As protests continue against the war in Ukraine, and as Russian casualties mount, the Kremlin has launched the predictable two-prong propaganda campaign. This is made up of a barrage of nonsensical rationalisations of Russia's invasion and legal and technological measures to try and keep honest reporting at bay. Much like the soldiers engaged in the invasion, Putin’s propagandists are looking as committed or competent as might have been expected.
Although the state has a firm grip on TV and most other media outlets, this is not a totalitarianism and there are still some independent outlets. Hosts and ordinary citizens calling in to the Silver Rain radio station were barely holding back the tears as they talked about the war. Some regional outlets are already reporting casualties amongst local soldiers and National Guard.
Putin’s media control machine is also having to scramble to spin this unprovoked war. It appears he had not shared his plans with any but his security chiefs. Russia’s officials largely found out about this at the same time as the rest of us. Presumably intended to cut down on the risk of leaks – although Western intelligence was clearly on top of the story – it left the technocrats dismayed and caught flat-footed.
This means that although the broad contours of the cartoonish official line are clear – that a genocide against ethnic Russians was being carried out by a neo-Nazi Ukrainian regime under American control – propagandists are having trouble making sure they don’t overstep the mark.
Consider, for example, the work of Petr Akopov, who a week ago was writing for the state’s RIA Novosti news agency that ‘the West abandoned Ukraine’ because ‘the Anglo-Saxons have long ago overstrained themselves with their project of global domination.’ He knocked off a piece headlined ‘Russia’s Advance and the New World,’ clearly written in anticipation of a quick victory. Larded with vainglorious assertions such as that ‘Ukraine has returned to Russia,’ it presents the Kremlin’s ambitions as much more imperialist than Putin has openly admitted:
'Russia is restoring its unity – the tragedy of 1991, this terrible catastrophe in our history, its unnatural dislocation, has been overcome. Yes, at a great cost, yes, through the tragic events of a virtual civil war, because now brothers, separated by belonging to the Russian and Ukrainian armies, are still shooting at each other, but there will be no more Ukraine as anti-Russia. Russia is restoring its historical fullness, gathering the Russian world, the Russian people together – in its entirety of Great Russians, Belarusians and Little Russians.'
In other words, the endgame is the unification of not just Ukraine but also Belarus in a single union under Moscow. This was presumably written to be run after that glorious victory had been won. However, RIA Novosti somehow jumped the gun and published this on Saturday. This mistake was quickly realised, but in the modern information age our edits and mistakes remain embedded in the geological layers of the internet. Following the link on the RIA Novosti website now tell you ‘there is no such page’ but, the original remains archived on the Wayback Machine. It also ended up reprinted in The Frontier Post, an English-language daily published in Pakistan. Oops.
But it’s harder to know what to make sense of the TASS news wire report from Sunday that, after dutifully reporting Putin’s order to bring nuclear forces to the next level of readiness, added that: ‘According to reliable sources from the Russian Federation Ministry of Defence, Putin is personally extremely disappointed with the progress of the military operation’. It then proceeded to list the tally of destroyed armour and casualties, including 146 tanks and 4,300 soldiers.
The article has since been scrubbed from the net more effectively than Akopov’s, but these tallies coincides with the figure announced by Ukraine’s deputy defence minister. Was this clumsy editing? A Ukrainian hack that added the damning butcher’s bill to an anodyne report? A deliberate act of sabotage by a journalist at TASS?
As the information war hots up, too – and as Russians find clever ways to signal their own disapproval of the invasion – we are likely to see more and more grit in the workings of Putin’s propaganda machine.