Russia’s Propaganda Over Donbas Has Failed
It’s now clear that Moscow never intended to support self-determination.
Critical to Russia’s invasion of the east of Ukraine in March 2014 was state propaganda about the need to create “Novorossiya” – a New Russia.
This would be a quasi-confederation, part of the wider Russian world, uniting the people of the East and South of Ukraine and becoming de facto a part of Russia.
Attempts to shape this narrative had been ongoing for months before the invasion, and continued intensively in its immediate aftermath.
But when it became obvious that the Novorossiya project had failed, amid resistance from locals and Ukrainian armed forces, two so-called republics were created in Ukrainian Donbas.
The de facto Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics (DPR and LPR) were given all the markers of quasi-states: a set of ministries, presidents, state bodies and a complete rewriting of history.
Donetsk academic Ihor Kozlovsky, a prominent public intellectual who was imprisoned by the DPR between 2015 and 2017, recalled the chaos of establishing the de facto statelets.
From the beginning, he continued, Russia had no interest in supporting two republics with their own coherent identities.
“Russian propagandists used regional identity as a step to their final goal: to convert Ukrainians into Russians, make them feel as a part of the Russian world, with a regional flavour,” Kozlovksy said. “Everything reminiscent of Ukraine was a challenge for the occupying forces and they wanted to erase it.”
The first move was to Russify the schools of the DPR and LPR. In a February 2022 interview to a study funded by the Norwegian Research Council, local school teacher Lyubov described how education had become a key target.
"First of all, Ukrainian textbooks were thrown out, then gradually replaced by Russian ones,” she said. “Teachers could not use additional materials, all this was checked."
Ukrainian references were removed from universities too. In the institution that replaced the Donetsk National University, the department of history of Ukraine turned into a one of "domestic and regional history".
"Teachers tried not to delve into the current events," Natalia, a former student in the occupied territories, told the Norwegian Research Council study. "The history teacher went around sharp corners, not paying attention to any potentially sensitive topics: the Holocaust, the Holodomor [Ukrainian famine of the 1930s], or even WWII."
Official doctrine focused on the so-called Great Patriotic War, as Russia describes WWII, and May 9, the day that marks Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.
"Of all the holidays," Natalia said, "the day of victory was celebrated most widely and on the largest scale: concerts were prepared, posters were painted."
A supposedly sovereign identity was unnecessary, not only for Russian ideologists but also for that part of the local population which was successfully manipulated into believing in its disconnection from Ukraine.
And yet after proclaiming the sovereignty of the puppet republics, Russia refused to recognise its own creatures. Locals who supported Russia and had participated in pro-Russian rallies had hoped for a bloodless accession, as happened to Crimea. Their rejection came as a shock.
"The residents of Donetsk and Luhansk still expected to be taken to Russia," said Russian propagandist Anna Dolgreva in a 2016 interview. “But instead they received war, falling living standards, destruction and thousands of deaths."
The local pro-Russian population did not anticipate a permanent war with military dictatorship and censorship. Instead of the euphoria of reunification with Russia, local republics were offered an interim status, essentially becoming Russian colonies without full rights. For example, in the first years after the occupation, local diplomas were neither recognised in Ukraine nor in Russia.
On February 24, 2022, after the full-scale Russian invasion, even those who had bought into Russian propaganda, both in Ukraine and globally, had to realise that Russia had never cared about any regional identities or the right of people for self-determination.
The occupied territories of Ukraine had been no more than a military training base.
“The so-called LPR and DPR were the territories for Russia’s experiments,” Kozlovsky said, “and now we all understand what they have been preparing for.”
Eugenia Kuznetsova is a media and communications expert who has been researching disinformation and propaganda in the Russian-Ukrainian war since 2014.
This publication was prepared under the “Ukraine Voices Project" implemented with the financial support of the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).