Annexation of History - Russian Hybrid war and Ukraine

News | Memory and Disinformation Studies | Analysis 27 April 2022

Authors: Nino Gozalishvli, Megi Kartsivadze, Eka Kalandadze

Editor: Anton Vacharadze

Translated by: Mariam Kalandadze


On April 20, at a meeting of the Supervisory Board of the non-governmental organization “Russia – Country of Opportunity” (АНО «Россия – страна возможностей»)"), Russian President Vladimir Putin supported the modification of historical education in schools to combat false narratives about the situation in Ukraine. He said schoolchildren in Russia are particularly vulnerable to false news from the West and Ukraine.


"Children are spreading misinformation about the ongoing special operation in Ukraine. We have already conducted lessons in social sciences and history in schools, where we talked about what is really happening in Ukraine, what is the purpose of the special operation," Kravtsov told Putin at the meeting. It is noteworthy that the session was broadcasted live on the social network "Vkontakte".


The Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation plans to introduce the teaching of history in schools from the first grade. This was announced by the head of the Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation Sergei Kravtsov on April 19 at the first Russian school-historical forum "Power in Truth!".  He noted that from September 1, history will be studied within the existing subjects, for which no additional lessons are planned. He added that the textbooks would cover "events related to the special operation".


"We will do our best to preserve the historical memory. We have decided to start historical education in schools from the first grade," Kravtsov said. He also spoke about raising the flag and introducing the national anthem in schools on a weekly basis.


In addition, Sergei Kravtsov noted that the Federal Law on Education may include a new chapter on education. It should be noted that in 2020, the deputies of the State Duma passed in the third reading the bill initiated by President Vladimir Putin on the education of schoolchildren, including patriotism and citizenship, which, according to Kravtsov, is a precondition for a new reform.


"An important step has already been taken, with a bill initiated by the president two years ago - that is, in fact, the return of education to school. And as the next step - we will probably have a separate chapter in the law on education - a chapter on education," TACC quoted the minister as saying.


Earlier, political scientist Yaroshenko, a member of the Digoriya Club of Experts, spoke about the information war going on between Russia and the collective West.


"The Western information war against Russia directly achieves the opposite goals. The West is trying to divide Russian society, radicalize it and take it to the streets, confront social groups, but instead of splitting into Russian society amid external pressures and threats, there is a clear tendency to consolidate its citizens," he said.


History of Russian Hybrid War


The Russian hybrid war is characterized by a very wide and diverse strategy and means. Its implementation, by means of horizontal dissemination of disinformation, is less centralized and involves several thematic, strategic and targeted aspects simultaneously.  Falsifying history, distorting facts and using it without context is one of the most important strategies in modern Russian hybrid warfare. In contrast to the traditional "soft power" policy, in which approval and persuasion strategies play a leading role[1], the Kremlin's modern hybrid warfare can be said to prioritize "intimidation-love" and strategies of weakening the Western value system.[2]


One of the most visible examples of the active practice of instrumentalization of history is the change in the criminal code by the Russian Federation in 2014 under section 354-1 ("Rehabilitation of Nazism"). The change involves criminalizing the dissemination of false information about the actions of the Soviet Union during World War II. The classification of false information, however, remained the prerogative of the Russian court. As a result of this change, those suspected of spreading "false information" face up to 3 years in prison. This was followed by a constitutional change in 2020. Article 67-1, which deals with history, states that the Russian Federation is the successor to the Soviet Union and that it "respects the memory of the defenders of the homeland and upholds the historical truth."[3] In part, in response to Russian "laws of history," Ukraine also passed new "decommunization laws" in 2015, which outlawed "criminal denial of the 1917-1991 regime in Ukraine" and banned both communist and Nazi symbols.


From the lessons of the Soviet totalitarian system, monopolizing and copying historical narratives, locally and internationally, is an effective tool. Thus, history and the hegemony over ambition to interpret it again fell into the interests of the Kremlin and became an important tool of its hybrid warfare. Russian historical propaganda does not only concern the Russian Federation and the Russian people, but also aims to undermine the credibility of other nations at the international level and to monopolize their historical narratives[4]. As much as history affects the perception of political developments, its influence is important and relevant for public perceptions and their electoral behavior.


Presenting Russia as a different, Eurasian civilization mainly means demonstrating its values ​​and culture as different from the rest of the world. The most striking feature of this distinction is considered to be Orthodox Christianity, in the name of which there is often a confrontation with Western values. In this way, Russia is presented as an alternative civilization to Western liberal democracy, which upholds so-called traditional values, but it serves not only to maintain its regime within Russia, but also to maintain and expand Russia's already existing spheres of influence. The concept of Russian foreign policy states that in order to increase Russia's role in the international arena, one of the main priorities of the Russian government is to spread the Russian language and culture through educational institutions, civil society and the media around the world. For this reason, the Russian government also successfully uses historical narratives to manipulate the countries it considers part of Eurasian civilization, not only with its political present and future, but also with its past.[5]


In this regard, Russia usually uses manipulative narratives about various episodes of World War II.  Highlighting the topic of World War II by Putin’s administration (known in Russia as the "Great Patriotic War") was primarily related to the development of a new national narrative, which, on the one hand, served to increase and maintain Putin's rating, and, in particular, Crimea in 2014. On the other hand the legitimation of aggressive foreign policy after annexation.It is noteworthy that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a serious identity crisis erupted among the Russian population, and for a long time it was impossible to create new national identities and narratives within new geographical boundaries, political realities and international agendas until the Putin government promoted a patriotic narrative about “the Great Patriotic War".  This narrative proved to be  politically advantageous because, on the one hand, stories and myths about the heroism and suffering of the Russian people evoked a sense of unity in the Russian nation, and, on the other, portrayal of  Russia as an "European savior", ignoring the West's greatest contribution to victory stirred  patriotic and imperialist sentiments.Outside the country, Russia's monopoly on victory in World War II serves to strengthen and legitimize Russia's exclusive influence in the post-Soviet space.[6] This is confirmed by the 2021 statement of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Sergey Lavrov. According to him, portraying Joseph Stalin as the main villain of his era is an attack on Russia's past and the results of World War II. He made the announcement in the city of Volgograd, where he was meeting with veterans of World War II. Also on July 1, 2021, Vladimir Putin signed a law  banning Russian of equating the role of the USSR with Nazi Germany in World War II .


Weaponization of disputes over historic territories is an important part of Putin's domestic and foreign policy. This was demonstrated by his interview in 2016, in which he emphasizes the importance of rethinking the post-World War II territorial order in the case of Kaliningrad, as well as in East Germany and Central Europe.[7] One of the clear goals of this policy is to promote disputes between the countries of the regions (Between Slovakia and Hungary, Hungary and Romania, Hungary and Ukraine, Poland and Germany, and the Czech Republic and Germany) by historical revisionism.Thus, the Kremlin's modern methods are to some extent based on Soviet "active actions" aimed at destabilizing political processes in other countries. In this respect, the Russian hybrid war involves not only the historical methods but also the weaponizing of historical narratives.




The controversy between Ukrainian and Russian historical narratives and collective memories spans many years. Russian nationalists often do not even consider Ukraine as an independent state, and the Ukrainian people as a separate nation. Since Kievan Rus' Ukraine and Russia have shared many tragedies or triumphs, the history of the two nations is indeed intertwined. However, Russian nationalists usually interpret it in such a way as to reject the idea of ​​Ukraine's independence. Nowadays, one of the participants of such discourse is the Russian Government, whose representatives even question Ukraine's independence in official statements. However, in addition to the historiographical debate, in recent years the Russian authorities have been actively manipulating the recent history of Ukraine in order to stir up discord and controversy among the Ukrainian people. In September 2019, the European Parliament even issued a resolution condemning Russia's attempts to encourage polarization in neighboring countries through intelligence operations by glorifying the Soviet past. By studying various manipulative historical narratives, the report, published by the London School of Economics, in the Ukrainian context, focuses on Russia's attempts to deepen polarization in society through the instrumentalization of historical narratives.[8]


This disinformation campaign in Ukraine, which is based on historical narratives, was most active in 2013-2014, in the context of Euromaidan. Media outlets affiliated with the Kremlin referred to Euromaidan protesters as “Banderites”, a Soviet Russian term for Ukrainian nationalists who fought alongside the Nazis in World War II.  Even against the background of the annexation of Crimea, Soviet and Russian imperialist narratives were actively spread to justify the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia, and the battles in eastern Ukraine appeared not as a battle between Russia and Ukraine but as a struggle against Ukrainian fascists. These narratives were even voiced by Russian President Vladimir Putin on an official level: "Everything in Crimea speaks to our common history. This is the area of ​​ancient chersonesus (Khersones) where Prince Vladimir was baptized. "Crimea has always been in the hearts and minds of the people and is still an integral part of Russia." These narratives were even voiced officially by Russian President Vladimir Putin: "Everything in Crimea speaks to our common history. This is the area of ​​ancient Chersonesus where Prince Vladimir was baptized. Crimea has always been in the hearts and minds of the people and is still an integral part of Russia." In the same speech, Putin also referred to Euromaidan as a revolution organized by Ukrainian neo-Nazis: "Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites carried out this coup d'etat."[9]


Manipulative narratives about the recent history of Ukraine are spread through both traditional and social media. As part of a joint project of Internews and Ukraine World, the researchers analyzed 850,000 posts on the Russian social network Vkontakte and 16,000 posts on Facebook from January 2016 to April 2019. Based on the results of their research, it is possible to identify several key narratives that are actively manipulated by actors associated with the Kremlin:


 - The portrayal of Ukrainians as neo-Nazis and the ongoing war in Donbas as a continuation of World War II - separatists fighting Ukrainian "fascists".


- Presenting southern and eastern Ukraine as a historical part of Russia. Also, the claim that the Crimean peninsula is the land of ancient Russia and the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy (all this happens based on  the fact that the Russian historical narrative about Crimea completely ignores the heritage of the Crimean Tatars and other ethnic or religious minorities).


- Narratives focused on portraying the Soviet Union as a “super nation” and arousing Soviet nostalgia in the Ukrainian population. These narratives are usually accompanied by the assertion that the creation of the Ukrainian state is the merit of the Bolsheviks.


The same study showed that the narratives circulated by pages and reports associated with the Kremlin also included allegations that the Ukrainian and Russian peoples were historically one nation, which was then artificially divided; Ukrainian nationalists are in fact the ideological successors of war criminals, fascists and Nazis; Life was better in the Soviet Union. Finally, the authors of the study conclude that the annexation of Crimea by Russia was preceded by a "history annexation."


It should also be noted that in 2014, the Russian government passed several laws in history, one of which is the "Law against the Rehabilitation of Nazism."  In fact, the main purpose of this law was to justify the hostilities in eastern Ukraine, so much so that the Russian side portrayed the Ukrainians as Nazis and fascists. In part, in response to Russian "laws of history," Ukraine also passed new "decommunization laws" in 2015, which outlawed "criminal denial of the 1917-1991 regime in Ukraine" and banned both communist and Nazi symbols.Another important topic connected to the historical narratives of Ukraine is World War II, its commemoration and related symbolism. In 2015, Ukraine passed the Law on “the Immortality of Victory over Nazism in 1939-1945”, which changed the symbols and events associated with the victory of World War II. For example, the term "Great Patriotic War" was changed to "World War II" and the date of the start of the war was set at 1939 instead of the Russian version - 1941. In addition, earlier Ukraine celebrated the victory over fascism, like Russia and other post-Soviet states, on May 9, now a two-day holiday - May 8 and 9 - has been announced. Accordingly, in parallel with May 9, Ukraine, like Western countries, celebrates National Remembrance Day on May 8. In connection with this new law, the Russian and pro-Russian media actively disseminated manipulative information and misinformation aimed at encouraging polarization among the Ukrainian population (especially between Russians and Ukrainians).[10]


In response to the spread of manipulative narratives about the history of Ukraine by Russia, the Ukrainian side has carried out activities in several directions. First of all, the Ukrainian media launched a number of projects focused on debunking Russian and Soviet myths. For example, Channel 5 aired several series entitled "Ukraine is not Russia", Channel 1 + 1 also aired a series entitled "Ukraine: Return to its own history", and the program "History Hour" developed programs such as "Soviet fake news about World War II". The National Institute of Memory of Ukraine also worked to dispel Russian and Soviet historical myths.  The institute also initiated the deconstruction of Russian historical narratives about the "Ukrainian Rebel Army". As a result, the institute developed projects such as "10 Myths about the Ukrainian Rebel Army" and "War and Myth: The Unknown World War II", which aimed to dispel Soviet myths about World War II. Although several successful projects have been implemented in Ukraine aimed at opposing Russian manipulative narratives, as reported by the London School of Economics, the fact that the Ukrainian media pays so much attention to Russian falsification of history, proves that the "historic agenda" is still being set by Russia.[11]


Through the methods and narratives reviewed in the analysis, Russia has for years been preparing an ideological basis and an appropriate historical narrative to legitimize the invasion of Ukraine. Thus, history plays an important role in the production of Russian foreign policy and should therefore be reflected in political analysis as well. The case of Ukraine is, of course, particularly exemplary and relevant to the rest of the post-Soviet countries, which have set a strategic goal of democratic transformation and Western integration. For Georgia, the case of the aggressive invasion of Ukraine and the instrumentalization of historical narratives deserve special attention from civil society, the academia and government forces.





[1] Alexander Sergunin and Leonid Karabeshkin, “Understanding Russia’s Soft Power Strategy,” Politics 35, no. 3–4 (November 1, 2015): 347–63,

[2] Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss, “The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money,” 2014,

[3] “Putin’s New Constitution: The Court Weighs In | Wilson Center,” accessed July 19, 2021,

[4] Ivo Juurvee et al., “Falsification of History as a Tool of Influence” (StratCom | NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence Riga, Latvia, January 2021),

[5] Koposov, Nikolay. Memory Laws, Memory Wars: The Politics of the Past in Europe and Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2018), pp. 177-206. 


[7] “Putin Discusses Trump, OPEC, Rosneft, Brexit, Japan (Transcript) - Bloomberg,” accessed July 19, 2021,







This material has been financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida. Responsibility for the content rests entirely with the creator. Sida does not necessarily share the expressed views and interpretations.



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