WAR IN UKRAINEResearch Exposes Long-Term Failure of Russian Propaganda in Ukraine's Donbas Region

Published 4 May 2022

A study of the propaganda that flooded Donbas for years reveals a failure to build pro-Russian “in-group” identities in the region, despite Putin’s claims of support.

A study of thousands of stories from media outlets churning out propaganda in Ukraine’s Donbas following Russia’s first invasion suggests that Kremlin disinformation has long neglected any coherent or convincing messaging to foster support for Russia in the war-torn region.

After 2014, when news media in the so-called “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk was forcibly taken over by Russian-backed insurgents, efforts to instill a pro-Russian “identity” were lazy and half-baked, and dwindled to nothing within months.

This is according to University of Cambridge researcher Dr Jon Roozenbeek, who says that – based on his analysis of over four years of media content – such limited efforts likely had little effect on the consciousness of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Donbas.

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

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

Instead of identity-building, almost the entire Russian propaganda effort relied on portraying the leadership in Kyiv as fascistic – the basis of outlandish “denazification” claims – to create what psychologists call an “outgroup” on which to focus hostility.

However, as Russia shifts its war onto Donbas, Roozenbeek cautions that it may turn to spreading Novorossiya-style propaganda narratives in the region and far beyond to justify land seizure and war atrocities, and claim that these actions are supported by local populations.

He calls for a pre-emptive global debunking – or ‘pre-bunking’ – of the notion that ideological projects such as ‘Novorossiya’ have deep roots in the region, and that the people of Donbas have ever bought into these myths.

Otherwise, he says, we risk such falsehoods taking hold in the West via pundits and politicians who tow the Kremlin line. Roozenbeek’s findings are publicly available for the first time today.

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