While Vladimir Putin’s military lays siege to Kyiv, his propaganda organs at home are waging an impossible war to simultaneously hide and justify the invasion of Ukraine. Despite the Russian president’s reputation as a master media strategist, his government is losing the propaganda war — and fast.
But this propaganda assault is monotonous. The news is full of references to the “special military operation” — a term that is as tedious in Russian as it is in translation. Newspaper articles focus on hyperbolic claims that a war-hungry West is out for ethnic Russian blood: “The West needs a depopulated Ukraine,” reads one headline in Pravda. The country’s leaders, when they deign to appear on TV via prerecorded appearances, are presented in isolation, conversing with each other in rococo czarist palaces or lifeless rooms deep inside the Kremlin. While the sense of war pervades this media space, it is never named as such: The conflict is supposedly between the West, which has insidiously spread anti-Russian and “fascist” oppression, and the innocent people of Ukraine; Russia and its armies are absent from the battlefield.
Older Russians, who consume their news chiefly from television and government-controlled social media networks such as VK, overwhelmingly support the war. A glance at VK, which claims to have 97 million active users and has been controlled by Putin allies since 2014, reveals the nature of this support. In this state-controlled sphere, the war is most conspicuous by its absence. Entering the phrase “#нетвойне” — “no to the war,” a popular slogan with more than 430,000 mentions on Instagram — in the search box on VK led to just 1,700 results on Tuesday. Almost all were pro-war. Some were downright frightening, parroting a hyperbolic version of the government’s narrative: “Today I want to write about the f*****s who’ve decided that Russia invaded Ukraine … you absolute b*stards, Russian soldiers are saving people!!!” Antiwar messages, when they are posted, simply disappear from the platforms — removed by humans or by algorithms.
But look beyond the state’s social media sphere, and cracks begin to emerge. Only 47 percent of younger Russians profess support for the war. More active on independent or foreign-owned platforms such as Instagram and the messaging service Telegram, they are expressing support for Ukraine and hearing anti-government views.
Telegram, which allows total anonymity and provides strong encryption, has thus far proved unblockable by the government. It has in recent years increasingly been used as an organizing space for anti-government protest. Opening one of an array of Russian-language Telegram channels — some with subscriber counts in the millions — gives Russians easy access to a counternarrative.
In these channels, graphic videos of attacks on Ukraine and of civilians in distress rack up hundreds of thousands of views. Videos of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressing Russian audiences directly have spread widely on opposition channels like Nexta TV. “Shock” and “crying” emoji are the dominant reactions among Russian users as their country attacks its neighbor. Telegram gives them the space to express that shock anonymously and without fear of repercussion.
Meanwhile, on Instagram, Russian-speaking celebrities from both sides of the border are speaking out against the war. Ivan Urgant, the host of the state-owned Russia 1 channel’s biggest late-night talk show, posted a black square with the “no to war” hashtag on the first day of the invasion. Urgant’s nightly show abruptly disappeared from the TV schedule. According to the channel, it was removed “in connection with sociopolitical events.” Urgant’s Instagram post remained visible as of Thursday to his 10 million followers. Popular Russian-speaking Ukrainian travel blogger Anton Ptushkin released a video message pleading for peace to his 2.3 million Instagram followers. The post has since received 59,500 predominantly Russian-language comments from respondents on both sides of the conflict. Almost all express solidarity and wishes for peace: “Ordinary people are against the war, but nobody asked us!”
Outside of government-controlled channels, ordinary users are echoing celebrities’ sentiments. Every post that even mildly questions the justification for war is accompanied by a flurry of comments. Some are pro-war, some are sympathetic to the plight of civilians, and some call for an end to both the war and the Putin regime. Users furiously throw insults and assertions back and forth. Beyond the monotone uniformity of the state’s media, heated discursive battles are being fought.
As these antiwar narratives proliferate in spaces beyond its control, the Russian propaganda machine has been caught flat-footed. On Tuesday the deputy prime minister, Dmitry Chernyshenko, used RIA Novosti’s Telegram channel to announce the launch of a new platform. “We Explain” is, he said, intended to counter the “colossal flow of misinformation” on social media. The tone of the announcement suggested that the platform would wheel out the regime’s greatest anti-NATO and anti-West hits. In contrast to the slick editing of Instagram and YouTube videos, Chernyshenko’s clip is poorly edited and shot. In it, a badly lit Chernyshenko strains to mumble his way through a three-minute speech against a dark background and a static image of what is purportedly an interactive platform. Watching the reel feels more like hearing from a bank manager than a star of social media. The new platform was slow to launch, appearing hours after Chernyshenko’s big reveal — a lifetime in the hyperspeed world of social media warfare and an embarrassing misstep. This flaccid response is not the social media mastery to which the Putin regime lays claim.
Perhaps the military plan is to brutalize Ukraine into submission, tearing into the population with thermobaric bombs and indiscriminate missile launches, as the Russian army did in Syria. That might end the immediate military conflict, but it would be a propaganda disaster. Civilian casualties would be enormous. Unlike in Syria, where Russians and their army’s victims had little in common, Ukrainians and Russians share languages, families, and a dense web of history and culture. As the past few days have shown, news and footage of such attacks will seep through Instagram and Telegram into Russia, further undermining the official line.
If the war drags on, Ukrainian forces continue to mount attacks on an occupying Russian army, Russian troops begin to die in substantial numbers, and sanctions begin to bite at home, Putin’s government will have to act to regain control over its information sphere. It may excommunicate celebrities like Urgant. It may, as it has attempted in the past, try to block access to independent social media. But doing so would come at a high political price among a skeptical, social-media-addicted younger generation. And a younger, antiwar generation increasingly opposed to an aging, isolated leadership may — as the Soviets discovered after their disastrous adventure in Afghanistan — cause unexpected problems for Vladimir Putin.