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As the conflict in Ukraine grinds on, Putin escalates his information war at home

Under new censorship laws, Russian journalists face 15 years in prison if they report against the Kremlin’s version of events.

By Katie Stallard

To watch Russian state television, you would think that Vladimir Putin was adored by his citizens and engaged in a valiant struggle for world peace. While he has been condemned in the West as a war criminal for his barbarous assault on Ukraine, on the Kremlin-controlled channels at home he is depicted as a moral and deeply principled leader who is saving innocent civilians from “genocide”. At a stadium rally in Moscow on 18 March, the crowd chanted Putin’s name as he quoted from the Bible to underline the righteous nature of his “special military operation” in Ukraine. The cameras showed a sea of Russian flags and a huge banner next to the president that said: “For a world without Nazism.”

Since Putin invaded Ukraine on 24 February, he has appeared on Russian television screens at regular intervals to denounce the “Nazis” supposedly marauding through Ukraine and demand that his officials bring the violence there to an end. In the parallel reality his propagandists have created, it is Ukrainian forces who are murdering their own women and children, not Russian air strikes and artillery. Channel One, the country’s most-watched network, broadcasted footage of the devastation of Mariupol on 24 March as the anchor explained sadly that Ukrainian nationalists had destroyed the city before it was “liberated” by the Russian military. Viewers were assured that Russian soldiers were only attacking military targets and that they would never deliberately harm civilians, even though, over the past five weeks, they have bombed hospitals, schools and buildings clearly marked as civilian shelters. 

With Russia’s war in Ukraine now in its second month and the military offensive largely stalled, the Kremlin is ramping up its information war at home to boost support for Putin’s regime. Despite the heavy losses the Russian army has reportedly suffered, and the economic crisis international sanctions have wrought, there are indications the combination of censorship, repression and propaganda might be working. A survey conducted by a government-owned polling firm on 5 March found that 71 per cent of respondents backed the “military operation”. Research by independent pollsters was less emphatic, but still found that a clear majority of those surveyed – 58 per cent – said they supported the offensive.

[See also: The Zelensky myth]

While these numbers are not high by the standards of previous Russian military campaigns – 91 per cent said they approved of the annexation of Crimea, for instance – the longer the conflict grinds on, the harder it is becoming to access objective sources of information in Russia. The country’s last remaining independent news outlets have been closed, including the long-running Novaya Gazeta newspaper, which has announced it will suspend publication until the end of the war in Ukraine. Official censorship, meanwhile, has intensified. Under a new law introduced on 4 March, journalists in Russia are forbidden from using the term “war” to describe the conflict and must only report information from official government sources. The penalty for spreading anything that contradicts the official version of events is up to 15 years in prison.

In Russian classrooms, children are being taught that the country’s forces are “defenders of peace”. The education minister has described Russian schools as an essential battleground in the “information and psychological war” against the West. Videos posted online show children forming the letter “Z” – which has become the symbol of the Russian military campaign after it was used as an identifying marker for the invasion force – despite objections from parents about their children being pressured to take part.

The point of propaganda under authoritarian rule is not to convert every citizen into a true believer. While generating as much genuine support as possible is preferable, the displays of mass adulation and the ubiquitous slogans and symbols also demonstrate the extent of the regime’s power. It also makes it difficult to know what others think. With Putin vowing to hunt down “national traitors” – human rights experts have warned that the country is already de facto under martial law – the message to Russian citizens is that it is safer not to publicly challenge the official line. 

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Václav Havel, the Czechoslovakian playwright and dissident who went on to become president, described this behaviour in 1978 through the example of a greengrocer who puts a sign in his window with the slogan of the ruling party. He does this not because of any personal conviction, but “because everyone does it” and “if he were to refuse, there could be trouble”. The regime did not need everyone to believe in the slogans, Havel wrote, but “they must at least tolerate them in silence”. They must agree to “live within a lie”.

There is already evidence that a number of Russians have made this agreement. Despite the apparent fervour of the crowds at Putin’s recent stadium rally, many people told Western reporters they had been ordered to attend by their employers and that they did not personally support the war. This is an indication of just how unrealistic it is to expect that popular unrest will bring down Putin. The longer the conflict in Ukraine goes on, the more the Kremlin will step up its propaganda campaign and these demands for public displays of loyalty. There will still be brave individuals who speak out, but many more will decide to go along with Putin’s lies, whether they believe them or not.

[See also: Andrey Kurkov: “It’s impossible to say that all the world is behind Ukraine” ]

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This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain