Dehumanisation of the enemy remains the main weapon of the Kremlin in its confrontation with Ukraine. To tell the truth, the Russian propaganda can use it in other parts of Europe as well. It is a paradoxical situation that demonisation of Ukrainians is combined in the Kremlin with statements about friendship of Russians and Ukrainians, to which Vladimir Putin even dedicated an article about the historical unity of the two nations.
Why is dehumanisation needed? The answer lies on the surface – to create an intimidating image of the enemy, because it is far from professional killers who fight in armies, even those who have signed a contract to serve in the armed forces. Dehumanisation allows you to spare your soldiers the benefit of the doubt when carrying out an order; it is a virtual ‘100 grams of narcotic’ portion of alcohol given out in the active army during the World War II.
Making a cynical assessment of the situation, I would like to note that dehumanisation in the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation with the aggressor is simply necessary. Russians and Ukrainians have not just lived side by side for centuries; the history of the two nations is intertwined in numerous knots. Many members of the Ukrainian army are Russian-speaking in everyday life, and the Kremlin needs to respond asymmetrically to the military salute ‘Glory to Ukraine – Glory to the Heroes’, which was introduced several years ago.
Dehumanisation of the enemy is far from being a modern know-how, rather it is a new use of old recipes. During the confrontation between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the inflated image of the enemy reached an impressive scale. Adolf Hitler’s ‘racial theory’ about their perceived superiority over the Slavs and Jews was actively used, while the Soviet propaganda machine acted in a broader scale. In 1942 the popular poet and front-line correspondent Konstantin Simonov wrote a poem ‘Kill Him! also known as ‘Kill the German!’ It was spread with images of women and children encouraging them to defend themselves from the Nazis. The article ‘Kill Him!’, aimed at raising the morale of the Red Army soldiers, was also published by the well-known Soviet publicist Ilya Ehrenburg.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the Russian propaganda followed the Soviet pattern. In the summer of 2014, the ‘story of the crucified boy’ was actively replicated. A woman named Galina Pyshnyak told Russian TV channels that she had seen with her own eyes how Ukrainian security forces crucified a three-year-old boy in Sloviansk. The propaganda trick achieved its goal, serving to mobilize it into the illegal armed formations in Donbass. Galina Pyshnyak gave an interview to the TV channel Dozhd in the spring of 2021, confirming that she was in fact the driving force behind the fake.
The emergence of such fakes can be regarded as an element of preparation for the intensification of hostilities. In early April 2021, Russian media and the ORDLO media reported the death of a 5-year-old boy, Vladislav Shikhov, in the village of Oleksandrivske. It was caused by the explosion of a grenade allegedly dropped by a Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicle. This report was actively replicated in the Russian media, and the boy’s grandmother even appeared on TV channel Russia-1. However, she did not mention the unmanned aerial vehicle, but spoke only about the circumstances of the boy’s death in the yard of a private house. The OSCE SMM concluded through a telephone interview that the child was the victim of an unidentified explosive device, but this fact did not change the approach of the Russian propagandists.
The information bacchanalia surrounding the child’s death was not stopped by the technical impossibility of carrying out such a strike using drones in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. It can be predicted that after the first combat use of the unmanned aerial vehicle Bayraktar by the Ukrainian military, it will take not much time for the new version that intimidates the civilian population to appear. And it will of course be picked up by the Russian media.
The hybrid war going on between Russia and Ukraine is giving rise to a new format of using dehumanisation of the enemy. It is being carried out on a national basis. In autumn 2018, information about the brutal murder of a local Ukrainian boy by a group of teenagers of Hungarian nationality was circulated on local social networking sites in Transcarpathia. It was illustrated with a photo of a grief-stricken mother near the boy’s coffin. Law enforcers have not confirmed this information, but it has spread in Ukrainian Transcarpathia.
Another peculiarity of the Kremlin’s tactics is that Russia is not only taking measures to dehumanise its enemies in Ukraine. After the deployment of an additional NATO contingent in the Baltic States, rumours of sexual crimes began to appear in the local media. Since the tip of accusation was directed against members of the Bundeswehr, it suggests mobilisation of stereotypes about the World War II. The use of elements of historical memory in such episodes is a trademark of the Russian propaganda, but Lithuania and Germany have managed to put a stop to the fake news by joint effort. In the same context, the ‘A story of the girl Lisa’ can be mentioned – a massive political news story in January 2016 about the alleged rape of a Russian-speaking girl in Germany, which turned out to be a fiction of the Russian propaganda.
In today’s world, dehumanisation of the enemy has not only retained the demand for its use but has become more emphasized. The driving force behind dehumanisation are well-crafted fake news about crimes against children, women and the elderly committed by enemy soldiers. Fake social media accounts and local news sites are used to spread the relevant information. If the Kremlin propaganda machine gets involved, the fake news reach the federal level, are discussed on Russian TV channels in talk shows and become elements of the Russian national agenda.
One of the secrets of contemporary dehumanization is that it takes place in a mass information flow, which deprives the recipient of information of the chance to evaluate it critically. It is therefore necessary to counteract dehumanisation by deconstructing the fake news into their components, by promptly forming the official position of the authorities and by revealing the mechanisms of dissemination of lies.
Yevgen MAGDA, Institute for World Policy (Kyiv)