Russian media grapple with coverage of Ukrainian blitz – without earning Kremlin wrath


The embarrassing flight of Russian troops into northeastern Ukraine has led to some embarrassing – and shocking – moments on Russian TV as the media struggles to cover the battlefield losses without provoking the Kremlin’s wrath.

On September 11, in the prime-time talk show on Russia’s NTV on Sunday, there was an extraordinary exchange that immediately caught the attention of Russian media observers around the world.

When a TV host on Gazprom’s channel tried to moderate a debate among eight panelists, the opinions expressed on the air seemed to slip from his power.

“We are now at the point where we need to understand this: it is absolutely impossible to defeat Ukraine with the means and colonial war methods with which Russia is trying to wage war,” Boris Nadezhdin, a former Russian lawmaker, said in a shocking response. public criticism of what Russia still calls a “military special operation.”

As Ukrainian forces recaptured territory in the northeastern region of Kharkov this month in a lightning-fast counter-offensive, the Moscow media machine was caught off guard on live TV.

For weeks, the Russian media had anxiously failed to report on the gains made by the Ukrainian army. But on Saturday, as Russia abandoned its main stronghold in the northeastern region, marking its worst defeat since the invasion’s early days, the embarrassing turn of events was too great to ignore. “They really didn’t expect this. They didn’t know what to say and they didn’t get any information from the Kremlin on how to respond,” Alexandra Filippenko, a Russian political scientist now living in Lithuania, told TBEN’s show “The Debate” on Monday.

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Russian media pundits have strongly supported the “special military operation,” with commentators trying to outdo each other in their support of President Vladimir Putin.

On Sunday night, there were still displays of the old rhetoric on the NTV talk show after Nadezhdin’s stunning suppression of Russian military strategy. “Non-Comrade Nadezhdin, I urge you once again to watch your language when speaking of ‘colonial wars’, even in passing,” warned parliamentarian Alexander Kazakov.

ALSO READ  Live: Zelensky promises 'no break' in battle to reclaim territory from Russia

But Kazakov’s warning sounded more defensive than fervent as he went on to explain that Russia was in fact attacking the West in the “wider theater of war.” “There is a global war going on, this is just a fragment of it,” he said before Nadezhdin looked back, “I hope no global war starts. But if it does, the balance of power will not be in our favor.”

Defeat becomes ‘strategic withdrawal’

The spirited on-air exchanges were a departure from the riot seen on Russian TV stations in recent months. Even the Kremlin’s most vocal defender, Dmitry Kiselyov — nicknamed “Putin’s mouthpiece” — was forced to take on a somber tone during his primetime Sunday night show on the state-run Russia-1 network.

“A very difficult week at the front,” admitted Kiselyov, opening his show. Under a studio backdrop that called for “regrouping,” Kiselyov admitted that Russian troops had left “previously liberated settlements.”

Kiselyov’s discourse on his losses in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region echoed Moscow’s talking points following Russia’s withdrawal from the Kiev region in late March after the attack on the Ukrainian capital was crushed by fierce resistance.

“They generally use euphemisms to minimize the importance of what is happening and suggest that everything is going according to plan,” explains Maxim Alyukov, a Russian media specialist at King’s College London, in an interview with TBEN.

TV stations and newspapers are talking about a “strategic withdrawal to help defend the Donbas, reminiscent of how the failure to take Kiev was justified at the start of the war,” said Jaroslava Barbieri, a Russia specialist at the United Nations. University of Birmingham. .

The idea of ​​a carefully planned “strategic withdrawal” has been picked up by Russian print media and news services, even though they acknowledge that Russian forces have been driven back by Ukrainian forces.

For example, the RIA Novosti news agency said that Russian troops were forced to withdraw because the Ukrainians were much more numerous because of the contribution of “foreign mercenaries”. At the same time, RIA Novosti was also reporting a planned “strategic withdrawal” from the Kharkiv region.

“The Russian media, which is subordinate to the government, has started using several contradictory statements at the same time. This is in line with their traditional propaganda strategy, which is not intended to inform but to confuse,” explains Vera Tolz, a Russian media specialist. at the University of Manchester.

Blame the separatist republics, not Moscow

While the lightning-fast Ukrainian gains took the Russian media by surprise, the editorial line in several newsrooms quickly reverted to standard operating procedures in the face of the unexpected and unforeseen.

From the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, where she followed the primetime shows on Sundays, Filippenko noticed a new trend.

Speaking to Channel One, Russia’s oldest and largest state-owned TV station, Filippenko noted that the battlefield setbacks were pinned down to Donetsk and Luhansk, parts of the eastern Donbas region that were destroyed by Russian-backed separatists in 2014. independent republics were proclaimed.

“They constantly emphasized that it is the Donetsk and Luhansk republics that are at war with Ukraine,” she explained. “In other words, it seems like Russia has nothing to do with it. So that’s how they try to run it.”

It’s the advisers, not Putin

The spin involved re-inviting guests who were mildly critical of the invasion in the early days and then disappeared from Russian screens.

But even critics like Nadezhdin, who shocked Russian media observers with his candid criticism of Moscow’s strategy in Ukraine, stuck to a familiar pattern.

Before making headlines for Russia’s “colonial war methods” on NTV, the former opposition lawmaker was careful not to blame “the people who convinced President Putin” that the “special operation” would be swift and effective. “These people really set us all up,” he stated.

“Most of them explain that if the conflict doesn’t go as planned, it’s because Vladimir Putin has been ill-advised. In other words, they’re preparing the ground so the government can designate scapegoats to punish,” Tolz said.

One notable supporter of the school “blaming everyone but Putin” was Ramzan Kadyrov, the Moscow-backed leader of Russia’s Chechnya region, who publicly criticized the Russian Defense Ministry on Sunday for what he called “mistakes” that made the Ukrainian blitz possible.

In a post on Telegram’s social media platform, Kadyrov said he “should speak to the country’s leader to explain what is really happening on the ground”. It was the Chechen leader’s way of suggesting that Putin was not responsible for the situation because he was ill-advised.

“We all know that Kadyrov is always firmly behind Putin, and he always supports the Kremlin,” Filippenko said. “Maybe this is his way of getting closer to the Kremlin, as he recently said it’s time for him to leave Chechnya, it’s time for him to stop being the head of Chechnya. So maybe he just did it to get closer to Moscow.”

As the likes of Kadyrov devise a strategy on how to best take advantage of the latest losses on the battlefield, Ukrainian officials emphasize that Russia is ultimately destined to lose the messaging war.

“Essentially, getting your message across depends on the truth on your side,” said Alexander Rodnyansky, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr. Zelensky, on Monday’s show “The Debate” of TBEN. “You can manipulate, you can think about the tactics, the strategies, the communication techniques you apply as much as you want. But as long as it’s based on a misconception, on a lie, you won’t have lasting, long-lasting success in convincing anyone. And we have been successful in convincing the world and our partners, not because we are so effective in applying some strategies, but because we have the truth on our side: we are defending our country.”

(Sebastien Seibt contributed to this article.)

© France Médias Monde graphic studio