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WASHINGTON — As the invasion of Ukraine continued on Friday morning, including near the capital city, Kyiv, one of Russia’s leading television stations aired a history lesson on an 18th century battle between German and Russian forces in Poland.
It was the kind of nationalistic propaganda typical of media coverage in a nation where the Kremlin exercises near-universal control. That control is evident in print, radio and television. However, it also appears to be slipping, which could present Russian President Vladimir Putin with a fresh challenge as he faces domestic and international opprobrium for his attack on Ukraine.
“The Kremlin is clearly grappling with ways to keep the cracks in that dam from forming,” said Gavin Wilde, an expert on Russia who formerly served on the National Security Council. Those cracks have come mostly in the form of internet outlets. "China was able to seal off its so-called sovereign information space in a way that Russia simply failed to do.”
Lacking a firewall like the one erected by Beijing, Putin and his propagandists can do only so much to keep reality from smartphone and laptop screens — which makes his control of traditional outlets all the more urgent.
“Control of classic media is already pretty complete,” Janis Kluge of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told Yahoo News. “It is hard to find truth about the war there.”
On the radio station Komsomolskaya Pravda — its very name an unabashed reminder of Soviet propaganda, since it means "Young Communist League Truth"— a host on a Thursday evening program amplified anti-Ukrainian sentiments. He seemed to suggest that the sympathies of the Russian people lay entirely with Putin, who has claimed his invasion has been necessary to “demilitarize” and “de-Nazify” Ukraine.
“We need to take Kyiv — the sooner the better,” one Komsomolskaya Pravda listener said in an email the host read on air with the somber tone of an endorsement. Meanwhile, the host on another Moscow-based radio talk show promised that once Russia occupied the country, right-wing Ukrainian nationalists — whose influence Russia has vastly exaggerated in an effort to justify war — would be “sorted out.”
Rousing history lessons about World War II and vituperative attacks on Ukraine and its Western allies have filled Russian media in recent days, as the Kremlin resorted to tactics it uses whenever it needs to convince the Russian populace — and quell any dissent. But the antiwar protests that have broken out in St. Petersburg and Moscow, as well as many smaller cities, are evidence that even media highly biased toward Putin cannot bend the narrative in his favor.
Dozens of leading Russian journalists have signed an open letter denouncing a war. “War never was and never will be a means of resolving conflict,” the letter says. In a country where 58 journalists have been assassinated since 1992, mostly for holding opposition views, putting one’s name on such a condemnation amounts to an act of personal and professional courage.
The Russian people “don’t want a war,” Ukrainian-American foreign policy expert Olga Lautman of the Center for European Policy Analysis told Yahoo News in an interview, as she watched the protests in Russia from New York. She described the Russian populace as weary with the coronavirus, suggesting that Putin simply does not have the popular support he enjoyed when he first invaded Ukraine eight years ago, seizing two eastern regions and the peninsula of Crimea.
"It's not that nationalistic feel from 2014," Lautman said, as Western TV outlets broadcast footage of young Russians crowding the streets of the nation’s two biggest cities, chanting antiwar slogans.
As during the Soviet era, Russian media is effectively a branch of the Kremlin tasked with carrying out its imperatives.
“They’re not independent, and aren’t there to hold government accountable,” Peter Adams of the News Literacy Project told Yahoo News in an interview. Adams, who has tracked Russian media, described outlets there as trying to “maintain the barest semblance of fairness and independence” while avoiding pointed criticism of the Kremlin.
As if to underscore that very point, a Russian media regulatory body known as Roskomnadzor told outlets that they are “required to use information received exclusively from official Russian sources” on the military operations in Ukraine. Violating that order could result in a $60,000 fine.
Many outlets don’t need the reminder. On the television network Rossiya 1, grim-faced pundits lashed out at the Ukrainian “morons” whom the network blamed for starting the conflict, ignoring the fact that it was Putin who pushed Eastern Europe into war.
In an act of classic Soviet script-flipping, they depicted Russian aggression as having been instigated by reactionary elements in Ukraine like the Azov Battalion, a troubling but small nationalistic outfit that has been controversially embraced by the military establishment.
A correspondent in Donetsk, one of the two eastern border provinces now under Russian control, described the ethnic Russian residents there as welcoming the assault because of the supposed oppression they had been facing from Ukrainians. “Now they have confidence in the future and that the years-long war will finally come to an end,” the correspondent said.
There would never have been a war if Russia had not invaded a sovereign nation whose own president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has pleaded emotionally for peace. Some believe that Putin miscalculated in launching the invasion, a view seemingly supported by the scale of protests that broke out on Thursday.
Ukrainian forces — which have been bolstered by American and Western European matériel — have thus far put up a determined resistance, depriving Putin of an easy victory and raising the possibility of a much more protracted conflict than he had anticipated.
"I don’t think the Russians really reckoned with how fierce of a fight they were going to get from Ukraine," said Michael Weiss, an expert on Russia who is writing a book on the nation’s intelligence services. Now news outlets are essentially forced to sell a war many of them did not expect, Weiss told Yahoo News, against a neighbor who shares a similar culture and history — but is also proudly independent.
"This is Slav on Slav,” Weiss said. “Russians don't want to see Kyiv on fire.”
Media outlets have resorted to showing the displacement of refugees from the Russia-controlled regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, which had been part of Ukraine until pro-Russian separatist forces with Kremlin backing seized them in 2014. Earlier this week, Putin sent “peacekeeping” forces there, triggering a first round of sanctions from the United States and signaling the beginning of what has been an ever-widening conflict.
Meanwhile, the extent to which mainstream Ukrainian society has harbored nationalist and outright Nazi elements has been greatly exaggerated. “Kremlin emphasized need to liberate Ukraine from neo-Nazis,” went a Thursday headline from Tass, the official Russian news agency, which dutifully proffered the narrative without proper context.
“The art of their propaganda is often in the framing,” Adams of the News Literacy Project told Yahoo News.
Ukraine does have a legacy of nationalism and antisemitism, as well as other forms of intolerance, but so do many other nations that Russia has not invaded. And Zelensky, the democratically elected Ukrainian president, is Jewish.
Russian media has also reported on its own journalists allegedly being shot at in Donetsk. It is difficult to know if those reports are true, but they stand in stark contrast to the acquiescence that has accompanied two decades in which journalists critical of the Kremlin have been hounded, jailed and sometimes murdered.
Today's Novaya Gazeta front page. The title reads "Russia bombs Ukraine" and sub, in both Russian and Ukrainian, "Novaya Gazeta considers the war madness, it does not see the Ukrainian people as enemy and the Ukrainian language as enemy language". pic.twitter.com/HzwlEjB5wO
— Mariya Petkova (@mkpetkova) February 25, 2022
An independent media existed when Putin came to power two decades ago, but he has steadily closed off most avenues of dissent, creating a flattened media ecosystem whose contours he has shaped almost entirely on his own (with help from pro-Kremlin oligarchs eager to stay in his good graces).
Still, not even an authoritarian leader can entirely shape reality, or how people respond. Given the scope of protests across Russia on Thursday, it was inevitable that even some mainstream outlets would acknowledge basic facts about what the Kremlin was doing.
Perhaps the starkest of those acknowledgments appeared on the front page of Novaya Gazeta, a left-leaning newspaper, on Friday. “Russia. Bombs. Ukraine,” a towering headline said.