How many seconds does it take for a ballistic missile to reach London, Paris or Berlin?
That’s the question pundits on Russian state TV were pondering as the war in Ukraine entered its third month.
The eerie estimates were accompanied by a graphic showing the trajectories that Moscow’s intercontinental ballistic missiles would take to reach the capitals of European nations that supply Kyiv with the most military aid.
All the while, pro-Kremlin host Olga Skabeyeva and the experts on her “60 Minutes” show on the Russia-1 TV channel were nonchalantly joking about how the West should tune in.
Just months ago, the graphic, the rhetoric and the seeming casualness of such conversations would have been shocking, even by the standards of Russian propaganda.
But with Russia’s military struggling, its rivals emboldened and the neighbor it invaded responding with defiance, we watched dozens of hours of state media coverage to find the Kremlin and its mouthpieces increasingly reaching for new and more outlandish claims to justify the Ukraine invasion.
“The Kremlin has relatively few instruments to try and influence the West, and therefore it’s resorting to all this spine-chilling rhetoric as a means of attempted intimidation,” said Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank based in London. That leaves “the dark power of looking crazy and dangerous” as one of the very few tools at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s disposal, he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s false suggestion that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had “Jewish blood” like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and that some of the “biggest antisemites were, as a rule, Jewish” drew widepsread condemnation and ridicule. Russian state media has also peddled narratives about “black magic” supposedly practiced by Ukrainian troops and hinted at baseless allegations of drug use by Zelenskyy.
The country’s tightly-controlled media space means that Russian audiences have been seeing a strikingly different version of events in Ukraine on their TV screens than people in the West — one that bears little resemblance to evidence of what’s happening on the ground.
Newscasts and daily political shows have spent countless hours of airtime telling their viewers that the war in Ukraine is not, in fact, a war, but instead a “special military operation” designed to spare civilians. The Russian forces are portrayed as liberators, fighting against what the propaganda calls the “neo-Nazis” who are said to overrun Ukraine under the influence of the United States and it allies and are allegedly committing “genocide” against Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
The atrocities documented in Bucha and other Ukrainian towns are staged by Kyiv, Russia claims. Moscow says it went into Ukraine as a pre-emptive strike against NATO, as Ukraine was seeking nuclear weapons. The public is told that tough sanctions are simply further proof of the West’s pathological hate for Russia that drove the conflict in the first place.
Above all, the state media would have Russians believe that the military operation in Ukraine is going to plan and that Russian forces are winning.
A recent poll by Russia’s Levada Center, which is not a state-run group, found that public support for “the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine” remains high at 74 percent, although experts have raised doubts about whether such polls can be accurate.
But a lot of that support is for the war as it’s being portrayed on state television, rather than support for what’s actually going on in Ukraine, Galeotti said.
“It’s support for a limited operation, conducted surgically to avoid civilian casualties in order to prevent a neo-Nazi regime from getting nukes and committing genocide,” he said. “If that’s what you’re presented with, well, I’m not surprised that a lot of people will say — yes, that sounds like a perfectly appropriate war. It’s more about what happens once reality starts to confront them as more people start coming back from the battlefield.”
Moscow’s war has been beset by uneven offensives and heavy personnel losses as Kyiv’s allies ramp up military aid. That has seen the rhetoric on Russian state TV ramp up further to a point where talking about missile strikes on European capitals and the possibility of nuclear war are simply par for the course, said Stephen Hutchings, professor of Russian studies at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.
“There is an unprecedented and seemingly almost concerted effort to bandy around and play fast and loose with this rhetoric of World War III and nuclear strikes,” he said. It’s a reflection of a war that’s not going according to plan, and in which people are becoming frustrated and angry, he added.
One of the most egregious examples, he said, came from pro-Kremlin journalist Dmitry Kiselyov, who used an episode of a weekly current affairs show in early May to illustrate how Moscow could swiftly turn Britain into a “nuclear wasteland” if it was moved to do so.
The U.K. could be attacked with Russia’s unstoppable Poseidon underwater drone, he said, generating a giant tsunami that would annihilate the nation.
“A lot of this rhetoric is essentially to ram home this notion that this is not actually just a war in Ukraine, but rather a proxy war with the West,” Galeotti said. “They’re trying to amp up the sense of the scale of this confrontation just in case the decision is made about converting it from a special military operation into a full-scale war. If you want to avoid making that sound like a defeat, then you have to say it’s because this is no longer just about Ukraine, but rather about Russia against the whole West.”
The Ukrainian government has blamed Russian state media for fueling the war, with Zelenskyy threatening retaliation against Moscow’s most prolific propagandists.
Russia’s jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny has also called out his country’s state media for being “warmongers.”
It all comes against the backdrop of a country with nearly no remaining independent media. Russia passed a law criminalizing any criticism of its armed forces early in the invasion, and the few remaining independent journalists have either left the country or have stopped working altogether.
The internet, of course, is still there for those seeking out international war coverage — although several foreign news sites have been blocked — but for an average Russian consumer, state TV remains the main source of news about Ukraine.
Feeding audiences an intensifying stream of propaganda, including the potential for nuclear war, may only achieve so much for the Kremlin, however, experts said.
“It’s all very well threatening these kinds of things,” Galeotti said. “At what point do people start thinking — this is getting really scary?”