The Russian media has gone to great lengths to ignore the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region. However, they begin to recognize the advance of the Ukrainian troops without knowing very well how to deal with this reality that has taken the Kremlin by surprise.
Nothing on the first page, not even the second or third. You have to go to the seventh page of the influential pro-Kremlin newspaper ‘Rossiyskaya Gazeta’ in its Monday September 12 edition to find a section dedicated to the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region.
A top-notch media burial for an outpost that makes headlines in nearly every Western media outlet. The advance of the Ukrainian troops in the territories hitherto occupied by Russia in the north of Donbass is receiving, earlier this week, almost as much media attention as the “last trip” of Queen Elizabeth II of England.
Retreat or retreat?
Although only outside Russia, because within Russian borders, and following the model of the ‘Rossiyskaya Gazeta’, “the media does everything possible to ignore what is happening on the ground”, says Joanna Szostek, a media specialist Russian Communication at the University of Glasgow.
Major newspaper and news headlines “revolve around municipal elections and energy prices in Europe,” says Maxim Alyukov, a specialist in Russian media at King’s College London.
Two themes that were not chosen by chance, as they show the regime in a favorable light. Last weekend’s local and regional elections – the first since the war in Ukraine began in February 2022 – have turned out positively for Kremlin-backed candidates. In addition, the increase in the price of energy in Western Europe illustrates for the Russian media the impact of Western sanctions on Russia.
And when the media gives some space to the setbacks of the Russian army in the Kharkiv region, “they tend to use euphemisms to minimize the importance of what is happening and suggest that everything is going according to plan,” emphasizes Maxim Alyukov. TV channels and newspapers speak of a “strategic withdrawal to help defend Donbass, which is reminiscent of how the failure to take kyiv was justified at the beginning of the war,” says Russia specialist Jaroslava Barbieri. from the University of Birmingham.
However, since last weekend, the tone has started to change. “The Russian media, which are at the service of the government, have begun to use several contradictory explanations at the same time. This responds to their traditional propaganda strategy, which does not consist in informing but in confusing,” explains Vera Tolz, an expert in The Russian Media Landscape from Manchester University
The idea of a carefully considered “strategic withdrawal” continues to be used in articles that, at the same time, acknowledge that Russian troops were pushed out by Ukrainian forces. This is the case of some releases from the ‘RIA Novosti’ news agency, which juggle these contradictory explanations, says Vera Tolz.
On the one hand, they claim that the Russians had to withdraw because the Ukrainians were much more numerous, in particular thanks to the contribution of “foreign mercenaries”. On the other hand, ‘RIA Novosti’ can explain in the same statement that the Kharkiv region was not part of the objectives of the “special military operation” (official Kremlin terminology for the war in Ukraine) anyway and that the troops they will redeploy in the Donbass.
In search of the scapegoat
The silence or contradictory explanations used in the media also betray “the expectation of an official version to talk about the counteroffensive,” says Maxim Alyukov. For this expert, it is likely that there will still be a change in the narrative around the Ukrainian advance “once the Kremlin and the experts of the media landscape have agreed on the way to present things.”
One thing is certain for all the experts interviewed: the initial success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive is too important an event to simply deny. “This is the difference between Russia and North Korea or China: the population can access alternative sources of information – be it YouTube or Telegram – so in order to maintain credibility, the state media cannot ignore what happening in the Kharkiv region,” says Vera Tolz.
The way in which major public network talk shows such as ‘Channel One’ have approached the subject is very revealing in this regard. “More and more voices are being raised on the sets among military experts and former deputies to “face the reality” of a conflict that is not going as planned,” says Jaroslava Barbieri.
The government-critical guest has become an endangered species on Russian television since the war began, “whereas before the tradition was to give the impression of having a democratic debate,” recalls Joanna Szostek.
In recent days, these guests have returned. “Most of them explain that if the conflict does not develop as planned, it is because Vladimir Putin has been badly advised. In other words, they are preparing the ground so that the government can designate scapegoats to punish,” says Vera. Tolz.
Even the main figures of Russian political life participate in this communication operation. Ramzan Kadyrov, president of the Russian Republic of Chechnya and a great ally of Vladimir Putin, declared on Telegram on Sunday, September 11, that “mistakes had been made” and that “he would have to talk to the leader of the country to explain what was really happening on the terrain”. A way of suggesting that Vladimir Putin is not responsible for the situation because he was badly advised…
If all the propaganda machinery is set in motion to protect the master of the Kremlin, it is because, according to Vera Tolz, the first sphere of power “begins to be afraid.” This shows that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is already a success.
*Adapted from its original French version
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