Strategic Melodrama in the Ukraine Conflict

March 11, 2022
Our perceptions of the Ukraine conflict are a compressed interpretation of a messy reality. Governments and institutions on either side of the conflict are strategically crafting specific messages to portray a particular melodrama. Here, we’ll dissect those messages, and explain why it’s so important to understand them within their own terms.

Of course, we’re not equating the validity of both sides of the conflict (or trying to change your mind). Instead, we hope to help people understand these radically different worldviews and values. This central mission of our organization is premised on the idea that peace is the product of understanding where “the other side” is coming from.

Normally, we do this by examining online conversations around news events. But in wartime, especially when freedom of speech and information is scarce, this approach is insufficient. So instead of looking at Twitter conversations, we looked at official statements from leaders of nine countries:

  • Those supporting Ukraine: Ukraine, USA, and the EU.
  • Those supporting Russia: Russia, Belarus, and Syria.
  • Those who haven’t officially declared a side: China, India, and Iran.


We acknowledge the imperfections of this approach, and it would be inaccurate to generalize these views to the entire population of any country and irresponsible to blindly take the leaders at their word. We also acknowledge, in the interest of transparency, that we are uninterested in being a tool for propaganda. But in order for us to understand the people with whom we disagree, we must consider their position accurately, without subversion, within their own terms.

Need background on recent history in Ukraine? See the appendix at the end of this article.
What are the different perspectives on Russia’s actions?


All parties have expressed concern for the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and the impact of the violence on civilians. All the speeches included calls for dialogue and peaceful negotiations to resolve the conflict, and pledges to support civilians caught in the conflict.


what constitutes Ukrainian territory?

To the countries who support Ukraine,

Ukrainian territory is the internationally recognized territory of Ukraine (including contested areas of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea).

To the countries who support Russia,

the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and Crimea are sovereign territories independent of Ukraine.

who does the Ukrainian government serve?

To the countries who support Ukraine,

Ukraine has a democratically elected government which serves the will of its people.

To the countries who support Russia,

the Ukrainian government is a puppet of the US and the west, and does not serve the Ukrainian people. The Ukrainian government refuses to grant sovereignty to the regions that want it — specifically Crimea, and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.

why is the conflict happening, and who is responsible?

To the countries who support Ukraine,

Russia is unilaterally responsible for the conflict because they have habitually disregarded Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and continue to slander its government. In doing so, Russia is neglecting its international commitments and responsibilities. 

Russia’s disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty through unprovoked military invasion has forced the Ukrainian military and people to take up arms in self defense.

To the countries who support Russia,

Ukraine, with assistance from NATO, the EU, and the US, is responsible for the conflict because it has violated international law by attacking Ukrainian citizens and denying them self-determination.

NATO is also an aggressor in itself since it violated the agreement not to expand eastward, towards Russia. NATO and its allies have neglected Russia’s legitimate security concerns, forcing Russia to act in self defense.

what needs to be done?

To the countries who support Ukraine,

Russia must withdraw its troops and weapons from Ukraine, and respect the sovereignty of Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders.

To the countries who support Russia,

violence against citizens of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea must end, and these regions’ sovereignty must be  recognized.

NATO expansion must end to ensure Russia’s security interests. 

Note that peace talks are ongoing, terms are constantly changing, and the conditions summarized above are based on public statements, as of March 11, 2022.
Strategic Melodramas

The speeches we analyzed were written with a specific purpose in mind: to build support for their country’s strategic interests. The speeches are carefully crafted, highly selective public messages that reflect the worldview of the speaker and aim to define a clear hero and villain in this conflict.

These melodramatic narratives — narratives that create a clear hero and villain dynamic to depict a simple battle between good and evil — is evident in both Russia and Ukraine’s speeches. The two countries take turns equating “the other side” with Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Because of the widespread impact and salience of WWII, this rhetorical shortcut makes it clear that our side is fighting pure evil. Melodramatic narratives can be effective in garnering international and domestic support, and in boosting morale among soldiers by depicting a truly evil enemy. Leaders focused on winning a war don’t want their troops to waste time considering the humanity of the other side in the midst of battle — but the expediency of this melodrama doesn’t make it accurate.

Declaring a group to be unequivocally villainous denies them their humanity. They become a monolithic symbol for evil, instead of fellow human beings who are capable of both good and evil. It simplifies the story to absolve our responsibility to mindfully examine different narratives, and consider the intricacies of our messy reality. 

In practice, strategic melodrama can mean anything from being selective about the information we present to lying about motivations and/or actions taken (or both). Consider what’s presented in the video compilation below, where one set of videos portrays complete destruction in Ukraine, and the other shows images indicating all is well. One compilation might be more representative of reality than the other, but we are not in a position where we can verify this ourselves. Looking at only one side gives a dramatized, one-sided, melodramatic interpretation of a much more complex reality.

So what does all this mean?

It may seem incomprehensible that another person could believe a narrative so different from our own perspective. But when we consider how differences in experience, information, and worldview affect how we interpret new information, we can more easily see how these differences can occur in reasonable people. We’re all shaped by our environments, our values, and our prior experiences, and we use them to interpret the complex events developing around us.

Our hope is that the breakdown of this topic will enable us to see the humanity in all people, regardless of the views they hold.

However, humanizing the other side does not mean we can’t continue to critically examine their arguments or maintain our point of view. And it doesn’t mean we have to consider each side’s narrative as equally true. It just means recognizing our shared pain when those we love fall victim to violence, and our shared desire to protect what we hold dear. It’s extremely important, particularly in morally animated times, that we acknowledge this shared human experience and employ it as a foundation for peace.


Timeline of Ukraine post-USSR from U.S. News and World Report


Key contested territories

Donbas: A region in eastern Ukraine (under Russian control at the time of publication), which includes territories that Russia declared as sovereign from Ukraine on February 21 (which Russia calls the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, often abbreviated DPR and LPR). Quality surveys on what ordinary citizens in this area want is lacking, but according to the Washington Post, about half of citizens are indifferent as to who controls their land. The region is still internationally recognized as part of Ukraine.

CrimeaA contested territory south of Ukraine, which Russia covertly invaded and claims to have successfully annexed in 2014. The territory is still internationally recognized as part of Ukraine.

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