21.12.22 Propaganda Review

Guns Instead of Butter: the Russian pro-government media is more willing to tell the public about the war, and are ‘squeezing’ economic topics out of the news agenda

Russian pro-government media tends to cover Russia's position in the international arena and its confrontation with the West, as well as the ongoing hostilities in Ukraine, more often than the consequences of sanctions for the Russian economy and other economic issues, according to data from Ukrainian monitoring of the Russian media. Discourse surrounding the war has taken a much more prominent place in the media in recent weeks than it had before, indicating its ‘normalisation’ in public opinion and a recovery from the shocks caused by mobilisation and the autumn retreats of Russian troops. The Russian media are acclimatising the population to the ‘everyday realities of the war’. At the same time, the squeezing out and silencing of economic problems look like a long-term strategy: in war, economics has a purely applied importance.

Since February, analysts from the Ukrainian online media outlet TEXTY.ORG.UA have been monitoring the websites of 16 Russian mainstream media outlets operating in Russia (for example, ‘AiF’, ‘Kommersant’, Lenta.ru, TASS) and, to a greater or lesser extent, broadcasting by official pro-Kremlin sources or those which follow its ‘permitted’ narratives, as well as another 72 media resources focused on Ukrainian territory (mainly the residents of Crimea and the self-proclaimed LNR and DNR: ‘Krym Vecherny’, ‘News of Luhansk’, ‘Donetsk Talking’, etc.). Each week, they analyse 17,000-22,000 informational messages; within these materials each paragraph is assigned an index of a particular topic. The analysis of these ukrainian journalists' focuses on the three most popular overarching themes in Russian-language media: 1) coverage of military operations in Ukraine, 2) the Russian authorities' positions on the international stage and their confrontation with the West, and 3) an overview of the economic situation in the country.

The Russian media willingly talk about how people in the European Union and the United States suspect American intelligence services of ‘actively participating in the organisation of the 2014 coup d'etat in Ukraine, after which a civil war began in the country,’ and discuss the Pope's statements about the extreme cruelty of Buryats and Chechens participating in the war in Ukraine and the reaction to these statements (Maria Zakharova called them ‘an outrageous perversion of the truth’). Finally, at the end of November and the beginning of December, the most exotic topic was the return of ‘Russian’ territories beyond the borders of the post-Soviet space, such as Alaska and Hawaii. According to Ukrainian journalists, bright, almost absurd rhetoric helps to ‘saturate’ the content and divert attention away from the real economic problems caused by the war and sanctions.

In addition, the Russian media actively discusses topics such as the ‘desatanisation’ of Ukraine (which has replaced the narrative of ‘denazification’), the ‘self-inflicted wounds’ of European businesses due to the sanctions imposed on Russia, and the inability of the West to cause any significant damage to Russia through the ‘price cap on oil’. In December, the energy crisis in Ukraine, blackouts, and critical infrastructure's ‘failures’ (without discussing their causes) also held a central place on the media agenda. The authors of the monitoring project note that, in propaganda discourse, these reports are supplemented by details indicating that the problems have mainly arisen due to the acts of ordinary people and predictions of widespread social discontent (in this context, special attention is paid to Mykolaiv and Odesa, where the Russian authorities appear to expect this dissatisfaction to be manifested in social tension and protests).

However, the monitoring shows the growing importance of ‘military-frontline’ topics in the Russian media discourse. At the same time, during the most dramatic episodes for the Russian army, for example, in late September and early October, its coverage, on the contrary, was significantly reduced. The increasingly bold and wide coverage of military issues in the Russian media indicates that the war is becoming ‘normalised’ in people's minds — the shocks caused by mobilisation and retreats by the Russian army in the autumn have been overcome. The Russian authorities are increasingly acclimatising the population to the ‘everyday realities of the war’. This is also the intention behind Vladimir Putin's propaganda visit to the ‘joint forces headquarters’ (in reality, the headquarters of the Southern Military District is located in Rostov-on-Don). Indeed, here, for the first time in a long while, Putin directly connected himself with the course of military operations and demonstrated ‘unity’ with the military command.

In contrast, domestic economic topics linked to the situation in Russia continue to be dramatically overshadowed by international and military narratives, the monitoring data shows. The Russian authorities' attempts to limit economic debate and discussion of economic problems looks like a long-term strategy of the Russian government. It is clearly visible in the meagre output of economic news from central Russian media and news agencies, in rare statements issued by key government figures, and finally in the disappearance from the public domain of products from economic centres directly or indirectly controlled by the Russian authorities.

The main topics discussed in Russian pro-government media, November-December 2022, % of the total number of news about the war