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Why Russia doesn't need its lies about Ukraine to be believable

The propaganda war at home is one that Vladimir Putin is actually winning.

The bodies strewn across the streets were carelessly abandoned as flotsam left by a receding tide. The images that began circulating April 1 from Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city, were the latest proof of the Russian military’s brutality.

As Russia has withdrawn its forces from outside Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine’s north and west to reconsolidate in the east, its soldiers made no effort to conceal their campaign of murder and torture. Images out of Bucha foreshadowed what’s become a daily stream of new outrages, as Ukrainians in towns no longer under Russian control began to count their dead and come to terms with the ordeal they’d survived — but so many hadn’t.

The Kremlin has been working overtime to advance a much more chilling narrative, one aimed at persuading people not to believe their eyes.

I’d assumed photos and videos documenting the atrocities would be censored in Russia, that President Vladimir Putin’s regime would pretend the video doesn’t exist rather than confront the magnitude of its crimes. Because how could Russia let its people see the graphic evidence that soldiers fighting in their name had executed civilians whose hands were bound and left their corpses littering the road?

I was wrong. Rather than hide the images from the Russian people, the government has been working overtime to advance a much more chilling narrative, one aimed at persuading people not to believe their eyes. That has involved telling the masses that two seemingly contradictory ideas are true: that the images out of Kyiv are fake and that they’re also the result of Ukrainian atrocities carried out against their own people. And all evidence so far suggests that the plan is succeeding.

On state media, anchors and columnists declared that the videos out of the Kyiv suburb were complete fabrications. “Among the first [videos] to appear were these Ukrainian shots, which show how a soulless body suddenly moves its hand,” Russia-1’s evening news claimed last Monday, according to The Associated Press. “And in the rearview mirror it is noticeable that the dead seem to be starting to rise even.”

Other state organs instead said the killings were real — but were actually carried out by the Ukrainian armed forces after the Russians had already left town. The ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs both declared that the massacre was “another hoax by the Kyiv regime for the Western media.” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zahkanova claimed in a Telegram post that Ukraine’s goal was the “disruption of peace negotiations and the escalation of violence.”

The idea that the bodies seen in Bucha had been carefully staged for Western audiences was quickly disproved. The New York Times and the BBC have confirmed that the corpses seen April 1 had been visible from satellite imagery from two weeks earlier, when Russia controlled the city. German intelligence has also reportedly intercepted Russian radio communications of soldiers describing indiscriminate killing of civilians.

Communal workers carry body bags to a van following Russian shelling of the town of Bucha, near Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 3, 2022.
Communal workers carry body bags to a van following Russian shelling of the town of Bucha, near Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 3.Sergei Supinsky / AFP - Getty Images

And yet the Russian disinformation campaign carries on, warning that more “provocations” from the Ukrainians, NATO or both are yet to come. It’s a dark mirroring of American and British officials’ releasing intelligence about Russia’s plans ahead of the war to pre-emptively counter planned Russian false flag operations. In telling domestic audiences that more revelations are yet to come, the Russian government is all but acknowledging that other atrocities will become public.

Compared to traditional American propaganda efforts during wartime, there’s a level of brazenness at play from Russia that feels all the more shocking. American governments have more often relied on suppression of information in their military cover-up efforts, either via classification or through limiting access for journalists, than on the sort of easily debunked lies that Moscow is embracing. It’s as if the U.S. had claimed that the 2007 video of American helicopters firing on civilians in Baghdad, which was leaked to the public in 2010, was either fake or that the Iraqis had actually been piloting the aircraft.

More troubling is news that the efforts to shape the narrative inside Russia are working. People who have taken the propaganda to heart have “started to turn on the enemy within,” The New York Times reported, fueling “reports of students turning in teachers and people telling on their neighbors” for not sufficiently supporting the war.

Meanwhile, a recent survey from the Levada Center, one of the only independent polling firms operating inside Russia, found that Putin’s approval rating has shot up since the start of the “special military operation,” as the Kremlin calls the invasion. Denis Volkov, Levada’s director, attributed the surge in support to a belief among Russians that “everyone is against us” and that “Putin defends us, otherwise we would be eaten alive.”

Not all Russians are buying what Putin is selling. Many are busy trying to get information even as the government has all but banned foreign media outlets and Western social media and gagged the few remaining independent local journalists. Eight of the 10 most downloaded apps in Russia last month were virtual private networks, which allow users to get around internet censorship. Radio Free Europe’s “Current Time” published a video asking people across Russia about the massacre in Bucha. While many echoed the government line, several were brave enough to condemn the horrific killings.

Like the onslaught against its neighbor, Russia’s scorched-earth campaign against the truth will leave scars.

That is a stance that Putin and his loyalists can’t allow to make its way into the broader information ecosystem. The sloganeering about how the invasion is really about the defense of Russian speakers in the east will continue, even after Friday’s missile strike on a train station in the eastern city of Donestk, which killed at least 50 civilians attempting to flee the fighting.

There will come a moment when the runway runs out for the tale that Moscow is telling. The bodies of Russian soldiers are still piling up, the war has stretched on far longer than Russia intended, and it will be hard to square any possible concessions that have to be made to Kyiv with Putin’s calling Ukraine an existential threat to Russia. Until then, it’s in the Kremlin’s interest to convince Russians that they are the ones under siege: from NATO, from the West and from Ukraine. It is a battlefield where Putin holds every advantage.

Like the onslaught against its neighbor, Russia’s scorched-earth campaign against the truth will leave scars. In a way, they may cut deeper than the destruction that has been brought to bear on Ukraine’s cities and people. Buildings can be rebuilt; memorials can be raised to the dead. But what will be on offer to the people who saw the bodies in Bucha’s streets and convinced themselves they really saw a corpse move? This war for reality, at home at least, is one that Russia is winning — Pyrrhic victory that it is.