RT’s propaganda on Ukraine is old-school Soviet to a fault

YouTube has supposedly blocked the network formerly known as “Russia Today” throughout Europe. But as of this morning, I was still able to livestream it in the United States. I don’t recommend it, but I spent a few hours watching in the background, just curious about what sort of story it would be telling right now.

I first read about the Soviets’ aptitude for and mastery of the skill of information warfare in the works of dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. I can see how, for someone lacking other sources of information, such a bombardment of propaganda can be persuasive. And to apply a very Soviet twist to this, I believe it gets more persuasive the bigger the lies get.

The main problem with this genre of propaganda, and the reason I don’t think it works very well in modern times, is that it falls apart when you have too many outside sources of information. It’s not that people are forced to believe those other stories; It’s just that it takes a lot of work to make a false story seem consistent enough to be plausible. The more context the viewer has, the more work it takes to hold up the edifice. Eventually, the lies become impossible to prop up.

Interspersed amid news reports, RT’s broadcasts today have included a documentary about military activity in the pretended Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics — fictitious countries that Russia just officially recognized in order to justify its military invasion.

Russian regulars have now entered not only into those areas but also into the rest of Ukraine. But actually, the Russians have been militarily involved in this particular area since 2014, through proxies disguised as a local, organic rebellion against Ukrainian authorities. It just happens that this local rebellion, using leaders, equipment, and volunteers from across the border in Russia, sprang up spontaneously just when Russia was annexing Crimea in 2014. Go figure. They even used a Russian missile to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, murdering hundreds of innocent foreigners who had no connection to their conflict.

RT’s explanation for the events leading up to the current “Russian special military operation” not only runs contrary to everything you know to be true, but it’s also internally hard to believe. Janus Putkonen, an infamous Finnish propagandist for Vladimir Putin, tells the camera with a straight face that Ukrainians fighting in eastern Ukraine — many of them “Nazis,” of course — “were promised slaves and land from Donbas” for fighting. Slaves and land? Who knew that the third century BC pay package was still standard in that part of the world?

The documentary interviews several people who are represented as local civilians — and who knows, maybe some of them actually are. Assuming the translations can be trusted, they talk about the situation there as if the Ukrainian military has spent the last eight years indiscriminately shelling their villages and towns and factories on a near-daily basis. An elderly interviewee refers back to the beginning of the local troubles with a remark about “eight years after Ukraine began shelling,” as if it had been this, not a Russian invasion, that started the whole thing.

My first reaction is that these people should consider moving — it took a lot less than eight years of shelling for me to get out of Washington, DC But seriously, as you watch people discuss this, you begin to wonder what in the world Ukraine could be trying to accomplish if it has nothing better to do than bomb old people for eight years. (Also, how is your house still there after eight years? Is their aim really that bad?)

One girl, apparently about 14 or 15 years old, talks about having her school bus fired upon with artillery and describes the flying shells as “red,” which leads me to conclude that people in Eastern Ukraine are blessed with incredible eyesight. All I ever see when shells land is a cloud of dirt and debris.

Anyway, as evidence of further Ukrainian perfidy, the RT propaganda film shows dozens of decrepit homes — it’s anyone’s guess who destroyed them or whether they weren’t just abandoned decades ago. It also refers to “destroyed schools” while showing drone footage of large, decrepit buildings that lack the smoke, fresh rubble, and disrupted vegetation one would expect from recent explosions. For all the viewer knows, those buildings have been sitting there abandoned since the late Soviet era.

Amid its news reports, RT also repeats the Russians’ claim that they are attacking “psychological warfare centers … in order to suppress information attacks on Russia.” This appears to be a catch-all excuse for Russia’s obvious, indiscriminate shelling of random civilian targets. Bombed a shopping mall? Must have been a secret psychological warfare base.

And where Russia’s obvious shelling of civilian residences has been caught on camera, as in Kharkiv, the RT broadcast repeats a Russian claim that “Ukraine is positioning forces in apartment buildings.” I have to say, that seems like a pretty awful tactical decision about troop placement. Who made that decision? Must have been the same guy who decided to position troops at the Holocaust Memorial that Russia just bombed today. Right?

In order to believe RT, I am at least required to accept that a genocide has been occurring in this part of Europe for eight years and no one has lifted a finger. On its own, I would be willing to believe such a thing. However, it becomes a lot harder when you consider how other countries get away with and cover up genocide. China, for example, has a veto vote in the United Nations, and that’s why there will never be UN intervention into its long-running genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. So, then, how exactly is little Ukraine keeping a decade of genocide from the world’s eye? And how is Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, so completely powerless to make this supposed genocide an issue? Or would they rather not invite international attention into the region, given that their entire story is a lie?

Finally, even if you think the US government is the devil and Joe Biden is somehow doing this for a payout, then why is pretty much every European government, running the ideological gamut from French technocrats to German socialists to British Tories to Polish Catholic nationalists, taking the Ukrainians’ side here? It is actually a pretty expensive stance to take for most European countries, considering how much money Russian oligarchs launder through foreign banks and the purchase of foreign real estate.

Finally, we’re also supposed to believe that Ukraine is swarming with marauding Nazis. This is one of Putin’s justifications for the invasion — and yes, invoking the Nazis and calling opponents fascists is one of the oldest propaganda tricks in the Soviet book, dating back to when they were fighting actual Nazis and fascists. But is Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, supposed to be a crypto-Nazi? Are Jewish Nazis a thing now? Could such a hotbed of Nazi fanaticism elect a Jewish president in the first place? Or is that just part of the insidious nature of systemic racism — that it’s invisible, but it’s everywhere all at the same time? In order to accept the premises, you have to buy into some all-European version of critical race theory that sounds almost as sophomoric as the real thing.

The propaganda is clever, insofar as it goes really big with its lies. In the old Soviet style, it doesn’t just twist the truth — it tries to make you doubt everything you know. But the Russians are working from a very old playbook that clearly needs an update. This is not the “deep fake” deception of the future — fortunately, we’re not there yet.