Russian deception and denial of war in Ukraine
Narratives about the war in #Ukraine inside #Russia are very much different than in most of the world – as a matter of fact, most Russians are expected to believe the full-scale invasion is merely a “special military operation” and legally banned from referring to it as “war”.
Russians are also expected to accept ever changing objectives of the war (as demonstrated in my article On the Kremlin's ideas of “denazification” and “Russophobia”), and generally frequently changing frame of reference seems to be the new standard of political thinking in Russia these days. This is an “old new”, as it bears strong resemblance to Soviet “dialectical thinking” (see Marxist dialectics as a instrument of self-delusion for details).
For the sake of a discussion with a friend inside Russia, who plainly rejected any idea that Putin's narrative about the war has actually changed, I have compiled a list of official statements from the period preceding the war, and early into it.
“Speaking of invasion just makes everyone nervous”
First suggestions that Russia may be preparing an invasion into Ukraine appeared in October-November 2021 based on unusual concentration of armed forces right on Ukraine's border with Russia and Belarus. These were interpreted by most experts as an intimidation campaign, even as US and EU intelligence insisted that Russia plans actual invasion. Russian officials of course denied any such suggestions:
Ministry of Internal Affairs [of Russia] called US announcements about Russian army amassed at the Ukraine's border “a campaign of fakes” (3 November 2021, lenta.ru) В МИД назвали заявления США о войсках России у границ Украины фейковой кампанией
Kremlin dismissed data of risk of armed invasion into Ukraine as “empty threats” (12 November 2021, rbc.ru) В Кремле сочли пустым нагнетанием данные о риске вторжения на Украину
Putin: “Look, they've been talking about possible entry of Russian troops into Ukraine since the beginning of the year – as we conducted “Zapad-2021” exercises – but that never happened” (30 November 2021, kremlin.ru) Путин: “Смотрите, о возможном вводе российских войск на Украину говорили еще в начале года – мы проводили учения “Запад-2021” – но, как видим, этого не случилось”.
Please note these are exclusively official statements, which tend to be rather balanced in wording and tone, while state media were in full spin of sarcasm and literally laughing off these concerns. The campaign of denial continues, in spite of increased concentration of Russian troops on the border:
Remember history: Peskov of possibility of the war. Russia never invaded anyone first (26 December 2021, vesti.ru) Вспомните историю: Песков о возможности войны. Россия никогда первой ни на кого не нападала.
Lavrov: You claim we are planning to invade Ukraine, even though we explained many times that it's not true. (21 January 2022, youtube.com) Лавров: “Вы утверждаете, что мы собираемся напасть на Украину, хотя мы уже многократно объясняли, что это не так.”
“Our own troops on our own territory”
The denial continues in February 2022, weeks and then literally days before the fatal date of 24 February.
Putin: Movement of our own troops on our own, I want to reiterate, our own territory, is being presented as a threat of Russian invasion – in this case, into Ukraine. Allegedly this also threatens the Baltics and other countries who are our neighbours. On what basis – it's unclear. (8 February 2022, kremlin.ru) Путин: “Передвижение наших войск по собственной, хочу подчеркнуть, территории представляется как угроза российского вторжения – в данном случае на Украину. Якобы в опасности себя чувствуют и страны Прибалтики, и другие государства – наши соседи. На каком основании – не очень понятно”
Please note the “movement of our own troops on our own territory” argument, as it was used by top Russian for a number of times, for example in December 2021 (interfax.ru) and February 2022 (iz.ru). In the latter Dmitry Peskov said:
We are not ready, and we will not accept complaints about how we move troops on our own territory. This is our sovereign right, and we are not intending to discuss that with anyone. Мы не готовы и не будем воспринимать претензии относительно того, как мы перемещаем Вооруженные силы на территории нашей страны. Это наше суверенное право, и мы не намерены его ни с кем обсуждать.
This argument is important as the whole narrative of “Russia feeling threatened” that was widely discussed in 2021 was based specifically on actual or imaginary movement of armed forces of Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe. Russia clearly did not grant other countries the same “sovereign right” as it reserved for its own military, and unfortunately many Russia's friends in the West empathically accepted that logic.
Days before the invasion top Russian officials switch between the “none of your business” and “haha what invasion” narratives:
“So what, invasion doesn't happen?” – Lavrov smirked on insisting journalist's question (15 February 2022, pravda.ru) “Так что, вторжения не будет?” — Лавров ответил мимикой настырному журналисту
Putin: We believe, and I want to highlight this, that all disputes will be resolved in the course of negotiations between current Kiev authorities and leadership of these republics (22 February 2022, kremlin.ru) Путин: “Мы рассчитываем, и я хочу это подчеркнуть, что все спорные вопросы будут разрешены в ходе переговоров между киевскими сегодняшними властями и руководством этих республик”
The last comment was published a day after Putin voiced Russia's recognition of “LNR” and “DNR” as independent states, and two days before the armed invasion. For all that period an intensive artillery shelling continued in Donbass, which war presented by Russia as coming from Ukraine into the Russia-occupied territory. However, OSCE Special Monitoring Mission painted a completely different picture for that period:
- complete withdrawal of artillery from the frontline on the Ukrainian side, as required by previous ceasefires, with cannons physically confirmed by the SMM to be in storage;
- lack of withdrawal of artillery units on the Russian side, with cannons physically seen in field and firing;
- numerous civilian casualties and buildings destroyed on the Ukrainian side as result of incoming artillery fire;
Russian officials and media therefore presented a completely inverted picture of the reality on the Donbass frontline, presenting Ukraine as violating ceasefires, while it was the Russian side that continuously shelled the Ukrainian side throughout the period directly preceding the invasion. In Russia however, this didn't matter as OSCE is widely presented as “biased”, even though Russia is member of the SMM and frequently used its influence to soften the reports from Donbass.
A number of border provocations also happened during that week and were widely covered in Russian media with the intention of amassing popular anger of the “Ukrainian escalation”. Ukrainian and Russian military experts being rather uniformly critical of the sloppiness of these provocations did not matter, as they were intended for popular audience that seems to be completely devoid of any critical thinking skills.
“We are not occupying anyone”
Finally, in his speech on the day of the invasion Putin said clearly:
Our plans do not include occupation of Ukrainian territory – we are not imposing anything to anyone by force (24 February 2022, youtube.com) Путин: “При этом в наши планы не входит оккупация украинских территорий. Мы никому и ничего не собираемся навязывать силой”
This statement can be confronted with May and June announcements of creation of “Kherson People's Republic” on the occupied territories in the south of Ukraine, and its planned annexation into Russia. And it's important, since Kherson area was never before occupied by Russia, unlike Donbass, formally recognized as “LNR” and “DNR” by Putin.
Such statements can be used to point out Putin breaking his own promises or change of plans, but in reality they will cause zero consternation inside Russia. Russian audience is fully conditioned to accept any change of plans and breaking of any earlier promises, be it about pension age or invasion of other countries.
Conclusions that can be drawn from the analysis of Russian communications in the period preceding the war:
- Russian statements, demands and declarations have little value in terms of predicting or correlating with Russian actions. Detailed analysis of Russian officials' wording, tone and “reading between the lines” is a pointless exercise. Therefore, as of June 2022, any statements of Russia on annexing or not annexing specific territories, or allowing specific goods to be exported, or humanitarian corridors, cannot be taken at their face value.
- The best predictor of Russian actions are Russian position on the ground and intelligence on its planned actions. If Russia cannot physically annex a territory due to its inability to exercise military control, it won't. If Russia can do it, whether it will depends on its internal costs-and-benefits analysis, which may be however based on biased premises or perceptions.
You may also want to see the whole 2022 compilation of quotes by Pshenichny.