MOSCOW – There remains a massive disconnect between what Russian TV says about the war in Ukraine and that war as much of the rest of the world sees it.
The outside world sees this war through undeniable, dramatic images. What the Kremlin and its inner circle really see – and what they really believe – remains unknowable.
But somehow, days into this bloody campaign that has killed untold Ukrainian civilians, including children, damaged homes and driven people into basements or exile, Russian President Putin and his media darlings still deny there is a war. Though they appear less relaxed as they utter words that do not resonate much outside their echo chamber, Russian officials addressing Russian viewers are still stressing the Russian government’s position – and it bears hearing what Russian viewers are learning through Russian media to understand the stark difference in information.
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“First of all, nobody wants to occupy Ukraine,” said Yevgeny Popov who is not only a member of Russia’s parliament, but also co-hosts Russia’s “60 Minutes” with his wife, Olga Skabeeva.
Reportedly four out of five Russians name state television as their primary source of information. Popov is one of this country’s best-known purveyors of pro-Putin propaganda. His wife was added to the European sanctions list on Monday.
“Ukraine is a sovereign, independent country,” Popov continues. “And all of our government officials, I think, recognize that. But Ukrainians must eliminate Nazi ideology in this country.”
The “military operation” as media here is ordered to call it, is still, in the Kremlin’s talking points, “a de-nazification” campaign. There is not enough time in the day to go down that dark rabbit hole with any of Putin’s messaging foot soldiers. I have been there before and have been shown no evidence that Nazis wield influence in Ukraine. The fact that the country’s president is Jewish makes the headline more surreal.
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“We are peaceful people and would like to develop our country. We would like to build some friendship with our neighbors. And of course, the Western world destroyed the greatest country in the world, the USSR, and now we live in a world where brothers kill brothers. It’s impossible. It’s terrible, and we should stop it immediately,” Popov tells WHD News.
This war is for President Putin to stop.
So far, it seems nobody the Russian president trusts is telling him to do so.
Those who come out onto the streets to call for an end to the war often get detained and clubbed. They are considered marginal by the Kremlin, though they got a standing ovation in the German parliament Sunday.
Some Russians with platforms on social media are demonstrating directly to their followers from their smartphones. Yuri Dud, one of the country’s most popular bloggers and interviewers, with millions of followers, put out a message earlier this week. “I don’t know if there are still people who have at least some influence on Putin, but let’s say there are. I don’t know how they fall asleep and wake up and coach themselves in between,” he said.
The statement continues urging the oligarch clan to “explain to [Putin] what kind of disaster is happening right now””The final and most important thing: this was must be ended immediately.”
Pop star Svetlana Loboda, normally beautifully presented and composed on her social media posts was choking back tears Monday as she stared down her camera phone. She made a plea to her millions of subscribers to do what they can to help Ukraine.
I asked Dmitry Suslov, a Russian political scientist whose views are largely aligned with those of the regime if there is an “off-ramp” that the West could navigate Putin towards.
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“Taking into consideration the scale of the sanctions, I do not see any prudent way for Russia to stop this military operation unless the military and political purposes are realized, because from the Russian perspective, the West has already exhausted the potential to influence Russia. There is nothing more that the West can do.,” said Suslov.
Suslov claims Russians will blame the West for the economic hardship they will suffer as a result of the war launched by President Putin.
I asked exiled Russian banker Sergei Guriev if that is, indeed, the case.
“Mr. Putin wants to convince Russians that they should blame these problems on the West. And he controls the media. He increasingly shuts down independent debate through censoring Western social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter,” Guriev tells WHD News. “And in that sense, we don’t know how much blame Russians will actually apportion to the Russian government. But we also saw in Iran, which is also a tightly controlled society, that eventually people start believing their fridge (refrigerator) rather than their TV. If they see that their fridge is empty, they ask for change. And this is what’s going to happen coming elections.”
Guriev has joined a movement with other influential Russians to stop the war and ultimately bring about change in Russia. They are gathering signatures.
“I think it’s extremely important that we can communicate that Mr. Putin doesn’t represent Russia. Mr. Putin probably doesn’t represent the majority of Russians. And if we had a free election, I’m pretty sure that anti-war campaign would actually win the election right now,” Guriev said, adding that a million Russians have signed an anti-war petition.
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Guriev ends with the following thought, highlighting a fundamental contradiction in the posture of the leadership: “The identity that Mr. Putin has pushed correctly is that the victory in World War II is fundamentally important to what Russia is, and that identity is based on the idea ‘never again, we don’t want the war, never again.’ This war cannot be and should not be popular in Russia.”