A steely-eyed Russian insurgent sits in a dingy tunnel, patiently loading rounds into an AK-47 magazine.
From far above the tunnel, the viewer can hear the sound of distant, muffled explosions. The blasts are slight, but reverberate through the brick walls and shake dust from an overhead crevice. Propaganda leaflets litter the floor.
The insurgent is preparing for war in a fictional, future Ukraine taken over by right-wing extremists.
One leaflet shows an expanded Ukraine that’s grown to absorb the neighboring Russian province of Krasnodar Krai. A Wolfsangel—a hooked neo-Nazi symbol used by the far right—can be seen emblazoned over Ukraine, rendered in black.
The insurgent loads the last bullet and slaps the magazine into his rifle. He chambers a round with a ka-chun” sound. He stands up—his boot stomping on the leaflets—and heads for the stairs. A relaxing Russian song styled after Cuban jazz plays in the background.
It’s all fiction, but it’s an unnerving bit of propaganda that’s spread through Russian social media in recent weeks.
Entitled They Came in Vain, the video first made an appearance last month on a YouTube channel called Donetsk Partizan … and proceeded to rack up more than a half-million views.
It has fairly good production values, indicating some time went into making it. But it’s nothing a high-definition camera and some competently arranged lighting couldn’t do.
The video is also consistent with how Russia’s state-owned media has portrayed the conflict with Ukraine. The way the video presents the situation, Russia is under threat from an expansionist, neo-fascist Ukraine with its eyes on expanding its territory at Russia’s expense.
“But what the story is about is rather a sort of continuation of World War II in the near future, when there exists a pro-Russian ‘Donetsk Republic,’ as indicated by the passport of the die-hard partisan fighter,” blogged Lars Gyllenhaal, a Swedish military historian.
As propaganda, it has a loose connection to the facts. Ukraine’s new government quickly moved to marginalize the far right, which was a prominent force in street fighting, but which then proceeded to splinter in the wake of the Maidan revolution.
Crimea is also shown as part of the new fascist Ukraine. But it’s worth noting the video was released after Russia invaded Crimea. And the idea of Ukraine successfully invading and annexing Russian territory is both politically ludicrous and militarily impossible.
However, the video also represents a heightening of violent symbolism.
Another video posted one week ago shows an interview with a Ukrainian right-wing activist taken from a BBC documentary interposed with a pro-Russian insurgent readying a hand grenade.
The videos are also eerily beginning to merge with reality.
In recent days, gunmen seized the police headquarters in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk. Ukrainian special forces arrested around 70 protesters who seized an administration building in Kharkiv, also in Ukraine’s east.
But in the southeastern city of Donetsk, separatists took control of the city’s administration building before declaring an independent “Donetsk People’s Republic,” in addition to flying the secessionist state’s tricolor black, blue and red flag.
This is dangerous ground. Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers are still just across the border and in Crimea. If Ukraine moves troops to retake these buildings, Russia may intervene.
“We call for the immediate cessation of any military preparations, which are fraught with the risk of unleashing civil war,” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement, according to The Wall Street Journal.
But secessionist propaganda is also glamorizing the possibility. The danger of propaganda is that once you start envisioning—and agitating—for a conflict, you make that conflict more likely.