Russia’s narrative

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Alternative sources describing a similar view: US government

Understanding Russia and Putin is surely an impossible or at least highly complex task that cannot be done in a few lines. However, there are some aspects in the Russian narrative or view of the world that is probably lesser known outside of Russia (or in it’s immediate neighbourhood) and helps to explain some of the action and reaction surrounding the invasion.

Disclaimer: this does by no means claim to understand Russia. It is simply giving another aspect that is often overlooked in the media. The views in this article are an over-simplification and do not represent the whole population, but rather a tendency that can be observed.

Unfortunately, the views also proved to be a great predictor of the recent events.

The empire

Russia has been a large empire in his recent history, especially being the main power in the Warsaw Treaty Organisation (“Warsaw pact”) and the republic which factually was governing the Soviet Union. During the cold war, the world was (perceived to be) split into two worlds, two “empires” of “superpowers”. Russia was “admired” and feared in the world, it was one of the two big ones.

It was a place of no freedom, of poverty and corruption, but it was “stable” and Russia was respected.

When the Soviet Union ceased to exist in the beginning of the 90s, a whole world fell apart and a decade of extreme poverty and violence spread across the ex-Soviet countries. With it came the opening and access to Western products, media and countries.

The view of an “empire” still lingers around, especially in older people, which didn’t grew up with freedom but with the feeling of being superior to the world.


With all the gained freedom and international exchange, there is one drawback: Russia isn’t anymore the closed system it was in the Soviet Union. The economy is strongly intertwined with the rest of the world and therefore has to stand up to it. Russia’s economy isn’t huge (it’s adjusted GDP PPP is 6th in the world, just behind Germany and less than a quarter of the EUs GDP while the absolute GDP is 11th in the world, somewhere between Italy and Spain) and it’s military power mainly comes from a large arsenal of nuclear weapons and a few successful, yet simple to win battles of the top-notch units. Meanwhile, its conventional units are underfunded and many modernization programs are stuck (article).

An ordinary country

But most notably, Russia isn’t as respected and admired anymore as it was before the 1990s. It lost its moral justification, communism, to fight capitalism. With all the open media, the glorious shine portrayed by the propaganda internally also decreased a lot.

It isn’t even a threat to the West anymore and so the West doesn’t threaten it either. It became more of a normal country.

The revived empire

This situation wasn’t welcomed by all. And with Putin’s raise in the end of the 90s, Russia became over the years more of a dictatorship/oligarchy/kleptocracy with media censorship, state propaganda, opposition politicians jailed and poisoned, rigged elections and huge corruption (especially by oligarchs).

With it, the claim of a new “old” empire: Russia is back and is again perceived as a threat by the West.

Except, it wasn’t. At least not outside Russian state propaganda. The West wasn’t scared by Russia. There is no threat, no “bad” ideology to spread.

But being perceived as a threat fit well with the population that was missing the old shine of Russia and the propaganda expanded to paint a picture where Russia is under constant threat by the West – or more precisely by the US (source).

And that’s where the narrative of “NATO expansion to Ukraine is a threat to Russia” comes in extremely handy: there is an enemy that threatens us and therefore we need to fight the enemy (by attacking Ukraine although NATO is the bad one? that’s where the argumentation gets tricky and one needs an extra tweak: to also claim that Ukraines government is a puppet regime by NATO).

Crimea is ours

In 2014, after Ukrainians removed then-president Yanukovych from office because he gave in to pressure from Russia. Soon after, Russian soldiers – without any markings – occupied Crimea and a highly disputed referendum was held to join the Russian Federation.

This takeover – sending soldiers without insignias on foreign territory without any announcement and actual denial – was hit by condemnation and sanctions from the West. A shady action, Russia had clearly the stronger army and simply occupies it. It’s like taking a lollipop from a child.

But not so in Russia: according to different polls, about two thirds of the people welcomed the occupation. They were even proud of it. Крым наш – crimea is ours.

Humiliation plays a role

Russia’s propaganda emphasizes this struggle and speaks for example of humiliation in the face of sanctions. This seems more important – not to be humiliated – than the economical consequences.

Public support

It is to note that this is not just Putin’s war and that the normal population is against it. This has two sides, and let’s start with the facts: the public support for the war and Putin is high. As much as it is easier to grasp reality by blaming a single person, this isn’t the case.

The public is behind it

Currently, a little more than half of the population are in support of the war while about a quarter opposes it. This number is lower than the temporary occupation of Crimea that had around two third support (source), and sometimes leads to the misleading statements that there is “low support”: it’s a high number, as two times as many people are in favor of the war compared to people against it. It’s not just Putin’s war. Russians overall are in favor of it too.


While the number of people in favour of the invasion is given, this doesn’t just come from anywhere. Russia is not only actively spreading misinformation but also relies on a heavy propaganda machine by it’s state television and newspapers.

Consequences in the narrative

Two empires are fighting

The most important narrative that Russia pushes is the one of the empires: Russia against US/NATO (or it’s “puppet London”). As Russia sees itself as an empire, it projects the same view on the self-proclaimed “enemy”. In Russia’s narrative:

  1. a coalition like NATO is one entity. One big empire, basically equal to the US alone. Every other state is just following the US order. This tells again about how Russia sees the world. In reality, NATO is a coalition of many states which all have a right in saying and still have the sovereignty over their territory and can block weapon deliveries against the majority of NATO.
    NATO is not the US. While the latter is a major power and the most experienced and capable in leading military operations, it’s a coalition of states that are deciding with their in different conseils representatives.
  2. there are no “sovereign, democratic” states with their own will. There are just governments in control (as in Russia) and empires that actually control what this governments do (such as the “puppet government is Ukraine”).
    In reality, Ukraine is a sovereign democracy. The people elect the president, the president acts in accordance with what the people want (such as applying to join NATO or EU). If he doesn’t and gives in to pressure and bribes, he gets removed from office by massive protests. Even an inexperienced comedian can win against an established politician. This are the clear signs of a vivid democracy.
    It means that if Ukraine says it wants to join NATO, that Ukraine – the Ukrainian people – want to join NATO.
    And not Russia’s narrative that the large empire NATO wants to “swallow” Ukraine into it’s empire.

This narratives allow for Russia to legitimate to invade Ukraine: Ukraine is either part of the Russian (empire) or part of the NATO (empire). So if they don’t invade, the “enemy” will get it. There is no alternative.
This narrative works if we assume two empires fighting over control (as it may was somewhat during the cold war). But it doesn’t work as soon as we drop this false narrative – by assuming that Ukraine is a sovereign democratic state and NATO a coalition of states – it breaks completely apart.

Notice how Russia never refers to Ukraine as a democracy, Ukraine joining NATO never as the will of Ukrainians and always pushes that NATO is expanding, painting the convenient picture that NATO is a threat and just trying to attack Russia through Ukraine.

We are the truth

In a totalitarian empire which cracks down on its own citizen with draconic measures and arrests, such as the Soviet Union has been and to what Russia somewhat became today, no sophisticated lies are needed. It doesn’t matter whether a lie is easy to debunk because nobody is really going to debunk it (so there is no alternative version) and the government will do anyways what they want.

We have seen this a lot with faked “proves” that weren’t even tried to be good with obvious mistakes or claims completely without any kind of prove. It applies for many alleged reason for the invasion and for a bunch of blatant lies.

Fake news and propaganda

Given that the West is always against Russia it is clear that the whole western media is always biased against Russia. With strong propaganda in it’s own state, there has to be also strong propaganda in the other “empire”. An simple narrative that completely neglects the variety of medias and reports that are out there.

This goes so far that Russians would think the videos and reports from the war in Ukraine are fake. That they would even not believe their own relatives in Ukraine.