Kremlin propaganda dilutes individual acts of defiance over Ukraine

Natalia Antelava


You may have seen the video: a woman stands in the middle of Moscow’s Red Square holding up a piece of paper the size of a cigarette packet. It reads, “two words.” She looks nervous. “Will they arrest me?” she asks the person behind the camera. The answer comes seconds later, as six policemen in riot gear swoop into the shot, dragging the woman away towards police vans parked in the distance. 

The “two words” on the woman’s tiny plaque is a reference to what Vladimir Putin doesn’t want any Russian to utter: “Nyet Voine,” or “No to War.” Calling the war in Ukraine anything but a “special operation” is now a crime in Russia, punishable by up to fifteen years in prison. And it is what happens next in that video that reveals the level of hysteria that has taken over Putin’s Russia.

As the first woman is dragged away, another walks into the shot. She begins to express her support for the war and for Putin, but before she even forms a sentence more police appear in the shot and drag her away too. 

Videos like this, or that of Marina Ovsyannikova, a state TV employee who held up a “No to War” sign behind a presenter while live on air, are going viral, taking over headlines in the West. We find ourselves captivated by individual acts of defiance coming out of Russia. Can they add just enough pressure to Ukraine’s collective resistance to make a difference in this war?

It’s a legitimate question, says Vasily Gatov, a Russian media analyst and senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center. After all, Marx once said individual acts of defiance can be the “locomotives of history.” Modern political scientists call it “the Bouazizi effect” after a Tunisian grocer whose suicide by self-immolation in 2010 sparked protests and overthrew a seemingly stable regime in a matter of days.

“Small protests that are coupled with concealed, repressed anger and a sense of injustice have tremendous explosive power in some conditions,” Gatov says. “I am not sure Russia is ready for that, but who knows.”

Putin is not taking any chances. Despite the sanctions that are beginning to bite and the dismal performance of the Russian military, with social media platforms out of Russia and all alternative sources of information banned, this week the Kremlin’s propaganda machine found itself mightier than ever. 

“The power of totalitarian propaganda is nested in monopoly to reach the masses. The message itself is not that crucial,” says Gatov.

But the optics are. And Vladimir Putin as seen by the Russians this week was the opposite of the Putin portrayed in Western media: a weak, slightly deranged leader who might be bumped off by someone from his inner circle.

Instead, millions of Russians saw a calm, confident, reasonable leader who lamented the fact that the West did not give him “an opportunity to solve this crisis in any other way” and comforted Russians about the consequences of Western sanctions: “We have lived with their sanctions before, it is a challenge we will rise to now.”

Speaking to his generals on a video call, he ordered them to make a plan to strengthen and protect Russia’s Western borders in light of NATO military build up and thanked Russians for their understanding of the war of “liberation” he was fighting in Ukraine. 

It’s working. “I don’t agree with this war, but we have to defend ourselves somehow,” an old acquaintance, a 58-year-old Muscovite, told me on a call this week. Tamara, who did not want me to use her last name said she was not “a fan of his [Putin], I really am not, but he talks a lot of sense. He is very reasonable.”  

After 14 hours of interrogation, Marina Ovsyannikova, the Russian state TV journalist who held up the “Stop the war” sign while live on air, said: “I am now very ashamed. Ashamed that I helped to zombify the Russian people.” A news editor, Ovsyannikova became an international celebrity overnight, posted a message on her Instagram calling on people to “go out and protest. They can’t arrest us all.”

But the very propaganda Ovsyannikova has helped to create on her state TV news program undermined her apparent courage and her message. Many pro-Ukraine voices were quick to dismiss her act of defiance as part of Kremlin propaganda to show that there is still opposition in Russia. Why else, many asked she was only fined? (The answer is actually because she was fined for her Instagram post; the investigation into her TV appearance is ongoing and she could still face three to fifteen years in prison). Tamara, my Moscow acquaintance, also shrugged off Ovsyannikova’s rebellion. “She clearly has been planted,” she said. 

The doubt and moral duplicity that the Kremlin propaganda has nurtured for years may not save Putin in the long term, but for now it is buying him time by diluting the “Bouazizi Effect” of individual acts of defiance.


Abductions: Oleh Baturin, a journalist in the Russian-occupied Kherson region, went out and never came back. Ivan Fedorov, mayor of Melitopol was whisked away from a government building with a plastic bag over his head (he has since been rescued in a special operation). A priest in Russian-occupied Berdyansk was abducted the same week and is still missing. The list goes on: reports of house searches and abductions across Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine are growing by the day. The exact numbers are unclear. Coda’s Masho Lomashvili has counted 21 confirmed examples of abductions but activists and government sources tell us numbers could already be in hundreds and that the trend is intensifying.

Mercenaries: The Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu says that while the West is “sending thousands of mercenaries to Ukraine,” Russia has received 16,000 applications from volunteer fighters, mostly from the Middle East, who would like to fight on the Russian side. “We know many of them from our fight against ISIS, and they want to come and fight without being compensated,” Shoigu informed Vladimir Putin on their televised call this week. “If they would like to come and help the people of Donbas, especially without being paid, we should help them to get to Ukraine,” Putin said in response. Meanwhile, BBC Russian has dug up some incredible details on how Russia is recruiting mercenaries by targeting criminal groups, people with large bank debts and without international passports.

Putin’s Friends: “We’ll find new partners,” Vladimir Putin told Russians in a televised call with his cabinet this week. China is the big one; Putin has even asked Beijing for military assistance, but Coda’s Mariam Kiparoidze has been tracking the less obvious ones. Several of them are in Central Asia, where governments, heavily dependent on economic ties with Russia, are calling for peace and resolution without using the word ”war.” Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have allowed some anti-war rallies, but later in Bishkek authorities banned pro-Ukraine protests in front of the Russian embassy and government offices and Kazakh authorities raided the home of an activist who organized pro-Kyiv demonstrations. Uzbekistan pressured reporters and bloggers to “maintain neutrality.” And, further in Asia, authorities in Vietnam stopped several pro-democracy supporters from attending an event in Hanoi in support of Ukraine.

New Conspiracy Theory: Coda’s Isobel Cockerell spotted in Twitter’s QAnon underbelly that Q adherents say Trump’s idiosyncratic pronunciation of China (“Chy-na”) is actually — brace yourself — a secret message about Ukraine. They discovered several places in Ukraine that have the suffix “chyna,” such as Troieshchyna and Shpyl’chyna. They connected this with Trump saying “China would pay a big price” for spreading Covid, and believed they had uncovered a secret code that Covid-19 began in Ukraine. Absurdly, this has had a lot of traction, even though QAnon has officially been banned from Twitter. “We’re seeing the QAnon accounts embrace the Trumpist legacy of suspicion of Ukraine — tapping into the idea that the U.S. government is complicit in some shady goings on,” disinformation researcher Marc Owen Jones told us. “I don’t actually know if this trend is that marginal. This conveniently also exonerates Russia.”

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.