While Russian information operators in government and state-sponsored media presented a relatively united front at the onset of the renewed invasion of Ukraine, setbacks during the war have caused significant divergences in messaging. Ukraine’s successful counter-offensives, the chaos of partial mobilization, and the Kremlin’s nuclear threats have all presented instances where once-united Russian messaging has begun to fray. Public statements from various government officials and media figures are increasingly divergent and sometimes contradictory, suggesting chaos and disorganization in a Russian propaganda ecosystem once feared both domestically and abroad for its potency and competence.
In September 2022, Ukrainian forces recaptured large swaths of territory in the Kharkiv region, prompting a mix of denialism, excuses, and criticism from Russian media figures and government officials. The official Kremlin narrative was that the loss of territory was actually a tactically advantageous move. Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman Igor Konashenkov announced that Russian troops retreating from Izyum and other parts of the Kharkiv region were part of a strategic “regrouping” to Donbass to focus on the “declared goals of the special military operation.” State media almost consistently echoed the Kremlin narrative.
However, some in the domestic Russian media space framed the events very differently. In sharp contrast to most state media, SouthFront, a Russian intelligence-directed news site, directly acknowledged Ukraine’s “successful offensive” in the region. Former leader of the Donetsk militia, Igor Strelkov, who enjoys a large following on Telegram, offered a rare critique of the Russian General Staff for its incompetence surrounding the “catastrophe” and highlighted the Russian forces’ lack of training and supplies. On September 10, Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Russian region of Chechnya and loyal ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, published a ten-minute audio clip on his Telegram channel responding to what he called the “surrender” of the Kharkiv region by Russia’s military leadership. While criticizing the General Staff, Kadyrov still recognized that the withdrawal had its “advantages.”
The disorganization and uncertainty brought about by President Putin’s declaration of “partial mobilization” on September 21 opened another window for criticism and divergent messaging from Russian propagandists, officials, and media figures. While Putin and Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu portrayed partial mobilization as an organized call-up of reservists, the chaotic realities of the process prompted criticism by even the Kremlin’s most loyal supporters. Government social media accounts, including the Russian Embassy in Canada, felt compelled to try to calm the situation by sharing a video discrediting rumors surrounding mobilization.
In stark contrast to the Kremlin’s official narrative, traditionally loyal government officials and media figures quickly promoted stories surrounding the chaos of mobilization. Margarita Simonyan and Viktor Solovyov, two popular pro-Kremlin television personalities, spent a large segment of their Russia One program criticizing local authorities for sending mobilization orders to mothers, students, and those with severe illnesses. Simonyan went to Twitter to vent her frustration surrounding numerous reports of those outside the age limits receiving summons for service. Duma deputies joined the attacks on regional officials but stopped short of criticizing national leadership. In a once rare public display of insider in-fighting, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group, called for Duma deputies to “go to the front” themselves in a popular social media post, venting frustration with the deputies’ criticisms. The Kremlin evidently understood these critiques of the mobilization’s chaos, with official state media such as TASS eventually publishing stories about individuals who had mistakenly been mobilized. While the Kremlin initially attempted to portray mobilization as organized and limited, public criticism from loyal officials and media figures prompted the co-optation of these frustrations to likely insulate Putin from attacks.
Russia’s more recent nuclear threats include some of the most confusing, disunified, and dissonant messaging by Russian media figures and government officials since the start of the war. President Putin has made veiled nuclear threats multiple times since late September, first during his September 21 declaration of partial mobilization in which he made a thinly veiled threat to use nuclear weapons followed by a forceful statement: “This is not a bluff.” Putin made another cryptic nuclear threat during a speech in which he declared the annexation of four Ukrainian regions on September 30. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, overtly called for the use of “low-yield nuclear weapons” in Ukraine in an October 1 multi-paragraph criticism of Russian military leadership. Olga Skabeeva, a popular television personality, postulated during a news discussion program that nuclear conflict was already “a given” and threatened that if the West continues to “back [Russia] into a corner, everyone will be destroyed,” specifically mentioning Kyiv, London, and Washington as potential targets.
While some sectors of government and media in Russia made overt nuclear threats, other messaging has been less clear and at times even dismissive of fears that Russia would use a nuclear weapon. At an international conference in Astana, Putin ally and President of Belarus Aleksandr Lukashenko in the same interview stated both that “President Putin has never intended to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” and that “as for nuclear weapons…it is clear that it is made to be used. Russia will be able to use all kinds of weapons if, God forbid, the territory of the Russian Federation is attacked.” At a major speech at the Valdai discussion club on October 27, Putin himself declared, in reference to nuclear weapons use in Ukraine, “We see no need for that. There is no point, neither political, nor military.”
Only days after Putin seemed to have dismissed the possibility of Russian nuclear weapons use, Dmitry Medvedev, former president of Russia and deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, floated the possibility again. Medvedev posted a firebrand message on his Telegram channel framing the war in Ukraine in existential terms that necessitate the use of “nuclear deterrence” under Russian law.
Yandex, a Russian news aggregator and the largest Russian-language search engine, promotes news stories predominantly from Kremlin-backed media. In September and October 2022, Yandex promoted 15 news stories relating to nuclear weapons use. About two thirds (11 out of 15) of the stories were about the possibility of the United Kingdom, United States, or Ukraine using a nuclear weapon. Three stories included veiled nuclear threats from Russia or recognized the impact of Russia’s nuclear threats on the conflict in Ukraine. Only one story promoted on Yandex vaguely suggested that Russia would not use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
Messaging on nuclear weapons use, even from senior government officials and Putin himself, is confused, inconsistent, and unclear. The lack of a consistent narrative on such an important issue could hint at a policy of strategic ambiguity, a willingness to maintain flexibility, or, simply, disorganization and disagreement within the Russian elite.
Since September, Russian messaging has grown increasingly dissonant over the war in Ukraine. Recent Russian failures, including Ukraine’s counteroffensives and confusion over mobilization, have spurred harsh and frank criticism of Russian military leadership by military bloggers, state media, and even government officials.
Mixed messaging on nuclear weapons use in Ukraine permeates even the highest levels of the Russian government. President Putin himself has made contradictory statements on Russia’s willingness to initiate a nuclear strike. While some members of the Russian propaganda ecosystem, such as former President and Prime Minister Medvedev and Chechen leader Kadyrov, have promoted the specter of nuclear war, others have downplayed the threat.
Tolerating critical messaging can be a useful release valve of public frustration for authoritarian regimes. By allowing for controlled dissent in the media, as was seen surrounding mobilization, the Kremlin is able to insulate Putin and his inner circle from direct criticism. On the other hand, the impromptu and significant criticism by loyalists that was seen during Ukraine’s counteroffensives and the following chaotic mobilization betrays the likelihood that the Russian media space is merely disorganized. Recent divergent messaging, even from Kremlin loyalists, paints a picture of frustration, disunity, and sloppy improvisation.