There is a notable mood shift in Russia, as darkness sets over its economy and the invasion of Ukraine hits major problems. While the beginning of President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale war against Ukraine was greeted with cheers, clapping, and demands of Champagne in the studio, the reality sobered up even the most pro-Kremlin pundits and experts on Russian state television.
The ugly truth about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is slipping through the cracks, despite the government’s authoritarian attempts to control the narrative.
The Kremlin-controlled state media is doing its best to flip the situation upside down, blaming the victims of Russia’s aggression for all of the casualties. On Wednesday’s edition of the state TV show The Evening With Vladimir Soloviev, the host claimed the fallout of Russia’s bombing of a maternity hospital this week was “fake” with no one there to be injured, despite photos of pregnant women being carried away from the blast that killed at least one child. A guest on 60 Minutes last Saturday even claimed Ukrainians “are firing on each other and blaming us.”
On Thursday, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that Russia never attacked Ukraine and repeated the same lies as Soloviev about the total absence of patients in the maternity ward and children’s hospital bombed by Russia.
Putin’s most trusted propagandists are becoming ever more desperate to distort or deny the evidence of the atrocities because the truth is finding its way past the roadblocks erected by the Kremlin. Russian citizens are not pleased either with the war, nor with the financial price they have to pay for their leader’s ill-conceived military conquests.
Even the infamous show run by Soloviev—who was recently sanctioned as an accomplice of Putin by the European Union—became dominated by predictions of Russian doom and gloom. Andrey Sidorov, deputy dean of world politics at Moscow State University, cautioned: “For our country, this period won’t be easy. It will be very difficult. It might be even more difficult than it was for the Soviet Union from 1945 until the 1960s... We’re more integrated into the global economy than the Soviet Union, we’re more dependent on imports—and the main part is that the Cold War is the war of the minds, first and foremost. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union had a consolidating idea on which its system was built. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia has nothing like that to offer.”
State TV pundit Karen Shakhnazarov pointed out: “The war in Ukraine paints a frightening picture, it has a very oppressive influence on our society. Ukraine, whichever way you see it, is something with which Russia has thousands of human links. The suffering of one group of innocents does not compensate for the suffering of other innocent people... I don’t see the probability of denazification of such an enormous country. We would need to bring in 1.5 million soldiers to control all of it. At the same time, I don’t see any political power that would consolidate the Ukrainian society in a pro-Russian direction... Those who talked of their mass attraction to Russia obviously didn’t see things the way they are. The most important thing in this scenario is to stop our military action. Others will say that sanctions will remain. Yes, they will remain, but in my opinion discontinuing the active phase of a military operation is very important.”
Resorting to the traditional propaganda tropes prevalent in Russian state media, Shakhnazarov accused the United States of starting the war—and trying to prolong it indefinitely. He speculated: “What are they achieving by prolonging the war? First of all, public opinion within Russia is changing. People are shocked by the masses of refugees, the humanitarian catastrophe, people start to imagine themselves in their place. It’s starting to affect them. To say that the Nazis are doing that is not quite convincing, strictly speaking... On top of that, economic sanctions will start to affect them, and seriously. There will probably be scarcity. A lot of products we don’t produce, even the simplest ones. There’ll be unemployment. They really thought through these sanctions, they’re hitting us with real continuity. It’s a well-planned operation... Yes, this is a war of the United States with Russia... These sanctions are hitting us very precisely.
“This threatens the change of public opinion in Russia, the destabilization of our power structures... with the possibility of a full destabilization of the country and a civil war. This apocalyptic scenario is based on the script written by the Americans. They benefit through us dragging out the military operation. We need to end it somehow. If we achieved the demilitarization and freed the Donbas, that is sufficient... I have a hard time imagining taking cities such as Kyiv. I can’t imagine how that would look. If this picture starts to transform into an absolute humanitarian disaster, even our close allies like China and India will be forced to distance themselves from us. This public opinion, with which they’re saturating the entire world, can play out badly for us... Ending this operation will stabilize things within the country.”
The host frowned at the apparent departure from the officially approved line of thinking and deferred to the commander-in-chief. However, the next expert agreed with Shakhnazarov. Semyon Bagdasarov, a Russian Middle East expert, grimly said: “We didn’t even feel the impact of the sanctions just yet... We need to be ready for total isolation. I’m not panicking, just calling things by their proper name.”
Soloviev angrily sniped: “Gotcha. We should just lay down and die.”
Bagdasarov continued: “Now about Ukraine. I agree with Karen. We had prior experiences of bringing in our troops, destroying the military infrastructure and leaving. I think that our army fulfilled their task of demilitarization of the country by destroying most of their military installations... To restore their military they will need at least 10 years... Let Ukrainians do this denazification on their own. We can’t do it for them... As for their neutrality, yes, we should squeeze it out of them, and that’s it. We don’t need to stay there longer than necessary... Do we need to get into another Afghanistan, but even worse? There are more people and they’re more advanced in their handling of weapons. We don’t need that. Enough already... As for the sanctions, the world has never seen such massive sanctions.”
Dmitry Abzalov, director of the Center for Strategic Communications, pointed out that even though energy prices will go up for most of the West, it won’t do much to ease the pain for the Russians: “We’ll still be the ones taking the terminal hit, and an incomparable one, even though other countries will also suffer some losses. We’ll all be going to hell together—except for maybe China—but going to hell together with the French or Germans won’t make our people feel any better.” Abzalov argued that after taking additional territories in Eastern Ukraine, Russia should get out of Dodge, believing that all Western companies that temporarily paused their operations in Russia would then rush to come back. “It’s about toxicity, not just sanctions... It will go away once the situation stabilizes.”
Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, state TV experts predicted that Russia could overtake it in a matter of minutes or a few days. Stunned by the fierce resistance on the part of Ukrainians, Soloviev described them as “the army that is second in Europe, after ours, and which has been prepared for eight years and armed with everything you can imagine.”
Soloviev added: “This is a frightening war that is being waged against us by America.”
To lighten the mood in the studio, the host resorted to one of the favorite pastimes of many Kremlin propagandists: playing yet another Fox News clip of Tucker Carlson and his frequent guest Ret. Col. Doug Macgregor. In the translated video, Macgregor predicted Russia’s easy military victories over Ukraine and its total invincibility to Western sanctions. Soloviev sighed and smiled: “He’s a lot more optimistic than my previous experts in the studio.”