Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin has tapped into the memory of the Soviet Union’s struggle against Nazi Germany to try and legitimize its invasion. The 9 May Victory Day celebration, marking the end of World War Two, is a key example of how the Kremlin draws from the past to justify its actions, invoking that struggle against evil and using that framing to present the current conflict through the same lens. Despite its early setbacks on the battlefield in Ukraine, the Kremlin has been successful in keeping its people misinformed about its actions due to its effective propaganda machine and memory politics that corral support and thwart dissent. Indeed, any counternarrative from either inside or outside of Russia is difficult to be shared with the broader public due to misinformation as well as the fact that much of the media coming from Russia closely follows the Kremlin line.
Forging a Narrative from the Great Patriotic War
In the current Russo-Ukrainian war, a major source of Russian conduct is messaging, or “a system of meanings that express the Self’s emotional, cognitive, and evaluative orientations toward its significant Other.” This is explicitly portrayed in how Russia views itself and its Other: the West. Thus, Putin has built his justification narrative from the memory of the “Great Patriotic War,” which was the Soviet Union’s climactic struggle and ultimate defeat of Hitler and Nazi Germany. The war left around 25 million soldiers and civilians dead but cemented the Soviet Union’s status as a global superpower due to its massive contribution in World War Two.
The Soviet Union built on this shortly afterward against the U.S. in the subsequent Cold War, in its quest to create a sphere of influence in “liberated” Eastern Europe and elsewhere in the second half of the 20th century. The Kremlin has in recent years flatly combated any counter-narrative about a nuanced Soviet role in World War II. Thus, while Russia admitted, in the Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and early Putin years, some responsibility for the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, which resulted in Hitler and Stalin carving up Poland, it has since changed its tune.
Using War Memory to Justify War in Ukraine
In the current context, Putin harkens back to the Great Patriotic War by calling for Ukraine to be “de-Nazified” and “de-militarized,” since, according to Putin, Ukrainians are fascists and have committed genocide against Russian speakers in the eastern part of the country for the past eight years. As such, they must be stopped. His justification stems largely from complete disinformation, such as Ukraine rearming its nuclear arsenal, or NATO forces preparing to invade Russia. The invasion in late February 2022 is a serious escalation from the past eight years of Russia supporting pro-Russian separatists in a quasi-frozen conflict in the Donbas. This recent change in strategy suggests that Putin may have had to reassess his thinking about how the war has progressed since 2014, while many Russian experts claim that his behavior is entirely erratic and unhinged, given that he was in isolation throughout much of the COVID-19 pandemic, seen most notably by his meeting with other world leaders at a long table. Additionally, the real-time battlefield information that Putin is receiving is also incomplete since many in the Kremlin are afraid of telling him the truth about how the Ukrainians are fighting harder and more effectively than many initially thought, as well as the ineffectiveness of Russia’s initial surge around Kyiv.
After it became clear that the invasion would not lead to a quick Russian victory, this messaging evolved to frame Russia as a classic “fortress under siege,” given the sanctions that much of the world is imposing on them as well as the mounting casualties inflicted by Ukrainian forces. This messaging harkens to a Russian theme of “us” versus “them,” making it difficult for Western media or anti-Kremlin sources to reach the Russian population. This is due in large part to the false information that the Kremlin spreads about the conflict, as well as the control that it holds over news sources.
Keeping in line with the Russian tradition of creating a narrative, anyone speaking out against Putin’s narrative is deemed a traitor and could spend up to fifteen years in jail for protesting. Russian security forces have arrested more than 15,000 Russians thus far for opposing the war, some for simply holding a blank piece of paper or a picture of the classic Russian epic "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy. As such, given that the Kremlin has a firm grip on the creation of the Russian narrative, most of the information that the Russian people see is pro-war.
As a result, Russians only see one point of view, allowing the Russian media and the Kremlin to take advantage of this, specifically with the letter “Z” appearing on Russian tanks and other vehicles since the start of the war. There are multiple interpretations of what this symbol means, but it is now the most pro-war Russian symbol. The Russian state and pro-Russian media co-opt this image to support the war in Ukraine and even some European countries have prohibited the use of the symbol as a result. This has been effective from the perspective of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, as its actions have stifled any legitimate dissent while also blurring the line between truth and fiction.
Afterward: Reading the Tea Leaves in Kremlinology
On 9 May 2022, Russia held the 77th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany. This celebration has been used to connect the Russian people with its past and has been utilized by Putin and the Kremlin to legitimize their actions, spouting disinformation that the West was preparing to invade Ukraine and that Ukraine is full of Nazis. In his Victory Day speech, Putin warned the crowd that “evil has returned, in a different uniform, under different slogans, but for the same purpose.” This anniversary and other rhetoric by the Kremlin touches on a common Russian heartstring, given that most Russian families either lost a loved one fighting the Germans or had a family member fight. The anniversary did not culminate in an official declaration of war; so much ado about nothing for now given recent nuclear saber-rattling with NATO. However, the fighting in Ukraine will likely continue to grind into a war of attrition and a peaceful conclusion to the fighting is not likely in the near term, which is to the Kremlin’s benefit.
In some recent polls, more than 68% of Russians support the war effort, albeit that data is suspect given Russia’s repressive tendencies. This data suggests that the Russian people are likely afraid to speak freely against the Putin regime, given the high probability of being jailed or silenced, thus stymying any meaningful opposition to Putin’s war in Ukraine at home. There have been efforts to find information from non-Kremlin news sources, such as acquiring a VPN to access blocked sites. That posits that those who would do that already don’t trust what the Kremlin is telling them, and those that do know what’s going on in Ukraine don’t care what’s happening. This posits a very successful propaganda machine at home, despite not achieving its initially sought objectives on the battlefield.