A Russian missile hits an apartment block in Kyiv in footage shared on 26 February. Image by The Independent via YouTube.

How the Russian media are reporting on the war in Ukraine. From Respekt.

While the readers of the Czech media (and the American, Bulgarian, and German media) were able to learn on the afternoon of Sunday, 27 February that a war was on in Ukraine for the fourth day, and that the Russian army was doing its best to capture the metropolises of Kharkov and Kyiv, readers visiting the main Russian news servers were experiencing something fundamentally different at that very same moment.  

Russian Censor Bans Words ‘War,’ ‘Invasion’

Readers of the Lenta.ru news portal, which is among the most-followed in Russia, were offered as its main news item an article about a delegation from the government of Ukraine traveling to the Belarusian town of Gomel for peace talks with the Russians. Other main news items on that same site reported on European sports clubs refusing to play football and ice hockey with Russian ones, or described what awaits Russia in terms of sanctions from the West. There was no mention on Lenta.ru of the fact that Russian soldiers have become involved in difficult battles for Kharkov and Kyiv, or that the Russians have experienced big losses of life.

YouTube video
This video claims to show destroyed Russian military vehicles after clashes in a Kyiv suburb. Video by Evening Standard via YouTube.

A similar user experience is offered by another favorite Russian news server, Gazeta.ru. Constant online updates under the headline “Operation in Ukraine:  Chronicle of the fourth day” dominated there, featuring the subheading:  “Special operation by armed forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine continues for a fourth day.” Editors added one brief news item after another, and on Sunday afternoon the most visible places on the screen are occupied by news that President Vladimir Putin had called the sanctions by the West “illegitimate” and that “in reaction to the aggressive declaration by the West, he has given orders to put the deterrent weapons in the Russian Army on standby” (by which are meant nuclear weapons). 

In the main opening paragraph, that website also reports that Russian units successfully surrounded the town of Kherson. Further down in the news feed we read about civilian victims of Ukrainian attacks on the separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, or about how the Ukrainians are using banned weapons such as special landmines or phosphorous munitions. Neither on Gazeta.ru nor on Lenta.ru is there any mention of the fact that what is happening in Ukraine is a Russian “attack,” “invasion,” or “war” – consistently, the exact phrase used is “special operation.”

There is nothing accidental about this choice of language or which items constitute news on these Russian news servers, and it decidedly does not involve an attempt to inform their readers objectively. Both websites are famous for their closeness to the Kremlin and their publication of state propaganda. The same goes for the broadcasts by Channel One of Russian state television, which is the main news source for most Russians. While independent media in the Russian Federation do exist, such as the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, the Echo Moskvy radio station, the Russian-language news server Meduza [based in Latvia], or TV Rain, and while users of those media do acquire an experience similar to that of those who follow media from the West, from the standpoint of the numbers of their listeners, readers, or viewers they are rather fringe outlets.

The way in which Russian media cover the war has been a pre-planned part of the entire invasion. Roskomnadzor, the bureau of censorship at the federal level that supervises media, issued official instructions to the media on the day of the Russian attack about what they are allowed to report on and how. The bureau banned the use of the words “attack,” “invasion,” and “war.” When referring to the conflict, the bureau instructs the media to use only information from Russian government sources. The Kremlin, from the beginning, has framed the entire war as a “special operation,” as noted above, the aim of which is the “demilitarization” and “de-Nazification” of Ukraine – and pro-government media strictly toe that line.

When following Russian pro-government media, the reader usually will not run into any expressly deceptive news reports – rather, what awaits them is quite a selective assortment of news that can, at first glance, appear objective. Readers will not be aware that the image there grossly distorts, overall, what is actually happening in “belligerent” Ukraine until they compare the news summaries of the Russian news servers to those in the rest of the world. At that moment, a certain model for the selection of Russian news items becomes apparent, one that may not be formulated officially, but that is quite clear on websites like Gazeta.ru or Lenta.ru. Currently, this is about a tendency not to report at all about the battles in Kyiv and not to use any photographs or video footage from there, but instead to concentrate on events in the east of the country, especially on the operations of Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. From there, these pro-Russian government websites deliver hard-to-verify reports of separatist successes and attacks on civilians by Ukrainians.

No pro-Kremlin news servers make it possible to read about the heavy losses of the Russian army. Naturally, it is necessary to take information about high numbers of Russian victims reported by sources in Ukraine with a grain of salt, but such reports of Russian losses are supported by a great many photos, the testimony of the journalists, and video footage, so it is possible to consider them credible. Pro-Russian government websites also evidently attempt to demonstrate that Russia is open to peace talks, while simultaneously describing the NATO states and the Western world as striving to construct the toughest possible approach toward Russia.

Crossing the Line

This attempt to create a controllable, uniform image of the war for Russian consumption is not completely succeeding, though. The above-mentioned independent media, even under the threat of being shut down, have refused to obey Roskomnadzor’s order, and the daily Novaya Gazeta, for example, even published a bilingual issue last week in Russian and Ukrainian with the headline “Russia Bombs Ukraine.” Independent reporting from Ukraine, photographs documenting destruction of Russian tanks, the bombardment of Kyiv, or speeches by the charismatic Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy intended directly for the public in Russia are also being shared on social media, the reach of which the Russian authorities are attempting to stop. The BBC reported that over the weekend, Russian-language Twitter was blocked to a great extent. Roskomnadzor called on Facebook to stop labeling news reporting from Russian government sources as unreliable, which the firm refused to do. Facebook continues to function in Russia nonetheless.

For the time being, it is impossible to determine to what degree the Russian government’s attempt to create a controllable, positive image of this conflict is succeeding among the Russian population. One of a very few independent public opinion research agencies in Russia, the Levada organization, has yet to poll people directly about the war in Ukraine. According to a survey it conducted ahead of the invasion, the traditionally good relationship of Russians toward Ukraine has worsened in light of the events in the Donbas. While in November 2021, 45% of respondents had a good relationship toward the country and 43% a bad one, in February 2022, just 35% reported feeling positive toward Ukraine while the proportion of those describing their relationship as bad had risen to 52%.

However, as protests by Russian residents in different locations throughout the country demonstrate, the government does not have the image of the war totally under control. As the NGO OVD-info has reported, protests have occurred in 34 Russian cities since the beginning of the conflict and as many as 3,000 people have been arrested at these events. They have not been big, but given that the demonstrators risk high fines and prison, such participation is a display of great bravery.

Even persons who until now have been rather inclined toward the Kremlin have opposed the war in Ukraine. For example, Yelena Chernenko, a reporter for the Kommersant newspaper, has been their international relations correspondent for many years and is not considered either an activist or critic of the Kremlin. She was quite critical of the policy of Ukraine vis-à-vis the separatist area and said she considered talk of an across-the-board invasion by Russia of Ukraine to be hysteria. After the attack, though, she changed her opinion. She wrote an open letter to the government in which she condemned the invasion – and as many as 300 media professionals have signed it, including members of pro-government editorial boards. She has been punished for her activity by being stripped of her accreditation after 11 years reporting on diplomacy, with her “lack of professionalism” being given as the reason.

The famous moderator of Channel One on Russian state television, Ivan Urgant, placed a black square to his Instagram profile with the caption “Fear and pain. No to war.” His program has not been broadcast since, which the channel has officially justified as part of changes to their programming. Resistance to the war is being expressed by other prominent figures. For example, the daughter of Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov,  Lisa Peskova, posted the message #Нетвойне (No to War) to Instagram against a black background, and a similar message was also published by the daughter of billionaire Roman Abramovich, Sophia.  

A plea to end the war was also published by a big fan of Putin’s, the ice hockey player Alexander Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals captain told journalists on Saturday,  “I have a lot of friends in Russia and in Ukraine. Please, no more war. It doesn’t matter who is at war – Russia, Ukraine, or some other country. I believe we are living in a world where we have to live in peace.” Ovechkin’s cautious message – like those from the daughters of men close to the Kremlin – is hardly a critique of either Putin or the Russian aggression, but the fact that they are speaking of the “special operation” as a war, at the very least, crosses the line set for official propaganda in Russia. 

Petr Horky is an editor at the Czech newsweekly Respekt, where this commentary ran on 27 February. Reprinted by permission.

Translated by Gwendolyn Albert.