Informational policy
Politics

Crisis propaganda

Gregory Asmolov looks at the new genre of authoritarian communication

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Photo: Scanpix

Starting from February 2022, the Russian authorities initiated a large-scale information campaign with the aim of justifying the war against Ukraine and neutralising potential protest-oriented attitudes. In addition to maintaining the legitimacy of authorities in the context of worsening living conditions for Russians, propaganda has systematically downplayed the value of human life on both sides of the conflict. On the one hand, propaganda continues its efforts to justify civilian deaths on the ‘enemy’ side while, on the other, it explains the inevitability of fatalities on the propagandist’s side. The Russian information campaign has also conjured up a simplified picture of the world, which helps to find answers to potential difficult questions. According to researchers, the demand for such simplifications rises in crisis situations, and propaganda turns into a tool for mass therapy through news.

However, Russian propaganda has had an Achilles’ heel right from the outset of the aggression in February: the war coverage by the Russian media built an expectation of imminent victory. The further the hostilities dragged on, the more difficult it became to construct an ‘image of victory’, especially given that the Ukrainian successes were associated with strikes against targets with high symbolic value, be it the Moskva warship or the Crimean Bridge. The unattainability of victory presumably generated increased frustration and a wave of rising negative emotions. Once control over these emotions is lost, they could be directed not only at external targets, but also ones within the political system.

If there is no image of victory or a clear path to reach it, such a situation also potentially undermines the foundations of ontological security, essential for maintaining the aggressor’s internal political legitimacy. To explain why there has been no quick and easy victory, Russian propagandists had not only to revise the image of the enemy, but also to reshape the narratives of the conflict. After that change, it was no longer a war with Ukraine, but an existential struggle for survival with the ‘collective West’.

And yet even this adaptation of the narrative proved insufficient, especially in light of the strategic successes of the Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv region and then in Kherson. The dissonance between the real scale of the crisis and the picture painted by propaganda for the Russian audience reached a point where political tasks could no longer be solved by information methods known from the past. These events led to a crisis of propaganda as a genre of communication. For the first time since the beginning of the war, pro-Kremlin communicators had to move beyond propaganda methodology and enter the realm of crisis communication.

From propaganda to crisis communication

Propaganda and crisis communication are two fundamentally distinct genres whereby senders construct the symbolic reality through influencing audiences via information. Propaganda is an informational manipulation of public opinion to achieve a desired mode of behaviour among the target audience. In contrast, crisis communication is a response to an unexpected negative event that may lead to reputational damage for those who may be perceived as responsible for the crisis. The essence of crisis communication boils down to defending certain figures or groups from criticism by managing how the responsibility for the crisis is attributed. In an authoritarian environment, one of the main tasks of crisis communication is to build a distance between the leader and the crisis.

While propaganda can involve a wide range of tasks to build support for certain actions initiated by the propagandist, crisis communication forces the propagandists to defend themselves. Crisis communication often boils down to two interrelated questions: ‘Who is to blame?’ and ‘What should we do?’. The answer to the latter question often depends on the answer to the former. Therefore, identifying the range of those considered as guilty becomes the key task for crisis communication. However, the question ‘Who is to blame?’ can be avoided if the crisis communicator denies the presence of the crisis in the first place. Nevertheless, the strategy of denial is dangerous if the crisis cannot be concealed through effective management of news flows due to the magnitude of the crisis and the information environment where it occurs. In this case, the ‘deniers’ run the risk of being the first candidates for culprits.

Before a crisis, propaganda helps to achieve political objectives by influencing target audiences. In a crisis, the preceding propaganda campaign becomes an aggravating factor. The degree of surprise and negativity increases where propaganda previously created wrong expectations about the course of events. As a tool for targeting aggression at an external object, propaganda achieves its goals by driving emotional intensity. However, at a crisis moment, the propagandists may lose control over the management of emotions, unable to reduce the emotional intensity. As a result, a crisis may reverse an aggression flow from an external object to an internal one, which will be blamed for the situation. For this reason, between the retreat from the Kharkiv region and the withdrawal from Kherson, we saw a new genre emerging in pain in the Russian pro-government media, which sought to find a compromise between propaganda tasks and the need to minimise the crisis-driven political risks. Indeed, this is the very essence of crisis propaganda.

Crisis propaganda in action: from Izyum to Kherson

The first wake-up call for Russian propaganda was the «operation to draw down the Izyum-Balakliya troops and withdraw them to the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic». The so-called war correspondents («voenkory») were among the main sources of criticism, as well as a number of pro-Kremlin Telegram channels devoted to military topics. Both were previously loyal to the authorities and the army commanders. However, their tone changed in light of the military retreat. Harsh criticism emerged, including that targeted at the senior military officers and the country’s political leaders. Parts of the political elites decided to use the situation to their advantage. Accusations against some generals came from people such as Ramzan Kadyrov.

In fact, the symbolic resources of propaganda narratives were no longer sufficient to interpret the frontline news. Therefore, the simplest way to cover the crisis and to go beyond propaganda was to look for those responsible for the developments. The Kremlin apparently did not manage to prepare an effective communication strategy to explain what had happened, so the easiest solution to bring the situation under control was to resort to threats and reprisals. The prosecutor’s office announced its intention to investigate a number of military Telegram channels and war correspondents, making it clear that their critical coverage of the events in Kharkiv region could be interpreted as spreading fake news and discrediting the Russian army.

The effectiveness of an intimidation policy as a crisis management tool is limited, especially if the crisis drags on. The growing likelihood of a retreat from Kherson made it clear that repressive measures would not be enough to control criticism after a new military defeat. The few weeks between the two retreats were used to develop a new information strategy: switching from propaganda to crisis communication.

The scale of events surrounding the retreat from Kherson left no room for crisis denial. The new leitmotif on Russian media channels was the argument about «certain mistakes that were made.» A continued propaganda narrative would need to downplay the importance of the developments by focusing on successes in other areas where the fighting was going on. The logic of strategic communication suggested that the retreat would be explained by referring to rational factors, such as the need to preserve the lives of the military. In this light, the withdrawal from Kherson was positioned as «the only right choice under the circumstances.» However, the combination of these strategies still did not offset the demand for finding someone to blame.

Therefore, crisis communication came to the fore and began to set the tone for the media coverage of the retreat, also as part of the central propaganda shows on Russian TV. The reflections below are based on the content analysis of the TV show called ‘Evening with Vladimir Solovyov’ during the week following the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kherson.

The tasks of crisis communication around the Kherson operation can be divided into two parts. On the one hand, it was to identify the mistakes that led to the retreat. On the other, it was to identify those responsible for these mistakes. In the Russian case, the primary task of crisis communication was to protect the leaders from criticism by managing the identification of possible culprits. The formula which can be summarised as «the president is beyond any responsibility» has been a cornerstone of Russian political communication for many years.

In addition to protecting the country’s first person, crisis communication sought to protect the military leaders from criticism. General Surovikin, who was in charge of the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kherson, received a special place among those who needed protection. On the one hand, he fell into a special zone of reputational risk, as he was the person to publicly report the retreat. On the other hand, positioning the retreat as a forced yet correct choice meant that Surovikin’s authority had to be accentuated. Hence, for example, the participants on Vladimir Solovyov’s show said that Surovikin could not be blamed because he was not part of the problem, but part of the solution to problems created by others. He was even referred to as an ‘ambulance general’.

At the same time, three groups of culprits emerged from the content analysis of Russian talk shows. The first group are those who remain in the past and, as such, are easiest to blame. Speakers repeatedly brought the argument that «we should blame those who weakened the army in the 1990s.» In this context, the blame is related to the actions that dampened the military industry, focusing on the market economy instead. This applied not only to the Yeltsin era of the 1990s, but also to the first terms of Vladimir Putin as president, when the economy was still run by ‘liberals’. In this context, the solution to the crisis is to militarise the economy and redistribute resources in order to increase support for the defence industry and the military.

However, the search for the culprits who lived in the country’s past would hardly satisfy the demand for blame. The main candidate for blame attribution were the «cadres on the ground» who had been unreliable in carrying out the tasks assigned and, more importantly, misleading the superiors. According to this argument, lies told by officials lead to wrong decisions, which, among other things, «has lead to the loss of cities.» During Vladimir Solovyov’s show, the editor-in-chief of Russia Today Margarita Simonyan suggested that criminal liability should be introduced for officials who mislead the leaders during the special military operation:

«If your activities have anything to do with our victory (…), then your lies to your superiors should be punishable criminally. People who deliberately tell lies should go to prison.»

Such rhetoric clearly defines a spectrum of blame and guarantees that the central authorities remain outside this spectrum, following the formula that «the president is beyond responsibility.» In fact, the leaders in the Kremlin are shown as victims. This argument also promotes solidarity between the authorities and the target audiences. Both have been deceived by the very same ‘officials’.

The third group of culprits are ‘those who spread panic’ and who are overly critical, thus turning themselves into the enemy’s agents. Against this background, Vladimir Solovyov himself called for the need for military censorship to be introduced. Thus, the strategy of crisis communication does not only point to the culprits, but also clearly defines the boundaries of legitimate criticism within an acknowledgement of possible mistakes. Those who challenge the official version of the attributed blame are automatically classified into yet another category of culprits, deserving some repressive measures.

The use of historical parallels as an element of crisis communication should be analysed separately. For example, a number of participants in talk shows and Telegram channels pointed to parallels between the retreat from Kherson and the situation in the ranks of the Soviet army in 1942. The authors of the historical comparisons concluded that only «Stalin’s tough and brutal decisions in 1942 turned the course of the war in our favour.» This comparison, on the one hand, takes the country’s first person out of the range of culprits and, on the other hand, suggests that the leader’s ‘iron hand’ should become the solution to the crisis.

Moreover, crisis communication seeks to control the frustration triggered by the crisis and to channel protest-oriented aggression towards targets that are less risky politically. For example, the protests of the wives of the mobilised men were, in most cases, not about the fact of mobilisation as such, but about the lack of equipment for those mobilised. In this case, the protests were targeted at military enlistment offices or specific military units. Moreover, the protest-oriented energy was channelled into supporting the mobilised men, through fundraising and buying what they lacked.

Crisis communication related to the retreat from Kherson smoothly morphed into propaganda, reiterating the need for continued ‘special military operation’. The retreat from Kherson challenged the sense of this war for many Russians who had been the target audience of Russian propaganda. The sense had to be restored. In this light, the rhetoric started to emphasise the existential role of the conflict, pointing out that the West received a «historic chance to finish Russia off» and «there is no choice since we are obliged to win.» The crisis was also used as an indicator that «it is necessary to prepare for a long war,» i.e. to convince the target audience that they should be prepared to pay an even higher price in the future.

Thus, in the context of crisis communication, propaganda can only maintain its effectiveness by raising the stakes. This kind of integration of crisis communication and propaganda leads to the birth of a new genre, namely crisis propaganda, which aims not only to protect the country’s leaders from criticism, but also build a new legitimacy for the continued war.

The risks of crisis propaganda

Ever since Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia’s history could be viewed through attempts at crisis management. Starting with the Kursk submarine tragedy, the Kremlin tried to control the crisis mainly through sanctions on journalists and increased media regulation. The current crisis happened in a situation where all media outlets within the country were under complete control and new laws had permitted all repressions against those who go against the Kremlin’s narrative.

On the one hand, this should have make it easier to manage and control information flows during the crisis. On the other, this total control was the reason why the pre-crisis information picture was completely subordinated to the logic of propaganda, which disrupted the feedback mechanisms, intensified the effect of the crisis that ensued and complicated the tasks faced by crisis communicators. In fact, increased control over the media increases the risks associated with the aftermath of a crisis.

In this case, crisis communication made a forced correction, but since it operates within the existing logic of war coverage, its main task is to create an information field for a new wave of propaganda. Thus, the propagandists turn into the mythical creature of Ouroboros, i.e. a serpent that eats itself. It is both the creator and the consumer of the new information reality, locking itself inside an isolated system. With each crisis, the serpent’s tail gets ever deeper into its mouth, approaching the point where self-absorption will lead to the annihilation of the one who absorbs.

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