The limitations of Russian propaganda in Ukraine

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Russian TV is waging a propaganda war against Ukraine. But is it working?


Joanna Szostek
11 June 2014

The long propaganda campaign waged by Russian television channels against Ukraine’s political leadership and the West is continuing unabated. This past weekend, one Sunday night news programme headlined the ‘savagery’ (zverstvo) of ‘Fascism’ in Ukraine, which is being ‘cynically supported’ by the West. It proceeded to decry the ‘cruelty” and ‘war crimes’ of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the ‘torture’ of Russian journalists by the Ukrainian authorities, and the West’s historical lack of sincerity (the presenter linked the D-Day landings of World War II to an Anglo-American conspiracy aimed at blocking Russian domination of Europe). Another news show on Sunday night carried interviews with ‘physiognomists’ and psychologists who deduced the personal qualities of Ukraine’s new president from his facial features and expressions. Petro Poroshenko, they concluded, is someone who does not mean what he says; his ‘overhanging eyelids’ indicate aggression, and he only entered politics to make money. One might wonder how any viewer could take seriously a news broadcaster that conducts analysis based on presidential eyelids. 

One might wonder how any viewer could take seriously a news broadcaster that conducts analysis based on presidential eyelids.


Yet, 92% of Russians continue to get their news about Ukraine from television, and 70% of them still say the federal channels are covering events objectively, at least for the most part, according to a recent Levada poll.

On the other hand, fresh survey data published by the Broadcasting Board of Governors has exposed the limitations of the Russian propaganda machine within Ukraine itself. In April, 1,900 people (500 in Crimea, and 1,400 in the rest of Ukraine) were questioned by Gallup pollsters about their media consumption habits. Respondents were asked to name their three most important sources of information. Russian federal broadcasters Pervyy Kanal (ORT), Rossiya 1 (RTR Planeta), Rossiya 24 and NTV were each named by just 2% of those who took part in the survey. These low figures reflect the successful implementation of an order imposed in March, which banned transmission of these channels via Ukrainian cable networks. Back in 2012, Rossiya 1 enjoyed a weekly reach of almost 19% in Ukraine; this has now been reduced to around 9%. Access to the Russian channels has become restricted to Ukrainian viewers with satellite dishes or those who live in Crimea and eastern parts of the country where TV transmission infrastructure is no longer under Ukrainian control. 

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Psychologist-physiognomist Svetlana Filatova points out the aggression in Poroshenko's eyelids on Voskresnoye Vremya

The majority of Ukrainians are sceptical about the objectivity of Russian news reporting.

The majority of Ukrainians are sceptical about the objectivity of Russian news reporting. Across the country (but excluding Crimea), just 30% of adults said they trusted Russia’s Pervyy Kanal ‘a great deal’ or ‘somewhat.’ The survey found that trust levels varied depending on respondents’ ethnicity and region of residence: Pervyy Kanal is trusted (‘a great deal’ or ‘somewhat’) by 66% of ethnic Russians in Ukraine and 62% of those living in the eastern regions – Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv. It is hard to know how many East Ukrainians are currently tuning in to Russian news broadcasts. TV channel availability reportedly varies from city to city in the conflict zone, with separatists having imposed the analogue transmission of Russian channels in some areas and booted Ukrainian channels off at least one cable network in Donetsk. 

Interestingly, however, the cross-border information flow has failed to generate majority support for Russia’s behaviour towards Ukraine in any region of the country other than Crimea. Russia’s role in the crisis was perceived as ‘mostly positive’ by just 35% of survey respondents in the East and 28% in the South. In the Centre, West and North, less than 3% of respondents considered Russia’s role to have been ‘mostly positive.’

Soft power

‘Soft power’ has never been a big priority for the officials in charge of Russian TV news.

Is Russia achieving its propaganda objectives in Ukraine? If the Kremlin’s communication strategists were seriously hoping to generate ‘soft power’ in Ukraine by their TV campaign, one has to judge their results so far a failure (with the possible exception of Crimea). Soft power – mentioned repeatedly as a goal in Russia’s 2013 Foreign Policy Concept – is commonly defined as ‘getting others to want the outcomes you want’ or ‘producing attraction that leads to acquiescence.’ Most Ukrainians do not want what Russia wants, a fact underlined by Poroshenko’s first round electoral victory on a platform rejecting Ukraine’s federalization. Constantly calling your neighbours Fascists is hardly an effective way to ‘attract’ them, as the abovementioned survey data testifies. It seems likely, however, that ‘soft power’ has never been a big priority for the officials in charge of Russian TV news. Their primary concern is managing Russian domestic public opinion: justifying Russian interventions in Ukraine and promoting the idea of external enemies in a way that shores up support for the Putin regime. The narratives needed for this purpose undermine rather than boost Russia’s standing in Ukraine, but this is apparently considered a price worth paying. If Russian propaganda is intended to achieve anything in Ukraine at all, it is localised destabilisation rather than mass attraction. Moscow is apparently set on preventing Kyiv from re-establishing control of the eastern regions. Even if Russian news broadcasts are only watched and believed by a minority, they may still fulfil a destabilising function by polarising opinion. 

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