Julia Davis is the foremost U.S. expert on Russian government-controlled television and propaganda. She founded Russian Media Monitor to “watch Russian news so that you don’t have to.” Ms. Davis agreed to give an interview to the Kyiv Post to talk about what Russian propaganda is now expounding and what that portends for the future of the war in Ukraine.

Prior to the early hours of Feb 24, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, did Russian TV stations brace the Russian public for the type of stiff resistance that they ultimately faced in Ukraine?

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Before the war started, Russian state TV propagandists boasted that if Russia decided to invade, it could overpower Ukraine in a matter of days, if not minutes. They also predicted that such an invasion would proceed quickly and painlessly, akin to the takeover of Crimea, with little to no resistance.

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Did Moscow not foresee Western countries implementing such crushing sanctions?

They expected the sanctions to be light and easy to circumvent, that the West would soon move on, that things would return to the status quo before you knew it, and that Russia would be sitting pretty with more land to add to its own. In short, it was a gross miscalculation.

Now we see Moscow’s hubris catching up. Do the Kremlin’s propagandists continue to tell their public that things are going well in Ukraine?

Even the most ardent propagandists are now acknowledging that the Ukrainian troops are formidable opponents, that Western sanctions are there to stay, and that NATO is fighting against Russia in Ukraine – which of course is a lie. They’re also ludicrously blaming Ukrainians for destroying their own cities and killing their own civilians.

What else are Vladimir Putin’s propagandists now saying about Ukraine?

Putin’s propagandists are promoting bloodthirsty ideas of killing not only the Ukrainian leadership and the country’s brave defenders, but also an internal crackdown against anyone who dares to oppose or even criticize the madness of Putin’s invasion of a peaceful neighboring nation that has never been at war since achieving its independence ,That is, until the Kremlin felt its influence slipping away with Yanukovych’s inglorious departure

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Based on what you see in Russian TV broadcasts, do you think that the propagandists themselves are becoming concerned that things are not going as they had anticipated in Ukraine?

Russian state TV propagandists are becoming more and more unhinged, threatening the world with nuclear weapons and their own opposition with persecution and prosecution. The magnitude of their misrepresentations is at its peak.

Why?

They’re caught in their own web of lies, with mounting casualties, economic struggles and no tangible victories. Instead of announcing grand successes as they previously predicted, they’re reduced to explaining why they aren’t being achieved. Other than elusive assertions of Russia restoring its historical grandeur, they have no positives to mention.

Thus far, what are the positives for Russia in this war?

There is not a single aspect that can be named in terms of this war benefitting anyone, not even Putin.

No positives at all for Russia? None?

Russia has already lost this war and lost itself in the process.

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Does Putin realize that?

How long it will take the autocratic dictator to realize the gravity of what he’s done is anybody’s guess. I fear that many more lives will be lost before that happens. I know that ultimately Ukraine will prevail and be free – no matter what it takes or however long this war may last. The tenacity, heroism and patriotism of the Ukrainian people will go down in history as an example to others, signifying that freedom is worth fighting and dying for, and that freedom-loving people can’t be defeated.

Is the younger generation as mesmerized by the glow of Russian TV propaganda as the older generation?

Official polling out of Russia – like any authoritarian regime – obviously can’t be trusted. Anecdotal polling and references in the state media have led me to conclude that the younger generation (under 40 years of age), for the most part, fully realizes what is happening.

Why is the younger Russian generation more aware of what is really happening?

Many of them use VPNs, continue to use social media networks banned in Russia, and read international news. There are revelations in the state media that confirm this: hosts and pundits regularly worry there might be revolts or uprisings and point out the importance of controlling the narrative.

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Then why do so many Russian citizens still go along with the propagandic line?

It seems to me that it’s easier for many Russians to go along with state-funded propaganda, because it gives them hope that things will somehow work out and get better. I believe that at least one-third of them have a clear picture of what’s truly going on and many more are becoming aware as the war drags on.

So, the Kremlin appreciates that their traditional ability to “control the narrative” that their population hears is threatened by the rise of social media?

The Kremlin definitely sees the influence of social media as potentially dangerous, hence the draconian laws about jailing people for posts or re-posts, much less expressing negative opinions about the war. I believe that Telegram, like other social media companies, will be threatened to comply with government demands to remove any information that is deemed to be derogatory and therefore impermissible. Free media of any kind is a threat to Putin’s regime and we can anticipate that it will be dealt with very harshly, or banned if it doesn’t toe the line.

Based upon your analysis of the Russian media, what underlying fears of the Russian Government do you detect?

State media reveals what the Kremlin fears the most by the very methods they use to demoralize Ukrainians. That mirror can be turned around towards themselves. What they love to point out are the casualties that are allegedly being concealed by Ukraine (which is what Russia has been doing since the beginning of this war). Another important point to make is that there was no violence against civilians until Russia invaded (both in 2014 and 2022), which makes it clear who the bad guys are in this scenario. There weren’t any Nazis rounding people up in filtration camps and massacring civilians, only the Russians did that once they invaded.

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Is it not becoming increasingly redundant for those trying to break the spell of Russia’s propaganda to constantly repeat and regurgitate Russia’s lies? Is it effective? Is it really worth it?

They’re claiming that approximately one third of Ukrainians want to be absorbed by Russia. It’s crucial to re-state the truth that Russia is not wanted or welcomed in Ukraine and that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians don’t want to live under the Kremlin’s rule. It might seem ridiculous that this even has to be said – but for the benefit of the Russians, it’s worth repeating. Stories of civilians who lost it all because of Putin’s war, victims who have been robbed, raped, brutalized and terrorized by the Russian troops need to be memorialized in print and on video, not only in Ukrainian, but also in Russian.

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There has been debate as to whether projects like the Telegram Channel “Spook Boys,” which shows the bodies of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine, are effective in “waking up” young Russian men of draft age so that they, and their relatives, see the true horror of what is happening in Ukraine and hopefully turn against the war. Do you think this method works?

Absolutely, based on Russia’s own coverage. State media pundits openly call for the images of dead Ukrainian servicemen to be frequently shown to break the morale of those resisting Russia’s aggression. You can therefore assume that the reverse would impact their own population.

Would you encourage Ukraine to actively disseminate this kind of graphic content from the war to counter the glitzy Moscow-produced propaganda, in order to show how many young Russians are dying in this needless invasion?

I would urge the Ukrainians to maintain their own moral high standing and treat the dead with dignity. Even if resorting to Russia’s own techniques to reveal the truth, it’s important that Ukraine maintains its humanity. The world knows who the good guys are in this scenario. It’s crucial to keep it that way by exercising as much wisdom and restraint as this brutal war allows.

 

Julia Davis, the Creator of the Russian Media Monitor, is often billed as the foremost American expert on Russian propaganda and Russian government-controlled television. She is a Columnist for the Daily Beast and can be followed on Twitter @JuliaDavisNews.

 

 

 

 

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