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Soviet origins of Russian information warfare 

Section 1 from “Old Wine in a New Bottle: Russia’s Modernization of Traditional Soviet Information Warfare and Active Policies Against Ukraine and Ukrainians”. 

Taras Kuzio, the Department of Political Science, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, Kyiv, Ukraine

Russian President Putin has not invented anything new, but he has used modern technology and social media to revive Soviet era propaganda and information warfare against Ukraine. During Putin’s service in the KGB, ‘Subversion, disinformation and forgery, combined with the use of special forces, were at the heart of the Soviet Union’s intelligence services’.25 The KGB included a special department responsible for ‘active measures’, which is used today with broader capabilities. KGB chairman and Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, ‘one of Mr Putin’s heroes’, was instrumental in setting up ‘special courses to train operatives in the use of active measures. At the height of the cold war 15,000 officers were working on psychological and disinformation warfare. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the department was renamed but never dismantled.’26 Growing tensions with the West after the Rose and Orange Revolutions, Putin’s turn to great power nationalism, the appearance of new social media, the expansion of Internet capabilities and 24-hour news, and creation of troll factories served to revive what had been Soviet ‘active measures’ in a more aggressive format.27 

Fake news, the information war against ‘Ukrainian fascists’, and all man- ner of hybrid warfare (assassinations, poisonings, paid political agitators and vigilantes) were first used by Russian political technologists during the 2004 Ukrainian elections before the launch of Twitter and Facebook when they were working for the Viktor Yanukovych election campaign.28 Russia’s information warfare capabilities were enhanced by the arrival of Facebook (2004), Twitter, and VKontakte, Russia’s answer to Facebook (both in 2006); greater opportunities on the Internet such as YouTube (2005); and 24-hour TV in the form of Russia Today (2005–2009) and RT (since 2010). 

Russia’s information warfare expanded and broadened at an opportune time of growing populist disillusionment with establishment politics in Europe and the United States and greater belief in conspiracy theories, which had always been popular in Soviet culture. Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian leaders believe in US-backed conspiracies lying behind the Rose, Orange, and Euromaidan Revolutions.29 Conspiracies are becoming increas- ingly popular in developed democracies.30 Sergei Glazyev, a senior adviser to Putin and one of the political technologists behind the ‘Russian Spring’, believes the election of Zelensky is part of a US conspiracy to replace Russians (Slavs) in the Donbas with Israeli Jews.31 A book about the shooting down of MH17 is based on Russian sources, including Russian TV and social media, with the aim of deflecting the blame from Russia on to Ukraine and the West.32 These publications show the degree to which conspiracy theories and fake news are spreading from the media to academic writing in even prestigious academic publishing houses. 

The USSR, in a similar manner to the Russian Federation, targeted Ukraine and the three Baltic states, while ignoring the Russian diaspora. Ukrainian and Baltic nationalists were a threat to the territorial integrity of the USSR, while Russian nationalists were never separatists. 

Ukrainophobia has a long history in the USSR, with Soviet ideological tirades against ‘bourgeois nationalism’, ‘Nazi collaborators’, and ‘agents of Western intelligence services’. These three tenets of Soviet ideological and disinformation campaigns have been revived by Putin’s Russia, although ‘bourgeois’ is rarely used, except with occasional lapses such as Ukrainian ‘bourgeois scum’.33 Attacks on the Ukrainian diaspora are less frequent than in the Soviet era but continue nevertheless. The Russian media have claimed that Canadian foreign policy is controlled by that country’s ‘Ukrainian nationalist’ diaspora, as seen in Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, and this is the only reason why there are sanctions against Russia (not due to Russian actions).34 

Although Russian information warfare is old (Soviet) wine in new bottles, there is an important nuance. The Russian nationalism dominating Russia’s ruling elites during Putin’s presidency denies the existence of the Ukrainian people, which the USSR never did. Soviet historiography and nationality policies described Ukrainians as very close to Russians but nevertheless a separate people living in a ‘sovereign republic’ and with a seat at the UN. 

Nationalist émigré writers are growing in popularity, and pre-Soviet Russian historiography has been revived and has become the dominant narrative. The author Ivan Ilyin, who is popular with Putin, denied the very existence of Ukrainians.35 It is therefore not surprising that opinions in contemporary Russian views of Ukraine and Ukrainians are returning to those that existed in the pre-Soviet period. The Tsarist Empire has been rehabilitated, the USSR is decried but at the same time integrated, the Soviet Union is valorized as a great power, and ethnic minorities are demoted to an inferior status on television, which is dominated by Russian great power nationalism.36 

In the Soviet Union, although Russian nationalism was officially permitted to flourish within the Communist Party, KGB, Russian literary journals, and history writing, it was nevertheless kept within ideologically constrained boundaries. When Russian nationalists occasionally dissented from these constraints, they could be imprisoned and accused of anti-Soviet crimes. 


24 M. Schwirtz and S. Frenkel, ‘In Ukraine, Russia Tests a New Facebook Tactic in Election Tampering’, New York Times, 29 March 2019, propaganda.html

25 ‘The Fog of Wars’, Economist, 22 October 2016,

26 Ibid.

27 P. N. Tanchak, ‘The Invisible Front’, pp. 253, 261.

28 T. Kuzio, ‘Russian Policy to Ukraine During Elections’, Demokratizatsiya 13 (Fall 2005) pp. 491–517; and T. Kuzio, ‘State-Led Violence in Ukraine’s 2004 Elections and Orange Revolution’, Communist and Post-Communist Studies 43 (2010) pp. 383–95. 

29 T. Kuzio, ‘Soviet Conspiracy Theories and Political Culture in Ukraine: Understanding Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions’, Communist and Post-Communist Studies 44 (September 2011) pp. 221–32. 

30 A. Merlan, ‘Why We Are Addicted to Conspiracy Theories’, The Guardian, 2 May 2019,; and ‘Suspicious Minds, Conspiracy Theories Are Flourishing’, The Economist, 9 March 2019,

31 S. Glazyev, ‘Okkupatsiya’, Zavtra, 7 May 2019,

32 A. Matveeva, Through Times of Trouble, pp. 157–58; and K. Van der Pijl, Flight MH17, Ukraine and the New Cold 

War: Prism of Disaster (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2018) pp. 115–19, 124, 139, 159.

33 ‘Chaos and Hate: What Russian Social Network VKontakte Says About Ukrainian Election’, Ukraine World, 23 March 2019,

CONTACT Taras Kuzio Department of Political Science National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy 2 Skovoroda Street Kyiv 04070 Ukraine

The opinions expressed in this Blog page are not necessarily those of

British-Ukrainian Aid.



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