Justifying the Unjustifiable: How Russian Media Frames the Ukrainian Invasion

By Courtney Weigal

The invasion of Ukraine has received worldwide condemnation. Even in countries that have not condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, such as India, hundreds continue to protest to show solidarity with Ukraine. This condemnation is not uncalled for. It is hard to not condemn infringement on a country’s sovereignty and the massacre of thousands of innocent civilians. Thousands of Russian citizens have protested these attacks, which has resulted in an increasing number of them being jailed. Most Russian citizens, especially young people, do not listen to state media, but get their news from Meduza and Telegram. However, older people tend to listen to state media, and Russia Today (RT) has a substantial following abroad. So what exactly is the Russian government telling its citizens to explain this blatant act of aggression? This question can only be answered after reading Russian media and talking to Russian citizens. 

First of all, the Russian government has been very selective in its use of terminology. Russian state media refuse to call the attacks on Ukraine a war or an invasion. In nearly every story from TASS to Interfax, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is referred to as a “специальная военная операция” or a “special military operation”. Sometimes this is shortened to simply “military operation”. This term is used repeatedly and what exactly is being conducted is never defined in detail. Battles are referred to as clashes against citizens. If the endeavor is referred to as a “war”, “assault”, or “invasion”, it is deleted

How does the Russian media frame the reported attacks on civilians? Russian Minister of Defense, Sergey Shoygu, claims that the Ukrainians are using civilians as “human shields” by placing rocket launching systems, guns, and large-caliber mortars in the yards of residential buildings, schools, and kindergartens. When asked when Russian troops would leave Ukraine, Shoygu responded vaguely when “the goals have been completed.” 

The main justification circulating amongst the media is that the US and NATO are behind everything. Most televised Russian news claim that if Russia does not win in Ukraine, the US and NATO will attack Russia. According to Shoygu, “It is most important for us to protect the Russian Federation from military threats created by Western countries, who are trying to use the Ukrainian people in the fight against our country.” Russia always points to NATO as the primary aggressor, conveniently leaving out Russia’s previous actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Some media go as far as to call this a proxy war, with one RT reporter claiming that “Ukraine is fighting and dying for the US, not their own independence.”

Russia has also made some progress in gaining international sympathy. While most nations have severely restricted media outlets backed by the Russian government, such as Russia Today, many right-wing conservatives in the West see this as a “suppression of freedom of speech” instead of an elimination of propaganda. RT, like right-wing American news outlets, has taken the mask of the poor, suppressed alternative media standing up against the American government. They market themselves as being for the people, against censorship, and frame their propaganda as the truth hidden by Western media. Russian media attracts right-wing Americans further by reporting every minute flaw in Western and US officials to ridicule and delegitimize them. 

English-speaking Russian propaganda will often detract from the situation in Ukraine by bringing up other conflicts and comparing them to either justify or minimize Russia’s actions. These outlets will discuss America’s role in Iraq, Vietnam, and South America, pointing out its hypocrisy as if these situations justify what Russia is doing now and further presupposes that Ukraine is a Russian puppet. These media outlets frequently bring up America’s Cold War endeavors, while simultaneously ignoring the Soviet Union’s equally imperialistic actions during the time. Another conflict used to divert attention away from Ukraine is the Israel-Palestine conflict, with Russian media almost universally taking an anti-Israel stance. While these conflicts are still relevant and should not be forgotten, they are brought up specifically to detract from atrocities currently taking place in Ukraine, and are not an excuse for the mass bombardment of cities and the murder of civilians in Kharkiv and Mariupol today. 

Finally, Russian media aims to garner sympathy by framing the conflict as a fight against terrorist and neo-Nazi groups. Putin’s declaration of war on Ukraine emphasized the need for the “denazification and demilitarization” of Ukraine. Attacks on civilians and cities in Donbass are highlighted as evidence of Ukrainian aggression. On-the-ground reporting of conflicts is primarily focused on Donbass, with the occasional Kyiv reporting. The reporting of Western Ukrainian areas is very simple, giving the illusion of an unbiased news organization. However, these reports are a few seconds long and say nothing incriminatory about Russia. Russian media puts emphasis on groups like Azov, a controversial militant group that arose after the invasion of Crimea in 2014. The group is notorious for its neo-nazi members and controversial rhetoric and symbolism, but they are currently lauded as heroes, as they are a major tool in fighting against Russia. However, the group came to be and gained influence because of Putin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Therefore, it was Putin himself that “nazified and militarized” Ukraine. 

While Russian state media may not be fooling everyday Russians, those in the West are more vulnerable to Putin’s propaganda. Americans are especially vulnerable due to their country’s past with controversial wars in Iraq and Vietnam. Therefore, some Americans see American condemnation of Russia as hypocrisy. Banning Russian media outlets only makes them more attractive to right-wing skeptics. Therefore, if the West wants to win the media war, new tactics need to be implemented. Perhaps explaining why this propaganda is so dangerous, requiring Russian state media to be labelled as such, or requiring media with overwhelmingly opinionated coverage to be labelled as “opinion pieces.”

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