The crisis in Ukraine has brought to the limelight, perhaps like never before, the scale and the success of the Kremlin propaganda machine. The world has watched on in astonishment as the Russian administration has proclaimed innocence to accusations of repeated and ongoing violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Meanwhile state-sponsored Russian media organisations seem to be working hard in an attempt to delegitimise the Ukrainian government and suggest that the pro-Russian forces are much more than self-righteous thugs funded and directly supported by Russian military might. While this narrative appears astonishingly unconvincing, it appears to have largely been adopted domestically.
The Kremlin’s continued lies in the face of overwhelming evidence of Russian involvement in the Ukrainian crisis might seem outrageous to most of the Western world, however, it plays into the spiel of western interference Putin has sold to the Russian people. The rebel factions have unbelievably evolved from thugs barricaded in a few buildings who controlled a number of road blocks to a considerable military force capable of wielding brand-new tanks, artillery, and even anti -aircraft systems. Moreover; the rebels were supposedly able to mount their entire impressive military offensive unaided, just as the Ukrainian government seemed to be getting them on the ropes. Meanwhile, Foreign minister Lavrov and Putin can continue to protest innocence and disingenuously present themselves as peace makers trying to bring an end to the conflict. And, although these bold-faced lies are unconvincing to the outsider they are repackaged through the Russian propaganda machine and successfully resold to much of the Russian people.
Russian news organisations are a major piston in this machine which seem to be little more than a mouth-piece for the Kremlin, and in that sense they are complicit in Putin’s popular support and subsequent ability to continue with outrageous policies. It’s no secret that Russia has not been known for its vibrant freedom of the press. In fact, Russia ranked 148th out of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index of the Reporters Without Borders. According to the BBC out of the three large federal channels the Russian government controls Channel One and Russia TV while the state-controlled gas company Gazprom controls NTV. In 2009 60 percent of Russian newspapers and national channels were owned by the government. Russia TV is probably one of the better known international Russian media outlets, which quickly became one of the only international news organisations to attempt to legitimise the pro-Russian rebel “republics” and offer unique analyses on Russian involvement in the region.
A couple of afternoons of watching Russia TV could leave one in disbelief. It seemed to divide its time between presenting the Ukrainian interim government as the illegitimate result of a “fascist” West-backed coup largely responsible for all the violence occurring in the region (in which Russia, of course, played no part) and cherry-picking societal problems in the West through documentaries, which sometimes seemed to lead them down the road of exploring increasingly kooky conspiracy theories. As journalist Julia Loffe has noted, their attempts to offer “an alternative analysis” seem to force them “to talk to marginal, offensive, and often irrelevant figures”. The apparent limited opportunity for Russians to be exposed to more independent journalism is unquestionably also a strong element in Putin’s ability to maintain such widespread support in Russia.
We live in age of information and communication that would have been unthinkable decades ago. It has allowed us to be uniquely informed but has also saturated us with information. Leaders of undemocratic nations have seen this as opportunity to use state-controlled media to spread misinformation and advance narratives that legitimise them, whilst suggesting that they offer a uniquely tough and unbiased narrative. However, this mere suggestion should be a word of caution to its listeners that they must look more broadly in order to establish a balanced view, otherwise they may wake up to find they are being used for ulterior motives.