Putin's new soft-power media machine

Russia's new state media is helping shape perceptions in Ukraine and the rest of the Russian-speaking world. It is slick, professional, and rooted in heavily spun truth.

Yuri Kochetkov/Reuters/File
Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on Russia’s RT news channel in 2013. The Kremlin has transformed Russia’s media scene into a powerful propaganda tool.

Dmitry Kiselyov strolls through a vast, ultramodern studio, gesturing dramatically with his hands while calmly and forcefully ticking off his talking points.

From time to time, the anchor of Russia's leading Sunday news show, "The Week," turns away from the camera, as if to thoughtfully examine a huge, evocative graphic that reads "Collapse of Statehood?" Then he turns back to look millions of Russians straight in the eye, with just a hint of outrage, while he soberly explains to them what's going on in Ukraine:

•It was a coup, engineered by a tiny, militant neofascist minority that used violent pressure from the streets to overthrow the legally elected President Viktor Yanukovych.

•European foreign ministers, who undersigned a deal between the president and opposition that might at least have given some legal form to the transition, stood back and did nothing when radicals rejected the deal and drove Mr. Yanukovych out of Kiev.

•The newly minted Ukrainian government, basically a junta raised to power by the mob, quickly tipped its anti-Russian hand by revoking a law that protected Russian-speakers.

•Western countries revealed their true colors, too, by tearing up all of their supposed principles and rushing to embrace a pro-Western government that had muscled its way into office by smashing democratic institutions and overturning valid election results.

And what is Russia to do? Mr. Kiselyov asks. Sit by and watch passively while extreme Ukrainian nationalists threaten the lives of peaceful Russian-speaking compatriots in the eastern Ukraine and Crimea? Let Ukraine disintegrate into chaos, to be gobbled up by Western powers that have been aggressively moving their institutions – the European Union and NATO – eastward into Russia's former sphere for the past two decades? Or should Russia act to protect its own national interests?

It's an impressive performance. Some of what Kiselyov says is true, some of it is debatable, all of it is one-sided. For those who have access to other news sources, it's not hard to spot the exaggerations and even a couple of whopping lies embedded in the narrative. If Kiselyov were just one voice in a diverse media spectrum like, say, a Russian version of Rush Limbaugh, it would merely be fascinating.

But all of Russia's major TV networks, which 9 out of 10 Russians identify as their top news source, are singing from exactly the same hymnal these days. And this media choir is providing the Kremlin with a new soft power both at home – where polls show Russians increasingly rallying around President Vladimir Putin as a bulwark against an aggressive West – and in the near abroad. Nowhere has this been clearer than in Ukrainian Crimea, where ethnic Russians, alarmed by the "fascists in Kiev" that they see on Russian media, have embraced Moscow as their savior.

Beyond the Soviet era

For more than a decade, critics have been warning that the extreme centralization of Russian media under state and Kremlin-friendly ownership has created a monolithic propaganda machine on a scale unseen since the days of the Soviet Union. Until now, that has not been so obvious, but the crisis in Ukraine has suddenly brought it roaring into focus.

But it is something new. After all, people secretly laughed at Soviet-era news programming that featured stone-faced presenters reading out Politburo statements and introducing segments on rising agricultural production or the latest space triumph.

Today Russian TV looks completely different. It incorporates all the latest innovations of US cable news, with attractive, animated anchors and lots of on-the-ground reports.

Where Soviet TV would have erected a wall of silence, Russian TV went out and covered the revolt in Kiev intensively. Much of its narrative is constructed from on-the-ground reporting – but from what Western audiences would regard as unfamiliar angles, and with shifted emphasis and quite a bit of cherry-picking.

For instance, Russian journalists looked for – and found – violence-prone neofascists and anti-Russian radicals on Kiev's Independence Square, known as the Maidan, and filmed militant protesters initiating attacks against the police. Later, when a leaked phone conversation between the Estonian foreign minister and the EU's foreign-policy chief raised doubts that deadly Kiev sniper attacks had actually been ordered by Yanukovych, the Russian media treated that as headline news for days, while most Western outlets gave it minor play. The result is a seamless and well-documented story line that no one will laugh at.

"Our TV has been engaged in delivering high-quality propaganda for a long time, but we hadn't really noticed this before," says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, an independent Moscow-based media consultancy.

"We have so many different sources of information. It's not like Soviet times at all. About 30 million Russians today regularly use the Internet and millions travel abroad. Outside sources of information are accessible, and millions of Russians speak foreign languages," he adds.

Pushing on an open door

But despite having far more access to information than in the past, the message being delivered by TV seems to be the one that's working on the Russian public right now. Some analysts argue that TV polemicists like Kiselyov are pushing on an open door by appealing to public prejudices long latent in the Russian population. In fact, they suggest, it may not be that unusual for people to rally around their leaders in times of crisis, and even to accommodate a few transparent fibs for the national cause.

According to a mid-March survey released by the independent Levada Center in Moscow, Mr. Putin's personal approval rating, which had been slumping over the past year, grew from 65 percent in January to 72 percent by mid-March as the crisis in Ukraine worsened. The poll found that two-thirds of Russians are convinced that the new government in Kiev does not express the will of the whole Ukrainian people, more than 70 percent fear there is a real threat to the Russian-speakers of eastern Ukraine, and 67 percent blame Ukrainian nationalists for the power shift in Kiev. About a quarter of Russians thought it was acceptable on principle to introduce Russian troops into Ukraine, and 56 percent said they would agree to it under "extreme circumstances," to stop violence or forestall a humanitarian catastrophe.

"The coverage of Ukrainian events in Russia was one-sided, and it appealed to just one set of preconceptions in the Russian public consciousness," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center.

"But it's hard to say this point of view was forced upon public opinion. Yes, propaganda has its impact, but it takes years of constant influence to produce such an effect. It can't be done in the space of a few months. Public opinion is not formed only by TV channels. We have other sources, and it shouldn't be forgotten that about 40 percent of Russians say they have personal connections with Ukraine, either by having relatives there, or having lived there, or being born there. It's too simple to blame the media for the way Russians are reacting" to the events in Ukraine, he says.

The Levada survey found that 63 percent of Russians believe their media's coverage of Ukrainian events was objective on the whole, while 29 percent disagreed.

"What is new about these past few months is that our Russian media has become a raw propaganda tool, portraying events in Ukraine in monochromatic tones as an upsurge of fascists from western Ukraine," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal.

"It works very well, unlike Soviet-era media messaging, because this time there is an outpouring of genuine patriotism. We Russians, guided by our leader, are closing ranks and standing up to evil forces. Fascists, working with the West, are threatening our people," she says. "Given this country's history" – in particular the Soviet Union's 25 million casualties at Nazi Germany's hands during World War II – "there is no more effective appeal to the emotions of Russians than to rally against the threat of fascism. And this is how our people see the picture."

Sway in Ukraine

In Ukraine, where those same Russian TV channels enjoyed wide viewership – at least until very recently – the Russian viewpoint is greeted with far more skepticism and even derision, at least from many people in Kiev who watched the Maidan events unfold firsthand.

"I can't watch the news anymore. I get most of my news from Facebook these days," says Oksana Fedorenko, an English teacher in Kiev. "This is an issue of critical thinking, and some people don't know how to do that. They just believe what they are fed."

The new Ukrainian government takes the power of Russian media seriously enough that its official National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council this month told Ukrainian providers to stop carrying five Moscow-based news channels, citing the need to defend the country's sovereignty. The move followed the pro-Russian Crimean leadership's decision to shut down Ukrainian broadcasters on the territory and replace them with Russian ones.

Ukrainians, who have enjoyed a relatively vibrant democracy and diverse civil society in post-Soviet times, also have the benefit of being mostly bilingual and able to access a far wider variety of sources than Russians typically can. According to Alexander Chekmyshov, deputy director of the Institute of Journalism in Kiev, it is perfectly normal for Ukrainians to watch the early news shows on Ukrainian TV, then switch to the later Russian news programs out of Moscow.

There wasn't so much difference between them until the current crisis began late last year. Then he began to notice that Russian news was full of "lies and disinformation," he says.

"Still, I don't think they should have banned Russian TV channels. It's useless to try to block the flow of information in the 21st century. We should have kept them to show everyone how foolish they are. The best way to combat lies is with the truth," he says.

It's not clear whether all Ukrainian cable providers will accommodate the demand of the new government, which is still in the process of establishing its authority around the country.

"Russian TV channels have good ratings in the east and south of Ukraine," though Ukraine doesn't have a standard system of measuring ratings, and satellite coverage is not monitored at all, says Natalya Ligacheva, editor of Telekritika, a Ukrainian Internet media portal.

Many different figures are on offer for the penetration of Russian TV in Ukraine. But the percentage of people who regularly watch Moscow-based TV programs is much greater – more than 80 percent – in the mainly Russian-speaking and more pro-Moscow east of the country than the number who watch in the central or western regions, says Vladimir Paniotto, director of the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, Ukraine's leading pollster.

Although far from the only factor, the Russian media certainly helped shape the sentiments of Ukraine's ethnic Russians, both in Crimea and the country's east, who are turning to Moscow for protection.

"There is no doubt that Russian TV coverage of the events in Ukraine has an impact on public opinion, but it's hard to quantify what that is," Mr. Paniotto says.

The limits of media power

While Russia's pro-Kremlin TV narrative appears triumphant, at least among Russians, Moscow seems less confident. In recent weeks it has launched an intensifying campaign to drive alternative outlets out of existence.

The liberal Internet TV station Dozhd, which had featured a different brand of reporting on the crisis in Ukraine, was dropped by all Russian cable providers in February and now appears on the verge of closing. In early March the longtime editor of Russia's leading Internet news site, Lenta.ru, was fired by its Kremlin-friendly owner, apparently over an interview with a leading Ukrainian nationalist that she had published. Russia's official media watchdog subsequently blacklisted several independent Internet sources, including anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny's blog, the popular Grani.ru opposition website, dissident chess champion Garry Kasparov's site, and the liberal online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal, for allegedly posting "extremist materials."

And in mid-March, tens of thousands of Russians marched through downtown Moscow, some waving Ukrainian flags, to protest against Russian intervention in Ukraine's sovereign affairs. That suggests that antiwar sentiment may grow if the Ukraine operation turns sour, just as has happened in the United States when ill-advised foreign wars start to take their toll.

"Let's not be mesmerized by the power of the Russian media to shape public opinion," says Ms. Lipman. "It's early days in this Ukraine crisis ... and the majority of the people there seem to support it. In other words, Russians don't feel they are paying any cost for this. It would not be so easy to sell if the circumstances turn bad."

Fact-checking Russia's message

Claim: Ukraine's democratically elected leader was illegitimately toppled.

True. There's no glossing over two key facts about Ukraine's power struggle: It began last November with democratically elected, if increasingly unpopular, President Viktor Yanukovych at the helm – and ended with his sudden and chaotic ouster under pressure from a motley coalition of opposition forces. While Mr. Yanukovych was stripped of his duties by the elected and still-functioning parliament after he fled, the legality of his ouster is at best constitutionally murky.

Claim: Ukraine's interim government is full of radical nationalists.

Debatable. During the antigovernment protests in Kiev, two anti-Russian – and sometimes even anti-European – nationalist groups were prominent on the barricades: the political party Svoboda and the paramilitary group Right Sector. But Right Sector has virtually no representation in the interim government. Svoboda does count some senior government officials among its leaders, but it carried just 10 percent of the popular vote in the last parliamentary elections.

Claim: There were no Russian troops in Crimea prior to the referendum.

False. The armed soldiers in unmarked uniforms who flooded Crimea prior to its March 16 referendum often rode in Russian vehicles as Russian helicopters flew overhead. The soldiers were widely documented as speaking Russian, occasionally admitted to belonging to the Russian military, and were exceptionally well equipped and trained – all evidence that they were not "local self-defense forces," as Russian media claimed.

Claim: The West fostered the violence in Ukraine that toppled Yanukovych.

Debatable. Overt support for the Ukrainian opposition – including a procession of Western dignitaries through the protest camp in Kiev – did fuel the protesters' resolve to fight on. It also gave them the confidence necessary to summarily eject Yanukovych despite Europe's preference for an orderly transition. But this was not how the Russian state media portrayed it: as an allegedly well-organized and generously funded shadow campaign to take over Ukraine and turn it into a bastion of NATO and American influence on Russia's borders.

-Anna Kordunsky / Staff writer

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