The Russian government doesn’t create much of an illusion of press freedom. Many of the most prominent media organizations, from television channels to the Russian news agency TASS, are owned by the federal government, and journalists critical of the political establishment face not only censorship, but also risk to their lives and livelihoods.
That reality has become only more obvious since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A survey of headlines in Russian news outlets this week reveals not so much what is happening inside the attacking nation, but rather what President Vladimir Putin’s government would like its citizens to believe.
On Thursday, Roskomnadzor—the federal organization responsible for controlling and censoring the media—issued a statement informing the Russian media “they are obliged to only use information and data they have received from official Russian sources.” The statement also warned that unnamed media outlets have spread “unverified and unreliable information.”
While some opposition publications such as Novaya Gazeta attempt to counter the narrative, mainstream Russian news outlets have largely fallen into line—even if the results are unlikely to fool discerning Russian readers who have been exposed to roughly 15 years of pro-government propaganda. The resulting stories are as striking for what they omit as what they actually publish; by and large, Russian media minimizes the scale of the attack on Ukraine—describing it in the phrase used by federal officials, as a “military operation” rather than a “war” or “invasion,” the terms much of western media has used—while uncritically reprinting statements from Putin and other government officials.
In some cases, Russian news stories have distorted what is happening on the ground in Ukraine. For example, an article published in RIA News on Thursday repeated the Russian Defense Ministry’s claims that any statements that Russian aircraft, helicopters, and armored vehicles have been lost are “complete lies,” in contradiction of international reports. The article also claimed that Ukrainian military personnel are leaving their positions “en masse,” and that “Ukrainian border guards do not offer any resistance.” Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, have highlighted stories of guards refusing to stand down.
A U.S. official told TIME that disparaging comments about the Ukrainian armed forces are part of a Russian strategy “to discourage them and induce surrender through disinformation.” The official said, “Our information indicates Russia is creating a disinformation campaign by publicizing false reports about the widespread surrender of Ukrainian troops. Our information also indicates that Russia plans to threaten killing the family members of Ukrainian soldiers if they do not surrender.”
Russian news articles have also minimized the potential danger faced by Ukrainian civilians, often by repeating claims by the government without offering information that could contradict them. For instance, many pieces about the invasion repeated the Russian Military of Defense’s claim that it would attack only military targets, and that Ukrainian civilians are not at risk. A TASS article about the evacuation of Ukrainians to neighboring Moldova ends on that note: “As the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Defense stated, the Russian military isn’t striking at cities, but only incapacitates military infrastructure, so nothing is threatening the civilian population.” This claim is doubtful from a historical perspective, given that about 3,400 civilians were killed in disputed territories in eastern Ukraine between 2014 and 2021, according to the United Nations, and a number of civilians have been killed this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said. Without providing evidence, an article from the Russian news agency Interfax also repeated a claim by Putin that Ukranian forces are using civilians as human shields, and that neo-Nazis are placing heavy weaponry in residential areas.
The same deference extends to the subject of the war’s justification. News stories and opinion-driven pieces alike have claimed that the Ukrainian government is a “dictatorship” and that the Russian government was left with no choice but to attack Ukraine. (Zelensky was democratically elected in a process the democratic advocacy organization Freedom House describes as “competitive and credible.”) The media has also appealed to Russians’ sense of responsibility for Ukraine, which Putin has alleged has no separate identity of its own—contrary to historical evidence—and has drawn connections between the present crisis and WWII, which Russians refer to as the “Great Patriotic War” and is remembered as a moment of national greatness and sacrifice. Insidiously, many news stories have repeated the Russian government’s claim that part of the purpose of the conflict, in the words of Russian press secretary Dmitry Peskov, is the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine. There is no evidence that the Ukrainian government promotes Nazi ideology, and the claim is particularly striking as President Zelensky is Jewish and lost family members in the Holocaust.
It is unclear whether the Russian media’s reporting will persuade many Russians who do not feel the conflict was necessary. As the New York Times reported this week, many Russians believed for some time that the likelihood of their nation’s invading Ukraine was overblown, and their support for the government’s attack has been muted so far. Hundreds of Russians protesting the war have been detained in anti-war protests across the country, opposition publication Novaya Gazeta reports.
However, the challenges facing any Russians who hope to turn the political tide against Putin’s regime include this significant obstacle: the absence of a free press.
—With reporting by Vera Bergengruen
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