In Word and In Action, “Provocations” Are the Tools of Unfree Regimes6 min read
With Russia on the brink of invading Ukraine, this textbook propaganda weapon must be effectively countered.
Provokatsiya. Follow Russian politics for long enough, and one soon becomes desensitised to the word. Whenever given a tough question about protests at home, allegations of election interference, or anything at all in Ukraine, it’s usually only a matter of time before the sharp, biting consonants of provokatsiya roll effortlessly off the tongue of Russian president Vladimir Putin. In Syria, Turkey’s accidental shooting down of a Russian jet, US strikes on Russian mercenaries, and accusations of chemical weapons attacks by the government have all been individually derided as “planned provocations” by Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. When Russians took to the streets a year ago to protest the arrest of Alexei Navalny, the call of “Citizens! Do not give in to provocations, leave this area!” rang out from police loudspeakers over city streets all over Russia.
It’s not always clear who is meant to be provoking whom, and to what ends, in these situations. What is clear is that the desired effect is to quickly smear one’s opponents as malicious agents of chaos, seeking to raise tempers and spur events on towards violent challenges to order and stability.
Invariably, cracking down on provokatsiya is easier to justify than on peaceful protesters, and the same holds true in the international arena. In the context of Russia’s build-up of troops around Ukraine, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu’s allegation in December that US mercenary groups were preparing provocations with “an unidentified chemical component” in the Donbas is a worrying foreshadowing of what a pretext for invasion might look like.
For all their apparent dislike of provokatsiya, the authoritarian leaders of the former Soviet Union don’t mind dabbling in it themselves when it suits them. During Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution, the wintry streets of Kyiv were roamed by the infamous titushki, plain-clothes thugs hired by President Viktor Yanukovych to escalate the violence on both sides of anti-government protests. With their violent assault on attacks on initially peaceful demonstrations, the titushki helped to quickly escalate the level of violence, helping to justify the increasingly brutal police response that followed.
In the lead-up to tumultuous presidential elections in Belarus in 2020, blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky was emerging as one of the strongest challengers to the 26-year rule of Alexander Lukashenko when he fell victim to provokatsiya. At a meeting with voters in Hrodno in June, Tikhanovsky was relentlessly harassed by a civilian woman questioning why he had held the event during a pandemic, to which Tikhanovsky walked briskly away, calling on his supporters “not to give in to provocations”’. In a bizarre episode caught on camera, the woman complained to waiting police, who confronted Tikhanovsky in a deliberate attempt to escalate the situation; one push from his supporter was enough for the officers to quickly bundle Tikhanovsky away in a van. The rest is history: his wife Svetlana took over his campaign, Belarus was flooded by protests against falsified elections, and in December last year, Tikhanovsky was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Even in Russia, where last year’s protests did not present any real challenge to the state, authorities felt the need to turn to provokatsiya. In one obviously contrived incident on 31 January in Moscow, a lone attacker was recorded walking sheepishly towards OMON riot police. As he approached the armoured offices, the man slowly raised a baton and shouted “Are you out of your ****ing mind?”, hardly even attempting to strike his would-be adversary before he was swiftly brought to the ground and taken away. Sure enough, Russian media quickly circulated the clip as an example of the violent nature of the otherwise peaceful protests.
None of these stories should come as surprises for anyone familiar with how these regimes operate. It’s worth noting, though, that these tactics, bound to the ubiquitous marker of provokatsiya, had been part of Soviet political information policy since the founding of the USSR. In the early months of the Russian Civil War, some of the first ever Bolshevik prison camps were set up by Leon Trotsky first and foremost to hold “provocateurs, counterrevolutionaries, saboteurs and parasites.” During the height of Stalin’s purges, arrested political opponents were often imprisoned together with NKVD “provocateurs”, there to extract confessions that could assist in convicting them as Trotskyists or enemies of the state.
The multilayered opportunities offered by provokatsiya made it a favoured Soviet propaganda tool in both war and peace. In his analysis of the linguistics of early Soviet cinema, Yury Kostylev points out how in the portrayal of characters representing the enemies of the motherland, writers would use the word provokatsiya, “already tried and tested both as an instrument of propaganda and as a label” for political opponents.
In the case most foreboding for today, the Soviet Union’s disastrous attack on Finland in 1939 was begun with textbook military provocation, when the Soviet village of Mainila was shelled, resulting in the deaths of four Red Army servicemen. Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov quickly declared the incident a “brazen provocation”, cut diplomatic relations with Finland, and within four days, Soviet tanks were crossing the border to begin what would be known as the Winter War. Only much later did Nikita Khrushchev admit in his memoirs that it was the Soviets, specifically commander Grigoriy Kulik, who shelled their own position in a provocation of their own to justify war.
Whether as an action or a label, the meaning, direction, and application of provokatsiya is fluid by design. To engage with it is to play into the hands of one’s opponent.
With Russian troops and equipment continuing to gather on the Ukrainian border, and diplomatic efforts failing miserably de-escalating tensions, the prospect of a large-scale attack on Ukraine is now serious, bordering on likely. If—in what would be the most destructive conflict in Europe since 1945—Russian troops and equipment do cross the border into Ukraine, the prospects of Moscow citing “provocations” of some sort as justification for invasion is likely, bordering on certain.
Ukraine and the US have already been hard at work to pre-emptively expose any acts of provocation that could provide Russia with a pretext. On 15 January, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki warned that according to information recently gained by Washington, Russia has already placed operatives within Ukraine for the purpose of carrying out a false flag operation in the near future. Four days later, Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications issued its own warning of the possibility that civilians celebrating Orthodox Epiphany could be shelled by pro-Russian forces at Tsehlyanyi Pond in occupied Donetsk Oblast, an attack which would be blamed on Kyiv as a possible pretext for war.
On 12 February, as Western embassies began withdrawing staff from Ukraine in quick succession, Russia surprised many observers by beginning to do the same. But how do you explain evacuating staff from an impending invasion that you yourself deny will happen? Provokatsiya, of course.
In the words of Volgograd State University’s Marina Zheltukhina, “Provokatsiya as a tool to manipulate public awareness has always been based on mythology”. Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine is very real, but any pretext presented by Moscow will certainly reside in the realm of myth. Exposing the myths before they become twisted into reality will be vital in the coming days. In the meantime, those who resist authoritarian regimes at home and abroad would be wise to stop giving legitimacy to the bearer of the myth, to the word provokatsiya itself.