Russian State Media Aren’t Preparing for War

TV and public opinion offer crucial hints in the guessing game over Putin’s plans.

By , an investigative editor at Meduza.
A live broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual phone-in is seen at the TASS news agency in Moscow on June 30, 2021.
A live broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual phone-in is seen at the TASS news agency in Moscow on June 30, 2021.
A live broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual phone-in is seen at the TASS news agency in Moscow on June 30, 2021. Gavriil GrigorovTASS via Getty Images

One of the most memorable pieces of fake news during Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine was the “crucified boy of Slavyansk,” a canard designed by Russian state-controlled media to whip Russians into a nationalist frenzy by the sheer enormity of the alleged crime. The gist of it was that Ukrainian forces, after retaking Slavyansk from pro-Russian militants in July 2014, supposedly subjected the town’s inhabitants to vicious retribution, including the public execution of a 3-year-old boy in front of his mother. It was a perfect piece of atrocity porn. Crucial details in what Channel One—Russia’s top national network—reported as local testimony didn’t correspond to reality, and no actual witness could be found to corroborate the claim. The “crucified boy” was but one of many lies, half-truths, deceptions, and distractions pumped into Russians’ living rooms and onto their mobile phones, 24/7, by an entire industry of national TV networks, newspapers, pundits, and trolls beginning in early 2014.

This barrage of fabrications did exactly what it was designed to do: It normalized war against Ukraine among ordinary Russians by creating an atmosphere of paranoia and hatred toward an entire neighboring nation. It also fractured families and inspired many Russian men to take up arms by volunteering to fight against what television news—and anonymous comments on the social network VKontakte—told them was a massacre of Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine.

What the Kremlin and its media lackeys probably didn’t expect was that this tsunami of fake news also gave birth to some of the first media fact-checking projects in Russia—including one by this author, noodleremover.news.

One of the most memorable pieces of fake news during Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine was the “crucified boy of Slavyansk,” a canard designed by Russian state-controlled media to whip Russians into a nationalist frenzy by the sheer enormity of the alleged crime. The gist of it was that Ukrainian forces, after retaking Slavyansk from pro-Russian militants in July 2014, supposedly subjected the town’s inhabitants to vicious retribution, including the public execution of a 3-year-old boy in front of his mother. It was a perfect piece of atrocity porn. Crucial details in what Channel One—Russia’s top national network—reported as local testimony didn’t correspond to reality, and no actual witness could be found to corroborate the claim. The “crucified boy” was but one of many lies, half-truths, deceptions, and distractions pumped into Russians’ living rooms and onto their mobile phones, 24/7, by an entire industry of national TV networks, newspapers, pundits, and trolls beginning in early 2014.

This barrage of fabrications did exactly what it was designed to do: It normalized war against Ukraine among ordinary Russians by creating an atmosphere of paranoia and hatred toward an entire neighboring nation. It also fractured families and inspired many Russian men to take up arms by volunteering to fight against what television news—and anonymous comments on the social network VKontakte—told them was a massacre of Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine.

What the Kremlin and its media lackeys probably didn’t expect was that this tsunami of fake news also gave birth to some of the first media fact-checking projects in Russia—including one by this author, noodleremover.news.

Contrast 2014 with 2022. Today, there is nothing in the Russian media even remotely like the “crucified boy” canard, just the usual barrage of familiar anti-Western tropes and propaganda. Nothing is certain, of course, but this suggests that the Kremlin isn’t preparing Russians for a 2014-like scenario. There are no right-wing bloggers starting a crowdfunding campaign to buy an armored personnel carrier for the Donbass militias. Nor are there National Bolsheviks enlisting in “international brigades” alongside drifters and wannabe mercenaries from as far away as Brazil. There’s no great wave of patriotic euphoria like that triggered by the successful conquest and annexation of Crimea in 2014, nor are Russians circling the wagons against a perceived threat emanating from Ukraine or hallucinating about a NATO attack. That may have something to do with the fact that the Kremlin has little if anything to show for its posturing so far—Russia’s so-called ultimatum to the United States and NATO demanding a halt of the alliance’s eastward expansion has received a solid rebuke.

A new Russian-Ukrainian war looks unsustainable from the perspective of public opinion—of which Putin must surely be aware.

In the Russian media coverage so far, there has been little for the fact-checkers to jump on. StopFake, a Ukrainian website once hailed as the definitive answer to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda, is barely being updated these days. Running out of the most obvious lies to debunk, the fact-checkers have started taking on bland tropes and opinions: “The EU in any case is weak and irrelevant” was one “myth” the fact-checkers recently chose to debunk. The lack of vicious lies to pick apart isn’t because Russian state and loyalist media have suddenly improved their sense of ethics and balance. It may just be that they are peddling fewer obvious and easily disprovable fabrications.

All this time, Ukraine has been a mainstay on prime-time news and talk shows on every state-owned and state-friendly network, often to the point of caricature. For hours on end, experts and pundits sit in Russian television studios—often including an obscure Ukrainian guest whose sole function is to be humiliated on air—decrying Ukrainian corruption, media censorship, and suppression of dissent. (It’s hard not to see this as an acute case of projection, but that’s another topic.) Ukraine’s progress is always downplayed or denigrated, while every failure, real or perceived, is gleefully celebrated. In the Russian state media’s view, Ukraine is a U.S. and NATO puppet state with zero agency, overrun by CIA-trained neo-Nazis, and an existential threat—and, at the same time, a wayward brotherly nation.

In the state media’s echoing of Putin’s view that Ukraine has no business being an independent state, nothing has changed—except in the very important sense that the rhetoric is notably more subdued this time, echoing what the Russian Foreign Ministry considers its peace overtures to the West. Gone are the threats to reduce the United States to “radioactive ash” and cheeky references to Russian nuclear missiles that “don’t fear sanctions” emblazoned on T-shirts distributed by a pro-Kremlin youth group. While Russia still sees itself as a perpetually aggrieved victim of someone else’s betrayal or aggression, the tone is less obviously aggressive than it was eight years ago.

In fact, if Russia were to engage in a conflict with the entire Western world over the very far-fetched prospect of Ukrainian NATO membership, it would be quite unpopular. It turns out that all these years of harsh anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western propaganda turned out to be an utter flop: According to the latest Levada poll, Russians’ attitudes toward the United States may not be at an all-time high, but a solid 45 percent of respondents still viewed the country positively—compared with only 12 percent in 2015. There is no seething hatred toward Ukraine either: While 42 percent of Russians polled by Levada harbored a negative view of their neighbor, 45 percent saw Ukraine positively—a stark difference with 24 percent positive and 63 percent negative in 2015.

A new Russian-Ukrainian war, on top of the one in eastern Ukraine that Russia is already being sanctioned for, thus looks unsustainable from the perspective of public opinion. Putin—who is so conscious of his ratings that his advisors reportedly kept him from participating in Russia’s widely unpopular mass vaccination campaign—must surely be aware of that. At his meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Moscow this week, Putin loudly complained about the West ignoring Russia’s security concerns—but still offered to talk it out some more. By Russian standards, where any public admission of guilt or backtracking by the leadership amounts to an inexcusable display of weakness, it’s an astounding signal at compromise. Nothing is certain—but these are crucial hints in the guessing game over what the Kremlin might do, or not do, with its soldiers stationed on Ukraine’s borders.

Alexey Kovalev is an investigative editor at Meduza. Twitter: @Alexey__Kovalev

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