Russian media confronts new problem: Reality

WASHINGTON — Last week a Russian radio station conducted an interview with an official in Kherson, one of the four regions illegally annexed by Russia as part of its invasion of Ukraine.

Like virtually all media in Russia, the station, Radio Rossii, follows an unspoken rule of hewing to the Kremlin’s line about the “special military operation” launched in February going more or less according to plan. That the spetzoperatsiya is a full-blown war, or that the war is going poorly, is a taboo topic within Russia.

Which made what happened next all the more remarkable. In the midst of the interview with the pro-Russian official in Kherson, one of the hosts asked, in a halfway hopeful tone, a question he all but answered: “So the situation is fine?” Only he did not quite get the expected — and required — response.

“The situation is difficult,” the Kherson administrator glumly admitted.

A Ukrainian soldier walks past a school hit by Russian rockets.
A Ukrainian soldier outside a school hit by Russian rockets in the southern Ukraine village of Zelenyi Hai on April 1. (Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)

The telephone line went dead. The interview was over. Perhaps a faulty line had been at work, but given how little dissent is tolerated in Russian media outlets, the moment was revealing all the same.

So, for that matter, was the next segment, about a resident of Dagestan who was cooking plov (a kind of rice pilaf) for Russian soldiers, with the hosts fulsomely praising his patriotic efforts. The anti-mobilization protests that recently rattled Dagestan, a Muslim region in southern Russia, went utterly unmentioned.

However fleeting, reality has found a way to sneak through a Kremlin firewall bolstered by two decades of Vladimir Putin’s autocratic rule, not to mention the legacy of Soviet propaganda, which disguised the Kremlin’s failures and corruption while dutifully smearing dissidents. The Kremlin effectively controls every significant outlet in the country. Dissident outlets have been shut down; journalists have been harassed and, in many instances, murdered. Reporting on the war with the kind of critical scrutiny Western audiences expect is simply out of the question in Russia, at least for any journalist who wants to stay employed, free and alive.

But nearly eight months into a faltering war effort, difficult truths are becoming ever more difficult to ignore, from Ukraine’s blistering September counteroffensive to last weekend’s bombing of a bridge between Russia and Crimea. If the retreat of Russian forces from “annexed” parts of Donetsk and Luhansk has been chaotic, the efforts of top media outlets and personalities to explain away deflating developments have also been unruly — and frequently unconvincing.

A Russian serviceman patrols a destroyed residential area in Ukraine.
A Russian serviceman patrols a destroyed residential area in the city of Severodonetsk, Ukraine, on July 12. (Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images)

“Putin relies on controlling the information space in Russia to safeguard his regime much more than on the kind of massive oppression apparatus the Soviet Union used,” argued a recent analysis from the Institute for the Study of War, “making disorder in the information space potentially even more dangerous to Putin than it was to the Soviets.”

As what was supposed to be a quick, triumphant invasion has devolved into a protracted war, many of Russia’s top media figures and outlets have struggled to stick to a coherent narrative that has some connection to reality — however faint — while not infuriating a Kremlin that considers media outlets to be functionally part of the state.

So as the Russian war effort deteriorates, Russian media is scrambling to adjust. If troops are performing poorly, then incompetent generals are at fault. And if Ukraine is winning, it is because the West despises Russia and will do everything in its power to destroy it. Despite that, Russia will ultimately prevail, Russian outlets say.

Thus, last weekend’s destruction of the Kerch Bridge, which provided a crucial link between the Russian mainland and the Crimean Peninsula, was not a military setback or a gross failure by Russian security services. Instead, it was described as a terrorist act by Ukrainian special forces working in concert with Western allies.

Flames and smoke rise from the Kerch Bridge.
Flames and smoke rise from the Kerch Bridge connecting the Russian mainland and the Crimean Peninsula on Oct. 8. (AP)

On Monday morning, Russia retaliated by firing rockets at Kyiv and other civilian population centers across Ukraine. Those strikes went unmentioned on Russia 1, by far the nation’s top television network, where the morning news featured a segment about roof repairs to apartment buildings in areas of Ukraine controlled by Russia. There were also at least two promotional segments, in the span of just a few minutes, about “Chaika” (“Seagull”), a new “Friday Night Lights”-style melodrama about women’s volleyball.

There was little sense that the war was escalating, that the Kremlin was becoming desperate, that the shelling of civilian areas — at least 19 people were reportedly killed — was out of bounds, especially given the supposed kinship of Russian and Ukrainian peoples. Instead, a viewer may have concluded that it was just an ordinary Monday morning in Moscow.

“Overall, the messages are pretty clear: that the war is still going in the right direction, on the whole,” says Ian Garner, a Russia scholar who closely observes the nation’s media outlets. “There are lots of references to World War II and the idea that there was a catastrophic retreat for the first year of the war but eventually the tide was turned — that this period of retreat and suffering was just something that Russians had to go through.”

Even as they allow a measure of frustration into their broadcasts, the Kremlin’s top propagandists continue to offer rousing defenses of the war. “They think they’ve won. They don’t understand that nothing has begun,” top television personality Vladimir Solovyov raged late last week at Ukraine and its allies.

“There will be no white smoke” of surrender emanating from the Kremlin, Solovyov assured his audience.

Firefighters shoot water at a fire at a power station.
Firefighters work to put out a fire at a power station hit by a Russian missile on Monday in Kyiv. (Serhii Mykhalchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

While the information firewall ringing Russia may not be cracking, it is looking more and more perilous with each new setback for an invasion that was supposed to conclude with a quick capitulation in Kyiv. Instead, an emboldened Ukrainian defense has been pushing back Russian forces, reclaiming ground lost throughout the winter and early spring. In response, the Kremlin has ordered a mobilization of hundreds of thousands of young men to replenish its depleted frontlines, triggering protests that have led to confrontations with police across Russia.

So even as Ukrainian forces continued to make advances, one television commentator on the talk show “Planeta” suggested that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky should immediately order his troops to surrender. “Armed Forces of Ukraine have no chance,” read a headline on the Pravda website, referencing Monday’s strikes on Kyiv, which terrified civilians but appeared to have no operational value for Russia.

For a Russian nation that defeated both Hitler and Napoleon, these losses have been difficult to stomach, even though their scope is almost always kept hidden from public view. “The headline is always that things are much worse for somebody else,” says Garner. Ukrainian losses invariably make headlines, even if Russian losses are much worse. Incremental advances by Russia are inflated. Conspiracy theories abound, with the British MI6 and American CIA intelligence services frequently accused of directing the Ukrainian resistance.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and deputy defense ministers stand as they visit an army exhibition.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and deputy defense ministers visit an exhibition on Aug. 20 in Patriot Park outside Moscow. (Contributor/Getty Images)

Still, increasingly public criticisms of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his generals by Yevgeny Prighozhin (who runs a paramilitary outfit known as the Wagner Group, which reports directly to the Kremlin) and Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, a fanatical Kremlin ally, are obvious signals to ordinary Russians that the war is going amiss. Even though those criticisms also elide the fact that ultimate responsibility for the invasion does not reside with Shoigu, they nevertheless recognize that the Russian public is aware, however faintly, that the special operation is faltering.

“You accept elements of the disasters, but then you say that under Putin’s leadership — now he’s finding out about these things — these initial errors are being resolved,” Garner points out. Indeed, criticism of Putin himself remains nonexistent, an understandable calculation given his low tolerance for public dissent. This approach hearkens back to the “if Stalin knew” rhetoric of Soviet propaganda, which always found low-level Kremlin functionaries to blame for disasters that dictator Joseph Stalin surely would have no tolerance for, had he been properly informed.

In reality, the responsibility lay then, as it does now, with the very highest strata of official power.

One crucial difference between Soviet propaganda and its modern-day descendants is that social media platforms were not available when Stalin dispatched millions to death or imprisonment amid his notorious show trials of the 1930s, or when Mikhail Gorbachev kept silent about the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986. The popularity of the social media platform Telegram makes it more difficult for traditional media to keep to a relentless optimism, especially since many of Russia’s best-known traditional media figures are on Telegram themselves.

The blown-off turret of a destroyed Russian tank lies in the grass.
The blown-off turret of a destroyed Russian tank in the village of Pisky-Radkivski in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine. (Vyacheslav Madiyevskyi/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Another emerging challenge to the Kremlin comes in the form of Russian military bloggers, or milbloggers, who are ardent supporters of the war but are unafraid to say it is going poorly. It was the milbloggers, for example, who revealed how chaotic Putin’s “partial mobilization” of 300,000 troops had quickly become.

Images of poorly prepared, sometimes drunk recruits, armed with comically rusty rifles, quickly made their way onto social media, making reality impossible to ignore. Needing someone to blame, outlets focused on “local recruitment officers,” says Oxford professor and Russia expert Samuel Ramani.

“The regime seems unable or unwilling to control milbloggers,” Center for European Policy Analysis senior fellow Olga Lautman wrote in a mid-September analysis of Russia’s media landscape, despite Kremlin efforts to court the bloggers and focus their rage.

Evidently aware that bad news was filtering through, pundit Armen Gasparyan recently advised Russians to exercise “self-censorship” against stories of Russia’s military collapse. “Stop reading ideological opponents,” who are working to instill “panic” in Russian society, he said.

But not even a zealous Putinite like Gasparyan could keep from acknowledging the scope of recent losses against a Ukraine bolstered by the West.

“Yes, I understand, and I will be the first to say it, Lyman was very painful,” he said, referring to last week’s retreat by Russian forces from a strategic Ukrainian city it had previously controlled. “But,” he added, “with us, historically, this is how it is. Don’t get hysterical. Everything is in our hands.”

Ukrainian soldiers sit on an armored vehicle.
Ukrainian soldiers on a road between Izium and Lyman in Ukraine on Oct. 4. (Francisco Seco/AP)

Ramani of Oxford notes that blame for the retreat from Lyman fell on Gen. Aleksandr Lapin (despite the fact that some milbloggers came to his defense). But as the military correspondent Yuri Kotenok pointed out, blaming Lapin is misplaced. He instead blamed the sorry state of the Russian military and the Kremlin leadership seemingly being blind to the situation in Ukraine. “The saddest thing is that such truth about the real state of affairs does not reach the top,” Kotenok wrote for the website Today.

But such flirtations with honesty are rare. In a Monday column, Komsomolskaya Pravda military correspondent Alexander Kotz argued that the attack on the Kerch Bridge should inspire the Russian military to undertake similarly bold actions. “Let’s fight with more anger, for real, without excuses about the impossibility of blowing up the bridge on which weapons are coming from the West,” Kotz seethed. “The Ukrainians have shown us that nothing is impossible.”