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Russia: Empire of Lies
Bolshevik by Boris Kustodiev, 1920

Russia: Empire of Lies

Lies are an inherent feature of the Russian state ever since the Bolsheviks.

Stanisław Żaryn

Calling Ukrainians Nazis, claiming that Ukrainian territories are integral parts of Russia, and ginning up an alleged threat posed by NATO to the Russian Federation—such behavior has been part and parcel of the Kremlin’s standard propaganda repertoire since its full-scale February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine. These tactics have been the same since 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea. Now, these “founding lies” have undergirded the propaganda environment for the current war against Ukraine.

False accusations of Nazism against Ukrainian authorities were launched during the Maidan Uprising to discredit Kyiv in the eyes of its Western partners. Over the years, top Kremlin officials would repeat narratives that depicted a Ukrainian regime rife with Nazism. This discourse was strengthened in the months before the present aggression. On the day of the invasion, Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, cited the need to liberate and “de-Nazify” Ukraine.

This narrative has evolved. When it became clear that Ukrainians would not greet Russian tanks with flowers and that, indeed, they would fight heroically to defend their homeland, Russians began to label all Ukrainians “Nazis” or, worse, “Satanists.” Now, they are attempting to annihilate the entire nation: They kill civilians, carry out mass deportations, and forcibly exile Ukrainian children deep into Russia. Cities that resist are being completely destroyed, with the Kremlin intent on eliminating the Ukrainian language through, among other practices, the burning of Ukrainian books.

Complementing the Kremlin propaganda targeting Ukraine is the notion that NATO poses a threat to Russia. Moscow continuously promotes the delusion that NATO is an aggressive alliance and that its eastern enlargement threatens Russian security—more so since Sweden and Finland have expressed their will to join NATO.

At the same time, Russian propaganda manipulates its state-sanctioned historical policy internationally to achieve political aims. Poland remembers well the lies of Putin and other Kremlin officials who justified the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and accused Poland of collaborating with Hitler. Now, Russian authorities, universities, and media promote theses about the historical unity of Russians, Ukrainians, and the entire “Russian world,” said to be based on spiritual, historical, and cultural bonds built over centuries, stretching over an East Slavic territory that by now should be politically integrated. In this view, Ukrainian statehood and independence are artificial ideas, while Ukraine’s return to Russian civilization is the natural course of things.

Unfortunately, no one in the West reacted to these lies and evident manipulations at the right moments. When Poland repeatedly warned about the threat emanating from the East, expressing Russia’s imperial ambitions and systematic information warfare, these warnings were ignored. The West seemed not to acknowledge the words uttered in Georgia in 2008 by the late Polish President Lech Kaczyński, who had warned that, after Georgia, the time would come for Ukraine and even the Baltic states and Poland to face Russia’s malice. Instead, clinging to a false hope, the West believed in dialogue with Putin and recommended further negotiations.

All the while, Russia had been prevaricating and accelerating its propaganda machine. On the eve of the invasion, Kremlin representatives laughed at intelligence warnings coming from Washington and London and gave assurances that there would be no war, calling reports about a planned Russian attack Western disinformation. A couple of days before the Russian invasion, when certain European leaders spoke of the need for a new security architecture and pointed to Moscow as a potential mediator, Putin and Sergey Lavrov smoothly declared their readiness for further talks.

Omnipresent lies are among Russian diplomacy’s basic tools. They are not only insolent but self-contradictory. At the outbreak of the invasion, Russian propaganda assured us that only military infrastructure was being targeted and that the aim was to protect native Russians. There were also narratives that Ukraine was producing weapons of mass destruction—and that the United States was using bird migration to transmit pathogens into Russia.

Poland, as a country that has consistently warned of the Russian threat and is now a key ally of Ukraine, has been a target of Russian propaganda for years, and the campaign of lies against Poland has only intensified. Russia accuses Poland of planning to annex western Ukrainian territories, of escalating the situation in Europe, and of fulfilling orders advantageous only to the United States. Simultaneously, Russian propaganda promotes anti-Ukrainian discourse, warning that accepting Ukrainian refugees is a threat to Poland and will result in the country’s paralysis and in discrimination against Polish citizens. Russia’s information actions aim to slander Poland, question its international position, and provoke distrust between Ukrainians and Poles.

Propaganda and information are key elements of Russian war doctrine. Russia perceives the information environment as a space in which civilizations clash, including confrontations between the Western world and the “Russkiy mir” (Russian world). Russia believes that information can be militarized as both an offensive and a defensive weapon. Thus, information warfare, according to Russian ideology, should be waged in an integrated manner and may be used both autonomously and as part of military actions, combining military and non-military methods. This concept is mentioned in some of the most important Russian strategic documents and is continuously elaborated upon. The crucial role played by information in state security and its application in modern conflicts are actively discussed in the Russian Federation’s military doctrine, national security strategy, and information security doctrine. Such documents provide an in-depth look at acts of hybrid, asymmetric, and informational nature, with information security treated as a priority in both internal and international policy.

It is important to understand Russia’s disinformation and manipulation campaigns in order to understand that lies are permanently embedded in the nature of Russian politics, as well as in the Kremlin’s state apparatus. This connection will persist even if there are changes in top leadership. Russian special services have actively used disinformation, deception, propaganda, and manipulation since the 1920s, and these are constantly being improved upon as technology develops. They were applied in Bolshevik Russia during World War II and by the KGB during the Cold War, and they are integral elements of Putin’s imperial policy. Russia uses lies in internal and international politics in order to wage conflicts, exert influence, weaken its adversaries, reinforce its position in negotiations, and simply to falsify reality. Nothing has changed since the Soviet era, and nothing indicates that there will be change in the future.

Stanisław Żaryn is director of Poland’s National Security Department and spokesman for the Minister-Special Services Coordinator.