by Janusz Bugajski
April 04, 2023
The assassination of a prominent Russian propagandist in St. Petersburg exposes the growing confusion in Moscow’s information war. Vladlen Tatarsky was not a conventional journalist or military blogger but rather a proponent of destroying Ukraine. He was linked with the Wagner mercenaries, the spearhead of Russia’s forces in eastern Ukraine. He may have become a casualty of escalating power struggles within Russia’s power elites who are offering conflicting messages about the war in Ukraine.
Tatarsky was killed in a restaurant owned by the head of the Wagner “private military company,” Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin is embroiled in a bitter conflict with Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Although the Kremlin has blamed Ukraine’s special services for the assassination, a more plausible explanation is that the operation was arranged by Russia’s security services to silence criticism that undermines public morale and exposes the failures of state policy and its military operations. The killing presumably sent a strong message to Prigozhin himself.
Tatarsky and Prigozhin have not criticized the Kremlin for launching the war but for its incompetence in conducting it. Some prominent Russian nationalists have gone even further. Igor Girkin, a former Federal Security Service officer who once led a group of infiltrated Russian militants in Donetsk, has issued a YouTube video declaring that Russia faces an imminent military defeat. In addition, there is a growing undercurrent of opposition to Putin in the military itself because of the scale of Russian manpower and equipment losses. These anti-Kremlin narratives make it difficult for Moscow and its troll army to transmit a consistent and credible message both at home and abroad.
Western experts have long believed that Russia excels in propaganda and disinformation. Russia’s war against Ukraine has demonstrated that such assertions are outdated and misleading. Much like its military campaign, Moscow’s information war has been incompetent and unconvincing. The pretexts for launching the war lack any validity. Ukraine is obviously not a fascist state and its Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is not a Nazi presiding over the “genocide” of Russian speakers. Moreover, if Russia was defending itself against NATO, then why is it not at war with a NATO state? If it simply wanted to replace the government in Kyiv, then why is it slaughtering unarmed civilians? And if Russia can supposedly easily seize all of Ukraine, then why is its military incapable of even controlling the Donbas region?
The objectives declared by state propaganda keep changing as the military has retreated from several fronts, particularly from Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson. As defeats in battle mount against more highly motivated and better armed Ukrainian forces, Moscow’s assertions about direct
NATO intervention only fool its most vehement supporters, while regular threats of global nuclear war are losing their impact.
In stark contrast to Moscow’s misfiring disinformation, Ukraine’s messaging has proved effective. It brought global attention to Russia’s unprovoked aggression. The clear distinction between attacker and victim helped to generate large supplies of weapons from almost every NATO state and enabled the Alliance to reinforce its eastern flank. Moscow cannot disguise its indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainian cities and its legion of war crimes has outraged public opinion and largely united the West. Western economic sanctions and the severing of energy ties with Europe will also help shrink Russia’s revenues and decimate its economy.
Despite the breast-beating war propaganda, Russia’s military inadequacies will be further revealed as Ukraine launches a major counter-offensive to recapture its southeastern territories this spring. No amount of propaganda and disinformation will be able to camouflage Russia’s looming military and economic failures. The elimination of domestic critics and competitors will not resolve the Kremlin’s problems but will simply exacerbate the power struggles that contribute to Russia’s state rupture.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. His new book is Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture.