Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Watching the War on Russian Television
Watching the War on Russian Television

Watching the War on Russian Television

Those watching Russian television to follow the war in Ukraine live in an alternative reality. Commentators on state-owned Russian television news stations have spread the falsehood that Ukraine is staging fake attacks on their own cities to make it look like Russia is the aggressor. Russian news broadcasters have also claimed that the Russian military taking control of the Chernobyl nuclear plant was done to keep Ukraine from making a nuclear weapon.

Independent stations that have dared to cover the war even-handedly have been silenced. The Kremlin promulgated a federal law in March that made it illegal to deliberately broadcast “misleading information” and partake in “discrediting the use of the Russian Federation Armed Forces.” This resulted in an independent media blackout in Russia this spring.

But a familiar light is now shining elsewhere, albeit dimly. Dozhd (TV Rain), the renegade Russian television network critical of the war in Ukraine, is broadcasting again from Riga, Latvia, through its YouTube channel. Operations re-started in July after Dozhd was shut down in March. Its staff walked off the set during its final broadcast from Russia. The Dozhd website was blocked by the Prosecutor-General’s Office hastening the station’s demise in Russia.

Ordinary Russians spend substantial amounts of time watching television news. The content of these programs offers a window into how people in Russia are indoctrinated to think about issues such as the war in Ukraine. Most news coverage is far from fair and balanced and with independent voices disappearing, the Kremlin and its allies in the media can better blanket the airwaves with propaganda. This allows the regime to stay in power and the masses to be misled and silenced. Television news can thus write history while more liberal news outlets are banned and either silenced or have reduced impact.

Dozhd’s founder, journalist Mikhail Zygar, posted an open letter in March signed by several reporters who called for the war in Ukraine to end. Russian nomenklatura from the Federal Communications Agency said Dozhd was “inciting extremism, abusing Russian citizens, causing mass disruption of public calm and safety, and encouraging protests.” The initial “crime” Dozhd committed was referring to the situation in Ukraine as a “war” instead of the government-approved phrase “special military operation.”

Dozhd has heady goals of eventually broadcasting from not only Riga but also Amsterdam, Paris, and Tbilisi. But the political and technological reality of the situation will likely only allow citizens in Russia to clandestinely watch the Dozhd YouTube channel using a virtual private network—a risky form of Internet resistance. But Russians are downloading virtual private networks at a rate of hundreds of thousands a day, even though the government is cracking down on sites that offer virtual private networks for download.

Russia’s Justice Ministry deemed Dozhd to be a foreign agent in August 2021. This required the network to register with the government and acquiesce to regular audits. Earlier that summer, Dozhd was kicked out of the media pool that covered Vladimir Putin’s exploits after it continually broadcasted the activity of dissident Alexei Navalny and his supporters.

After the walkout during the final news day this year, Dozhd workers embarked for other countries and plotted their next move. A defiant Tikhon Dzyadko, editor-in-chief of the organization, told National Public Radio, “We have to continue spreading information and truth to Russians and the Russian-speaking audience. We don’t know where. We don’t know how. We don’t know when. But definitely sooner or later—rather sooner than later—we will continue broadcasting.”

Besides being banned in Russia, another challenge for Dozhd is that most Russians get their news from television, not YouTube. A Levada Center poll in 2018 revealed that an overwhelming 85 percent of Russians watch television for their news. Forty-seven percent of Russians watch Channel One and 44 percent prefer Rossiya One, according to analysis conducted by Statista, a German company specializing in data analysis.

War coverage on government-run Channel One has been jingoistic, which is to be expected, but some commentary has been especially over the top. Channel One’s Dmitry Kiselyov, known as “Putin’s mouthpiece,” in early May extolled the virtues of the Russian military’s new Poseidon nuclear-tipped and nuclear-powered torpedo after blaming the British for their support of Ukraine in the war. This diatribe included a threat against the United Kingdom that promised a torpedo strike that would drown the United Kingdom under a 500-meter nuclear tsunami. Kiselyov said “Such a barrage alone carries extreme doses of radiation. Having passed over the British Isles, it will turn whatever might be left of them into a radioactive desert.”

This is not the first time Kiselyov has threatened the United Kingdom with nuclear weapons. In May, the talking head presented an animated graphic that portrayed a nuclear holocaust-type of attack against Britain. “Just one launch, Boris,” Kiselyov said, “and England is gone. Once and for all. Why play with us?”

Russia, like many countries, has a history of mobilizing war propaganda. Films dating back to Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” in 1925 have been especially salient in Russian life. State television appeared in 1934. Subsequent Soviet propaganda showed future political leaders a path forward that included glorifying the homeland and stoking patriotic furor. In 1998, broadcaster NTV presented its documentary on the 25th anniversary of the ever-popular Soviet spy series Semnadstat’ mgnovenii vesny (“Seventeen Moments of Spring”). Set at the end of World War II (known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War), the program’s lead character, intrepid spy Maxim Isaev, sneaks into the upper echelon of the Nazi hierarchy to advance the cause of the Soviet Union. The show was released in 1973 and was a sensation. It drew at least fifty million viewers during its twelve-part run on Programme One. Author Arkady Ostrovsky said the program was so popular that Soviet life was placed on pause at 7:30pm when it aired. “The streets of Soviet cities emptied out, the crime rate fell, and electricity consumption surged. It has been rebroadcast every year before and after the Soviet collapse,” Ostrovsky wrote in his book The Invention of Russia.

One of the viewers was a twenty-one-year-old Vladimir Putin, who was enthralled with the series, according to Ostrovsky. Putin became fascinated about a career in the KGB—just what Yuri Andropov wanted in his propaganda campaign that was designed to improve the image of the iconic Soviet spy agency. When Putin became chief of the FSB, the NTV documentary about “Seventeen Moments of Spring” had just come out.

The Geopolitical Implications of News Consumption in Russia

What does the future hold for broadcast news in Russia? Dozhd will probably not break through to common Russians unless they are watching with virtual private networks. It is easier to watch the news on the mindless but patriotic Channel One. War leads to even more propaganda, so expect a steady diet of belligerent commentary that puts the Russian military in the best of light.

Dozhd can hope to attract liberal millennials and Generation Z members, especially those youngsters who have a rebellious streak, but the older generations are probably lost to their love of Russian agitprop media organs.

War also encourages Russians to rally around the flag and disparage the West. The Carnegie Endowment for the International Peace found that anti-American sentiment in Russia corresponded with and rose to high levels during four different years—1998, 2003, 2008, and 2014–2015. These were years in which the United States and Russia had sharp disagreements over their respective military interventions in Kosovo and Iraq (United States), and Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014–2015).

The Levada Center surveyed 3,000 Russians about their views on the war in April. Sixty-eight percent said they supported it. But researchers at Levada were skeptical of their own findings and concluded that many Russians do not tell the truth in polling.

While researching Russian state media coverage of the War in Iraq during graduate school, I found levels of anti-Americanism as Putin criticized and resisted the United States invasion. While watching many hours of Russian TV news, I also noticed how Putin dominated coverage. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was still flabbergasted when thirty-minutes straight of programming on one episode of television news was dedicated to meetings Putin led with his technocrats. There was no break from the meeting and no slicing and dicing of quotes from his display of leadership. The newscast was the meeting, and the meeting was the newscast. It was Putin in action in 2003. This showed the man was in control of the government. Combine coverage of the leader in rustic outdoor settings with his shirt off and you get the best of what is important to many Russians—a president that could keep the bureaucrats and oligarchs in line, project power and stability, while also playing hockey or riding horses. The television images reinforced a stern and rugged image that reminded people of “Seventeen Moments of Spring”—a hero for the masses who appeared nightly on TV.

The programming focused on portrayals of strength and weakness. Russian state TV is considered strong and patriotic. Channel One can threaten the United Kingdom and get away with it because the Russian nuclear weapons program is a symbol of national strength. Likewise, Russian spy series are also a symbol of national strength.

Alternatively, Dozhd is perceived as being weak. Portrayals of Navalny are considered weak. The act of Dozhd leaving Russia and fleeing to the Baltics is seen as weak. Putin and his allies know this. Dozhd is, by law, a foreign agent. Its exile to Latvia reinforced the notion that the maverick TV channel really is under foreign influence. Their medium—YouTube—is also part of Google and Alphabet, American entities that Russia can dismiss.

Many Russian TV viewers seem to believe that claiming territory for Russia is a paramount undertaking in Ukraine. Since, according to Channel One, Russia is a world power, why trifle with a counter-revolutionary broadcast like Dozhd when you can feel good about your country by watching state-run TV. It is likely that many young people may not even miss Dozhd, if they watched in the first place. Dozhd has outlived its usefulness as a competing media source unless the people downloading and watching television with virtual private networks continue to increase. It will be exiled to Latvia for good playing a small role in the future of Russia, which is just what Putin and his allies want. Channel One and its ilk have defeated Dozhd. It is difficult to see a future in which Dozhd can effectively shine a light on Russian corruption and speak truth to power with its fleeting presence on YouTube. The people may have not spoken, but the government has. Channel One is the outlet that gets to write history.

Many in the West are not aware of the power of television news in Russia. People wonder how the general population of Russia could support the war, but due to the lack of independent voices that emphasize the reality about what is going on in Ukraine, many Russians have no idea what the truth is in the first place. This is why analysis of television news in Russia is so important to study. No war can be prosecuted without public support, but if the populace is not shown the truth, a perpetual period of fighting can occur.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

Image: TASS (Photo by Sergei Bobylev)