In this short text, I will present the main points of an ongoing research analysis that seeks to understand the ways in which the Kremlin seeks to frame the war in Ukraine. The analysis focuses on the phase of the war that began on 24 February 2022, known in Russia as the “Special Military Operation” (Специальная военная операция). Based on previous research, it is known that statements of Russian authorities constitute one of the most effective channels of strategic deception. Materials collected for analysis include speeches by Russian authorities during the week preceding the attack, as well as key statements made over the course of the war. The analysis also takes into account previous statements or interpretations describing Russia’s relations with Ukraine, where they help to explain the specific framing of the war.
Two main observations can be derived from a preliminary analysis of the data. First, at the heart of the Kremlin’s war propaganda is “Russia’s national narrative.” This narrative is an ensemble of historical myths, interpretations of historical events, and enemy images that, taken together, provide a fictive yet consistent explanation of the conflict for Russia. Second, the different elements of this narrative (the four frames identified below) are fictive in the sense that they do not describe the reality of events in Ukraine. Instead, these narratives are used in shaping public perception in Russia – to reinforce enmity towards Ukraine, and in turn, to consolidate the interpretation of Russia’s role in the conflict as a reaction to external threats. Consequently, with these narratives the Kremlin seeks to obscure Russia’s role in the conflict and reinforce interpretations that support its interests in the war.
Framing of the war by the Kremlin
As suggested above, ‘Russia’s national narrative’ can be thought of as a resource for creating logical, yet inconsistent with reality, frames that are used in shaping public perception about the war in Ukraine. In the following, I will briefly introduce the main features of the selected frames that were derived from content analysis of the above-mentioned research material. This selection is not comprehensive and does not include well-known disinformation narratives (e.g. ‘US biolabs in Ukraine’) that play an important role in the Kremlin’s overall strategic deception about the war in Ukraine.
Ukraine is not a real state — Russia and Ukraine are one nation (artificial sovereignty)
The starting point of this frame is that the political choices of states bordering Russia are subordinate to Russia’s national interests. This idea was also written into Russia’s 2016 foreign policy doctrine. Underlying this line of thinking vis-à-vis Ukraine are interpretations, such as by Ivan Ilyin (1950), that Slavic countries (Ukraine, Belarus) are tribes and their independence from Russia would entail a global political catastrophe; or as suggested by Aleksander Dugin (1997), a sovereign Ukraine, as a geopolitical subject, is an anomaly and poses a threat to Russia’s interests in the Black Sea. Regarding the current situation, there are different scenarios pushed by Russian officials for the division Ukraine. Most recently, this idea was voiced by Nikolai Patrushev, a secretary of the Russian Security Council.
Ukraine is a vassal of the West — the West is at war with Russia (vassal of the main opponent)
Here, too, the premise is that Ukraine’s sovereignty is ‘artificial’ — it is not viewed as an independent actor. Instead, Ukraine’s national interests (and resistance to Russia’s aggression) are seen as a projection of alleged Western ‘geopolitical ambitions’ towards Russia. Consequently, the war is framed as part of the West’s efforts to weaken and/or quell Russian influence in its traditional areas of interest. The purpose of this framing is to present the West as responsible for escalation and to hide Russia’s role as an aggressor and instigator of the war in Ukraine. It is important to note that this type of argumentation has been present for years preceding the current phase of war. However, one hypothesis that merits further analysis is that this narrative frame will be used tactically during different stages of the conflict to reinforce enmity towards the West in general and perception of the West, not Russia, as responsible for the war.
Ukraine has a “Nazi government” — Russia has defeated Nazism (the Nazi card)
Underlying this framework of interpretation is the policy chosen in Russia, in which patriotism and national unity are tied to the memory of victory in World War II over Nazism. The image of Ukraine as an enemy is built on the basis of this memory, and thus Ukraine is presented as a threat to Russia’s existence and cultural-civilian independence. Recent propaganda writings define “denazification” as a holistic action aimed at destroying Ukraine as a nation and subjugating Ukraine into Russia’s sphere of influence.
Good can be defended by force — Russia is on the side of good, against evil (against evil)
Contrary to previous interpretive frameworks, Russian actions are at the center of this narrative. With this frame, the Kremlin legitimizes the war (the “special military operation”) as the defense of good against evil. On the basis of analysis carried out thus far, no broader conclusions can be drawn as to whether “defending good” primarily means defending Russian sovereignty, or the right to defend fantasy republics from an imaginary invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking to the media before the war began, President Putin (22 February 2022) placed the potential conflict in a broader context: “Could and should all problems be resolved with the use of force, or should one stay on the side of good? Well, why do you think that the good should always be powerless? I don’t think so, I think that goodness suggests the ability of self-defence. From this we will proceed.” Allegations of Ukraine’s military threat against Russia, invoked by Putin prior to the invasion, can be can be placed under this framework.
The above-mentioned frameworks for interpreting the conflict in Ukraine are part of Russia’s national narrative and thus do not reflect the actual events and situation in the target country. The core messages of Russia’s interpretive frameworks tell us how Russia perceives its own position in the world and explains the security threats facing it.
It can be hypothesized that the interpretive frameworks described above are reproducible. In other words, the same interpretive frameworks can be transferred to different spatial and temporal contexts without disrupting their internal logic. This would mean, for example, that Russia could duplicate the interpretative frameworks used during the current war in Ukraine in its attempts at hostile influence against Finland. At the same time, however, it must be remembered that Finland is not part of the core elements of Russia’s national narrative, although Finland has a long border with Russia.
In addition, it can be assumed that Russia makes strategic use of various elements of its national narrative (the interpretive frameworks described above). However, a more detailed analysis of coordination (or a lack thereof) between different channels and how they are used in connection with specific events is still required. In addition, it is necessary to critically evaluate the analysis’ initial assumptions, i.e. to identify core messages (e.g. a particular part of Putin’s speech) and evaluate their significance as part of a broader temporal and ideological context.
Katri Pynnöniemi, Assistant Professor, University of Helsinki and National Defense University
This text was originally published in Finnish (6.5.2022) and has been edited by the author.
 Pynnöniemi and Racz 2016. Fog of Falsehood, URL: https://www.fiia.fi/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/fiiareport45_fogoffalsehood.pdf.
 Parppei (2021), Enemy Images in the Russian National Narrative. In: Pynnöniemi, K (ed.), Nexus of Patriotism and Militarism in Russia. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.33134/HUP-9-2.
 Rossiiskaya gazeta 27.4.2022, https://rg.ru/2022/04/26/patrushev-zapad-sozdal-imperiiu-lzhi-predpolagaiushchuiu-unichtozhenie-rossii.html.
 Tämä tulkinta on osa laajempaa selitysmallia, jonka mukaan länsi pyrkii heikentämään Venäjää osana maailmanlaajuista taistelua vallasta ja resursseista.
 Ria.ru, 10.4.2022, https://ria.ru/20210410/ukraina-1727604795.html.