Russian state TV goes all out to sell the Kremlin narrative on the war in Ukraine

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The March 26 edition of the talk show your own truth with Roman Babayan on Russian television NTV opened with a montage of very short short clips of people portrayed as citizens of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, which has been devastated by Russian bombs, rockets and shells since Moscow invaded Ukraine on February 24.

One woman said Ukrainian forces would shoot children in playgrounds “like a game”. An angry man shook his fist and cursed “those fascists, those bastards…those drug addicts”.

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A moment later, the show’s first guest, editor-in-chief of state broadcaster RT Margarita Simonyan, seemed to hold back tears as she racked up claims ranging from bizarre to outrageous: that forces Ukrainians target children with banned cluster bombs; that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy banned all private media; that Ukrainians do not see Russians as human; that Ukrainian doctors have called for the castration of Russian prisoners of war; and that Ukrainian “Nazis” are “prepared to gouge children’s eyes out because of their ethnicity.”

All within the first five minutes of the show.

The Russian government wrongly insists its war on Ukraine is not a war but a “special military operation” and has said its main goals are to “denazify and demilitarize” the neighboring country. President Vladimir Putin has called Ukraine an illegitimate country that was essentially created by Soviet authorities and is now ruled by “neo-Nazis” and “drug addicts” who take orders from Washington.

All of these themes are hammered home constantly on state television news and on the multitude of political talk shows on pro-Kremlin channels – programs that increasingly feature venomous rhetoric amid a kaleidoscope of swirling graphics. and oversized videos streaming on a continuous loop.

“They always lie”

“All television is now full of military brainwashing,” said Yelena Rykovtseva, a correspondent for Russian service RFE/RL which focuses on the media, wrote recently in a column titled “Carpet Bombing Of The Brain”. She added that in a single article, it is difficult to do justice to Russian state TV content at the “peak of anti-Ukrainian hysteria”.

“A click on the remote control and it’s: ‘… in Mariupol, like the ring [of Russian forces] around the neo-Nazis is tightening, they are increasingly using local residents as human shields. ‘… battalions of neo-Nazis rob and massacre local residents.’ “… the Nazis destroy columns of refugees, while the rest are trapped in the city.” ‘…Russian soldiers rescue children and operate on wounded…'”

These claims, provided without foundation or evidence, are contradicted by officials, by Western media who have had journalists in Mariupol and by residents who have escaped from the city – some of them under Russian fire despite the humanitarian corridor agreements.

On March 29, the news program Time Will Tell on the public broadcaster Channel One showed a largely intact Orthodox Christian cathedral standing among the ruins of Mariupol as the correspondent comments that the sight “gives us great hope that God is with us.”

Two key elements of the Kremlin narrative are the unsubstantiated claims that kyiv was about to launch a major offensive against Russian-backed separatist forces in Ukraine’s Donbass region and that the United States is determined to eliminate the Russia. These themes were hit hard on March 27 by state broadcaster Rossia-1 and NTV, which is owned by a media arm of state-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom.

On NTV, the week in review with Irada Zeinalova had a segment on “captured documents” that he incorrectly said that Russia’s invasion had thwarted a planned attack by Ukrainian forces in the Donbass.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and pro-Kremlin scholar Dmitry Kiselyov.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and pro-Kremlin scholar Dmitry Kiselyov.

On the same day, the pugnacious pro-Kremlin pundit Vladimir Solovyov used his three-hour show on Rossia-1 to discuss what he falsely claimed was the intention of the United States to “destroy Russia, divide it into tiny parts, deprive it of its nuclear weapons and put an end once and for all to the subject of the existence of the Russian people”.

Ukrainian journalist Roman Tsymbalyuk, who worked in Moscow for many years as a correspondent for the UNIAN news agency and was a frequent guest on Russian state television talk shows, told RFE/RL that he had learned “exactly how Russian propaganda works”.

“Russian mass media are not mass media but information troops, and they always lie,” he said.

From TV to RuTube

In the past, the Kremlin has seemed content with its control of national broadcasting, allowing independent and liberal media to exist on the fringes. The model seemed to be working even in 2014, when Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea region and fomented war in Donbass, helping separatists take control of parts of Donetsk and Lugansk provinces.

This time, according to Moscow pollster Maksim Kats, public support for the Kremlin’s policies is much more tenuous. As a result, he suggested, the state has both increased the volume of propaganda and supplemented it with increased pressure on independent media and freedom of expression.

“It seems they think people don’t support the war, and so they implement measures like military censorship,” Kats told RFE/RL. “They shut down social networks that have been working for years. They shut down Ekho Moskvy [radio]. They understand that if the information is freely disseminated, then no one will support the war.”

Sociologist - Lyubov Borusyak

Sociologist – Lyubov Borusyak

Sociologist Lyubov Borusyak agreed that in Russian society the war against Ukraine brought “nothing like the kind of emotional uplift we saw in the events in Crimea”.

In addition, she said, about 75% of Russians use the internet, and some opposition reports garner tens of millions of views, potentially undermining state control over war information.

“When there is interest, the audience can be much larger than what TV is attracting,” Borusyak said. “And the percentage of regular viewers has been steadily declining in recent years, especially among young people.”

As a result, the Kremlin’s interest in dominating Internet TV as well as broadcast TV has grown.

YouTube is by far the most popular social media platform in Russia, which is used by about three quarters of all Russian internet users. And calls for it to be blocked in the country have grown, especially after YouTube blocked Kremlin-controlled media on March 11.

In February 2021, Putin outlined the Kremlin’s policy on foreign social media: “We’re not going to shut anything down until we get ours,” he said. “When our esteemed colleagues see that there is an alternative, that they do not hold a monopoly position in this market, they will behave differently.”

Kremlin opinion makers have tried without much success to promote RuTube, a slow YouTube clone that was founded in 2006, is owned by Gazprom and features all the news Moscow wants Russians to see.

According to independent media iStories, the popularity of RuTube peaked at 14.5 million users in 2011 and fell to just 3 million in 2021. In comparison, in 2021, 78.5 million Russians used YouTube.

Z channel

RuTube’s “news and media” page offers live streams from all national TV channels, as well as short videos from news agencies and pro-Kremlin newspapers. It also features channels from various Russian government agencies, including the Defense Ministry’s Zvezda channel and those from the Foreign Ministry, the upper house of parliament, and the Roscosmos space agency.

On March 22, a new channel called ZTV — an apparent reference to the Z symbol that Moscow promotes to drum up support for its accounts of the war in Ukraine — proclaimed himself “a 24-hour channel about the special military operation of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in Ukraine.”

Some of his early programs featured short interviews with Russian soldiers proclaiming the operation “100% effective” and videos of Russian military technology in action.

Such assertions go against the assessments by many military experts who say that the Russian offensive is far from having achieved its initial objectives, and by evidence of the high number of casualties and equipment losses during the war.

On March 28, the Russian channel RT In posted a short clip purportedly showing Russian soldiers reading aloud letters sent to them by school children.

“Dear soldier,” reads a soldier. “I am writing to you out of gratitude and want to tell you with all my soul thank you for the fact that I sleep peacefully, go to school and live with a peaceful sky above my head. I hope you will keep your spirits up and be able to continue to defend your homeland. I believe in you and I pray for you. You cannot imagine how I and other people living on the territory of Russia love and support you.

A related channel called RT Rossia on March 21 posted a one-hour documentary film by Anton Krasovsky, detailing Moscow’s baseless claims that the US Department of Defense was supporting biological weapons labs in Ukraine.

The Russian narrative, which has been widely distributed by state television, has been denied by Washington and widely dismissed by experts.

As the war in Ukraine enters its second month, the Russian public “so far has no reason not to believe what they are being told” by state media, said analyst Aleksei Levinson. from the independent polling agency Levada Center. However, he added, many have a “subconscious feeling” that war is wrong.

“So there must be a way to overcome this voice of conscience,” he concluded. “And it’s being done through television – so far, quite successfully.”

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