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Russian media on Ukraine -- does Kremlin control the autocue?

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Story highlights

  • Russian state media's message is that Ukraine risks a fascist takeover, Diana Magnay says
  • Analyst Mikhail Troitsky says "fascist" is now applied to those who oppose Moscow's view
  • Troitsky says a broader notion of patriotism portrays Crimea's annexation as a wrong righted
  • But he says Russians support for foreign policy doesn't blind them to domestic issues

There is a consistent message on Russian state media concerning the situation in Ukraine. The revolving "crisis in Ukraine" bug on state news channel Rossiya 24 sums it up.

It shows the players on the ground on a loop: 1) unmasked, kindly looking pro-Russian separatists against the background of the orange and black ribbon of St. George, the ubiquitous symbol of pro-Russian sentiment and of Soviet military glory, 2) masked, authoritarian-looking Ukrainian state security against the national flag, and 3) a balaclava-clad ultra-nationalist against the red and black flag of Ukraine's Pravvy Sektor (Right Sector) party -- the ultimate bogeyman of the conflict, as far as Russia is concerned.

It's all part of the Kremlin narrative that Ukraine is at risk of a fascist takeover.

"Fascist is now being used to designate all things obnoxious and bad in the Kremlin line of argument so you call fascists those who allegedly seek to oppress the Russian speaking population in Ukraine," says Moscow based political analyst Mikhail Troitsky. "And in Russia domestically you have this tendency of anyone who disagrees with the main line to be called a fascist."

Media fates and fortunes

This talk, Troitsky says, is all part of a broader notion of patriotism, carefully honed across state media, which tapped into a swelling of national pride over the Sochi Olympics and kept its momentum through Russia's annexation of Crimea. It is a redefining of boundaries many Russians feel was a historical injustice made right, the return of the peninsula to the motherland.

    In this climate, some, like the editor in chief of Dozhd TV, feel they face unusually strong hounding if deemed unpatriotic. Dozhd TV -- one of Russia's few independent media outlets -- was dropped by most cable operators a few weeks ago after a poll it ran in a talk show.

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    "We asked the question, was it necessary to give Leningrad to the Nazis for the sake of the survival of the city," says editor in chief Mikhail Zygar. "Some viewers felt that the question was insulting and in about 10 minutes our editor of our website apologized and we deleted the question. But there was a huge campaign against us, blaming us for insulting all the veterans of the Leningrad siege."

    Even as Zygar suspected that the Kremlin was behind the cable operators' decision, President Putin mentioned Dozhd in last week's question and answer session with the nation - promising to do what he could to help. Shortly thereafter, the cable operators said they were prepared to negotiate with Dozhd. A sign of the sway the Kremlin has on media fates and fortunes.

    Zygar says he's worried about a polarization of Russian society over the Ukraine crisis.

    "They really see us as traitors. And that's really worse. Because the new generation is coming, that really believes that there is some kind of 5th column, some group of Western -- as Castro used to say 'mercenarios' -- those people paid by the Western countries who are working just to undermine the greatness of Russia."

    Sweep of history

    Zygar believes Putin's third term is characterized by a desire to place himself firmly within the grand sweep of history. "Something like Peter the First or Catherine the Great -- he wants to change the history of this country and be the great statesman and liberator."

    In the context of Ukraine, that appears to be working. According to opinion polls around the time of the Crimea referendum, some 70% of Russians approved of Putin's leadership.

    The notion that President Putin is taking care of the interests of all those associated with the motherland in Russia's near abroad is falling on fertile soil. It's on domestic issues -- such as housing and social welfare -- that Troitsky says people aren't quite so prepared to accept the Kremlin's story, which he believes is telling.

    "Domestically I think people are keenly aware of the issues they are facing with their daily lives and I don't think it's easy to mislead them. But internationally I think this nationalist feeling, this feeling of being strong is also quite natural."

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