The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Faced with war losses, Russian propagandists retreat to anger and patriotism

Russian propogandists are still supporting President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine, but some were unusually blunt in their assessments of the recent Ukrainian counteroffensive. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)
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Russian state television pundits and officials for months painted Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine as a well-oiled “special military operation” that is methodically achieving its goals of “demilitarizing” and “denazifying” the Kyiv “regime.”

But the embarrassing rout of Russian forces from northeastern Ukraine in recent days sent a normally harmonious choir of Kremlin-friendly television shows and newspapers into a frenzy, struggling to explain to the audiences that they had been assuring of victory why Ukraine had recaptured more land than Russia took since April.

These maps show Ukraine’s latest victories against Russia

The result was the broadcast of unusually tense scenes to millions of Russian households, with some uncharacteristically blunt concessions.

“We have come to a point where we have to understand one simple thing: It’s impossible to defeat Ukraine using the resources that Russia is now trying to fight with, using this ‘colonial war’ method, with contract soldiers, mercenaries and no general mobilization,” Boris Nadezhdin, a former Russian lawmaker, lamented in a weekend show on NTV, in a stunning public criticism of the Kremlin strategy.

“We either call for mobilization and go for a full-scale war, or we get out,” he added, saying the only other option for Moscow, and the one he preferred, was to try to negotiate a peace deal.

“Non-comrade Nadezhdin, I urge you to watch your language,” warned another guest, Alexander Kazakov, co-chair of A Just Russia party led by fervent proponents of the war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has resisted calling a general mobilization and putting the entire country on a war path because forced conscription would be widely unpopular, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Instead, Putin opted for a massive enlistment campaign, recruiting contract soldiers and mercenaries who are promised salaries that eclipse national averages.

Amid Ukraine’s startling gains, liberated villages describe Russian troops dropping rifles and fleeing

The heated exchange between the two political commentators on NTV and other emotional debates that unfolded during the weekend programs were a departure from the typically staged theatrics of Russian television.

Striking a seldom-seen pessimistic note, one of the top Russian propagandists, Dmitry Kiselev, opened his flagship Sunday show by saying it “was the toughest of weeks on the front lines of the special operation” but also called the rout a “regrouping” in line with the military-approved language.

Others viewed the setback as an opportunity to bolster the calls for the Kremlin to be even more aggressive in its onslaught and called for unity in their fervent pro-war patriotism.

“I can’t stand tantrums,” Margarita Simonyan, the head of the pro-Kremlin RT network, wrote Saturday on Telegram, in attempts to smooth over the outrage coming from popular pro-Russian military bloggers and correspondents, who called the retreat “a catastrophe,” urging punishment for officers responsible for the collapse in Kharkiv.

“Quietly, calmly, help where you can help, pray, quench your indignation … do everything you can for our inevitable, with God’s grace, Victory,” she wrote.

Many outlets, however, chose to simply ignore the retreat from the occupied territories.

Russia’s official admissions of the setback did not go beyond a Saturday announcement from the Russian Defense Ministry that said the forces had “regrouped,” leaving Izyum and Balakliya.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russia’s official government newspaper, duly reported on the latest Defense Ministry claims — which are unverifiable — that the Ukrainian army suffered 4,000 casualties during the past week’s counteroffensive.

Another report on the newspaper’s website praised the crew of a Russian Mi-35 attack helicopter, which it said thwarted Ukrainians from crossing the Oskil river, just on the eastern outskirts of the Kharkiv region, but made no mention of Ukraine’s advances — though the location of troops conceded that Russians were in retreat.

“By placing the action at Senkove, on the Oskil river … it is admitting just how deeply the Ukrainians have already gone,” Mark Galeotti, head of the Mayak Intelligence group, tweeted.

Galeotti added that the Defense Ministry and Rossiyskaya Gazeta rely on the audience “imbibing the triumphalist tone and not digging into the detail.”

“The Kremlin seems stunned, and has not yet come up with a plan as to how to try to spin this, so to a large extent, the media are ignoring the bad news until they get a directive,” Galeotti said, adding that this “tends to be a sign that the state’s control over the narrative is cracking.”

Car-bomb killing sows unease among cheerleaders of Putin’s war

In the run-up to the Ukrainian breakthrough, state-media anchors and reporters played down the threat, suggesting that the Ukrainian counteroffensive was just a “facade” to launder “billions of dollars” in aid to Kyiv or a cunning Russian plan to reveal the enemy’s positions in the east.

Last Wednesday, Rossiya 1 anchor Vladimir Solovyov, famous for his anti-Western bellicose rants, rejoiced, saying that the counteroffensive “is not going as breezy as the Ukrainians had hoped.”

“If you remove the hysteria, then there are no results,” he said. “Ukraine has not been able to return a single significant settlement through military means.”

That narrative, however, changed dramatically on his flagship Sunday show, during which he explained Russia’s strategic losses by claiming that the country is battling not just Ukraine but the overwhelming power of the entire NATO alliance.

“Is there no civilian infrastructure left in the rest of Ukraine, in the non-liberated parts? Are there no power lines, nuclear power plants, hubs that [if destroyed] could easily take out of commission the enemy state,” Simonyan said on the show.

“I’ve been calling for [infrastructure strikes] for a long time; this is part of the NATO strategy, which involves the destruction of infrastructure, including civilian one,” Solovyov agreed.

As the show was airing, Russian forces hit the Ukrainian power grid, causing blackouts in more than 30 settlements in northeastern Ukraine.

The strikes ignited a fire at a station near Kharkiv, killing at least one person. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denounced the “deliberate and cynical missile strikes” against civilian targets as an act of terrorism.

Scenes of flames engulfing the power station in Kharkiv and reports of thousands of Ukrainians left without electricity or water were celebrated in Russia by pro-war hawks who perceived the attack as the aggressive retaliation they had long hoped to see from the Kremlin amid this onslaught.

“It’s a pleasure to hear all these squeals coming from the other side,” Solovyev said.

“I am happy [there were] strikes on the energy infrastructure of the Kyiv regime, because it is important for victory,” pro-Kremlin war correspondent Evgeny Poddubny wrote on his Telegram blog.

Simonyan echoed the sentiment by posting a short Russian poem, concluding with a line: “What happened to your electricity, neighbors?”

Russian troops in big retreat as Ukraine offensive advances in Kharkiv

By Monday, the Russian state TV narrative had mostly reverted to the usual triumphant proclamations, as the Defense Ministry insisted it was undertaking heavy airstrikes.

“We are striking the enemy not just from the ground but from the air; you can see the missiles flying even from the Caspian Sea,” said Olga Skabeeva, the host of the 60 Minutes show, adding that Russia’s destruction of critical Ukrainian infrastructure signaled a turning point in Russia’s strategy and the entire operation.

“Two months ago, Putin said that Russia hasn’t even started anything serious yet,” she said. “Now it seems it has.”

Skabeeva added: “Despite the limited successes of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the West still gives Russia dominance in this war. And the main ally — time — is playing in our favor.”