On New Year’s Eve, all the main Russian TV channels were broadcasting President Vladimir Putin’s New Year’s address to the nation. He stood against a backdrop of uniformed soldiers and officers, all said to be veterans of the war in Ukraine; according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the speech had been recorded earlier in the day, during Putin’s visit to the Southern Military District. Putin spoke for nine minutes, hammering the West, congratulating Russian forces for their bravery and battlefield successes, and finishing with a resounding “Happy New Year!” It was just before midnight.
As millions of Russians heard those words, four Ukrainian missiles struck the heavily populated Russian military base in the city of Makiivka, in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine that Russia has claimed for its own. Russia’s Defense Ministry said 89 Russian soldiers were killed; Ukrainian officials claimed the toll was between 300 and 400 dead. Even by the lower count, it was by far the most devastating strike against Russian forces since the war began.
Russian TV viewers would have had no idea what had happened. After Putin’s New Year’s wishes, the first hours of 2023 featured holiday programming. It would be nearly 48 hours before Russian TV broadcast stories about the strike — and even then, the attack rated only brief mentions.
Away from mainstream Russian media, the disaster was plain to see. The telegram channel of SVTV-news, a Russian opposition platform banned by the Kremlin, shared a video from Makiivka that showed the moment of impact of the first missile strike. People are seen sitting at a festive table, listening to Putin’s speech on a smartphone, when a strong explosion is heard outside the window, and a guest screams.
Other Telegram channels demanded answers for why so many troops had been housed in one place — in a vocational school; why so much ammunition was kept so close to them (a fact that may have accounted for the high death toll); and why — as many reported — soldiers had been allowed to use their cellphones, which may have helped the Ukrainians effectively target the base. Some members of the Russian parliament demanded an investigation into the commanders responsible for the debacle.
But there were no public critiques of Putin. And on Russian TV, the holiday programs played on.
A Russian New Year’s tradition
Celebrating the New Year at a richly laid table and listening to the leader’s Jan. 1 message are longstanding Russian (and Soviet) traditions, rooted in the early years of radio broadcasting in the USSR. Back then, it was less about hearing the head of state’s summary of the year and more about being sure you didn’t miss the moment — Moscow time — that the New Year arrived. These speeches were always planned so that immediately after the president’s last words, the countdown to the new year would begin, with 12 chimes of Kuranty, the “main clock of the country.” In my family, we never actually listened to the speeches but turned on the TV so that we would hear those solemn chimes, glasses of Champagne in hand, mentally seeing off the old year and making a wish for the new one.
This year, for the 23rd time, Russians who tuned in celebrated the New Year in the company of Putin. And this time, his New Year’s greetings had a wartime feel. For the most part, he repeated well-trodden Kremlin propaganda: Russia is “fighting for its own independence” in Ukraine; the West, which has “lied about peace but is preparing for aggression … cynically uses Ukraine to split Russia”; “all soldiers of the special operation are heroes for Russians”; and “Russia’s struggle for its future serves as an inspiring example for other states.”
Immediately after the Kremlin chimes struck midnight, Russia’s main state channel Rossiya-1 began broadcasting the annual holiday show “Goluboi Ogonyok (Blue Light),” featuring stars from the Russian pop scene. This year, the ranks of pop stars had shrunk: Russia’s most popular performers, “Blue Light” regulars Alla Pugacheva, Maxim Galkin, Ivan Urgant and many others, opposed the invasion of Ukraine and left the country.
Those who stayed and agreed to participate in the show used their New Year’s toasts to support the war. “Today, my New Year’s toast will be somewhat unusual, " said 77-year-old comedian Yevgeny Petrosyan, a glass of Champagne in his hand. “In the outgoing year, the West tried to destroy Russia,” he went on, but “like it or not, Russia is expanding.” There was laughter and applause from the studio audience.
The “Blue Light” celebration was prerecorded as well — so the various stars couldn’t have known that when the time came for the country to watch their songs and toasts, explosions would be rattling Donetsk, and dozens of Russian soldiers would be dying.
Mainstream media silence — and social media fury
The news of the attack wasn’t reported on state television until a day-and-a-half later, on Monday evening. Rossiya-1 waited until the eighth minute of its broadcast to mention the disaster, beginning instead with reports of Russian battlefield successes. The main evening information program “Vremya” limited its coverage to a 30-second fragment of a briefing given by Ministry of Defense spokesman Igor Konashenkov, who reported on the “strike by the Kyiv regime” and promised help for families of the victims.
Konashenkov’s full briefing, which lasted four-and-a-half minutes, was a study in spin. In the aftermath of a Russian military disaster, he spoke about the “successful operations” of the Russian armed forces. He cheered “a strike by high-precision weapons of the Russian Aerospace Forces” that he said had killed “more than 70 mercenaries” in the Donetsk region, and artillery attacks on the Kharkiv region that he claimed had killed “up to 30 Ukrainian military personnel.” Konashenkov left half a minute at the end to acknowledge that four missiles had taken the lives of 63 Russian servicemen in Makiivka.
Telegram channels reacted more promptly — and bluntly — and they took up the question that many in Russia have been asking: How could it have happened?
The Russian propagandist Andrei Medvedev published a post on his Telegram channel on Sunday evening, demanding answers from the Ministry of Defense.
“Each state of emergency has a name, surname and position,” Medvedev wrote, suggesting that those responsible had to be held accountable. “In the 10th month of the war, it is dangerous and criminal to consider the enemy a fool who sees nothing. Placing personnel anywhere, in buildings, instead of shelters, is direct assistance to the enemy. Our president has repeatedly said that saving people is the highest priority. … Why was the enemy given the opportunity to hurt us? Why was the decision made about this deployment of personnel? By whom was it taken?”
This blistering criticism was reposted by the powerful head of RT, Margarita Simonyan, and other leading Kremlin propagandists. Alexander Kots, a military correspondent for the popular pro-Putin newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, asked why Russian troops had been so poorly protected.
“Are there really not enough underground facilities in the mining region to accommodate personnel?” he asked. “Why do we continue to accommodate soldiers in hotels, hostels, vocational schools?”
Rather than answer these questions, pro-Kremlin media chose to remind its audience of what it called Russian army successes. The Tsargrad propaganda website blamed “spies,” the West and soldiers who had allegedly used their cellphones for the Makiivka deaths — and then published a long comment under the heading “War is evolving” about how impressive the Russian army has been when it comes to hitting specific targets in Ukraine. The Tsargrad piece ended with an appeal from the parliamentary deputy Alexander Borodai.
“We must defeat the enemy, destroy them completely, and it is better to do this as soon as possible — before they have time to saturate them with new Western weapons,” Borodai said. “Thank God we don’t see foreign-made enemy aircraft like F-15s or F-18s yet. And we still don’t see foreign-made enemy tanks either. And the Patriot system has not yet been delivered to them. We just need to win.”
Why the propagandists may cut short their vacations
As someone who knows first-hand how the Russian mass media operate, I can say that there are at least two reasons why the Makiivka disaster isn’t getting much play on Russian television.
For one thing, it’s a nightmare for the Russian side, and thus a very difficult story to spin into anything remotely positive. It may be that the Kremlin and its chief propagandists are sorting through the best possible narratives and official responses.
The other reason has to do with the New Year holidays in Russia, which last from Dec. 31 to Jan. 13. During these two weeks, most political shows take a break, and the superstars of Russian propaganda do as well; Vladimir Solovyov, Olga Skabeeva and other top propagandists are now on vacation. What’s left is a steady diet of holiday and other entertainment programming, and occasional newscasts prepared by skeleton teams and lesser-known commentators.
My guess is that the top TV messengers will be getting a call from the Kremlin soon — if they haven’t already — and told to cut short their vacations and get back to their television studios. I suspect Solovyov in particular will be on the air in the coming days — by this weekend at the latest. This Saturday and Sunday will mark another holiday: Orthodox Christmas. It’s hard to imagine — in the wake of one of the most serious failures of the Russian army since the war began — that the silence from Solovyov and others will continue.
Putin has claimed from the beginning that Russia’s “people and the army are united” and that the country is ready for any sacrifices for the sake of victory. In reality, this is not so.
For most Russians, even for TV propagandists, the war in Ukraine hasn’t really become their war, some great cause worth the sacrifice. Many Russians continue to treat New Year’s hangovers and celebrate the holidays. Perhaps the best evidence for this is what Russians have seen and heard — or rather, not seen and not heard — in these first days of 2023.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.