Piece by piece, Russia’s justification for invading Ukraine is being put together
MOSCOW — Slumped in a chair, red tie askew, his jerky speech emphasizing every grievance, President Vladimir V. Putin on Monday delivered a speech that sounded like a call for war.
It was also the culmination of a barrage of propaganda orchestrated by Russian state media in recent days – a brutal demonstration of how the Kremlin can use its dominance of the airwaves to lay the groundwork for a political decision that could cause widespread pain.
By Tuesday afternoon, the Russian stock market had fallen again, leaving it down around 20% in less than a week, as companies braced for further damaging Western sanctions. And the potential, far more tragic, costs of Mr. Putin invading Ukraine still seemed incalculable.
But for the millions of Russians watching television, the story of the past few days has been completely different: booms and flashes of artillery fire. Blurred images of human remains. Women and children, crying and fleeing. A separatist appeal to the president. An emergency meeting of Mr. Putin’s Security Council. A dramatic address to the nation.
And what happens next is a mystery.
For months, as Washington warned of an impending Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s mighty propaganda machine dismissed and parodied talk of war.
Then, last weekend, everything changed. From the occupied territory of Ukraine to the halls of the Kremlin, the justification for a possible invasion has been put together, piece by piece, and presented to Russian audiences in a relentless push on state television.
On Tuesday morning, the breakfast news on the public broadcaster Channel 1 announced a “historic moment”.
‘Eight years of fear are over,’ announcer says, referring to residents of separatist-occupied eastern Ukraine who the Kremlin says are being subjected to ‘genocide’ by Ukrainian forces .
It was too early to tell how Russians would react to Mr Putin’s moves, but there was none of the widespread jubilation that accompanied his annexation of Crimea in 2014. On Tuesday, as Russian state media claimed that Ukraine was firing on the Russian-backed country. separatist regions whose independence Mr. Putin recognized on Monday, we still did not know how far the Kremlin would go in the escalation of the conflict.
“Hundreds and soon tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Russian citizens could die because of Putin,” Aleksei A. Navalny, the jailed opposition leader, said on social media. “Of course he won’t let Ukraine develop and drag it into a swamp, but Russia will pay the same price.”
On Tuesday, lawmakers in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, hinted that the Kremlin’s campaign against the pro-Western government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would not end with Mr Putin recognizing the separatist territories from the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine.
A nationalist MP, Andrei Lugovoi, said he hoped the recognition marked “the beginning of the return of all of Ukraine to its historic fold”. Another, Sergei Mironov, called Mr Zelensky a “coward, liar and scoundrel”.
The angry and righteous tone was a continuation of the weekend’s flurry of reporting that aimed to paint a US-backed Ukraine as the aggressor – even as it insists it doesn’t have the intention to mount an offensive against the territories held by the separatists. State media seized on Western warnings of a possible Russian invasion to portray the United States and its allies as warmongers.
On Russian state television’s flagship weekly news program, host Dmitry Kiselyov on Sunday unveiled the international leaders he believes could benefit from the war: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. .
“Everything is very serious,” Mr. Kiselyov warned. “Ukraine is literally being dragged into war with Russia.”
Later Sunday evening, in a weekly program called “Moscow. Kremlin. Putin”, the president’s spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, reinforced the idea that even if war is imminent, it would not be the choice of Russia.
“Let me remind you that Russia throughout its history has never attacked anyone,” Mr Peskov said.
On Monday, Russian media aired separatist allegations of an escalating assault by Ukrainian forces and aired a series of unsubstantiated claims – that Ukraine was bombing communications, bridges, a water filtration plant and other infrastructure targets. Russian state television reported from the separatist city of Donetsk that Ukraine had sent saboteurs behind separatist lines.
On a YouTube channel run by another state TV host, Vladimir Solovyov, a journalist on the ground in the separatist territory described the death of a local resident following Ukrainian shelling.
“He was torn to pieces,” he said. “There is a genocide going on, people are being killed.”
Ukrainian officials insisted their army was not planning an assault on Donetsk and said the separatists were shelling their own territory.
Oleksiy Danilov, a senior Ukrainian security official, warned on Monday that Russia was waging a furious war of disinformation.
“A great and powerful information provocation is being waged against our state,” Danilov said. “But you have to rely only on official information.”
But all Ukrainian protests were ignored in Russia. The Russian military said it destroyed two Ukrainian Armed Forces infantry fighting vehicles that had crossed into Russian territory in an attempt to evacuate Ukrainian saboteurs. As a result, according to the Russian military, five people were killed on the Ukrainian side – the first time during the crisis that the Russian military claimed involvement in a direct and deadly confrontation with Ukrainian forces. Ukraine has denied that such an incursion ever took place.
Images of women and children fleeing separatist territories touched the heart. On state television on Monday, a reporter described government psychologists stepping up to support traumatized refugees who had left husbands and fathers behind.
“I would like to say hello to my father,” said a young boy.
Soon state television showed a video of the leaders of the Russian-backed separatist territories directly appealing to Mr Putin to recognize their independence, leading to a special meeting of the Kremlin Security Council more late in the day.
The extraordinary televised spectacle seemed designed to legitimize Mr Putin’s fateful decision, portraying his decision-making as deliberative and determined – an apparent refutation of critics who viewed the president as more isolated than ever during the pandemic.
On Monday afternoon, Mr Putin gathered his top officials in the Kremlin’s cavernous Yekaterininsky Hall, presiding over the unscheduled televised meeting of his Security Council. Because of Covid, he sat at his own white table with gold trim, while officials sat in chairs, arranged in front of him.
“I want to stress that I didn’t discuss anything in advance with any of you,” Putin said midway through the meeting, building up the suspense like in a reality show. “What’s happening now is happening on a blank page because I wanted to hear your perspective without any prior preparation.”
Some officials appeared visibly nervous, while others made thinly veiled calls for a full-scale military offensive against Ukraine.
Mr Putin repeatedly interrupted his foreign intelligence chief, Sergei Naryshkin, when he appeared to be reluctant to recognize the independence of the Russian-backed breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine or not, prompting Mr. Naryshkin to stutter and then to say that he was in favour. annexation of territories.
“That’s not what we’re talking about,” Putin retorted.
Until recently, it seemed that many Russians had ignored talk of an impending war. Pollsters say that while the possibility of war is one of Russians’ biggest fears, no anti-war movement has emerged in recent weeks because many simply cannot imagine it – or see how they can influence decisions.
The Russians “feel they cannot influence the process at all,” said Aleksandra Arkhipova, a social anthropologist from Moscow, who found there had been relatively little talk of a possible war with Ukraine in line before the barrage of propaganda of the past few days. “So they try to avoid it.”
On Sunday, a handful of activists unfurled anti-war posters in Pushkin Square in central Moscow and were swiftly arrested. One of the protesters, Lev Ponomarev, a Soviet-era human rights activist, insisted that while at the moment many still could not imagine a war, most Russians would oppose it if it actually happened.
“There will be no support for this war,” Ponomarev said in an interview on Monday. “It will be the collapse of this regime.”