One Year of ‘Special Military Operation’: How the Russian Narrative Changed

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  • Iris de Graaf

    Correspondent Russia

The Russian people were not prepared for war. When the ‘special military operation’ was declared, Russia was in shock, but everyone thought it would be over in a few days. When that turned out differently, the Russian story changed constantly. And the question for many Russians is still: what is the goal?

On February 24, 2022, Putin will announce his “short, targeted military operation”. The official goals are to ‘denazify’ (ie install a new government) and ‘demilitarize’ (ie eliminate the army) Ukraine. The ‘liberation’ of the inhabitants of the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk (DNR) and Luhansk (LNR) from ‘genocide’ is also an official goal.

Russia initially expects to achieve its main goal within three days: taking Kyiv, installing a new pro-Russian government and little to no opposition from the Ukrainian army. This is evident, among other things, from an article published by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti on day 3, which was apparently planned and which explains what the “new Ukraine, returned to historical Russia” should look like. The article will be deleted in a few minutes. Because everything is different.

From that moment on, the Russian story changes. And that story must be strictly controlled: military censorship is introduced: use of the word war is banned and punished with prison sentences of up to fifteen years, just like “discrediting” the army and sharing “fake news”. All independent media are banned and journalists leave the country.

A month after the raid, the Defense Department says the goals of the “first phase of the special operation” have been achieved. The words demilitarization and denazification gradually recede into the background, giving way to “liberation of the entire Donbas”. Increasingly, “to protect the Donbas and Russia’s sovereignty” is cited as the primary reason for the raid. And Putin repeatedly argues: we had no choice, we were forced.

In the summer, most of the outspoken Russians have left the country or are detained after arrests for taking part in the anti-war protests. Daily life goes on and the battlefield feels far away for many Russians. It is something that they mainly follow on television or simply ignore.

More and more often they hear explanations on television that the ‘special operation’ is intended to put an end to Western (NATO) expansion to the east. And they hear that the rest of the world is turning against Russia through Ukraine. The Kremlin emphasizes that everything is still going according to plan, which increasingly raises the question among Russians what that plan actually is.

Like the promise that Russia would never invade Ukraine, Putin is breaking the promise to his own people that no mobilization would ever be declared. According to Putin, this mobilization is a direct response to the threat from the West, which wants to “destroy Russia”.

He calls the Western arms transfers to Ukraine a terrorist act against Russia and nuclear muscle language is increasingly following. “Without a doubt, we will use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff.”

The story that the Kremlin is painting from now on is that Russia is no longer fighting Ukraine, but all of NATO. The mobilization brings a new reality. Suddenly the ‘military operation’ is very close: Russians have to send their sons, fathers and husbands to the front.

It leads to a lot of unrest and anger. Not so much about the ‘special operation’, but about the chaotic mobilization. Once again, hundreds of thousands of young people, mostly men, are leaving the country. These people are constantly accused of treason on state television.

While the Kremlin celebrates the annexation of four Ukrainian territories with a demonstration on Red Square, the Russian army is losing more and more ground. The four annexed territories, which are not fully under Russian control, will never be returned, Putin says. In his speech about “the great historical Russia”, he quotes Soviet leader Stalin: “The West is waging a hybrid war against us, against our language, our culture, our norms and values. Those who are not with us are against us”.

There are again threats of ‘red lines’: if a Western missile lands on Russian territory (that includes the annexed Ukrainian regions), Russia will “react in any way possible”.

But even after this speech, Putin’s goals remain unclear. Is it now about ‘liberating’ the Donbas? To ‘rescue’ Russia from the ‘existential threat’ of the West, which wants to ‘destroy’ Russia? One thing is becoming increasingly clear: the fighting is going to go on for a long time, because giving up now would mean a crushing defeat.

In the fall, Russians learn that “de-Satanization of Ukraine” is the new goal of the operation. The collective West would like to impose its “depraved values” on the whole world, completely canceling Russian culture with all traditional values. And that would endanger the survival of Russia.

This latest narrative seems to convince the Russians of the importance of the ‘special operation’, which is now portrayed as a ‘sacred operation’. We also see the concrete consequences of this story in society. The law on ‘gay propaganda’ is being tightened and every talk show is talking about the alleged ‘lgbti ideology’ and ‘gay prides’ in Ukraine, as a symbol of the ‘Evil West’ that Russia is fighting against.

The increased Western arms support and the many tanks for Ukraine are seen by Moscow as confirmation of this Russian story: the entire West is fighting Russia in Ukraine. “It is unbelievable, but true: we are again threatened by German Leopard tanks,” Putin said. He increasingly calls the battle a continuation of the Second World War.

Most Russians still living in the country believe in this enemy image: the West supplies weapons and that leads to escalation and it wants to destroy Russia with unprecedented sanctions. And Putin “indeed had no choice”: the ‘special operation’ had to be launched, otherwise NATO would have invaded Russia last year. A parallel reality has become reality.

Aggressive rhetoric

Violence and aggressive rhetoric are the new normal. Those who die for the motherland are the real heroes. People who criticize or have fled the country are not patriots but traitors. Many Russians choose to ignore facts and regard them as fake news from the enemy.

According to Putin, the targets are now “a state secret”. The editor-in-chief of the state broadcaster RT (former Russia Today) Margarita Simonyan recently claimed that Putin is deliberately using the vague notions of “demilitarization” and “denazification” so that Russia “has flexibility as things unfold.”

So what the end goal is is becoming increasingly unclear. But it is certain that Russia is preparing for a long battle. Putin announced army reforms in December, the entire economy must be in the service of the army, and society is becoming even more militarized.

With that, the Russian story has changed in one year from a brief ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine to a protracted war against the collective West for the survival of holy Russia. With all its consequences.

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