Russian media fights coverage of Ukrainian blitzkrieg without angering the Kremlin

Russian media fights coverage of Ukrainian blitzkrieg without angering the Kremlin

The ignominious defeat of Russian troops in northeastern Ukraine has sparked some embarrassing — and shocking — moments on Russian TV as the media struggles to cover the casualties on the battlefield without drawing the wrath of the Kremlin.

September 11 primetime Sunday talk show on RussiaAn unusual live exchange took place on NTV, which immediately caught the attention of Russian media watchers around the world.

As a TV presenter Gazpromowned by the channel, tried to moderate the debate between the eight participants in the discussion, the opinions expressed on the air seem to have slipped out of his control.

“Now we have come to the point where we must understand: it is absolutely impossible to win Ukraine using the resources and methods of colonial warfare with which Russia is trying to wage war,” said former Russian MP Boris Nadezhdin in a shocking public critique of what Russia still calls a “special military operation.”

How Ukrainian troops recaptured the territory in the north-east of Kharkiv region this month in a lightning-fast counteroffensive, the Moscow media machine was caught off guard on live television.

The Russian media studiously avoided mentioning the successes of the Ukrainian military for several weeks. But on Saturday, as Russia abandoned its main bastion in the northeast region, marking its worst defeat since the early days of the invasion, the ignominious turn was too big to ignore. “They really didn’t expect it. They didn’t know what to say and didn’t get information from the Kremlin on how to react,” Alexandra Filippenko, a Russian political scientist now living in Lithuania, explained on FRANCE 24 TV channel. Show “Debate” on Monday.

Ever since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Russian media pundits have actively supported the “special military operation” and commentators have tried to outdo each other in supporting the president. Vladimir Putin.

On Sunday night, the NTV talk show was still displaying the old rhetoric after Nadezhdin’s stunning debacle of Russian military strategy. “Uncomrade Nadezhdin, I once again urge you to watch your language when you talk about “colonial wars,” even in passing,” deputy Alexander Kazakov warned.

But Kazakov’s warning sounded more defensive than fiery as he went on to explain that Russia was actually fighting the West in a “wider theater of operations.” “There is a global war going on, this is just a fragment of it,” he said before Nadezhdin shot back, “I hope that a global war will not start. But if that happens, the balance of power will not be in our favor.”


Defeat turns into a “strategic retreat”

The bold exchanges on the air were different from the rallies that have been observed on Russian TV channels over the past few months. Even the Kremlin’s most vocal defender, Dmitry Kiselyov, dubbed “Putin’s mouthpiece,” was forced to adopt a grim tone on his prime-time Sunday night show on the state-run Rossiya 1 channel.

“The most difficult week at the front,” admitted Kiselev, opening his speech. Kiselev acknowledged that Russian troops left “previously liberated settlements” against a studio background with the words “Regrouping”.

Kiselyov’s speech about losses in the Donbass in eastern Ukraine reflected Moscow’s view after the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Kyiv region in late March after the offensive against the Ukrainian capital was crushed by fierce resistance.

“They usually use euphemisms to play down the importance of what is happening and to suggest that everything is going according to plan,” Maxim Alyukov, a Russian media specialist at King’s College London, explained in an interview with FRANCE 24.

TV channels and newspapers talk about “a strategic withdrawal of troops to defend the Donbass, which is reminiscent of how the refusal to take Kyiv was justified at the beginning of the war,” said Yaroslava Barbieri, a Russia specialist at the University of Birmingham. .

The idea of ​​a carefully planned “strategic withdrawal” has been taken up by the Russian print media and wire services, despite their admission that Russian troops were pushed back by Ukrainian forces.

The RIA Novosti news agency, for example, reported that Russian troops were forced to retreat as there were many more Ukrainians due to the contribution of “foreign mercenaries”. At the same time, RIA Novosti was also busy reporting a planned “strategic withdrawal” from the Kharkiv region.

“The Russian media, subordinate to the government, began to use several conflicting explanations at the same time. This is in line with their traditional propaganda strategy, which is not to inform, but to confuse,” explained Vera Tolts, a Russian woman. media specialist at the University of Manchester.

Blame the separatist republics, not Moscow

While Ukraine’s lightning success took the Russian media by surprise, the editorial line in several newsrooms quickly returned to standard operating procedures in the face of the unexpected and the unforeseen.

From the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, where she followed Sunday’s prime-time shows, Filippenko noticed a new trend.

On Channel One, Russia’s oldest and largest state television channel, Filippenko noted that the setbacks on the battlefield stemmed from Donetsk and Luhansk, parts of the eastern Donbas that were proclaimed independent republics by Russia-backed separatists in 2014.

“They constantly emphasized that the Donetsk and Luhansk republics were at war with Ukraine,” she explained. “That is, it seems that Russia has nothing to do with it. So that’s how they’re trying to spin it.”

These are advisers, not Putin

The speaker included a re-invitation of guests who moderately criticized the invasion in its early days and subsequently disappeared from Russian screens.

But even critics like Nadezhdin, who shocked the Russian media with his outspoken criticism of Moscow’s strategy in Ukraine, followed a familiar pattern.

Before a high-profile speech on NTV against Russia’s “colonial methods of warfare,” the former opposition deputy tried to blame “the people who convinced President Putin” that the “special operation” would be quick and effective. “These people really set us all up,” he said.

“Most of them explain that if the conflict does not go as planned, it is because Vladimir Putin was badly advised. In other words, they are setting the stage for the government to appoint scapegoats for punishment,” Tolz said.

A notable proponent of the “blame everyone but Putin” school was Ramzan Kadyrov, the Moscow-backed leader of the Russian region of Chechnya, who on Sunday publicly criticized the Russian defense ministry for what he called “mistakes” that made the Ukrainian blitz possible. .

In a message on the Telegram social network, Kadyrov said he would “have to talk to the country’s leader to explain what is really happening on the ground.” It was the Chechen leader’s way of implying that Putin was not responsible for the situation because he was badly advised.

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

While the likes of Kadyrov are strategizing how best to capitalize on recent losses on the battlefield, Ukrainian officials are stressing that Russia is destined to lose the war of messages in the end.

“Essentially getting your message across depends on whether the truth is on your side,” said Alexander Rodnyansky, an adviser to the President of Ukraine. Vladimir Zelensky, on the FRANCE 24 show “The Debate” on Monday. “You can manipulate, you can think about tactics, strategies, communication techniques that you use as much as you want. But as long as it’s based on some delusion, some lie, you won’t have permanent, lasting success in convincing anyone. And we manage to convince the world and our partners not because we use certain strategies so effectively, but because the truth is on our side: we are protecting our country.”

(Sebastian Seibt contributed to this article.)

© Graphic studio France Médias Monde

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