Russia: How Ukraine’s offensive wreaked havoc on Kremlin propaganda

The breakthrough of Ukrainian troops in the north-east of the country caught Russia off guard. The extent to which the leadership in the Kremlin was taken by surprise can also be seen from the propaganda, which without a guide did not know how to explain the defeat – and uttered the unspeakable.

On September 6, the first unconfirmed reports of the start of a Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region appeared on military telegram channels. On September 11, Ukraine’s armed forces regained control of dozens of settlements and reached the Russian border. Six days when the Kremlin-Propaganda did somersaults in an attempt to explain the unspeakable.

Because that’s what the propagandists really saw: Within less than a week, the Ukrainian troops’ gains apparently exceeded those of the Russian troops since April. The liberation of Izyum is the most significant military success of the Ukraine since the victory in the Battle of Kyiv in March, military experts have agreed.

But how do you explain that to an audience that has been drummed into it for months that you will soon achieve victory over Ukraine? The propagandists didn’t know that either. How taken by surprise the leadership in the Kremlin must have been by the Ukrainian advance can not only be seen in the disastrous flight of Russians troops but also from the headless chaos that has erupted on state television in the past few days.

Without a firm guide from the Kremlin, which usually dictates in minute detail which narrative should be played out of the television speakers, each told what he had in mind in the moments of uncertainty.

The calm before the storm

The development of the program of the show “60 Minutes” was telling. Contrary to its title, the political talk show lasts two and a half hours and is broadcast twice a day on the state broadcaster Rossija 1. The hate-contorted faces of presenters Evgeny Popov and Olga Skabeeva flicker on the TV screens for five hours a day. The couple is one of the most loyal cheerleaders of Kremlin propaganda. And he’s being rewarded for it: Popov has been a member of the State Duma since 2021, as a deputy for the ruling party United Russia. He also bears the dazzling title of “Deputy Chairman of the Committee on Information Policy, Information Technologies and Communications of the State Duma of the Russian Federation”. (You can learn more about Popov and his rewards here.)

When the Ukrainian offensive began on September 6, his wife Skabeeva laughed with her studio guests at the announcements from Kyiv. In the morning’s edition, the war reporter Alexander Sladkov, who was on duty, even ranted about Russian land gains. “We won’t let them advance, we won’t allow a counter-offensive,” he said, addressing Ukrainian forces.

In the evening edition, on the other hand, a slightly different tone was heard. An official of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic stated: “The situation is not easy, the situation is not funny.” The Ukrainian offensive but was “a very adventurous operation” and added: “I am sure that they will not succeed, but we must not relax.”

“What happened today was planned”

The very next day, Russian telegram channels reported that the settlement of Balakleya was surrounded by Ukrainian troops. To calm the audience, Skabeeva summoned a regular to the studio. Apti Alaudinov, a commander of the special unit “Ahmat”, did his best to convince everyone that the Ukrainian offensive was already “stalled”. What’s more, the whole operation was designed to “launder billions” that had been embezzled in Ukraine. He urged viewers not to panic: “What happened today was planned. Ukrainians think it’s their plan. In fact, it was our tactical trick that helped us to mobilize all their strength and resources.”

In fact, this maneuver is one of the most common propaganda tactics: every failure or setback is sold as part of a grand ominous plan, but one that works in the interests of the Kremlin commander-in-chief.

But just to be sure, Popov brought up another popular propaganda myth: Russian troops would “oppose a vast horde prepared in the West.” You are not fighting against Ukraine at all, but against the whole of NATO. That’s the only reason why the three days that were initially scheduled for the conquest of Kiev didn’t come to fruition.

Fight against Russian telegram channels

This tactic kept the propaganda going for a few days. Also Vladimir Solovyov, one of the most prominent faces of Kremlin propaganda, urged his viewers in the evening program not to worry and to wait for the official statement of the Russian Defense Ministry. “A military special operation is a tough job. Our heroes are doing what they can. It’s not easy,” he recalled. He spoke of a “local offensive” by the Ukrainian armed forces, which would be “flirtatiously silent about the terrible losses in Balakleya.” And Solovyov reminded his audience that “Stalin called for the execution of alarmists.” A clear announcement in the direction of the Russian telegram channels, which have otherwise served so faithfully for propaganda, but are now spreading frightening news from the front.

“One of the worst days at the front for us”

When on September 8 Kyiv broke its silence on the development of the counter-offensive and reported the liberation of 20 settlements, the facade of the propagandists collapsed as well.

On the state broadcaster NTW, the began in the evening Political Show “Treffpunkt” (Mesto Wstretschi) with sensational performances. “Let’s be honest. Yesterday was one of the worst days at the front for us since the sinking of the cruiser Moscow,” foreign policy commentator for the newspaper Kommersant Maxim Yusin opened his reply. “The situation is very scary.” The moderator immediately interrupted him, trying to drown him out, but Yusin continued. “I have the impression that we were caught cold.”

At this point, the other guests joined in and practically shouted Yusin down. The Ukrainians could “make pralines out of shit,” said the moderator. The counter-offensive will be inflated.

And yet: in the next breath, the talk guests explained the possibility of Crimea being taken by Ukrainian forces. A few weeks ago, such an option for propaganda was simply unthinkable – and unspeakable.

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“There are no unacceptable losses for Russia”

The next gavel came from a certain Alexander Sytin, a political scientist loyal to the Kremlin. The collective West and Ukraine “absolutely fail to understand that there are no unacceptable casualties for Russia. They simply don’t exist! That’s why the war can go on indefinitely.” The war will also continue in 2023 and 2024. “How will this end? I don’t believe in a military victory for Ukraine. But I also don’t believe in a political victory for Russia,” he said.

A military victory for Russia, on the other hand, is “inevitable” – even if Ukraine cannot be fully incorporated.

In particular, the statement about “unacceptable losses” that would not exist for Russia horrified Russian telegram channels and bloggers. Because Sytin meant nothing else than that Russia would accept any human losses – and that for years to come.

It is also astonishing that Sytin suddenly mentioned the word war. In Russia, people are currently being sentenced to prison for using this word.

“Pray for our men!”

At the same time, the country’s largest sports channel, Match TV, called on the population to pray. “We get very different messages from Isjum. There is no official information. I just wanted to say that everyone who believes should pray for our boys,” said the moderator of the program with the title “There is a topic”, visibly upset and at a loss “Words fail me. Pray for our men who are there! Victory will definitely be ours,” he concluded. With these words, sadness instead of hope was written on his face.

On NTW, instead of prayers, other means were used. You could call it debt rollover. In the Friday edition of the show “Treffpunkt” the politician Boris Nadezhdin made an appearance that should have caused a satisfied grin in the Kremlin. “Those who convinced President Putin that the special operation would be effective and short, that we would not attack civilians, that Kadyrov’s militants would quickly establish order – these people misled us all,” Nadezhdin said. “The president didn’t just sit there and think about launching a special operation. Someone came to him and told him that the Ukrainians are giving up, dispersing and that they will all come to Russia.”

This tactic has a centuries-old tradition in Russia, which was used by Ivan the Terrible and Stalin. The principle is: the boyars are evil, the tsar is good. It is always the officials and subordinates who get the blame for all the ills. While the chief walks out of the water dry.

But what was the politician’s addendum that was supposed to make the audience ponder? “We have reached a limit where you have to say: it is impossible to win the war with the resources that Russia is currently waging war with,” added Nadezhdin. “It’s mercenaries or the Wagner troops who are waging war there. There’s no mobilization.”

And he repeated the options that Russia is currently facing: “Either mobilization and a war in all its dimensions – or we go our separate ways.”

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