How are pro-Kremlin Russian media portraying Ukraine’s victories?
The narrative has shifted since September 6, when Ukraine began a counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region.
The official, state-run media in Russia, which dominates in the country, has switched tones several times throughout the Ukraine crisis, from denying the invasion was to take place at all in early February, to praising the “righteous de-Nazification of Ukraine”.
Overall, compared with the first few months of war, the subject has faded into the background.
According to a recent study, state TV mentions the war less and less while “de-Nazification”, one of the stated goals of Moscow’s “special operation”, barely gets mentioned at all.
More airtime is devoted to simple entertainment, as opposed to the persistent political programming seen in February and March.
However, on September 6, Ukraine began a counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region, recapturing several key towns and occupied territory. This reportedly followed a weeks-long, purposeful, Ukrainian disinformation campaign of “leaked, exclusive reports”, designed to trick Russia into thinking the plan was to retake Kherson, to the south.
At first, pro-Russian bloggers and outlets played down Ukraine’s advance.
“There is no panic in Balakliya,” the Telegram channel Veteran’s Notes, which boasts 192,000 subscribers, wrote on September 6.
A number of pro-Russian feeds, including that of famous talkshow host Vladimir Solovyov, reposted that message.
By the following day, however, there was a more sullen tone.
“Don’t expect good news today,” Veteran’s Notes warned.
Pro-Kremlin journalist and politician Andrey Medvedev, meanwhile, wrote a solemn, yet motivational post.
“It’s been a tough day,” he told his 122,000 readers on Telegram. “But now it has probably become clearer what it was like for our grandfathers and grandmothers in the Great Patriotic War [WWII] … It will be difficult. Very difficult in places. But we don’t really have a choice.”
Even Russia's main sports channel Match TV has its own daytime "political talk show" in the mould of 60 Minutes and Time Will Tell
Today host Anton Anisimov signed off with this somewhat panicky message about the Ukrainian offensive in Kharkiv Region pic.twitter.com/zAYCTAceNJ
— Francis Scarr (@francis_scarr) September 9, 2022
Speaking on the loss of Izyum, the host of a political talk show on Match TV, a sports channel, urged his viewers to “pray for our guys”.
The government and its friendly voices in the media have acknowledged that Russian forces have withdrawn from previously held positions, but have avoided outwardly calling it a loss.
Ministry of Defence spokesman Igor Konashenkov, for example, announced said the decision was made in order to redeploy forces from Balakliia and Izyum and reinforce the Donetsk region, which is being held by separatists.
Pro-Kremlin blogger Yuri Podolyaka, meanwhile, described it as an opportunity to regroup.
“The adversary is throwing its main forces into battle,” he told the state-controlled Channel One TV channel. “Yes, we’ve of course withdrawn to new positions and given up quite significant territories, but if we gather a good force and hit them from the north, Izyum and the north, our initial problems may turn into big problems for the Ukrainian armed forces.”
The state-owned Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper made no mention of the gains by Ukraine on Sunday, instead claiming that Ukraine suffered 4,000 fatalities between September 6 and 10.
There are some news reports of Ukrainian incursions being thwarted on the Kharkiv oblast’s Oskil river and though a curious reader might infer from that just how far the Ukrainians have come, this fact is not dwelt upon.
Instead, Rossiyskaya Gazeta and other pro-Kremlin commentators have suggested that Ukraine’s push may have been boosted by outsiders joining the fray.
A post shared by Solovyov to his 1.2 million Telegram followers says foreign mercenaries in Kharkiv were heard speaking English.
“Either the Ukrainian Armed Forces suddenly switched to this language, or before the advance on Kharkiv the khokhli [slang for Ukrainians] were reinforced by a large detachment of foreign mercenaries,” the post reads. “I believe it’s the second.”
However, others warned this narrative undermines Russian morale.
“Yes, thanks to eight years of efforts by Western countries, the Ukrainian army has become more combat-ready. But by no means immortal,” war correspondent Alexander Simonov, of the Russia-funded Federal News Agency, wrote on the Kharkiv advance.
After the initial shock of the Russian retreat, Kremlin supporters were quick to return to a combative pose.
On Sunday night, Solovyov appeared on his talk show and called for attacks on civilian infrastructure.
“American strategy during wartime implies the destruction of infrastructure, including civilian,” he said. “It’s a part of NATO’s strategy. Why don’t we do this?
“I think it’s time to start tinkering!”
That same night, Russian missiles aimed at Kharkiv knocked out the city’s power supply.
However, the government has also come under fire from hardliners for not being committed enough to the fight.
The loudest of these voices has been Igor Girkin, nom de guerre Strelkov (Shooter), a Russian leader of Ukrainian separatists who once claimed he “pulled the trigger” on the 2014-2015 Donbas war.
On his popular Telegram channel, Girkin analyses troop movements using open sources and his informers on the ground.
He earlier warned that without partial mobilisation in Russia, the campaign in Ukraine was doomed to fail.
“I do not expect any more major success from the Russian armed forces for the next 2-3 months,” he posted in September.
“It will only be possible if the Kremlin stops flying on blue clouds around the planet of pink ponies, and finds the strength to face the truth and start fighting for real (with martial law, the mobilisation of the army and economy, etc.)”
Regarding the ongoing Ukrainian counterattack, Girkin compared the situation to the Russo-Japanese war over Manchuria.
“Only one word comes to mind – Mukden,” he wrote, referring to the decisive Japanese victory in 1905 which humiliated the Russian Empire.
Life comes at you fast: pundits on Russian TV realize that their military is failing and their country is in trouble. They are starting to play the blame game. Some of them finally understand that their genocidal denial of the Ukrainian identity isn't working in Russia's favor. pic.twitter.com/jNNn5xifI5
— Julia Davis (@JuliaDavisNews) September 11, 2022
On NTV, liberal politician Boris Nadezhdin said during a televised debate that defeating Ukraine was impossible and called for peace talks.
In a clip that has been widely shared on social media, Nadezhdin avoided blaming President Vladimir Putin himself, instead accusing the president’s advisers of misinforming him about the situation in Ukraine before and during the invasion.
The word “war” is used extensively throughout the segment, as opposed to the officially mandated “special operation”, including by both Nadezhdin and politician Alexander Kazakov, who took issue with Nadezhdin’s dovish tone.
“We need to win the war in Ukraine,” Kazakov said. “We need to liquidate the Nazi regime there. After that, whoever wants to can talk to us.”
“And how many years will we keep doing this?” Nadezhdin asked.
“However long it takes, because this special military operation …” Kazakov replied, only to be interrupted by Nadezhdin, who said: “So my 10-year-old kids will eventually get the chance to fight, right?”