The Russian media’s intrinsic relationship with the Kremlin is near-absolute, having long given Vladimir Putin free range about to install his ideologies among the people whenever and however he sees fit.
There is no real freedom of the press in Russia, and free speech has only a few sacred enclaves where it flourishes, but always with the looming threat of political imprisonment just hanging over any sideways comment.
That’s why the latest spin from Russian state television is so peculiar.
Russia’s retreat from a key Ukrainian city over the weekend elicited outcry from an unlikely crowd – state-run media outlets that typically cast Moscow’s war in glowing terms.
A series of embarrassing military losses in recent weeks has presented a challenge for prominent hosts of Russian news and political talk shows struggling to find ways to paint Ukraine’s gains in a way that is still favorable to the Kremlin.
Frustration with the battlefield setbacks has long been expressed in social media blogs run by nationalist pundits and pro-Kremlin analysts, and the volume grew after Ukraine’s counteroffensive last month around Kharkiv in the northeast. But it is now spilling out on state TV broadcasts and in the pages of government-backed newspapers.
The mood was dour, to say the least.
The less conciliatory tone from state-run media comes as President Vladimir Putin faces widespread Russian discontent about his partial mobilization of reservists and as government officials struggle to explain plans to annex Ukrainian regions at the same time they are being retaken by Kyiv’s forces.
“The Russian defeat in Kharkiv (region) and Lyman, combined with the Kremlin’s failure to conduct partial mobilization effectively and fairly are fundamentally changing the Russian information space,” Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said in a report.
On Sunday, after Ukraine recaptured Lyman, a city in the east that Russian troops had used as a key logistics and transport hub, Putin’s media allies dropped the niceties and more directly criticized his military, saying tougher measures were necessary for the sake of victory.
“What happened on Saturday, Lyman – it is a serious challenge for us,” Vladimir Solovyov, host of a prime-time talk show on state TV channel Russia 1 and one of the Kremlin’s biggest cheerleaders, said on air Sunday. “We need to pull it together, make unpopular, but necessary decisions and act.”
The sudden reversal is certainly back news for the Kremlin, who’ve already been dealing with a rather sizable number of anti-war protests within the country.