What Russia's War Looks Like On Russian Television
...And why it's making a settlement more difficult.
In recent weeks, concerns have mounted that some of the rhetoric coming out of Western officials on Ukraine is too hawkish, and would make a negotiated settlement more difficult. For instance, on April 26, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Ukraine could "win" the war and that the U.S. wanted to "weaken" Russia. Trying to tamp down tensions, on May 10, French President Emmanuel Macron warned against "humiliating" Russia.
However, in the eyes of the tightly controlled Russian media, Russia is in an apocalyptic struggle for its survival -- the nuances of Western rhetoric are practically irrelevant. Viewed from the looking glass of Russia's state-owned media, Russia appears nowhere near defeat. Between the West and Russia there isn't a shared reality for discussions about climb-downs or compromises to take place.
Several recent storylines on Russia's state-owned Channel One give a glimpse of how the war is seen from the Russian side:
Russians are helping. State television claims that Russians are helping Ukrainians. Convoys of humanitarian aid are coming from Russia. Russian specialists are building hospitals, schools, highways, and railroads in Eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainians are militaristic. Segments claim that Ukraine's military are "nationalists" with big weapons and are attacking nursing homes. Further, Russian media claims that massacres at Bucha were staged by Ukrainians to frame the Russians and that the Ukrainian government is preparing to accuse Russian soldiers of more war crimes in the same way.
The government in Ukraine is not legitimate. Russian television describes Ukraine's democratically-elected government as the "Kyiv regime under the control of the West."
Television's emphasis on these storylines indicates that the government is still proceeding with its plan to annex parts of Ukraine into the Russian Federation and decapitate the Ukrainian state.
Cracks, however, have begun to appear in the Kremlin's narratives. On the May 16 edition of Russian state television's twice-daily political talk show "60 Minutes," military analyst and retired colonel Mikhail Khodarenok warned that Russia's military intervention could become "worse" and the situation needed to be resolved.
“The most important thing is to remain realistic from a political and military standpoint. If you don’t then sooner or later, reality will hit you so hard, you won’t know what’s hit you,” he said. "The biggest problem with [Russia's] military and political situation," he continued, "is that we are in total political isolation and the whole world is against us, even if we don't want to admit it. We need to resolve this situation." Khodarenok did not criticize Putin or his handling of the war directly; his tone was measured and analytical.
Khodarenok's dissent was notable, because it is a viewpoint so rarely expressed on Russian television, amid strict official censorship. Anyone spreading "false information" about the Ukraine war is punishable with up to 15 years of jail time.
The break from the Kremlin line didn't last. Host Olga Skabeyeva countered him with the familiar hard -- and ominous -- line. "Surrender is not possible. Finding a common language with those who want us to disappear is impossible. We’ll have to go to the very end. We’ll get there. Our great country will win.” On the May 20 edition of the show, Khodarenok walked back his comments and declared that the "Russian Federation is yet to utilize even one-tenth of its military-economic potential."
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