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Russia Moves to Censor Domestic Media

Two major independent broadcasters have been taken off the air as the Kremlin tightens its grip on war coverage.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
A destroyed bridge in Ukraine
A destroyed bridge in Ukraine
A view of a destroyed bridge is seen in Irpin, Ukraine, on March 1. Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images

Welcome to Morning Brief, where we’re looking at the latest on Russia’s war in Ukraine, Moscow’s crackdown on independent media, and China’s slowly shifting stance.

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Ukraine’s Cities Brace for Fresh Assault 

Welcome to Morning Brief, where we’re looking at the latest on Russia’s war in Ukraine, Moscow’s crackdown on independent media, and China’s slowly shifting stance.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Ukraine’s Cities Brace for Fresh Assault 

Russian bombardments of Ukrainian cities are expected to intensify today, and the United Nations General Assembly is expected to adopt a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion as Moscow’s political isolation increases and the ruble flirts with new lows; it was trading at 117 to the dollar early Wednesday before recovering to 108 at the time of writing. (On Feb. 23, before the Russian invasion and the imposition of sanctions on Russia’s central bank, the ruble was trading at approximately 80 to the U.S. dollar.)

Despite the economic hit to Moscow, the war goes on, and the Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol could become the first major urban areas to fall completely to Russian forces as heavy fighting continues and both cities endure shelling. Russian military sources claim the encircled southern port of Kherson is in their hands, though Ukrainian sources deny that Russia is in control.

The media war, which has up until now been dominated by a Ukrainian president making the most of his showman background, blew hot and cold yesterday.

Hot, when Russian forces destroyed a television broadcast tower near the capital, Kyiv, (and in the process, damaged the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center on their self-proclaimed denazification” mission). And cold, as the chill of censorship descended on Russia’s independent media.

The renowned Soviet dissident-turned-Israeli politician Natan Sharansky denounced the attack on the Holocaust memorial, which sits atop a mass grave of 34,000 Jews murdered when Kyiv was under Nazi occupation in 1941. Sharansky, who was born in Ukraine and is chairman of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, denounced Russias attack. Putin seeking to distort and manipulate the Holocaust to justify an illegal invasion of a sovereign democratic country is utterly abhorrent. It is symbolic that he starts attacking Kyiv by bombing the site of the Babi Yar, the biggest of Nazi massacres,” he said.

In Russia, two major independent broadcasters, TV Rain and Echo of Moscow, have been taken off the air and had their websites blocked for spreading what Russia’s prosecutor general described as deliberately false information,” as authorities seek to control the narrative around the invasion.

I spoke with Alexey Kovalev, investigative editor of the independent outlet Meduza, in Moscow on Tuesday. He said traffic to the outlet’s platforms has surged to 3 million viewers daily since the war began while conceding that state channels have the ability to dwarf even Meduza’s increased viewership.

Kovalev said the new wave of censorship is moving the country’s media toward the Turkish model, where the press is not fully state controlled but where media freedom has eroded rapidly.

He assured his outlet will soon come into the censor’s crosshairs: “I expect pretty much every independent media outlet to be shut down in the next few days or weeks. The path we are heading towards is terrifyingly clear,” he said.

Meduza could still survive in its app form, and it has begun educating readers on ways to circumvent government internet blocks.

Valentina Levina, a retiree interviewed by the BBC, explained how effective the Russian state media messaging operation can be. “When I read in a foreign newspaper that Russians bomb Kharkiv and so on, I know that it’s not true because they promised not to do this, and they will never do this,” Levina said.

China’s shift. After dodging questions on the subject, Chinese officials became slightly more outspoken regarding Russia’s invasion on Tuesday. In a phone call, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to help broker a cease-fire, according to a Chinese foreign ministry statement in which Wang was reported to be “extremely concerned about harm to civilians.”

Although China initially urged its citizens in Ukraine to fly the Chinese flag for protection, it is now telling them not to show “identifying symbols.” Beijing seems to realize that its nationals are also threatened by indiscriminate Russian bombardment and possible Ukrainian backlash due to Chinas initial pro-Russia stance. The Chinese government appears increasingly concerned about its own citizens trapped in the country; state media reported a Chinese national was shot while trying to flee Ukraine on Tuesday. Wangs statement said Ukraine looks forward to China “playing a role” in realizing a cease-fire.

As reporter Tracy Wen Liu writes in Foreign Policy, Beijing’s official organs still lean toward Russia, with media outlets following their Russian counterparts by avoiding the terms “attack” and “invasion” in their coverage.

More from FP’s reporters:

•Colum Lynch rounds up the key points from U.S. President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address.

•Lynch also reported on a campaign by smaller nations to weaken the veto power of the U.N. Security Council’s permanent members.

•Michael Hirsh explored the challenges of nuclear arms control amid renewed Russian threats.

•Christina Lu looked at the Ukrainian diaspora’s response to Russia’s invasion.

•Amy Mackinnon assessed the impact of the growing corporate boycott of Russia’s economy.

•Jack Detsch reported on the dangers posed by thermobaric munitions in the war in Ukraine.


What We’re Following

Oil talks. Oil ministers from OPEC+ oil producing countries, a group that includes Russia, meet today amid soaring prices spurred by the war in Ukraine. The meeting comes as major oil companies distance themselves from Russian production, with BP, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell all making the decision to halt operations in the country in recent days. 

U.S.-Taiwan ties. A high-level delegation of former U.S. officials dispatched by the White House on a reassurance mission to Taiwan will meet with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei today. The group is led by Michael Mullen, a retired admiral and former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. It is the second such trip in the last 12 months, following a similar mission led by former Sen. Chris Dodd in April 2021. In a trip not sanctioned by the White House, former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Taiwan today on a four-day tour and is also scheduled to meet with Tsai.


Keep an Eye On

Food impacts. The Middle East is facing a food crisis due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; both countries are major wheat exporters, and supply chains are expected to be disrupted by both sanctions and the war itself. Egypt—the world’s largest wheat importer, which sources roughly 80 percent of the grain from Russia and Ukraine—has pledged to increase domestic production by 36 percent in preparation for a shortfall.

Burkina Faso’s coup. Burkina Fasos junta chief, Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, signed a plan to hold elections in three years, six months longer than was proposed in a draft charter presented to civil society groups earlier this week. The transition plan bars Damiba as well as the 25 members of the transitional government from running in future elections.


Odds and Ends

Ukraine’s national anti-corruption watchdog has advised taxpayers that Russian tanks and other equipment captured over the course of the war need not be declared on tax forms.

“Have you captured a Russian tank or armored personnel carrier and are worried about how to declare it? Keep calm and continue to defend the Motherland!” a press release from the National Agency on Corruption Prevention reads.

Beyond the propaganda value, the agency provided some legal basis for the claim, citing the fact that any equipment would not be acquired as a result of a normal transaction and that the equipment would likely be damaged, making a proper appraisal unfeasible.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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