The Russian Invasion of Ukraine and the Varying Shades of Propaganda

Edward Bernays is considered to be the leading expert in persuasion, propaganda, and how biases and heuristics allow the influencer to sway public opinion and actions. Indeed, the opening chapter of Bernays’ 1921, Propaganda, “Organizing Chaos” perfectly describes how thought leaders in a democratic society must rely on certain methods, some as simple as leading by example, to guide the public to decisions and policies which can benefit them.

Berthay’s works inspired David Guth’s informative essay “Black, White and Shades of Gray: The Sixty-Year Debate Over Propaganda v. Public Diplomacy” in the Journal of Promotion Management where Guth does a truly coherent job of organizing propaganda into three categories (with some help from Jowett and O’Donnell who originally came up with the scheme).

He describes “white propaganda” as information from a source that is identified and reported accurately.

Black propaganda is defined as information that is accredited to incorrect sources with the intent to spread lies.

Grey propaganda is information where the source may or may not be correctly defined and the accuracy of the information is uncertain.

While this color scheme does a good job of breaking down how the sourcing of the information defines the flavor, the word propaganda must also be defined. Oxford defines it as information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a particular political cause or point of view. This distinction is important because even if white propaganda may seem innocent, it is still being used to persuade people in a targeted campaign.

One of the most significant examples of propaganda in the 21st century is the Russian Foreign Ministry’s information campaign leading up to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Beginning in April of 2021, Russian Ground Forces began a buildup of troops and materials in Belarus and Southern Russia. By November of 2021, the number of those forces had swelled to well over 50,000, while the Foreign Ministry published multiple statements and articles a day saying that there was no buildup and definitely no invasion plans for Ukraine. During this time, the propaganda campaign can be described as grey due to the legitimate source, but uncertain information.

It was not until January of 2022, when Foreign Minister Lavrov truly began to message to the West that troops were deployed and that a series of demands needed to be answered, lest a military operation be launched into Ukraine, crossing into the white propaganda realm. In this example, the hundreds of diplomatic cables relied on both factual and non-factual information in an attempt to persuade the world that the Russian Federation was threatened by NATO and needed to secure a buffer zone in Ukraine. The non-factual information represented the subjective opinions of Russian leaders, but the factual information represented the accurate accounting of Russian forces built up on the Ukrainian border.

By February 2022, when that information campaign failed, the invasion was launched in which a black propaganda campaign was launched that sought to disgrace the Ukrainian Armed Forces and dissuade foreign governments from coming to their aid. This campaign is still ongoing. The Russian Ministry of Defense publishes daily reports of inflated casualty numbers and continues to claim that Russian soldiers killed in action have not exceeded 6,000 troops. This claim was made by Defense Minister Shoigu on September 21st during the announcement of partial mobilization.

The Symbol “Z” has also taken on a life of its own as a propaganda tool for the Russian Federation. Originally used as a marking to distinguish between the vehicles of various Grouping of Forces, Russian military bloggers, military members, and civilians worldwide have used the symbol to further the strategic messaging by President Putin that his war in Ukraine is directed at “de-nazifying” Kyiv.

Intelligence analysts would benefit from documenting the entirety of the Russian propaganda campaign from early 2021 to whenever the conflict in Ukraine ends in order to capture trends for a future conflict with the Russian Federation.

United States Military Academy and American Military University Alumni. Victor covers flash military, intelligence, and geo-political updates.


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