Saving An Ungrateful World From Fascism: Russian IO on the 75th Anniversary of Victory Day
Years of Historical Revisionism Lay The Groundwork For Russian Nationalism
Soviet Soldier Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag on May 2, 1945
May 8–9th of this year is the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe or VE (Victory in Europe) Day. For all European nations, this is an important milestone recalling the most devastating conflict in human history, but this day carries even greater significance for Russia. As the Soviet Union lost twenty million of its own, more than any nation in any war in history, WWII is ingrained in the collective Russian memory as the ultimate demonstration of fidelity for the nation. In Russia, the war is officially The Great Patriotic War, and Victory Day serves as the analog to American Independence Day. The Soviet Union established a national myth around its role in the conflict in part to justify the post-war boundaries between East and West. The annual Victory Day parades ceased when the USSR collapsed, but Putin reintroduced the holiday as a particularly sacred event for the country. The national myth persists today under modern Russia which employs aggressive information operations (IO) to drive this narrative.
Using a machine-learning model to aggregate disparate media sources and analyze the content, we identified multiple campaigns conducted by Russian state media organizations related to Victory Day. Our AI began tracking this IO in late December 2019 and later defined two campaigns promulgated by Russian media organizations. The first campaign “Russia Honors the Heroes of Its Glorious History” was identified on December 28, 2019 and continued until February 18, 2020. The campaign content remained nearly identical, but the title was renamed “Russia Saved an Ungrateful World from Fascism”, to better align the topic with the Second World War. Early content contained remembrances of Soviet heroes who died in the war, but there were also callbacks to heroic deeds from Russia’s imperial history. Channel One, Russia’s largest television channel, began airing 13 million names of Soviet WWII casualties in late February during a 24/7 broadcast. Between December 2019 and April 2020, there were 7,360 pieces with most appearing from late February onward. Russian-language pieces composed 85% of the total in these, compared to the Kremlin’s average of 65% Russian-langauge content. The defense of Russians in former Soviet states, many of whom settled shortly after WWII, has been a rallying cry for the Putin administration, and ethnic Russians in Crimea largely consumed Kremlin-owned newsbefore the 2014 invasion. Recent content continues the obituaries of Soviet heroes, but also emphasizes macroscopic events as they occurred in the war 75 years ago.
The majority of content since February has focused on the Soviet liberation of European countries annexed or subdued by Germany. Pieces tend to paint the Red Army as courageous victors fighting to free Europe from German domination. Moreover, this IO seeks to revise perceptions of Allied involvement which Soviet leaders including Joseph Stalin, Nikita Krushchev, and Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov once called instrumental to Soviet survival. This content is overwhelmingly geared towards former Soviet satellite states such as Poland, Ukraine, and Latvia, and is commonly posted by Russian Embassy accounts across multiple platforms. To Russia, these narratives are restoring justice and honoring the country’s sacrifice.
Russia has long viewed its place as Europe’s savior as under attack by revisionist Liberal administrations. The Russian response to the removal of a Soviet statue from Tallinn, Estonia in 2007 is often cited as the first cyberwar. In response to a 2019 decision in Czechia to remove another Soviet statue, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu suggested prosecution “of representatives of those countries where memorials were demolished.” These statements underscore the differing significance of the war in the cultural mindset of these countries. Across this IO, comments on pieces in Russian expressed a highly positive sentiment of +0.24, compared to German and Polish comments which averaged -0.16 and -0.14, respectively. Russians support their country’s narrative as the unimpeachable saviors of Europe, while those formerly under Soviet domination chafe against this biased characterization.
Victory Day Parade 2019
Why It Matters in 2020
For Vladimir Putin, this anniversary is a special opportunity to instill unity amongst the domestic population during a national crisis, and to further promote the role of the Great Patriotic War in national identity. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the country, Putin’s 75th Victory Day Anniversary speech will undoubtedly conjure up historical memories of a battered Russia, forsaken by its nominal allies and left to fight the hordes of the German Wehrmacht. Putin is facing his lowest poll numbers ever, as the country’s economy continues to decline and ever-stricter quarantine measures are implemented to slow infection rates. As a result, we can expect a “rally around the flag” attempt by Putin, generating public support to endure current circumstances in the vein of their noble forebears. The push for unity is likely to be welcomed by Russians, most of whom recognize the pandemic as a serious threat and are willing to relinquish civil liberties to beat it. The relationship between Russia’s WWII narrative and COVID-19 are unmistakable.
On April 7, our analytics tracked a sharp increase in posts for the campaign “Russia Saved an Ungrateful World from Fascism.” In the week prior, there were only a handful of posts — no more than 5 per day — but between April 7–11, posts increased to 108 and peaked at 305 on April 10 — the highest amount of per-day posts since February 23 which had 531 posts. The uptick in posts make this campaign currently the most prolific of all tracked campaigns for Russia and it is an intentional shift. The first week of April is also the same in which confirmed COVID-19 cases began to significantly increase in Russia, from 2,777 on April 1 to 8,672 on April 8, and 24,490 a week later. With 177,160 cases as of May 7, it will be worth monitoring how Russian IO adapts once the Victory Day anniversary passes.
Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s WWII narrative emphasizes Putin’s wider national goals for the country, from securing its status as a great power to revising the history of its periphery. Since its intervention in Syria, Russia has sought to muscle its way to the table of great powers, a position it believes is inherent to Russian sovereignty. The campaign “Russia Saved an Ungrateful World from Fascism” pulls from the core of Russian nationalism: Russia’s strength as a great power enabled it to resist Germany, the same strength which it now uses to resist US domination. Just as the Soviet Union liberated Europe from Germany, modern Russia will liberate the world from US oppression.
Russian IOs will certainly continue promoting these national interests beyond the Victory Day anniversary, but the policy implications for the US are worth considering. Much of the WWII narrative content is intended for a Russian speaking audience, and sentiment analysis reflects little positive impressions on Russian speakers outside Russia. Beyond generating public support for Putin, the overt IOs are limited to signalling Russian support to those aligned against the U.S. Regardless, the IO discussed here demonstrates the multifaceted approach Russian campaigns are capable of taking, and how they reinforce disparate national interests.