Do Russians Believe the Propaganda from Putin?

The conspiracy theories hit my phone before I even knew what they were about.

“It was a false flag.”

“It was a covert U.S. operation.”

It was the night of March 22 and I was pulling into Kyiv on the long trip from the Polish border. The connection was patchy. I had to scroll back through the sound and fury of social media to find out what was happening: shooters in an upmarket Moscow mall were slaughtering civilians. Dozens were already dead. The former Russian President, Medvedev, had already blamed Ukraine.

Though ISIS quickly took all responsibility in the coming days, and though the Americans had publicly informed the Russians an attack was coming, Russian propaganda has only increased claims that Ukraine and the West were responsible. There has even been a video on Russian news showing the head of the Ukrainian national security council claiming Ukraine would be arranging more such “fun” in Russia. The video was an AI ‘deep fake.’ The Ukrainians I met thought the propaganda predictable—of course Putin would push these conspiracy theories and use the atrocity to further attack Ukraine. In the next days the attacks on Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure were particularly bad. Russia used the terror attack to fuel more terror.

But I wondered how people inside Russia would react. Would they be persuaded by the Kremlin propaganda? Could one, and was it worth, communicating the truth to them? After all the terrorist attack is a moment of potential vulnerability for Putin: the supposed strongman who promises to keep his people safe, who does so much to insulate Moscow elites from the consequences of war, has allowed a massive terror attacks to take place in an elite Moscow shopping mall.

Two weeks since the atrocity some polls show a majority of Russians say they agree with the government line that Ukraine and the West were behind the attacks. But polls can be difficult in a dictatorship. Other studies—by the same researchers—have shown that many Russians will often go along with whatever Putin says, saying that “the government is right, solely because it is the government and it has power.”

When I lived in Russia in the 2000s, I was always struck how people could hold different versions of ‘truth’ at the same time, revealing them depending on how private the conversation was (or how much had been drunk). In the 2000s there were several such terrorist atrocities. In private Russians would often speculate that the Kremlin itself was behind them—and Putin certainly used these moments as an excuse to introduce harsher rule and wars. Some even speculated that the Kremlin itself put out the conspiracy that it was behind terrorist attacks—it’s better for Putin to seem murderous but all powerful, than so weak he can allow terrorists to murder easily around Moscow. In a political system as murky as Russia’s, such multi-layers of conspiracies flourish. But that also means that it’s easy for the Kremlin to push conspiracy theories, including the latest one.

If what you say you think is less about ‘the truth’ and more about signifying your loyalty, then perhaps a better way to explore the relationship between propaganda and the Russian people is not polling, but looking at the dynamic between propaganda and behaviour, both physical and discursive (what people do and how people talk).

In a new report for Transparency International that I have been advising on, data scientists fused Russian economic, social and online discursive data. They found there were vulnerabilities to the Kremlin’s propaganda.

Take the issue of inflation. Inflation is rising hard in Russia. Costs for cars, for example, have gone up 15% since 2022. While Russian propaganda pushes out stories saying about great salary levels, online discourse shows that people feel their salaries are insufficient. Because of the lack of belief in the future of the currency, people are taking out a high amount of debt, thinking it can be paid back cheaply later: household debt has been increasing 17% in 2023. Government propaganda encourages people to save and not take on more debt; however, peoples’ behaviours shows that they don’t buy this.

Even when government campaigns are successful, they struggle for momentum. For example, Russian propaganda has been pushing stories about how wonderful the Russian medical care is- despite problems with quality medicine since the start of the war. Such propaganda campaigns work for a few weeks, but then the conversation around this topic on social media becomes negative, and the Kremlin tries to drive it up again. Likewise with mobilisation: the Kremlin pushes campaigns promoting recruiting soldiers, the sentiment online to the policy goes up for a few weeks, before going negative again.

This pattern shows how important it is to the Kremlin to control behaviour and the tenor of discourse—and how it struggles to keep control. Perhaps this is the best way to approach ‘public opinion’ in Russia. Rather than about ‘belief’ it should be measured in the extent to which the Kremlin can get people to agree to parrot the official narratives. Indeed the less they believe the lies yet repeat them, the more in control the Kremlin is. This need for control goes deep for Kremlin elites: they worry about losing it in the way the Soviet leadership did in the late 1980s.

That was always the threat the Alexey Navalny posed to the Kremlin. There was little surprising about his videos about Kremlin corruption—everyone assumes officials are corrupt. What was powerful was the way he dared to say the unsayable. So powerful the Kremlin had to kill him.

With Navalny gone who else can deliver such campaigns that question the Kremlin’s grip? Is it time for the West to try them instead? Such campaigns are not about persuading Russians—truth in and of itself plays little role in this system. It’s about showing the Kremlin it has less control than it hopes over the information space.

We should view information the same way we see military production, sanctions or drone strikes. When Ukrainian drones hit Russian oil refineries, they are signaling that Russia doesn’t have control over its main sources of profit. If Ukraine’s allies were to show that we have the resolve to outproduce and sanction Russia effectively, Moscow would start to change its calculations around the risks its war involves.

If we show that the Kremlin can’t keep its grip on what people say and do in Russia, they will also start to think about whether the risk is worth it. Sadly, with the exception of Ukraine’s strikes on Russian oil refineries, we are currently unable or unwilling to do any of the above. The Kremlin is outproducing us militarily; sanctions are weakly enforced; the Kremlin’s hold over the information space does unchallenged. Putin will calculate accordingly.