Russia’s main media stars are all exempt from having to mobilise for the brutal war of aggression against Ukraine for which they act as cheerleaders – but their distorted view of the ongoing war has begun to take its toll on Russia’s government.
The media in Russia has become increasingly repressed during the period of Putin’s rule. Severe violent and legal repercussions for anyone attempting to share dissenting views or unfavourable information for the regime have silenced independent journalism inside the country. As a result, it is rare to hear voices in the Russian media that do not amplify the Kremlin’s narratives. What little remains of seemingly independent (but still fairly mildly critical) viewpoints is often carefully controlled in order to provide the illusion of debate before those viewpoints are then ‘debunked’ or heavily lambasted by the host and other guests.
However, the course of Russia’s disastrous war in Ukraine has strained this carefully controlled system as voices in the media struggle to explain why the expectations they raised about a swift victory are not materialising, leaving them to tiptoe around how far up the system they can apportion blame.
Wake me up when November is over
The biggest cracks appeared in early November after a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the Russian army had been ordered to withdraw from the Kherson region, which Russia had included in its illegal annexation. This generated a bizarre legal quagmire in which both supporting and condemning the withdrawal were both technically jailable criminal offenses in Russia. Supporting the withdrawal could violate a law on supporting Russia’s territorial integrity (which wrongly includes the illegally annexed Ukrainian territory) but condemning the withdrawal could also violate a law on not disparaging Russia’s armed forces.
Regardless of this confusion, Putin’s own supporters erupted in open anger at the circumstances, including on TV.
One of the most colorful examples was an evening TV show by one of Putin’s biggest supporters, Vladimir Solovyov, where he called the decision one of the biggest military defeats in history. In his morning Vesti FM radio show, Solovyov talked about how Russia has been completely inept in Ukraine and how he and other citizens have had to pay out of their own money to send essential equipment to the soldiers.
Duma deputy Sergei Markov, who regularly appears in the country’s media, told a similar story that the withdrawal of troops is the biggest geopolitical loss for Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a separate post, he also wrote that now Russia’s status as a great power is under question and Russia should strengthen its military activities many times over.
Russian war correspondent Anastasia Kashevarova expressed her own anger focused on not knowing to whom and for what reason Kherson has been surrendered. She said she believed that even the Kremlin did not have the answers to these questions. The correspondent accused the leaders of Russia’s forces of mobilising untrained men and repeatedly accused them of lying to the people.
One of the most notable cases was a joint statement by several pro-Kremlin journalists (among others, Izvestia correspondent Aleksandr Sladkov), in which they published a letter from a naval unit that strongly criticised the decisions of its leaders and blamed them for heavy losses in the village of Pavlivka where more than 300 people were lost in four days. In addition, the publication Moskovski Komsomolets published an article in which a military engineering expert was interviewed saying that Russian forces had underestimated the tactics and technology of the enemy, which is why the strategy of the Russian forces also collapsed.
In most cases, however, there was a consensus that the government’s decision was at least trusted, but nevertheless, the criticism shining through them is significant. On November 10, the publication Verstka reported that a list of important persons who should not be quoted in publications due to their statements had been shared with the media. Among them was, for example, the head of the Defense Committee of the Duma, Andrei Kartapolov, who admitted to the publication RBC that there had been a large number of complaints from mobilised soldiers about their bad conditions.
In reality, TV personalities don’t need to quote anyone to damage Putin’s own rhetoric. The most genuine and consistent example of this is Russia-1 show host Olga Skabajeva, who has consciously distanced herself from the government’s narratives since the beginning of the war. In addition to acknowledging realities of the war, she has made references to ‘World War III’ and criticized Putin’s losses in Ukraine on several occasions.
The country is not Putin
Putin has tied so much of his reputation into Russia’s “special operation” in Ukraine and the strength of Russia as a military power that it becomes difficult not to question the war without criticising the man who led Russia into it. Even people who have previously criticised the war with impunity now seem to understand the dangers and potential consequences of continuing to do that.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the founder of Chechnya’s Wagner Group, has previously expressed his displeasure at the softness and weakness of Russian forces on several occasions. Recently, however, his statements and reactions have become much milder. For example, in the case of the latest withdrawal, he made a post in which he uncharacteristically fully approved of the decision, praised the wisdom of the leaders and condemned the use of the phrase ‘surrender’.
It seems that the longer the war in Ukraine drags on, the more careful the Kremlin must be in its communications. In the country’s media space, it already seems that the propaganda is in open conflict with the reality seeping through.