Want to Get Really Mad About Ukraine? Watch Russian TV

The daily diet of the Kremlin’s ‘weaponized propaganda’ is not all lies—and it’s heating up Russians’ outrage over the war in Ukraine and the West’s role.

06.08.15 9:18 AM ET

MOSCOW —  A recent survey by Russia’s Public Opinion Research Center found that 60 percent of the Russian population gets its news from television and 75 percent trust what they see there.

Well, here’s what they’ve been watching.

Last Thursday every news program on Russian television aired video of wounded, bleeding women and men on stretchers at Donetsk hospital, and images of a destroyed city market set on fire by artillery during one of the fiercest battles in Ukraine in months. The shelling of Donetsk region intensified, and Russians could see many ruined private homes under fire. News presenters blamed the Ukrainian military for creating over 50 “provocations” endangering the ceasefire along the entire front line in Eastern Ukraine. It blamed Kiev’s leadership for breaking the Minsk agreement from last February, and it blamed the West for backing Ukraine.

Thursday’s news reports covered clashes the day before in the fight for control over a town called Maryinka (also, Marinka), right outside the regional capital of Donetsk, that involved heavy artillery and tanks. Over 20 people were killed and at least 100 were injured in separatist-held towns, the reports said. The Ukrainian military deliberately chose sunset to shell the thickly populated town of Horlivka, Channel-5 reported. Vesti, a news program on the popular Russia-24 channel, quoted separatist Deputy Defense Minister Eduard Basurin insisting that Kiev plotted the attack on purpose. He claimed the Ukrainian military wanted to have a small victory to show before Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko addressed the Rada, or parliament. But “Kiev failed,” said Basurin. And the majority of Russians believed it.

Day after day, Russian television viewers discuss horror stories from Ukraine. After a short and largely quiet break, clashes have intensified on the front lines, and as they’ve grown increasingly violent, outrage against Ukraine’s military and its leadership have been heated up by the anti-Kiev and anti-West news coverage.

One heartbreaking story, particularly, has made many Russians shed tears. In a recent shelling incident at Horlivka, near a strategic crossroads just north of Donetsk, artillery hit the private home of the Tuv family. Several Russian channels broadcast interviews with Anna Tuv, a soft-spoken mother of three. She described how she found herself with here arm “torn off” after the explosion. It later was amputated up to her shoulder. She told how she dug her still-living 10-day-old baby girl from under the rubble and found her 2-year-old son Zakhar wounded with shrapnel but alive. Then she saw that her husband Yuriy and their 11-year-old daughter Katia both had died. They were “torn into pieces” by the shelling, she said.

“I had goose bumps when I saw poor Anna from Horlivka,” says Ruslana, a waitress at the Shokoladnica café on Pokrovka Street in Moscow. “That night I could not sleep and was thinking of the poor woman, how her life was destroyed in a few seconds.”

A majority of Russians, up to 47 percent, followed closely or very closely the Russian television news about the Ukraine crisis, according to Denis Volkov, a sociologist and independent pollster at the Levada Center, and 38 percent more follow the news without paying much attention. “A majority of Russians, up to 66 percent, believe that the war does not end because the West, Europe and largely the United States, back up Ukraine, and only 6 to 7 percent say that the war goes on because Russia’s leadership backs the rebels,” Volkov said.

Pro-Kremlin television continues to deny all allegations that there is a Russian professional military presence in Ukraine, convincing Russian viewers that all Western publications suggesting otherwise are just waging psychological operations against Moscow.

“According to our information, 25 U.S. experts in information war recently arrived in Kiev,” pro-Kremlin activist Sergei Markov tells The Daily Beast. “Black and white” doesn’t begin to describe the situation, he says: “There are just the absolutely kind people of Donbas, and the absolute evil destroying them—Kiev backed by the West.”

As Washington searches for ways to counter what one Pentagon official described as Russia’s “weaponized propaganda,” the Russian people have lived the last year feeling that Kiev’s “absolute evil” is on the march. 

It has to be said that independent international observers do confirm some Russian TV reports, or at least parts of them.

One striking example: An Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) patrol visited Anna Tuv’s largely destroyed house in Horlivka. The OSCE confirmed to The Daily Beast that Anna’s husband and 11-year-old daughter were killed immediately, that Anna did lose her arm and was staying at the hospital with her 2-year-old son, who is severely injured, and her 2-week-old daughter, who has minor injures.

So Russian television was right about that much. But, then, there’s this.

The Russian television reports and locals in Donbas blamed the Ukrainian military for Anna Tuv’s tragedy. But the official report from the OSCE says that the Ukrainian military alleged on that day, May 26, the “shelling of Horlivka came from Mine 6-7 (42 km north-north-east of Donetsk and 7 km north-west of Horlivka respectively),” in areas controlled by the separatist, Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic.

It’s often said that in any war truth is the first casualty. Unfortunately, it is rarely the last.