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.

This article is for members only

Join to read on and have access to The Signal‘s full library.

Join now Already have an account? Sign in