Western leaders are fighting an information war, as Russia continues to press its invasion of Ukraine. The European Union took the unprecedented step of banning the state media outlets Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik. According to the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, these outlets “will no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin’s war and to sow division in our union.” Neither is the EU alone in trying to disrupt the Kremlin’s media agenda. YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram are blocking them in Europe. RT America announced it was "ceasing production" due to “unforeseen business interruption events” after it was dropped by DirecTV and Roku. Meanwhile, the Russian government is limiting—and in some cases, ending—Russians’ access to social media. The Kremlin is also criminalizing and restricting access to independent journalism, forcing some news organizations to close. What effects are all of these initiatives and counter-initiatives having on the conflict in Ukraine?

Mike Smeltzer is a senior research analyst for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House. To Smeltzer, the global battle of narratives over Ukraine is moving in an uncertain direction—just like the military conflict itself. These parallel struggles, he says, will continue to intersect with and influence each other: Much of the world is currently rejecting Russian attempts to frame the invasion, but the Kremlin is constantly looking for new tactics, and its propaganda still has the potential to undermine support for the Ukrainians. Another complicating factor, as Smeltzer sees it, is that banning Russian propaganda can have unintended consequences, emboldening autocrats and making liberal democrats look hypocritical in promoting the value of freedom.

Graham Vyse: How do you see Russia’s state-controlled media presenting the war?

Mike Smeltzer: Well, of course the Kremlin isn’t calling it a war; they’re calling it a “special military operation,” with the absurd goals of stopping a “genocide” that isn’t happening and protecting these self-proclaimed states of Donetsk and Luhansk, which were unilaterally recognized by the Russian government. In reality, as we know, it’s an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that now represents the lengths Putin will go to, to retain domestic power and assert regional control.

It’s important to remember, though, that even in the West, Ukraine’s agency tends to get lost. The framing often comes down to the West versus Russia, ignoring the fact that Ukraine should be able to make its own decisions. Russian propaganda is basically trying to deny Ukraine its independent culture, history, and statehood.

Vyse: How coordinated is this propaganda?

Smeltzer: It comes from the highest echelons of the Kremlin. It seems like an eternity, but it was only weeks ago that Putin gave this speech to his country pushing false narratives about the illegitimacy of the Ukrainian state—that it needed to be “denazified” and “decommunized,” that NATO is threatening Russia’s security. It presented a whole set of grievances, which ground Putin’s justification for war.

Alexander Popov

A lot of the Russian propaganda we’re seeing now was already being spread in state-controlled media before the start of the war At the same time, independent media has been under serious attack by the Kremlin. The Russian government has abused its "foreign agent" laws enormously over the last few years, forcing independent outlets to register as foreign agents and to put warnings on their content, which inhibits their ability to gain an audience and raise funds. The law expanded to include individual journalists, who have to register as foreign agents. All of this has escalated during this war.

Using the words “war” or “invasion” to describe what’s happening is now a crime in Russia, for which you can be sentenced to 15 years in prison. As a result, some news outlets have decided to stop covering the war directly. The Kremlin has blocked or shut down other outlets. International outlets like The New York Times, BBC, and CNN have suspended work in Russia as a result of growing restrictions on media. The result is a media environment dominated by state-owned or state-controlled outlets parroting Kremlin talking points. If you’re watching Russian television, you don’t see the indiscriminate bombing of Kyiv or images of dead or fleeing Ukrainians.

You can see that there are people in Russia opposed to the war. Nearly 14,000 Russians have been arrested for protesting the conflict, and their bravery is remarkable—though we shouldn’t judge anyone who doesn’t go out into the street. They’re living in a very repressive society.

When I wake up in the morning, I’ll tune into Russia-24, a state-owned news channel. It’s obviously not the most pleasant way to start the day, but it gives me a sense of the Kremlin’s narrative. Before you and I spoke today, Russia-24 was pushing a story about NATO and Ukraine planning to take back the Donbas, showing images of official-looking documents detailing elaborate plans to attack Donetsk and Luhansk. There’s no evidence of any of it. It’s just a narrative.

Vyse: So, the basis of Russian-state messaging is that there have been these threats to Russia, some from NATO, some from Ukraine itself. How has the government presented these threats, exactly?

Smeltzer: It portrays NATO as essentially an anti-Russian organization. If you listen to what the Russian government, and Russian state-controlled media, have said about the expansion of NATO over the last two or three decades, they’ve presented it as an encroachment on Russia’s sphere of influence. Ukraine hasn’t joined NATO, of course, but it’s become more militarily integrated with the West since 2014, as a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Russian-backed separatist conflict in the Donbas. Russia perceives this as an existential military threat, even though NATO is a defensive alliance.

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