Switch on Russian state television, and the spectacle of war in Ukraine is rather bloodless.
News broadcasts feature Russian troops on the move in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, Russian military helicopters skimming above tree level, and sorry-looking Ukrainians laying down arms and signing promises not to fight. Russia’s First Channel on Wednesday also featured commentators gathered around a slick interactive map that purported to show advances by Russian troops and the Russian-backed separatist forces of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
What Russians were not seeing, however, were images of Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv and Kyiv in the aftermath of heavy shelling or missile strikes.
No, the picture on Russian television is largely sterile, with slick handout video from the Ministry of Defense and stiff official briefings by Russia’s main military spokesperson, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov. There is scant mention of casualties – either Russian military or Ukrainian civilian – and the language is euphemistic. Russia, after all, is carrying out what’s called a “special military operation,” and domestic news outlets are forbidden from calling it a war or an invasion.
But a picture of Russia’s military intentions is becoming clearer. Around Kyiv, its forces are focusing on encircling the Ukrainian capital, in an apparent push to topple the government – a goal President Vladimir Putin, in false and brazen terms, calls “denazification.” And a sort of crescent of Russian-held territory is emerging in the country’s east and south.
On Wednesday morning, Russia claimed its troops had taken full control of the southern city of Kherson, to the north of the Crimean peninsula – something Ukraine’s defense ministry disputed.
But the push north from Crimea has expanded a zone of Russian control that was established in 2014, when Russia occupied and annexed the Black Sea peninsula. It has also restored water supplies to Crimea, as Russian forces have reopened a canal that supplied up to 85% of the peninsula’s needs before being cut off in the wake of the annexation.
More importantly, the advance in the area shows the beginning of a potential land bridge that – in theory – could link the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, through Kherson, to the separatist-held territories in the east.
A key part of that possible corridor is the southeastern city of Mariupol. Heavy fighting continues there, with Russian and Russian-backed separatist forces encircling the city of some 400,000 people on three sides.
Vadym Boychenko, the mayor of Mariupol, said Wednesday that the number of wounded civilians was “growing every day.”
North of Mariupol, and near the Russian border, the city of Kharkiv has come under heavy Russian fire. On Wednesday, there was a military strike in the vicinity of Kharkiv’s City Council, one day after the Kharkiv Regional State Administration building was hit by a strike that, according to Ukrainian officials, killed 10 people and injured at least 24.
No images of this fighting are reaching viewers of state television in Russia – although many Russians have access to the internet, and some can watch international networks.
But the messaging by Russian officials and state media is eerily reminiscent of the war in Syria. The Kremlin has warned that Ukrainian “nationalists” are planning to use civilians as “human shields,” while the Russian military offers the promise of safe routes out of the city.
On the morning that Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Konashenkov, the Russian military spokesperson, claimed – without evidence – that the Security Service of Ukraine was preparing to circulate fake news about civilian casualties.
“In Ukrainian cities, staged video filming was carried out with alleged ‘mass casualties’ among the civilian population of Ukraine,” Konashenkov claimed, according to Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti.
Such wild and unfounded claims follow Russia’s playbook of maligning Syria’s White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group that has provided the world with some of the most compelling proof of the targeting of civilians by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian airpower.
Russia insists it is not targeting residential neighborhoods in Ukraine, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But the deliberate repetition of that propaganda is a chilling reminder that the default Russian strategy when it comes to evidence of civilian casualties is outright denial.