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"That could become dangerous even for Putin himself"

Europe in focus: Researchers from various disciplines examine the political, historical and cultural dynamics. For our benefit, they contextualise current developments and the background circumstances of the Ukraine war. Part 3: Interview with communication scholar and Eastern Europe expert Professor Florian Töpfl about the risks of the Russian media strategy.

Pictured above is a blogger in Moscow who used his cell phone to document a march in 2019 to commemorate the assassination of Russian reformist politician Boris Nemtsov. Photo: Adobe Stock

Prof. Dr. Florian Töpfl

Prof. Dr. Florian Töpfl

Professor Florian Töpfl holds the Chair of Political Communication with a Focus on Eastern Europe and the Post-Soviet Region at the University of Passau. He manages a project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) on "The Consequences of the Internet for Russia's Informational Influence Abroad".
The following interview appeared on 1 March 2022 in the German daily Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger. It was conducted by the journalist Uli Kreikebaum. Meanwhile, Russia's authorities have massively tightened their crackdown on critical reporting.  The dissemination of critical information on the Ukraine war is punishable by many years in prison. Independent media outlets have been banned. The Russian media regulator has blocked access to Facebook and Twitter.

Aside from the state media, Russia has also always had newspapers, radio stations and blogs that were critical of the government. How big is the influence of media that are critical of the Russian regime today?

By now, all of the Russian media with a wide reach are under state control. I would have estimated that well below ten percent of the population keep themselves informed through media that is critical of the government – at least before the war broke out. In surveys, 70 to 80 percent of the people mention the major national TV channels as their main sources of information. The latter are controlled by the Kremlin. I have been keeping tabs of the Russian state media for more than ten years. Reporting has become increasingly militarised, especially after Crimea was annexed.

What does that mean?

The number of images of weapons and fighting shown in the main news programmes has been increasing steadily. Reports have been covering new rocket technology, army exercises and military trade fairs. The media created a world where weapons and the military were a normal part of everyday life, where international conflicts were routinely resolved by resorting to violence and where Russia was surrounded by a pack of hostile enemies. Having to observe these changes troubled and saddened me deeply long before the most recent escalation.

What are the narratives that accompanied these images?

The reason given for the aggression against Ukraine was NATO's expansion to the east, which was regarded as a serious security risk. A second argument that Westerners found hard to comprehend was the alleged "genocide" in Donetsk and Luhansk. The UN definition of genocide does not bear out this interpretation.

What spontaneously springs to mind is: Now Putin has gone totally mad...

That such a narrative seems plausible to many Russians can only be explained by the fact that they have been living in a world created by the media over years where the history of their country and the day-to-day events are presented from an entirely different perspective. Just imagine something like a large painting with lots of details that has been painted in the people's minds over many years. The rationale for the most recent spate of aggressions simply constitutes another scene that has been perfectly integrated into the composition with a few brushstrokes. In other words: Many of Putin's arguments appear plausible and consistent only to people who have been living in this media world for years. The regrettable thing about it: It works both ways. Many of the arguments we Europeans put forward to justify sanctions and weapons deliveries don't make any sense to people who have been exposed to the Russian state media for many years.

One of the implausible arguments is the "denazification" of Ukraine.

Yes, that's right. In fact, there are a number of rather dubious figures in Ukrainian history that could be labelled "Nazis" and that are idolized by some groups in Ukraine today. This problem has been played up heavily in the Russian state media narrative over months. Putin has now gone one step further and demands a comprehensive "denazification" of Ukraine. That is causing a great deal of anxiety among many of the local people. They fear that the new power holders after the coup will mount a campaign under the banner of "denazification" not only against the extreme right – but take action against anyone whose sympathies are with the West and democracy. In other words, against activists, the political elites, scientists, writers, journalists. It is unclear what means they will resort to. To brand the current Ukrainian leadership as Nazis hardly seems plausible even in light of the Kremlin's current narrative.

Even the Russian ambassador in Brussels found it difficult to explain in an interview several days ago why Zelenskyy should actually be overthrown.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a Jew – and supposedly a Nazi.

Even the Russian ambassador in Brussels found it difficult to explain in an interview several days ago why Zelenskyy should actually be overthrown. He dodged the question of whether Zelenskyy shared responsibility for a genocide or whether he would be affected by the denazification campaign. He wanted to leave it to the "new authorities in Kyiv" after a change of government to determine that. Overall, the narratives used by the state media to justify Russia's aggression appear conspicuously rudimentary and incoherent. Unlike in the past, some parts of the puzzle simply do not fit together. There is a need to change strategic narratives in quick succession – also because the situation is apparently not playing out as expected. I thus feel that it will be a major challenge for the Russian elites to justify themselves to the Russian public for the events that we will be witnessing over the next few weeks. That could become dangerous even for Putin himself.

Do you expect the Russian media to be brought into line even more now?

Yes. Journalists and media that are critical of the government must expect even more severe repressions. At the weekend, the Russian leadership announced that it would slow down Twitter and partly block Facebook. Under the threat of closure, critical media have been instructed not to use the words "war", "invasion" or "attack" to describe what is happening in Ukraine. Instead they were told to use the official term "special operation". These repressions are nothing new though. In Russia, the freedom of the press has become increasingly restricted over the past century. Last year, for example, lots of critical journalists and media were officially designated "foreign agents". An important consequence was that the media was for the most part cut off from advertising revenue. As early as several weeks ago, the Kremlin had instructed nearly all critical media to delete all the revelations made by the investigative journalists associated with Alexei Navalny from the archives. These reports included extensive information about the government's wealth and corruption and the government's minions. The video about "Putin's secret palace" on the Black Sea coast, for instance, had to be deleted as well.

Should Putin survive the internal political turmoil that is likely to occur in the next few weeks, the Russian political system will turn out to be a fundamentally different one. It will be the end of semi-competitive elections.

Why did Putin permit critical public coverage for so long?

For a long time, the existence of critical media was an important part of the Russian leadership's legitimation strategy. Even the state media clearly sent the message that Russia is a democracy. Accordingly, Putin claimed that he had legitimately come into power through "free" and fair elections. This claim would not have seemed plausible to citizens if there had not been at least several promising rival candidates with halfway reasonable prospects of success and a number of critical media supporting these candidates. That is why the growing censorship of all critical media evinces a fundamental change in Russian power structures. Should Putin survive the internal political turmoil that is likely to occur in the next few weeks, the Russian political system will turn out to be a fundamentally different one. It will be the end of semi-competitive elections.

Does the West have any way of influencing the Russian media?

Some fellow researchers are calling for harsh sanctions to be imposed on key presenters and chief editors in the Russian media. I would support such a call. Russia's leading journalists support Putin's line and are at least as powerful as deputies of parliament.

Do you have any questions about the attack on Ukraine? Contact us at: frag-die-wissenschaft@uni-passau.de - we will forward your questions and publish answers from researchers here in a timely manner.

More assessments

Unabhängigkeitsdenkmal der Ukraine auf dem Majdan Nesaleschnosti in Kiew. Foto: Adobe Stock

Digital propaganda, Putin's view of history, fake news: All assessments by Passau researchers on the background and current developments in the Ukraine war.

Stellungnahme der Universitätsleitung

In a video message, President Ulrich Bartosch is outlining the University's response to the war and explains the aid initiatives and options for action the University Executive is currently exploring.

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