The Free Russia Foundation team condemns the crimes of Putin's regime against Ukraine
Yury Krylov

Contributing Author, FRF

Feb 03, 2022
Stoking Anxiety: How the Russian Media Covers Tensions with Ukraine and What Ordinary Russians Think About It

NATO, U.S., Russia, Ukraine: What’s Happening Right Now?

In late December 2021, the U.S. and NATO responded to Russia’s threats by asserting that Russian demands are unacceptable for the alliance —in particular, the demand to definitively preclude the incorporation of Ukraine into NATO. At the same time, NATO countries expressed their willingness to cooperate with Russia on such issues as arms control and disarmament.

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the alliance is “prepared for the worst,” so NATO would strengthen its posture in the Baltic and the Black Sea region. The US forces of 8,500 people stand ready for mobilization to Europe. Stoltenberg also called on Russia to “withdraw its troops” from Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. The U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted that Ukraine’s sovereignty, its territorial integrity, and the right to choose its allies are values that the United States and NATO are committed to defend.

In early January 2022, Russia, the U.S. and NATO held negotiations at which Moscow’s demands were discussed. Russia assessed these talks as unsuccessful and asked the U.S. and NATO to provide a written response. It was handed over to the Russian Foreign Ministry on January 26. Afterward, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg held press conferences stating that NATO would not abandon the open-door principle.

While Russia waited for the U.S. to respond to its offers of security guarantees, the situation around Ukraine continued to escalate. Following the statements about the evacuation of Western diplomats from Kyiv, NATO leaders resolved to strengthen their eastern flank and sent additional forces to Bulgaria, Romania and Lithuania, while the US hinted that up to 50,000 American soldiers could be sent to Eastern Europe. Officials of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk and Luhansk expressed fears of an attack from Kiev, and the ruling United Russia party asked Putin to start supplying Russian weapons to the rebellious republics.

How Russia and Ukraine Found Themselves on the Brink of a Big War

The conflict between Moscow and Kiev has its roots far back in history, but its nature is simple: the Kremlin refuses to recognize Ukraine’s independence. Some of the key Kremlin’s positions are reflected in a document titled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, an oped by Putin published on July 12, 2021. In his oped, Putin advances the concept of the triune Russian people, which for centuries has formed a single cultural and spiritual space of historical Russia. According to the author, today’s Ukraine is “entirely the brainchild of the Soviet era,” largely created at the expense of what he calls “historical Russia.” Putin fails to mention that Russians and Ukrainians were not always on the same path and that two languages and two cultures had been formed—similar, but different. When Russia and Ukraine became separate states after the collapse of the Soviet Union, another difference became very clear— that of a political orientation. Kyiv has aspired to join Western democracies, with a rotating system of government, while Moscow turned away from it. The annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbass and the current conflict are the natural result of the Kremlin’s policy of the last 20 years.

Ukraine Coverage in the Russian Media

The downward spiral in the Russian-Ukrainian relations is widely covered in the Russian media, both state-owned and independent. Depending on the political stance and proximity to the Kremlin, the portrayal of current events in various media outlets differs significantly. Just as in a hypothetical armed clash between Russia and Ukraine, the balance of power in the information battle is not equal— the state-owned media with anti-Ukrainian positions far outnumber the opposition media in terms of coverage and influence.

And it is no longer just about funding: during 2021, the Kremlin unleashed an onslaught against independent journalism. While, at the end of 2020 there were only 17 individuals and organizations on the black list of Foreign Media Agent, by the end of 2021 their number increased to 111, with the most influential and popular editorial teams and journalists added. In addition, many journalists independent of the Kremlin were forced to flee the country as exiles.

“Journalism in Russia is going through dark times right now. In the last few months, more than a hundred journalists, media outlets, human rights activists, and NGOs have already been given the status of “foreign agents.” In Russia, these are “enemies of the people.” These are the words of Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, in his Nobel speech. This is how he described what happened to the journalistic profession in 2021.

The main narratives of the Russian media affiliated or controlled by the Kremlin include:

  • Relations between Russia and the United States have come to a dangerous critical edge due to the latter’s fault. The NATO bloc is carrying out hostile activities in the immediate vicinity of Russia’s borders, from military maneuvers to arms sales to Ukraine.
  • Russia has attempted to become friends and reliable partners of NATO, but the steps we took toward it were misinterpreted as weakness, and all we got in return was disregard for our priorities and a threat to our borders.
  • In Ukrainian society, a culture of fear is being cultivated, neo-Nazis are being indulged, militarization is on the rise, and Russophobe sentiments and the fight against the Russian language and culture are intensifying. At the same time, the Ukrainian media is actively spreading rumors of an impending Russian invasion of Ukraine, but this is only a distraction for building NATO infrastructure and preparing its own military provocations, such as a combat operation in the rebellious republics in the east of the country.
  • Ukraine’s military is ineffective, unprepared and unable to deal not only with Russia, but even with the DNR and LNR militias.

Key purveyors and amplifiers of these narratives include:

TV channels: Pervyi TV-channel, Rossiya-24, REN-TV, NTV, RT (Russia Today)

News agencies: RIA Novosti, Interfax, RT

Media outlets: Lenta.ru, Izvestiya, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Moskovsky Komsomolets, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Argumenty i Fakty

Pro-Kremlin media taking a neutral stance: Kommersant, RBC

Most stories on the escalation of the situation between Russia and Ukraine in the official Russian media violate basic principles of quality journalism, first and foremost the principle of neutrality and non-judgmentalism. Subjective evaluations are prominent event at the level of headlines, and are especially amplified in the texts of news and op-eds. When presenting information, journalists of pro-Kremlin media regularly use expressive language and evaluative epithets, such as “Ukrainian militants,” “neo-Nazi Ukrainian groups,” “terrorist authorities,” and “militarist psychosis.”

The state television and Kremlin-funded sources suggest to audiences that active military action in Ukraine is necessary to ensure Russia’s own security. Numerous political talk shows on state-run television stations make direct threats and statements about the need to use the force.

An important place in pro-Kremlin media is reserved for sessions in which readers’ and viewers questions are answered by experts. Oftentimes, the experts chosen by the editorial staff make evaluative and negatively expressive judgments in their answers, which are not supported by precise facts (or are counterfactual). When making even the loudest accusations, authors of such publications often do not cite a source of information that could serve as proof of their accuracy.

The language of publications in the state media can be characterized as extremely negative, and the tonality is dismissive and disparaging of Ukraine and its citizens.

In the article “Ukraine is always shooting itself in the foot,” Lenta.ru forecasts how the next escalation of the conflict between Moscow and Kiev will turn out for Ukrainians: “The problem is that the entire political life in Ukraine is a constant regrouping of resources in order not to touch its cronies, semi-criminal politics and manipulation of Western partners. The political class in Ukraine has only chimerical ideas and has proven to be bankrupt <…> Ukraine’s current economic situation is not the result of Russia’s actions, but of its own reckless attitude toward the resources it has received. Ukraine, of course, is a record-breaker in the way it can be wasted. It’s not Russia who carried it out <…> The new fragile countries with a large Russian community should be sensitive to the interests of the Russian minority, because this is what interethnic peace and stability in these countries are based on. And the well-being of this minority directly affects the quality of relations with Russia.

In loud and often misleading headlines Lenta.ru journalists use expressive phrases and evaluative epithets: “Rada deputy revealed “hellish” plans of the West for Ukraine”, “The actions of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry were compared to the behavior of a ” offended maiden”, “In Donbas they prepared for chemical attacks of Kiev”, “In Ukraine they warned about the growing “spiral of disasters”, “Accidentally gained control of the country” Zelensky was called to choose words more carefully.”

Part of the news stream is devoted to discussion of combat capabilities of the Ukrainian army and Ukrainian civilian population, as a rule, in a humorous manner: “Ukraine’s place in the rating of the strongest armies of the world was named” (“Experts gave Russia the second place in the pedestal of the strongest armies of the world, the first place went to the United States. Ukraine in the global list got only 22nd place”), “Ukrainian woman spent two thousand dollars on ammunition for “Russian invasion”, “Ukraine accused the US of “lame” and outdated weapons”, “Ukrainian commander promised to “tear Russians with his bare hands”, “Ukrainian reservists were trained to use an archaic machine gun.”

One of the world’s largest news agencies, RIA Novosti, is not far behind its colleagues. In the background of many news items on the topic of the conflict, journalists of the state news agency place the following text: “Moscow has repeatedly denied accusations of “aggressive actions” by the West and Ukraine, noting that it does not threaten anyone and is not going to attack anyone, while statements about “aggression” are used as a pretext to place more NATO military equipment near Russian borders.”

In the article “Total Dependence. Why the West Pushes Russians and Ukrainians” the head of Crimea, Sergey Aksenov, states that “Ukrainian politicians are dependent, they do not make independent decisions. First of all, President Zelensky. America and other Western countries do not need a prosperous Ukraine, they need a conflict with Russia. Their task is to push us against each other, two brotherly nations. This is solely the fault of the Ukrainian administration.”

RIA Novosti journalists regularly inform its readers about the West’s alleged preparations for major provocations in Ukraine: “Western countries are preparing several major sabotages in the situation around Ukraine, and Moscow does not rule out that they may be information or military, said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on the Russia-24 TV program ‘An Evening with Vladimir Solovyov'”.

RIA Novosti agency openly manipulates the facts, reinforcing anti-Ukrainian moods in Russian society. The news piece “Kiev told us when it will start organizing terrorist attacks in Russia” tells about how Ukraine will engage in sabotage on Russian territory in case of a full-scale war. And in the article “CIA teaches Ukrainian special forces to kill Russians. But they will blame Russia” the agency draws readers’ attention to the allegedly “leaked recent information that the CIA is intensively training the Ukrainian Special Operations Forces (SDF) at some secret base in the south of the USA. A former CIA official familiar with the details of this operation directly admits its purpose: “The program teaches Ukrainians to kill Russians.”

Journalists of the agency often mock Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky. “Well, that’s it then. Why have they started laughing at Zelensky in America?” (Quote: “In Ukraine itself, few people believe Zelensky’s statements. At one time, the main motive of Vladimir Zelensky’s election campaign was to establish peace in Donbass. However, he did not fulfill his pre-election promises, essentially deceiving his voters, so the current critical attitude of many citizens toward the Ukrainian president is completely natural”), “In Crimea they compared Zelensky to a disco dancer for the USA” (Quote: “Crimean political expert and VII State Duma deputy Ruslan Balbek, commenting on Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky’s call to activate the country’s foreign intelligence, compared his actions to dancing to the music of American composers”)

The main Russian news agency also regularly discusses the Ukrainian army. “The U.S. found out how long Ukraine will last in a naval battle with Russia” (Quote: “Taking into account Russia’s significant sea and air advantage, there is a high probability that the entire Ukrainian fleet will go down in one or two hours after the start of the operation”), “Forbes named the reason for Ukraine’s defeat in a hypothetical war with Russia” (Quote: “Outdated artillery and lack of ammunition will not allow Ukraine to defeat Russia”), “Expert assessed how the condition of the Ukrainian army has changed for seven years” (Quote: “Ukrainian army failed to make a leap in technical equipment”)

Other Headlines of Russian Media Financed by the Kremlin

RT (Russia Today)

  • “Pumping up arms”: how foreign military aid to Ukrainian army contributes to escalation of tensions in Donbass”
  • “Neo-Nazis get carte blanche for provocations”: the Russian embassy claimed the consequences of US arms supplies to Ukraine”
  • “Militarist psychosis”: how the Ukrainian authorities are preparing to repel possible “Russian aggression”
  • “Ukraine is sliding back to the tragic past”: radicals march in honor of Bandera was held in Kiev”
  • “Hate ideology”: how Ukraine continues to glorify collaborators”

Izvestia

  • “They need NATO: why foreign troops will move into Ukraine. North Atlantic Alliance draws nearer to Russia’s borders”
  • “A deal stronger than money: why NATO is escalating tension around Ukraine and why the alliance will not stand up for Kiev in case of a big war”
  • “Pregnant women and women with children to be registered for military service in Ukraine”
  • “Imprisonment: Ukraine has declared war on Russian citizens”
  • “Know your place: women in Ukraine are still “second-rate people”

Pervyi TV-channel

  • “NATO countries are whipping up hysteria over fictitious Russian aggression in Ukraine”
  • “Who will start World War III?”
  • “From the lectern of the Rada, the President of Ukraine talks about a military scenario, and not only in Donbas”

Rossiya-24

  • “Destruction of Russia is the main task of the West”
  • “Insanity in Ukraine Continues”
  • “Expert: Modern Ukraine is a cannon fodder”
  • “Ukraine will fall even without an invasion”
  • “Anglo-Saxons have gone crazy”
  • “Ukrainian Nazis will be killed in back alleys”

Moskovsky Komsomolets

  • “Rumors of war with Russia ruined the economy of Ukraine”
  • “Wasserman called Ukraine an artificial nation”
  • “In Ukraine they said that Zelensky would flee in case of war with Russia”

Komsomolskaya Pravda

  • “It is impossible to be photographed with the Russians, to talk, too. Ukraine frightens athletes before the Olympics”
  • “Shoigu: neo-fascists are paying back on Donbass for the decision of Crimeans”
  • “It has become easier for Russians to obtain Ukrainian citizenship. But who needs it”

Independent Russian Media

Key messages of the independent Russian media outlets include:

  • NATO does not surround Russia. Russia has over 20,000 kilometers of land border, NATO has only 1,215 kilometers, less than one-sixteenth of that. NATO is a defensive alliance with no aggressive intentions against Russia. On the contrary, NATO has been trying for years to get friendly with Russia, but these efforts have unfortunately been rejected.
  • Vladimir Putin’s aggressive policy towards Ukraine is due to the fact that he does not believe that Ukraine is a sovereign state. Also, the president of Russia claims that Ukraine is a threat to Russia.
  • Russia has deployed more than 100,000 troops, including tactical units, near the borders of Ukraine, a country it has recently invaded. This does not look like troop rotations or preparations for a military maneuver – more like preparations for an actual invasion or a politico-military adventure to force NATO and the U.S. to enter into negotiations on the non-extension of the alliance.
  • There are no credible reports of persecution of ethnic Russians or Russian speaking people in Ukraine. However, there are credible reports that Ukrainians in Crimea and Donbass face suppression of their culture and national identity and live in fear.
  • The Ukrainian army has become more combat-ready than it was during the 2014-2015 war and is ready to offer substantial resistance in the event of a Russian military invasion.
  • The economic sanctions that the West would impose if the country invaded Ukraine would be devastating for the whole country, undermining the economy for many years to come.

Key Media Participants

TV channels: Dozhd TV channel

Radio stations / News agencies:  Echo of Moscow

Media outlets: Meduza, Novaya Gazeta, Mediazona, Republic, Znak.com

Plots and Headlines

The pages of the independent Russian press contain both news and analysis on the current confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. In the news articles, the absence of explicit or implicit journalistic assessment of the actions of the parties to the conflict prevails. Neutrality of presentation is also preserved in large investigative articles, where facts are supported by quotations from credible sources.

The texts in the non-state media in Russia do not contain explicit signals of evaluation or signs of verbal aggression. These outlets, especially Meduza and Novaya Gazeta, engage in investigative journalism in which the authors collect and analyze large amounts of information from a variety of credible sources.

Criticism from the pages of independent press is usually directed at Russian political figures. Journalists use sarcasm as their main artistic device. This is especially evident in analytical articles, where the objects of sarcasm are statements by Vladimir Putin, his press secretary Dmitry Peskov and other first persons of the state.

In the article “In recent months, the Western media write about a possible war between Russia and Ukraine. How do ordinary people from both countries react to it?” Angelina Karyakina, head of the news department of the National Public Television and Radio Company of Ukraine, tells Meduza about the feelings of ordinary Ukrainians. And independent journalist Ulyana Pavlova tells how she worked on materials about the attitude of Russians to a potential military conflict.

In the article “If War Does Begin, Will the Ukrainian Army Be Able to Resist Russia? We Examine What Has Changed Since 2014,” Meduza journalists, together with military experts, explore the combat effectiveness of the Ukrainian army, concluding that propagandists’ claims that the Ukrainian army is unprepared for war with Russia are nothing more than a fake. “Has the Ukrainian army become more combat-ready than it was during the 2014-2015 war? Yes, undoubtedly. Ukraine’s armed forces have been preparing to continue the war in the Donbass for seven years; the state spent more on the army during that time than any country of the former Soviet Union except Russia. They succeeded in their preparations: Ukraine now has the second largest army in the region, an experienced reserve, a new command and control system, and a significant proportion of modern weaponry in combat units. This will probably be enough to prevent itself from being defeated by the two ‘corps’ of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and several battalion tactical groups of the Russian army sent ‘seconded’ to the region.” – reported in the article.

In the article “Who in the Russian Administration Wants War with Ukraine?” Meduza comes to a dreadful conclusion: if Russia starts hostilities, the country will face isolation, economic decline and a political system like in Turkmenistan.

The Echo Of Moscow also draws disappointing conclusions about the prospects for a hypothetical war and warns the Kremlin against such a scenario: “A war with Ukraine in the model of 2022 cannot be a repeat of the 2014-2015 military campaign that led to the signing of the “Minsk Protocol,” which is unbearable for Ukraine. Even if Ukraine is defeated in this war (which is possible, but not guaranteed), the price of victory will be completely different. The West, without directly intervening in the conflict (also likely, but not necessarily), will give Ukraine all the military and financial aid it needs to continue this war “to the last Ukrainian”. If anyone hopes that the Ukrainian army, with all its known vulnerabilities, being equipped in unlimited numbers with modern high-tech weapons, will not be able to inflict significant damage on the Russian army, he is mistaken.

Other Headlines from the Independent Russian Media

Novaya Gazeta

  • They are not there, but everyone is there! Deliveries of modern Russian weapons to the Donbass may become a new stage of escalation
  • Dead Man’s Donbass. What they sell, who covers them up, and who earns the most in Russia’s “gray zone”
  • Sergei Loznitsa: “War is always a disgusting way to solve a problem”

TV Channel Dozhd

  • The patriotic wave has subsided: why a possible war with Ukraine would not become “a second Crimea”
  • State Department published examples of “Russian lies” about the situation around Ukraine
  • “There are no people left around Putin who could dissuade him from madness.” Evgenia Albats on who may be pushing the president to start a war with Ukraine
  • This is what war is all about. What the propagandists on TV don’t talk about

Republic

  • The days when everybody lies: peculiarities of the pre-war propaganda
  • Oleg Kashin: For humanism and the cause of peace. What pacifism is missing now?
  • Putin’s hybrid ultimatum. How Russia’s president demonstrates to the world the comparative advantages of authoritarianism.

What do Ordinary Russians Think About a Possible Military Conflict with Ukraine?

Credible opinion polls – such as those conducted by the Levada Center (https://www.levada.ru/2021/12/14/obostrenie-v-donbasse/) – show that about half of Russians do not believe that a war between Russia and Ukraine will take place. However, a comparable number of people – 39% – hold the opposite opinion. Only 15% completely exclude the possibility of such a development of events. A quarter of the respondents consider a conflict between Russia and NATO possible.

More than half of respondents at the end of 2021 pointed to worsening relations with Western and NATO countries, which was one of the highest values of this indicator in the history of observation – it was higher only in 2014.

At the same time, the fear of a big war is much more widespread in Russian society. As recently as spring 2021, 62% of respondents felt it – a record high for a quarter-century of regular nationwide polls. Participants in focus groups explained: “When the state media say that we are going to enter a war not today or tomorrow, it’s scary! It’s scary, it’s tense… Everything pales in the background.” However, by the end of the year the fear of war had somewhat weakened (in December 2021 the corresponding figure was 56%). This was most likely due to the meeting between the presidents of Russia and the United States and the start of the U.S.-Russian negotiations.

A significant proportion of Russians believe that the war between Russia and the West has long been going on, albeit invisible, cold, and in the form of media war – an opinion that has been voiced in focus groups in various parts of the country for many years. According to surveys, Russian participation in all recent international conflicts has been perceived by Russian public opinion almost exclusively through the prism of geopolitical confrontation with the West, primarily with the United States.

The sociologists of the Levada Center, in their research, see that the majority of Russians blame the United States and NATO for the current escalation. This is the opinion of half of those surveyed. Only 3-4% hold the Russian leadership responsible, which can be considered a marginal position. And this structure of assessments of what is happening is quite stable: “Interference by the US and the West in the internal affairs of other countries” has long ago become a universal explanation for any foreign policy disturbances: from the conflict in Syria to the recent war in the Karabakh or the crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border. No matter what happens in the world, America is to be blamed.

In conversations with respondents, the United States and the West are not just seen as responsible for the conflict, they are deliberately and purposefully dragging Russia into the war. The word “provocation” was repeatedly heard from respondents. At the same time, the prevailing opinion was that Russia cannot but react.

At the same time, publications in the Western press about the pulling of Russian armed forces to the Russian-Ukrainian border seemed to most focus group participants not as an exposé of Russia’s aggressive intentions, but as an incitement to war on the part of the West itself.

All the events of recent months – Western claims about Nord Stream-2, the Belarusian border crisis, NATO naval maneuvers off the coast of Crimea, the constant threat of new sanctions, Western criticism of Russian military aid to Kazakhstan, talk of an upcoming invasion of Ukraine – for the average Russian has long blended into a stream of poorly discernible negativity “coming from the West.” This news causes nothing but annoyance to the vast majority of Russians, and they do not want to be understood. But with existing perceptions of what is happening, the war seems to be externally imposed and therefore practically unavoidable.Hence the growth of mass fears, conclude sociologists.

So most Russian citizens blame the West for the current escalation, while almost entirely absolving the leadership of their own country of responsibility. At the same time, there is no mobilization of public opinion around Russian leaders. In the last two months, when the topic of the conflict and new sanctions has been discussed most actively, the ratings of the president, the prime minister, and the government have been declining rather than increasing. Apparently, the confrontation with the West has already become boring and routine and does not arouse much excitement, despite the politicians’ harsh statements.

The majority of respondents see full-scale negotiations as practically the only alternative to the conflict. However, neither politicians nor ordinary Russians are confident that negotiations will lead to détente.