There hangs in the air of Tbilisi, Georgia, the city I have called home for 16 years, an uneasy awareness that Russian tanks can arrive here in three hours from “independent” South Ossetia. But there is one big advantage of being here right now, namely, the ability to watch numerous Ukrainian and Russian TV channels cover the war. Consuming many hours of daily coverage reveals that both Ukrainian and Russian TV are certainly acting as boosters for their respective sides. But the amazing avalanche of misinformation and outright lies emanating from Russian TV demonstrates the enduring hold of Soviet-style propaganda tactics in Russia.
Russian TV is controlled either by the state or by President Vladimir Putin’s personal friends. Ukrainian TV is independent from the government, but it is in the hands of rich oligarchs and political parties that have competing agendas and wildly different positions on various issues. Yet all the channels of the four big Ukrainian media groups buried their disagreements when the war began and spontaneously rallied behind the country’s war effort.
The Ukrainian channels rarely report bad news and play up stories of Ukrainian valor and victories. They’ve been replaying a pop song celebrating the exploits of the Turkish drone, Bayraktar, which the Ukrainians have wielded against the Russian army with great success. No doubt all of this is intended to maintain Ukrainian morale and resolve. But Ukrainian coverage doesn’t do so by denying the obvious. It airs live footage when battles are in progress and isn’t coy about showing Ukrainian cities devastated by the Russian blitzkrieg.
Moreover, even though TV channels are operating in the thick of war, they have actually managed to improve their professional quality. When the war originally broke out, the networks were scrambling, and all they could do was put an anchorperson in front of a blank background to rattle off the news of the day. But now TV crews are venturing into the battlefield, covering the unfolding horrors province by province, gathering footage of ruined cities, conducting interviews of Ukrainian civilians whose lives have been destroyed or who have lost loved ones. For brief intervals, the anchors have seemed depressed—but for the past several days, they have been confident and upbeat. Like the rest of their countrymen, no doubt they understand that keeping the national spirit up—and refusing to give in to defeatism—is the key to facing the Russian Goliath.
But the fact is that this Goliath’s weaponry is superior to its news values.
During the earlier stage of the war, Russian TV news consisted of a split screen. One side showed black-and-white combat scenes—or, rather, alleged combat scenes, given that the footage never specified the places where the battles were supposedly occurring. The other side presented talking heads such as émigré Ukrainian complainers, officials, “experts” or anchors. The only on-the-ground reports were from correspondents dispatched to puppet states such as South Ossteia, and they always reported the same thing: the suffering of ethnic Russians at the hands of Ukrainians and their gratitude to Russia.
As an exercise in public diplomacy, this approach was incredibly simplistic and unpersuasive. Putin is regarded as an evil mastermind in the West, but he left the crucial propaganda function in the hands of incompetent bunglers. He has since managed to improve production values and make the coverage look more convincing, but few are buying his line anymore.
But the more fundamental problem with Russian TV’s coverage is substantive, not aesthetic. It too has rallied behind its side—not in a spontaneous show of patriotism, but because it is told what the rulers expect. The result is a tragicomic attempt to square the circle with news channels denying that there is a major war going on—because that’s the official line—even as they try to cover the major war and show that Russia is scoring big victories—because that’s also something that officials want.
Taking their instructions from Putin, Russian TV channels have routinely justified the Ukrainian invasion as necessary to stop the “genocide” of the “Russians” in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics—Russian-speaking provinces that Russia alone recognizes as sovereign states. Rossiya24, the Russian state news channel, went so far as to affix a label in the corner of every broadcast, day after day: “special operation in defense of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk P.R.” This label disappeared on March 6, but the station’s war coverage has continued to focus on this region. Its footage typically features ordinary people from these provinces standing atop the rubble of bombed buildings and complaining about Ukrainian shelling. But around the fringe of the ruins are green moss and grass, raising the question whether these ruins are really the result of recent Ukrainian attacks.
More pertinently, even as Russian TV coverage ignores the war outside the two “republics,” granite-faced military spokesmen openly boast, on air, about the thousands of “military objects” destroyed all over the country—basically admitting that this is indeed a big war spanning all of Ukraine, not some surgical strike against a defined target.
Another glaring contradiction in the public justification of the war is that although Putin insists that the Russians and Ukrainians are one people—brothers!—there is no suggestion of building a bridge to them. Instead, the tone of the coverage is shrill self-pity and paranoid hostility toward all those living outside Russia, including Ukrainians.
Beyond such contradictions and inconsistencies, Russian TV peddles lies—both of commission and omission. Russian TV accuses Ukrainians not only of genocide but of other sins, too, such as trying to acquire nuclear weapons with America’s help. Never mind that Ukraine handed all the nuclear weapons in its possession back to Russia in 1996 after it received security assurances from that country as well as from the U.S. and U.K. Russia is also accusing Ukraine of preparing for biowar, again with America’s backing. Russian documentaries constantly remind viewers about Ukrainian cooperation with Germans in 1918 and, subsequently, the Nazis. This last part is not completely false, but the rest is.
Nor does the coverage offer any hint that the Russian road offensive has faced any hitch, or has been held up anywhere. To the contrary, Putin insists that the operation is proceeding according to his plan, “the timetable.” In the first days after the beginning of combat, TV coverage consisted almost entirely of monotonous footage of Russian tanks moving forward, forward, forward in an endless line but going nowhere. One reason Russian TV focuses so much on tanks is that Russia’s rulers have been obsessed with them since the 1940s, when tanks emerged as the key to sudden and smashing victories. The unceasing stream of tanks conjures images of the 1917 revolution, when socialism was supposed to conquer the world in an ineluctable forward march of history.
Wars are fought not merely with weapons but also symbols, and the tank has become the symbol of Russia’s “special operation.” Russian authorities are emblazoning the bulk of the tanks headed to Ukraine from the north and northeast with the symbol “Z” instead of the Russian flag or insignia. This letter, which does not exist in the Russian alphabet, is half of the double rune used by Himmler’s SS—in fact, half a swastika. It has been embraced as a symbol of defiance by pro-Putin sections of Russian society, perhaps because its vigorous back-and-forth strokes—like the swastika in the 1920s—signify the resilience and vitality of a people that felt defeated.
Instead of covering actual events, Russian TV turns them upside down. It has made no mention of the Russian bombing of the maternity hospital in Mariupol that left three dead and scores injured. Instead, it changed the subject to another story—for which there is no evidence at all and which no one else has covered—of Ukrainian forces shelling a hospital in Volnovakha and killing at least six people. (Volnovakha is a city in the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast where the two Russian-speaking republics are located; it had remained under Ukrainian control until it was captured by the Russians a few days ago after heavy fighting.)
Just in case any slight reality should penetrate, the 1 Kanal Network is at the ready to shut it out. It has taken to running a regular hour-long program called “Anti-Fake” whose express purpose is to discredit war footage unfavorable to Russia as fake. But BBC Monitoring points out that Russia, in fact, is a consummate producer of fake news, using computer-generated and video game footage in its coverage instead of real photography.
The only area in which Russian coverage has been somewhat honest, at least initially, is in describing the impact of the West’s economic sanctions. RBK, the business-oriented private network, was initially relatively open about the sanctions’ negative effect on the Russian economy. This was potentially damaging to Putin’s reputation of being in control and calling the shots, but the temptation to indulge in self-pity was too strong to pass up.
However, even that honesty did not last long, and Russian TV stations started pooh-poohing the sanctions. When prices shot up by 20%, RBK insisted that this was not due to shortages of goods, but because people had started buying more. A store clerk staring at empty shelves in a Dior boutique told Mir (“Peace”) network, “We don’t need these; we have our own boutiques.” A man sporting a patch of the Soviet flag on his chest likewise declared to Mir, “Domestic resources were not developed because the market was occupied.” Translation: The Russian economy is failing to deliver the goods Russians want because free trade forced it to produce other goods.
Russia, squeezed by Western sanctions, has been thrust back in time to the old Soviet Union with its autarchic economy and inconvertible currency. Meanwhile, the invasion of Ukraine has caused Russia’s rulers to whip out true-and-tried methods to maintain their grip: a controlled media, the criminalization of political opposition and crackdowns on dissenters and protesters. Putin, a Soviet man in his formation and aspirations, almost certainly has no regrets about this horrifying transformation.
But after watching Russian television for two weeks, one is transfixed above all by the lies. The defining feature of the Soviet Union was that it claimed to be based on “scientific socialism”—the greatest attempt in human history to organize human society along rational lines or “The Truth.” But the most unmistakable result of this effort was the construction of a vast edifice of lies defended and sustained by a daily torrent of ever-new lies—exactly what we are witnessing right now. Habits, once engrained, die hard—or, perhaps, never die.
This piece also appears on The UnPopulist, a Substack newsletter by Shikha Dalmia, a visiting fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. The UnPopulist is devoted to defending liberal and open societies from the threat of rising populist authoritarianism. Go here to subscribe.