Russia’s propaganda strategies have long been presented ubiquitously through many Russian media outlets. The space for objective information has always been rather narrow. With the starting of the invasion of Ukraine, the relatively objective Russian media were banned and the only source of information has become the strict line of politically correct media, which are often state-owned. This was a radical change from the pre-war situation when a wider range of information was tolerated. The boundaries of acceptability have narrowed since the beginning of the invasion.
For the US and European countries, it is crucial to secure the political approval of society and the subsequent support of legitimization of military act. In defining position for Ukraine and against the ongoing war, the sphere of (mis-)information has particularly strong political and economic implications within Central Europe.
Propaganda and the Enemy Perception
Propaganda in Russia has certain categorical features that allow it to present enemy countries as metaphorical enemies. The Kremlin pursues this strategy by influencing the media, distorting historical facts, spreading disinformation, constructing an image of the enemy and defining itself against other actors in terms of political and cultural differences. Echoing James A.C. Brown’s work (1963), still valid nowadays and followed by many other researchers stated, Russian propaganda resembles the strategies through which public opinion can be controlled and changed via communication and political propaganda. It can be predominantly categorised as ‘white propaganda’, which indicates an effort to make communication directed at society appear objective and presented by an easily identifiable and well-known source (Jowett, O´Donell, 2006:17). Propagandist information nowadays reaches its recipients through television, radio, newspapers, internet sources, social media, or the statements of local political leaders themselves. White propaganda is the most used way of disseminating this information in Russia.
The creation of an enemy perception is one of the most important elements of Russian propaganda against other actors. Through the construction of the enemy, it is possible to cement a society’s opinion toward a specific goal on the basis of fear and emotion. A key element in creating the perception of the enemy is the fact that the rival, in this case, NATO, poses a long-term existential threat. The enemy perception has several successive phases that are indoctrinated into society. At the beginning of the formation of this construction, there is typically an “us vs. them” delineation, whereby the lone, in this situation Russia, the subject has been excluded from the international community and others have aligned themselves against it (Vuorinen, 2012:2). In the secondary phase, it is necessary to instil in society a notion that the opponent poses a long-term threat. The threat in this situation is NATO, meanwhile, Ukraine is presented only as a western tool to imperil Russia. To achieve the perception of a long-term threat, Russia uses distortions of historical facts, and religious themes, highlighting different views, and presenting hostile ideas as evil and untrustworthy (Vuorinen, 2012:2). At the end of this phase, still ongoing in the Ukrainian war, the opponent, yet again NATO, is a completely inverted image of the actor constructing the enemy’s perception. In the last phase, the enemy is already presented as an impending threat that will have to be countered in some way. Against the approaching threat, it is possible to strengthen the defensive structures or to launch an attack. After the successive phases of enemy construction, any action against the enemy seems rational and legitimate for society. Launching an attack in the event of war in Ukraine was presented as necessary to ensure Russia’s security, as the constant threat of physical proximity to NATO is unacceptable.
Elements of dehumanization or demonization of the enemy can often be seen in Russian war propaganda. These elements try to present to society that the enemy and its population have no human factor. If the state commits killing, society does not perceive it as killing of “worthy” people. Typical example of dehumanisation is Vladimir Putin’s statement at the beginning of the invasion, where he claims that the Ukrainian government is just a bunch of drug addicts and neo-Nazis (Epstein, Haltiwanger, 2022). The demonization of the enemy is often linked to religious themes. In this case, the enemy is described as an entity whose elimination is in the divine interest and whose tolerance is not religiously permissible. In addition to dehumanization, Vladimir Putin often uses more radical demonization of the enemy in his statements. A typical statement of this type is the declaration of holy war against Western Satanism (Rettman, 2022). These statements are perceived as completely irrational in European countries.
Legitimizing military actions and its impact on Central Europe
Through the aforementioned propaganda strategies, Russia is now legitimizing its military action in the invasion of Ukraine. Central and Eastern European states, which have historical experience with Russia and are still influenced by its past presence in some areas. These states are also targets of the spread of Russian influence. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, it was immediately clear that some Central and Eastern European states wanted to push back harder against Russia. Poland has declared that it is necessary to strengthen anti-Russian sanctions, as this attack on Ukraine’s territorial integrity is already a threat to the national security of neighbouring states. The reactions of the other Central European states were very different, most notably in the V4 states, where the difference in reaction was quite unexpected. Slovakia only quietly condemned the annexation, while strong pro-Russian voices were heard, for example, from the Czech Republic or Hungary (Sydoruk, Tyshchenko, 2018:83). In contrast, the reaction to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine was united and strongly condemning the Russian move. For those states that did not act in unison in 2014 and were unsure about condemning the Russian annexation, it was evident that they wanted and would act in a united and highly critical manner against the February invasion.
The impact of Russian influence on Europe is primarily political, economic and energetic. Political ties to the Russian Federation are still evident in European post-communist states. Large-scale investment flows from Russia into these countries, which reinforces political ties. In terms of energetics, the dependence on central Europe was undeniable. The Czech Republic, together with Latvia, was 100 % dependent on Russian gas, followed by countries such as Hungary and Slovakia, which were dependent on approximately 80 % (E15, 2022). These rates made them the most energy-dependent states in Russia.
Energy links were also very evident in Germany, to which gas was distributed via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. The new Nord Stream 2 pipeline was also well known among the media, but was not put into operation due to the invasion of Ukraine. Energy played a crucial role in the policy against Germany. Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared that he was already aware that Russia would use its energy resources as a weapon (The Economist, 2022). For Russia, increasing Germany’s energy dependence was important if only because the country has the strongest economy in Europe. On the other hand, Austria, as another central European state, only minimally sourced energy resources from Russia, which also reduced its political dependence on this actor. Energy dependence was one of the key elements of Russia’s influence on many central European countries, and the leaders of these states were firmly tied to Russia precisely because of this dependence. The unity of the European Union has resolved this situation rather quickly, imposing an embargo of 90 % of Russian oil since December 2022 (European Council, undated). The date for the start of the embargo on Russian gas has not yet been completely set, but the energy dependence of Central European countries has already fallen drastically.
Cyberspace information spread
One of the newer ways of spreading Russian influence is through cyberspace and the support of pro-Russian newspapers and other information sources. Since the start of the war on Ukraine, the number of cyber-attacks against, for example, government websites of countries that have condemned Russia and its invasion has increased. Among the most common are DDoS attacks, which cause the collapse of important servers. However, according to governments, security forces usually resist most of these attacks (Van Sant, Goujard, 2022). Cyberattacks aim not only to bring down data servers but to get access to secret security information. The chain of emails with pro-Russian attitudes were also an important part of it. Also, the readership of pro-Kremlin newspapers, which addressed a section of the citizens of the central European countries, most often with the theme of their undeniable dependence on Russia, which is impossible to do without, has increased. In 2019, the Political Capital institute conducted research on online communications related to Russia in three countries, including Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Of the online communications analysed, Slovakia came out with the highest number of pro-Russian sentiments at 28 %, and both the Czech Republic along with Hungary had approximately 23 % (Political Capital, 2019). It is important to note that the majority of the population was already anti-Russian, with the greatest decline in pro-Russian sentiment in these countries estimated to have occurred in individual historical incidents at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century. In Hungary, this was the violent suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. In former Czechoslovakia, this moment was the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops in 1968. According to estimates, these pro-Russian voices have begun to decline again since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. Currently, the strongest political actor with a pro-Eastern policy and strong signs of Euroscepticism is the Fidezs political party led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Russia has many propaganda and information strategies to achieve its goals in war and foreign policy. The most widely used are those that include spreading disinformation, distorting historical facts, perceiving the enemy, spreading fear and increasing its influence through the export of energy resources. Another method used to spread Russian influence is financial support for Russian-oriented media and individuals who spread pro-Kremlin sentiments in the societies of other countries.
The theme of Russian influence on Central Europe is an element with a long historical anchorage. The long-term trend of pro-Russian sentiment across the population is gradually declining. The annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea in 2014 was an important point in this development. Since this event, some European leaders have begun to worry about an increase in expansionist policies, but they have still not been unanimous on this point. The biggest contradictions were seen in the V4 countries, of which Poland strongly condemned the invasion, and Slovakia also very quietly, while in the Czech Republic and Hungary, the attitude was still pro-Russian. When the invasion of Ukraine took place in February 2022, the voices of European states were already united and unequivocally condemned this act of aggression. The only dubious actor left is Hungary, which does not want to completely abandon its pro-Eastern policy, possibly because of the financial benefits of energy supplies from Russia.
The issue of Russia’s influence on Germany was primarily about ways of increasing energy dependence, for example through the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines. This energy dependence has certainly increased political influence in Germany. In Austria, the situation was not so critical, as the country took minimal resources from Russia. It is evident that Russian influence in Central Europe has declined rapidly since the invasion of Ukraine, both in terms of energy and political influence. It can be assumed that this influence will continue to wane as the current situation progresses.
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Written by Ondřej Prágr