives start spreading in the West, they could end up being used to pressure Ukraine to give up large swaths of its territory, so that an interminable war in the Donbass causes the crisis of the world community, the nerves to fray,” he said.

For her doctoral research, Roozenbeek used “natural language processing” to algorithmically sift through more than 85,000 print and online articles from 30 local and regional media outlets in Luhansk and Donetsk between 2014 and 2017, tracing the content patterns. through the use of key words and phrases. following the first Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While half of the print media coverage remained “business as usual” – sports, entertainment, etc. – about 36% was devoted to “identity formation” through propaganda. Much of this was done through parallels with World War II: the Donbass War as an attack by Ukrainian “neo-Nazis”.

Only one newspaper paid attention to Putin’s adopted concept of “Novorossiya”. Obvious opportunities to leverage history for identity-building propaganda were missed, such as the fact that part of Donbass declared itself a Soviet republic in 1918, or even any mention of the Soviet Union.

“Description of an identity within the group that placed Donbass within the framework of the ‘Russian world’ was almost entirely absent from the region’s print media,” Roozenbeek said.

This pattern has been widely replicated in the online news media, which has arguably been fiercer in its attempts to demonize the “outgroup” Kyiv government – including using the English language to try to spread propaganda. internationally – while ignoring a pro-Russian “that’s us” identity.

Roozenbeek found a handful of stories covering “patriotic” cultural events organized by Kremlin leaders in Lugansk, but even here the group’s identity was “lazily assumed”, he says, rather than established.

All this despite the fact that a propaganda “master plan” strategy in the Donbass explicitly called for cultivating the image of a benevolent Russia by emphasizing the “Russian world” philosophy.

The strategy, leaked to German newspapers in 2016, is widely believed to be the work of Vladislav Surkov, the former chief Kremlin propagandist who is often dubbed Putin’s puppeteer. He describes the need to build and promote an ideology of “cultural sovereignty” in Russian-occupied Donbass, an ideology that can serve as a stepping stone towards statehood.

“Despite the emphasis placed on building identity and ideology after the Russian-backed takeover of Luhansk and Donetsk, including under Kremlin directives, very little identity within the group has been promoted,” Roozenbeek said.

“The identity propaganda that I could find in the Donbass after 2014 was vague, poorly conceived and quickly forgotten. Political attempts to summon Novorossiya were rebuffed in the summer of 2015, but such weak propaganda suggests they didn’t have much luck anyway.

“Putin seriously underestimated the strength of Ukrainian national identity, even in Donbass, and overestimated the power of his propaganda machine over the occupied areas of Ukraine.”

Roozenbeek’s research was carried out for his doctorate between 2016 and 2020 and will feature in his forthcoming book “Influence, Information and War in Ukraine”, which will be released next year as part of the Society for the Psychology Study of Social Issues. , published by Cambridge University Press.