Russian state news is one of Putin's greatest weapons during his struggling Ukraine war
- Putin's crackdown on the free press accelerated following the war in Ukraine.
- Getting access to independent news is not impossible in Russia, but it's become more and more difficult.
By virtually eliminating the independent press in Russia and ensuring state media echoes Kremlin talking points, Russian President Vladimir Putin has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep the Russian populace in the dark on the human toll from the Ukraine war.
Putin's crackdown on the free press — and dissent more generally — began years ago. But the Kremlin's efforts to control the media landscape in Russia reached new heights after Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February.
"Obviously, this is not the first media crackdown under Putin. But there is a difference in degree in terms of what happened after the war versus before," Maya Vinokour, an assistant professor in the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, told Insider. "Any major independent outlet that you can name has now been shuttered."
In this vacuum of independent media, the cries of Russian state TV personalities resound: that Russia is blameless and the West is the real instigator, that Ukraine is a Nazi state, that World War III has begun. Some experts say Putin's regime has been remarkably, unsettlingly effective in controlling the Russian populace's perception of the war, while others warn that Moscow has isolated the country to such an extent that it's hard to know what people there truly believe anymore.
Among other steps to tighten his grip over the narrative, Putin signed a law barring the media from calling the Ukraine war a "war," instead requiring journalists and pundits to refer to the full-scale invasion as a "special operation." Russian journalists who haven't fallen in line have been placed on wanted lists. Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, blocked access to independent news websites over their coverage of the war. Major social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have also been blocked in Russia in relation to the war.
Facing pressure from the government over their reporting, multiple prominent print, radio, and TV outlets — including Echo of Moscow, Novaya Gazeta, and TV Rain — closed up shop or suspended operations since the war began.
Vinokour said that some of these outlets have reconstituted in various ways outside of Russia, and there are Russians who access banned websites via virtual private networks. Many Russians are also active on Telegram, a social media and chat app that's not been banned, where independent news sources are fighting to counter the often false, conspiratorial posts from Russian state outlets.
In short, independent Russian outlets aiming to offer accurate reporting that challenge the government do still exist and have an audience. But a survey from Levada, the only independent pollster in Russia, found a majority of Russians get their news from state-run television — where they are being fed a constant stream of propaganda.
State TV channels like Channel One and Russia-1 effectively exist to parrot the government's talking points. They feature pro-Putin hosts like Vladimir Solovyov, who constantly vilifies the West while boasting about Russia's supposed military prowess. Meanwhile, Russia was forced to retreat from its assault on Kyiv after staggering losses, and the toll continues to mount — including over 1,000 tanks and a flagship cruiser.
—Julia Davis (@JuliaDavisNews) April 20, 2022
The State Department has described Solovyov as possibly "the most energetic Kremlin propagandist around today," adding that the Russian host, his producers, and guests "flood Russian-language audiences with Guinness World Record-breaking diatribes of anti-Western and anti-Ukraine disinformation, hatred, and vitriol on a daily basis."
Kremlin propagandists like Solovyov routinely pepper Russian audiences with an array of false, baseless, outlandish assertions. "Russian propaganda is not super well-crafted," Vinokour said.
As world leaders accuse Moscow of committing genocide in Ukraine, Russian state news has portrayed apparent atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine as staged or fake. Olga Skabeyeva, who hosts "60 Minutes" on Russia-1, pushed a baseless conspiracy theory that Ukrainians were behind a massacre of civilians in Bucha. Skabeyeva, who has been referred to as the "iron doll of Putin TV," has also told Russians that they're already in the midst of "World War III."
Indeed, state news agencies have repeatedly blamed the war on NATO, often portraying the conflict as the beginning of a wider war against the alliance. In the reality viewers won't hear on Russian TV, the invasion of Ukraine was unprovoked. Though Ukraine has received significant levels of support from NATO, including lethal aid, it is not a member of the alliance and was not on the formal path to join it when Russia invaded.
Russian state media has also spent a fair amount of time and energy promoting the Kremlin's bogus claim that the war in Ukraine is being waged to liberate it from Nazis. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish, highlighting how absurd such claims are.
Though Moscow's propaganda on the Ukraine war is not especially sophisticated, that doesn't mean it hasn't been successful. A number of Russia watchers have said that Putin's close control over media has given him a major advantage in terms of keeping the public on his side.
Russian journalist Alexey Kovalyov, who previously worked for state news agency RIA Novosti and now works as an editor for the independent, Latvia-based outlet Meduza, in April told Al Jazeera that Russian state news has been "terrifyingly effective" in molding public opinion on the Ukraine war throughout Russia.
"There are quite a few heartbreaking accounts of people living in Ukraine under the Russian bombs, they're calling their family members in Russia and telling them they're being bombed by the Russian army, and their own family members refuse to believe them," Kovalyov said.
And though the war has been disastrous for Russia on many levels — with the Russian military failing to achieve major objectives and losing an estimate of 15,000 troops in three months — there are signs that many Russians have been convinced otherwise. A Levada poll conducted in late May found 77% of Russians support the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine, and 73% believe that the "special operation" is moving forward successfully.
But the lack of reliable pollsters in Russia — on top of the fear induced by the dangers of speaking out against the war or the Kremlin — makes it difficult to gauge the true level of support among the Russian public for Putin's so-called "special operation" in Ukraine. Government-backed polls can't be trusted, and experts like Vinokour are skeptical that any broad-based conclusions can be drawn on levels of public support for the war.
"The whole idea of polling in inside of what is now a personal authoritarian regime seems suspect to me," Vinokour said.
It seems that by vying to control what the Russian public knows about the Ukraine war, Putin has also made it much harder for the wider world to understand what's happening in Russia and how Russians truly feel. Even so, it will be hard for the Russian media to blot out its leader's mistakes and the losses on the scale of the Soviet Union's failed incursion in Afghanistan forever.
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