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Russia's TV war against Ukraine

Roman Goncharenko
February 16, 2022

If Russia attacked Ukraine, many Russians would not be surprised. For years, their state-run media have been paving the way, branding Ukrainians as "Nazis" and portraying the country as an enemy nation.

An employee walks past TV screens in a shop in Moscow, during the broadcast of President Vladimir Putin's televised question and answer session with the nation
TV screens in a shop in MoscowImage: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Are Russia's citizens in favor of a war against Ukraine? It's a question that is on everyone's mind since the massing of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border began, and one that's noticeably touchy for Denis Volkov, who thinks about it briefly before providing an answer.

"That's not what we asked," Volkov, a pollster at the renowned Levada-Center in Moscow, tells DW. "That is a marginal attitude. It is possible that someone holds that view, but those that really want it and call for it are few and far between." 

Survey: 40% believe war is possible

Vladimir Zhirinovsky during a meeting with students in Rostov-on-Don (2018)
Right-wing populist Vladimir ZhirinovskyImage: Reuters/S. Pivovarov

In the Russian media, however, the issue is no taboo, on the contrary. Notorious right-wing populist and MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who frequently appears on political talk shows, has been publicly mulling about attacking Ukraine for years. Most recently, he advocated the use of "military force" in a newspaper interview at the end of last year, should Ukraine fail to comply with Russian demands such as dropping accession to NATO.

Appearing on state-run TV channel Russia-1 a number of years ago, Zhirinovsky ranted about dropping a nuclear bomb on the residence of the then Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, in Kyiv. Such saber-rattling mind games can be found on social media, too. For instance, a Russian journalist recently wrote on Twitter: "It's time to free Ukraine once time." 

It's unclear how widespread such sentiments are among the Russian public. Of the roughly 7.5% of the electorate who voted for Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) during parliamentary elections in September 2021, not all would welcome a war against Ukraine.

A headshot of pollster Denis Volkov, speaking into a mic
Pollster Denis VolkovImage: privat

Pollster Volkov is aware of other figures which give him food for thought. 36% of surveyed Russians believe it's "quite probable" that the current tensions could culminate in a war between Russia and Ukraine. Another 4% believe that such a war is even "inevitable," according to a poll conducted by the Levada-Center at the end of 2021.

"That's more than it used to be, the number has increased," Volkov says. "Most people don't want war, they are afraid of it, but there is a feeling it might be around the corner," he adds. Those surveyed held the West responsibe. If a war broke out between Russia and Ukraine, one in two Russians would put the blame on the US and NATO countries. 16% would blame Ukraine; only 4%, however, would hold Russia responsible.

A recurring theme in Russian media

Those views are consistent with the picture that has been painted for years in the Russian media and, most importantly, on state-run TV. "The issue (Ukraine and the possibility of war) reaches the public via television, which is the most important source of information for two thirds of the Russian people," Volkov says.

An Orange Revolution demonstration taking place in Kyiv (October 2004)
Moscow took a dim view of the Orange Revolution in KyivImage: Sergey Dolzhenko/picture-alliance/dpa

On Russian TV, Ukraine has been a recurring theme for years. Full-scale reporting began after the victory of the Orange Revolution in 2004, which was perceived by the Kremlin as a coup instigated by the West. Until then, Ukraine and Ukrainians had been viewed as a "strategic partner" and "sister nation." Russia's war against Georgia in 2008, during which Ukraine had supported Tbilisi, represented another turning point.

Shortly afterwards, the idea of a war in Ukraine entered the imagination of Russian, and also Ukrainian, media outlets. A number of non-fiction books predicting the "downfall of the Ukraine project" were published. At the time, they were considered the work of cranks.

Protecting 'Russians' in Eastern Ukraine

In the run-up to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine dominated all media channels in Russia. As in 2004, opposition protests were portrayed as a coup. The focus was increasingly on reports dealing with an alleged danger for Russian-speaking Ukrainians. That "danger" was grossly exaggerated, there were neither attacks nor serious threats. For President Vladimir Putin, however, it was a reason to carry out the annexation. His aim was to protect Russians, the Kremlin leader said afterwards.

Since then, reporting on Ukraine has been one of the key topics, second only to Russian domestic politics. Many observers in Russia, but also abroad racked their brains about the reasons behind this development. In hindsight, it seems like an attempt at keeping public opinion on stand-by mode, should a conflict break out.

Soldiers of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), fighting near Debaltseve, Donetsk region
Fighting in Eastern Ukraine in 2015Image: Imago/Itar-Tass/N. Muravyev

An important part of  many talk shows in Russia are Ukrainian "experts," who get berated and labelled as "idiots." The core narrative has been the same for years: Ukraine was a weak, failed state in which Ukrainian "Nazis" set the agenda; it was a puppet of the West and an enemy of Russia. The result is Ukraine fatigue, as observed by pollsters like Denis Volkov. But there's more: on the list of countries deemed hostile vis-a-vis Russia, Ukraine is in second place, after the US and before the UK.

During the current crisis, it's clear that Russian media networks have once again been calling for the protection of "Russians" in Ukraine. It's a reference to Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the south and east of the country and, particularly, to residents of the separatist republics Donetsk and Luhansk. Hundreds of thousands of them have received Russian citizenship since 2019. At the end of December, President Putin mentioned for the first time signs of a "genocide" in eastern Ukraine. The separatists have already announced that they might call on Russia for military support  —  a development that would find fertile ground in the Russian media.

This article has been translated from German