Arm Ukraine, but don’t fuel President Putin’s propaganda machine

Many nations are providing much-needed military equipment to help Ukraine battle against President Putin’s unprovoked, illegal, and ill-conceived invasion. Many are also applying hard-hitting sanctions to impose costs and penalties on people and organizations associated with the regime and its invasion of Ukraine.

Those nations’ leaders are also explaining the reasons for their actions, while also declaring their support for Ukraine and their condemnation of the Putin regime.

Unfortunately, some of their rhetoric unwittingly fuels President Putin’s propaganda machine, bolstering his case to the Russian people and reinforcing his dangerously deluded view of the West’s goals.

Of course, President Putin’s regime deserves firm and forceful condemnation, but statements about “bringing down the Putin regime” and “seeing Russia weakened” backfire by playing into Russia’s twisted narrative about the West and the Kremlin’s “special military operation” against Ukraine.

According to President Putin, that “special military operation” is to thwart NATO’s relentless advance towards Russia and remove Ukraine’s government of “Nazis and drug addicts”. He also maintains that Ukraine’s government is in place only through a revolution brought about by Western meddling.

He has seen many “colour revolutions” replace “strongman” regimes with governments determined to democratise their countries, and he is convinced that the West has fuelled those popular uprisings through aid and NGOs.

Statements about “bringing down the Putin regime” and “seeing Russia weakened” backfire by playing into Russia’s twisted narrative about the West and the Kremlin’s “special military operation” against Ukraine.

He made that view clear in January when he sent forces to help Kazakhstan to quell popular protests, stating, “we won’t let anyone destabilise the situation in our home and won’t allow the so-called colour revolution scenario to play out”.

And the ousting of former President Viktor Yanukovych’s in Ukraine’s 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” has special significance for President Putin, given the broad and deep cultural ties between Russia and Ukraine. That made Ukraine a particularly disconcerting model that President Putin would not like to gain traction in Russia.  He fears that a successful, democratic Ukraine – more so than any other former Soviet Republic – will make the Russian people wonder about the sharp contrast with their own circumstances.

This explains his gross misrepresentation of Ukraine’s government as illegitimate, aggressive, and oppressive, and the West as a malign, subversive force. It is also why he is determined that the Ukrainian government should fail and why all those working with the West are seen as spies and traitors.

In that context, Western leaders’ statements about weakening Russia and removing his regime play straight into the Kremlin’s propaganda narrative. As Sir Roderic Lyne, a former UK Ambassador to Russia has put it, “These are gifts to Vladimir Putin and his propagandists. He seeks to convince his people that the West is attacking and trying to dismember Russia”.

Furthermore, those propaganda gifts can sow needless confusion between the rationale for international assistance and the goals Ukraine sets itself.

NATO nations – and others – have carefully calibrated their assistance to ensure that their own armed forces are not engaged in the conflict: providing armaments and training, imposing sanctions, delivering humanitarian assistance, and supporting refugees are quite distinct from putting forces on to the battlefield to fight alongside Ukraine’s own. Unfortunately, some leaders have exercised less care in calibrating their rhetoric, talking about their own strategic hopes, aspirations, and predictions as though these are Ukraine’s military goals.

Doubtless, Ukraine and its supporters all hope that Ukraine will succeed in ejecting President Putin’s forces from Ukrainian territory, reducing Russia’s capacity for mischief making and shaking domestic support for the Putin regime. But hopes and aspirations are not the same as military goals, and it is up to Ukraine to set, adapt and achieve its own strategic and operational goals in countering President Putin’s war of aggression.

Western leaders certainly should not hold back in their criticism of President Putin, his regime, and his appalling war of aggression against Ukraine.

But there is no need for arguments and narratives that fuel the Kremlin’s own disinformation campaigns. As the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has stated, “What the UK is doing…[is] helping the Ukrainians protect themselves against barbaric aggression by Vladimir Putin. That’s all we’re doing.”

President Putin’s illegal war of aggression is so appalling, there is no need to say more.