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'Military Brainwashing': Russian State TV Pulls Out The Stops To Sell Kremlin's Narrative On The War In Ukraine

Margarita Simonyan (left) and Roman Babayan are two Russian journalists who have been strongly pushing the Kremlin's false version of events in Ukraine, which Moscow invaded without provocation last month. (file photo)
Margarita Simonyan (left) and Roman Babayan are two Russian journalists who have been strongly pushing the Kremlin's false version of events in Ukraine, which Moscow invaded without provocation last month. (file photo)

The March 26 edition of the talk show Your Own Truth with Roman Babayan on Russia's NTV television opened with a montage of short, tightly cropped clips from people presented as citizens of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, which has been devastated by Russian bombs, rockets, and shells since Moscow invaded Ukraine on February 24.

One woman claimed that Ukrainian forces would shoot at children in playgrounds "as a game." An angry man shook his fist and cursed "those fascists, those bastards…those drug addicts."

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A moment later the show's first guest, state broadcaster RT’s editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan, seemed to fight back tears as she piled on claims ranging from outlandish to outrageous: that Ukrainian forces target children with banned cluster bombs; that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has banned all private media; that Ukrainians don't consider Russians to be human; that Ukrainian doctors have called for Russian prisoners of war to be castrated; and that Ukrainian “Nazis” are "prepared to pluck children’s eyes out based on their ethnicity."

All in the first five minutes of the broadcast.

The Russian government falsely insists that its war on Ukraine is not a war but a “special military operation," and has said its main goals are to "de-Nazify and demilitarize" the neighboring country. President Vladimir Putin has characterized Ukraine as an illegitimate country that was essentially created by the Soviet authorities and that is now run by "neo-Nazis” and “drug addicts" who take orders from Washington.

All these themes are hammered home continuously on state television news broadcasts and on the multitude of political talk shows on the pro-Kremlin channels -- programs that increasingly feature venomous rhetoric amid a kaleidoscope of swirling graphics and oversized videos playing on a continuous loop.

'They Are Always Lying'

"All of television is now full of military brainwashing," Yelena Rykovtseva, an RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent who focuses on the media, wrote recently in a column headlined “Carpet Bombing Of The Brain.” She added that, in a single article, it is hard to do justice to the content on Russian state TV at the “peak of anti-Ukrainian hysteria.”

"One click of the remote and it’s: '…in Mariupol, as the ring [of Russian forces] around the neo-Nazis tightens, they increasingly use local residents as human shields.' '…battalions of neo-Nazis rob and slaughter local residents.' '…the Nazis destroy columns of refugees, while the rest are trapped in the city.' '…Russian servicemen rescue children and operate on the wounded….'"

These claims, provided without grounds or evidence, are contradicted by officials, by Western media outlets that have had reporters in Mariupol, and by residents who have escaped from the city -- some of them coming under Russian fire despite agreements for humanitarian corridors.

On March 29, the news program Time Will Tell on state-run Channel One showed an Orthodox Christian cathedral standing largely undamaged among the ruins of Mariupol as the correspondent comments that the sight "gives us great hope that God is with us."

Two key parts of the Kremlin narrative are the unsubstantiated claims that Kyiv was about to launch a major offensive against Russia-backed separatist forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region and that the United States is bent on eliminating Russia. These themes were hit hard on March 27 by state channel Rossia-1 and NTV, which is owned by a media arm of state-controlled natural-gas giant Gazprom.

On NTV, the Week In Review With Irada Zeinalova had a segment on "captured documents" that it erroneously said proved Russia’s invasion had thwarted a planned attack by Ukrainian forces in the Donbas.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and pro-Kremlin pundit Dmitry Kiselyov.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and pro-Kremlin pundit Dmitry Kiselyov.

The same day, pugnacious pro-Kremlin pundit Vladimir Solovyov used his three-hour program on Rossia-1 to discuss what he falsely claimed was the U.S. intention to "destroy Russia, to split it into tiny parts, deprive Russia of its nuclear weapons, and to once and for all end the topic of the existence of the Russian people."

Ukrainian journalist Roman Tsymbalyuk, who worked in Moscow for many years as a correspondent for the UNIAN news agency and was a frequent guest on Russian state TV talk shows, told RFE/RL he has learned “exactly how Russian propaganda works.”

“Russian mass media are not mass media but information troops, and they are always lying," he said.

From Television To RuTube

In the past, the Kremlin has seemed satisfied with its control of national broadcasting, allowing independent and liberal media to exist on the margins. The model appeared to be effective even in 2014, when Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea region and fomented war in the Donbas, helping separatists take control of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.

This time, Moscow pollster Maksim Kats said, public support for the Kremlin's policies is much more tenuous. As a result, he suggested, the state has both turned up the volume on the propaganda and supplemented it with increased pressure on independent media and the freedom of speech.

"It appears as if they think that people do not support the war, and so they are implementing measures like military censorship," Kats told RFE/RL. "They are closing down social networks that have been working for years. They shut down Ekho Moskvy [radio]. They understand that if information is disseminated freely, then no one will support the war."

Sociologist- Lyubov Borusyak
Sociologist- Lyubov Borusyak

Sociologist Lyubov Borusyak agreed that in Russian society the war against Ukraine has brought “nothing like the kind of emotional lift that we saw during the Crimea events."

In addition, she said, about 75 percent of Russians use the Internet, and some opposition reports garner tens of millions of views, potentially undermining the state’s control over information about the war.

"When there is interest, the audiences can be much greater than what television attracts," Borusyak said. "And the percentage of regular television viewers has constantly fallen in recent years, particularly among young people."

As result, the Kremlin's interest in dominating Internet television as well as broadcast television has been growing.

By far the most popular social-media platform in Russia is YouTube, which is used by about three-quarters of all Russian Internet users. And calls for it to be blocked in the country have been growing louder, particularly after YouTube blocked Kremlin-controlled media on March 11.

In February 2021, Putin laid out the Kremlin's policy regarding foreign social media: "We aren't going to shut anything down until we have our own," he said. "When our esteemed colleagues see that there is an alternative, that they do not hold monopoly positions in this market, they will behave differently."

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Kremlin opinion-shapers have been trying with little success to promote RuTube, a slow-moving YouTube clone that was founded in 2006, is owned by Gazprom, and features all the news Moscow wants Russians to see.

According to the independent outlet iStories, RuTube's popularity peaked at 14.5 million users in 2011 and fell to just 3 million in 2021. By comparison, in 2021, 78.5 million Russians were using YouTube.

Channel Z

The RuTube "news and media" page features live feeds from all the nationwide television channels, plus short videos from Kremlin-friendly news agencies and newspapers. It also features the channels of various agencies of the Russian government, including the Defense Ministry's Zvezda channel and those of the Foreign Ministry, the upper parliament house, and the space agency, Roskosmos.

On March 22, a new channel called ZTV -- an apparent reference to the Z symbol that Moscow has been promoting to drum up support for its narratives of the war in Ukraine -- proclaimed itself "a round-the-clock channel about the special military operation of the armed forces of the Russian Federation in Ukraine."

Some of its earliest programs featured short interviews with Russian soldiers proclaiming "the 100-percent effectiveness" of the operation and videos of Russian military technology in action.

Such assertions run counter to the assessments of numerous military experts who say the Russian offensive has fallen far short of its initial goals, and by evidence of high casualty tolls and equipment loss in the war.

On March 28, the RT In Russian channel posted a short clip purportedly showing Russian soldiers reading aloud letters sent to them by schoolchildren.

"Dear soldier," one serviceman reads. "I am writing to you in gratitude and want to say with my entire soul thank you for the fact that I sleep peacefully, go to school, and live with a peaceful sky over my head. I hope that you will keep your spirits up and be able to continue standing up for your motherland. I believe in you and pray for you. You can't imagine how I and the other people living on the territory of Russia love and support you."

A related channel called RT Rossia on March 21 posted an hour-long documentary film by Anton Krasovsky, detailing Moscow's baseless claims that the U.S. Defense Department was backing biological-weapons laboratories in Ukraine.

The Russian narrative, which has been widely disseminated by state TV, has been denied by Washington and widely dismissed by experts.

With the war in Ukraine in its second month, the Russian public "so far has no reason not to believe what they are being told" by state media, said Aleksei Levinson, an analyst with the independent Levada Center polling agency. However, he added, many feel a "subconscious sensation" that the war is wrong.

"So, there must a means to overcome that voice of conscience," he concluded. "And this is being done through television -- so far, rather successfully."

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