Putin Participates in Russian Propaganda’s ‘Active Measures’

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 91

(Source: Kremlin.ru)

Executive Summary:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sharing of the number of contracted soldiers, prisoners, and losses, as well as yield of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons demonstrate that he is an active participant in Kremlin propaganda’s “active measures.”
  • Putin seeks to demoralize Ukrainian society with the alleged number of losses and prisoners of war, threaten European political elites with non-strategic nuclear arms, and appease the Russian population.
  •  The numerical discrepancies Putin shares and the chaos within the Kremlin system indicate instability in Moscow, which will likely unravel as the war continues.

On June 4, one day before the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum began, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke extensively about military issues. In contrast with his statements at the same forum in 2022 and 2023, he provided several sensitive numbers, including the dynamic of recruiting contracted soldiers, the number of prisoners of war on both sides, the number of losses, and even the yield of the Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons. These numbers, however, demonstrate that Putin is personally participating in Russian security and intelligence “active measures” (aktivniye meropriyatiya, the term for disinformation and psychological operations performed by Russian propagandists) (see EDM, May 13). Putin’s statements seek to demoralize Ukrainian society with the alleged number of losses and prisoners of war, threaten European political elites with non-strategic nuclear arms to cause discord in their solidarity with the United States, and reassure the Russian population. The main reason for his activity, however, may be the slowly shrinking time that Russia still has to imitate unrivaled military power and continue its war against Ukraine (Kremlin.ru, June 5; Kremlin.ru, June 7).

Putin stated that more than 160,000 men signed contracts for military service in the Russian Armed Forces between January and May. This means 32,000 new soldiers would have had to sign on each month, approximately 1,000 soldiers each day. He compared this with the, reportedly, more than 300,000 newly contracted soldiers attained in 2023. In contrast, however, less than six months ago, the Kremlin leader previously said that about 486,000 newly contracted soldiers were signed during 2023 (Gazeta.ru, December 14, 2023; see EDM, December 20, 2023). Earlier this year,  Dmitry Medvedev, former president and current deputy chair of the Russian Security Council, said that 53,000 men had been recruited during the first 50 days of 2024, again approximately 1,000 new soldiers each day (RBC.ru, February 19). The official recruiting dynamic appears linear, as from May to December 2023. That means the numbers are likely falsified as linear recruitment is nearly impossible, even with a strict plan. Nevertheless, with these numbers, the Kremlin leadership still presents Russia as a country with endless manpower and endless will to continue the war, even as regional officials are having to increase payments to encourage people to sign contracts with the armed forces (Kremlin.ru, June 7; RBC.ru, May 28).

On the number of losses, Putin claimed that Russia is losing five-times fewer soldiers than Ukraine. This would mean only 5,000 Russian losses a month compared to 25,000 losses in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Despite how unbelievable this proportion looks, which, if true, would make all the officially declared hundreds of thousands of contracted and mobilized soldiers in Russia unnecessary, Putin is trying to create frustration within Ukrainian society, and he hopes to demoralize Western support for Ukraine. In this case, the Kremlin leader is trying to take advantage of the fact that Ukrainian officials do not publicly publish their losses (Kremlin.ru, June 5).

Simultaneously, Putin is likely trying to appease the Russian population, which is becoming slowly but increasingly aware of the actual number of combat losses (see EDM, February 26, April 1). This is evidenced in how Russian officials saw a significant threat in the discontent and protest of the wives of mobilized soldiers against the war and proclaimed the movement an act of “foreign agents” (see EDM, April 16; Minjust.gov.ru, May 31). The Russian army’s casualties are much higher than the losses incurred during the nine-year Afghan war and 11-year Chechen wars put together. Even so, the Kremlin only speaks about how Ukraine is supposedly suffering five-times higher losses and will not be able to resist much longer.

Putin’s third central point covered nuclear arms. On the one hand, his rhetoric merely represents  another round of the Kremlin’s nuclear blackmailing. On the other hand, it is the first time that the actual yield of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons of 70–75 kilotons has been officially and publicly declared. Notably, Putin tried to present Russian non-strategic nukes as more powerful than the US arsenal because the American B61-12 tactical gravity bombs have several yield options from 0.3 to 50 kilotons, which is lower than the capability of Russian weapons (Airforce Technology, November 6, 2020).

Beyond seeking to divide the Western alliance, Putin is also trying to demonstrate that Moscow is ready to discuss its non-strategic nuclear arsenal in exchange for discussing Russia’s status in Ukraine. He made the same point earlier this year regarding other strategic stability issues, including space security (see EDM, February 23; Kremlin.ru, February 29).

As a result, Moscow continues its classic tactics of imitating unrivaled military power, on the one hand, and demonstrating false promises to negotiate, on the other (see EDM, February 6, 26). The recent random changes in Russian leadership demonstrates how Russia is imitating that it is a great military power and strong and stable government. For example, the last time the Governmental Coordination Council on the Needs of the Armed Forces met was in February. This contrasts with the regular meetings previously held every one or two months since its establishment in October 2022. Additionally, Putin held only two meetings with commanders of military districts in May and June compared to a much higher frequency of such meetings before (Government.ru, accessed June 13, 2024; Kremlin.ru, June 12). The numerical discrepancies Putin shares and the chaos within the Kremlin system are indicative of instability in Moscow, which will likely only continue to unravel as the long war rages on.