‘Parallel universe’: How Russians are seeing the war in Ukraine – Grid News

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‘Parallel universe’: How Russians are seeing the war in Ukraine

In the first three days of April, the news from Ukraine included the following: an effort by the International Red Cross to evacuate civilians from Mariupol, the city in southern Ukraine that has been under siege for several weeks and where thousands of civilians are believed to have perished. The main thrust of the Mariupol story during that period — as reported via media as diverse as the BBC, the Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera and many more — was that the efforts to evacuate the population and establish a “humanitarian corridor” had failed.

Another major story involved Russia’s refocus of its military efforts to the eastern theater. Russia had announced plans to withdraw forces from areas around the capital, Kyiv, and redeploy these to the south and east; in the first days of April, those redeployments were underway. Global news coverage often included the analysis that the Russian effort to take the capital, or even to seize control of the surrounding areas, had been unsuccessful.

Also in the news in this three-day period were the high estimates of Russian casualties — between 7,000 and 15,000 killed in just five weeks of war — and perhaps equally surprising, seven Russian generals killed in that time frame. There was broad pickup of a story published in the New York Times that said Russian President Vladimir Putin was receiving poor or inaccurate information about the state of the war.

But the news that dominated global coverage was the discovery, as Ukrainian forces regained control of several towns and small cities near Kyiv, of the bodies of civilians, many bearing signs of execution. News of these events was accompanied by condemnation from Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and officials in Europe and in the United States. There were calls for investigations of alleged war crimes.

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These were the primary news stories from Ukraine, as reported by much of the global media, during those first three days of April.

The news in Russia

Grid has reported before on the parallel universe of Russian news coverage of the war, which began with a refusal to call it by that name. “War” and “invasion” may not be used in Russia to describe what is happening in Ukraine; it’s a rule that would seem farcical were it not so serious. During a Council on Foreign Relations program this week, Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center — the lone polling outfit that retains a measure of respect outside Russia — answered a question using the phrase “military operation.” He then paused for an aside: “I’m sorry, you must understand, I am still in Moscow, so I use this language.” Volkov could be excused for choosing his words carefully; had he said “war” or “invasion,” he would have been in violation of new national security laws, a transgression punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Independent media has been shut down in Russia. Hundreds of Russian journalists have left the country since the war began. This week, Grid joined forces with a Russian journalist, who left many years ago, to examine how the above stories were covered — or ignored — over those same three days.

Ksenia Kirillova reviewed dozens of sources of Russian news coverage: the main TV broadcasts, online news services, channels on the Telegram app and more. Her analysis offered a vivid picture of that “parallel universe”; it also helped in understanding why Russian attitudes remain largely supportive of Putin and his “special military operation.”

The news from Mariupol — Russian-style

The situation in Mariupol dominated Russian coverage from Ukraine, much as it did in the U.S. and other parts of the world. In some sense, the stories looked similar. On Russia’s main TV channels, there was no shortage of images of the destruction: bombed-out houses, graves in the yards of residential buildings and other scenes that would have been familiar to a viewer in Warsaw, London or Washington.

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It was the language and narratives that were different.

The destruction in Mariupol was attributed to “Ukrainian nationalists” and interspersed with interviews with residents who carried “DPR” flags — banners of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, the area of eastern Ukraine that Russia claims for its own, with the support of local separatists. Interviewees claimed that they were “waiting for liberators”; a woman was seen crying tears of joy and telling Chechen militants fighting on the Russian side, “I’ve been waiting for you for eight years! Protect me from this idiot, clown” (a reference to Zelenskyy).

Several stories from Mariupol were devoted to Russian weaponry and evidence of the power of the Russian army, as well as the methods Russia uses to destroy its enemies. It might seem — from a logical standpoint — that showing the destruction of residential buildings and then boasting about the military equipment capable of such carnage would be counterproductive in terms of building sympathy for the Russian point of view. However, given that most Russians still favor Putin and his “military operation,” the logic holds. By and large, Russians — for the moment at least — perceive their army as a defender and liberator, so it stands to reason that they would welcome stories about its strength.

Western media coverage from earlier in the war included extensive reporting on the Russian bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol. In the three days when Grid monitored Russian media, Channel One and other Russian TV broadcasts aired the story of a woman who gave birth at another hospital in the city. Her name was given as Marianna Vyshemirskaya, and in the Russian TV report, she said nothing about the Russian airstrike. Instead, she said she had heard rumors that members of Ukraine’s Azov regiment were occupying the other hospital. The Azov regiment is notorious for its right-wing and even neo-Nazi bent, and as such has been mentioned often in the Russian mantra about the need to “denazify” Ukraine. The clear implication of the interview, and the story, was that Russia had to bomb the hospital to clear it of Ukrainian forces.

“Journalists” celebrated by Putin

It is worth noting who some of these “journalists” are; they are better understood as propagandists.

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First, they work in the official Russian media, and true journalists cannot work in that field anymore. No reports by independent journalists are possible in the pro-Kremlin media. To take the examples of two men who were seen “reporting” over these few days: Semyon Pegov works for RT; Alexander Kots works for Komsomolskaya Pravda. Kots has been called one of the Kremlin’s top propagandists and in 2014 received a “medal of the Order of Merit for the Fatherland” from Putin, bestowed for “objectivity in reporting on events in Crimea.” Other Russian TV channels publish their stories as well.

These “war correspondents” do not hide which side they are on. Vesti correspondent Alexander Sladkov holds the army rank of senior lieutenant. Pegov calls himself a “separatist” (meaning he supports the Russian separatists in Donbas). And this was Kots, “reporting” the retreat of Russian troops from near Kyiv: “I am a reporter of a warring country. And all this month and a half I was with my army. And I’m proud that I had the honor to cover the heroic battles, first near Mariupol, then near Kyiv. I was in Gostomel and shook the hands of real Russian heroes.”

The Russian retreat

From the first days of the war, Russian airstrikes and ground advances suggested that Kyiv would be a prime target of the invasion. Certainly everything Putin said in his Feb. 21 and 24 speeches justifying the “operation” gave the impression that the Zelenskyy government would be a target. But as the days and weeks passed, it became increasingly clear that the Russian offensive had stalled outside the capital. Russian forces were present in several towns and small cities outside Kyiv but were unable to hold these, and unable or unwilling to mount an attack on Kyiv itself.

On March 29, top Defense Ministry officials in Moscow announced a strategic shift. They would focus their attention on the east — the Donbas region. There would be no need for an assault on the capital. There was no mention of any setbacks on the battlefield itself.

As the actual retreat from these areas began, Russian military correspondents appeared openly perplexed: As Kots mused, “I could not find answers to questions asked by subscribers. And which I ask myself.” Then Vladimir Solovyov, among Russia’s leading propagandists (he has landed on U.S. and European Union sanctions lists), offered an explanation: The Russian army could easily take Kyiv, he said, but it did not wish the city destroyed. In any case, he went on, Moscow’s strategic plans had never included the capture of Kyiv.


Virtually all the reporting on the retreat mirrored precisely the official Russian point of view: The focus of the operation had always been on liberating the Donbas region.

The newspaper Vzglyad weighed in, saying that “it is not advisable to capture Kyiv.” From the piece: “Huge columns of Russian troops were withdrawn from Kyiv through Belarus for several days. … Their scale is such that in hindsight one can say that occupying Kyiv was not a problem, but it would entail great destruction and loss of life.” The same explanations were repeated by many official Telegram channels.

There was one exception. Russian war correspondent Roman Saponkov wrote on his Telegram channel: “There is actually no offensive near Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy. We hoped we would take them with a light cavalry attack, as in 2014. But it did not work out.”

In terms of Russian news coverage, that last comment might count as heresy.

The atrocities in Bucha

On the day after the revelations from Bucha, it seemed that the Russian media propaganda and its spokespeople had been taken aback. The initial response suggested an effort to drown out the topic with more reports from Mariupol.

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Then, on Sunday, Russian media put forth a series of official statements about the story — specifically, what various outlets referred to as the “Ukrainian provocation in Bucha.” The Russian media narratives, repeated across several platforms, were all variations on this theme: The footage had been staged, the Russian army had never completely controlled the city, and its forces had left on March 30. After the Russian troops withdrew from Bucha, no bodies were found in the first three days.

Here was the account on Ren TV: “Either the shooting was staged, or the victims were discovered not after the departure of the Russian military, but after the return of the Ukrainian military to Bucha.”

From Sputnik Radio: “The mayor of Bucha announced the liberation of the city on March 31, but did not say a word about the victims and bodies on the streets.”

One of the most popular broadcasts in Russia is “Vladimir Solovyov’s Sunday Evening.” In this week’s edition, the killings in Bucha were a central theme. Solovyov called the video staged, a “provocation” carried out by Great Britain, and he compared it to what he called a similar fabrication: the 1995 war crimes committed by Bosnian Serbs in Srebrenica. Those crimes were of course well documented by journalists and international war crimes investigators.

Solovyov went further. He said that the aim of this “provocation” was “the complete destruction of Russia.” The only reasonable conclusion? “Stop flirting with the Nazis. Let the army work at all levels,Solovyov said. There can be no negotiations with the miscreant, only complete and unconditional surrender, denazification and demilitarization of this regime.”

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Again, Solovyov’s program is considered the country’s main political talk show. It is a primary main source of information for Russian TV viewers.

Nothing in the Russian coverage of the Bucha story suggested that anything untoward had been done by Russian forces. The only difference, from one media report to another, had to do with who had actually carried out the “fabrication”; some said the Ukrainians themselves had done it, others that the British were involved. Some Telegram channels blamed the U.S., and others blamed Germany. But all agreed: It was fake, a “provocation.” The Russians had done nothing wrong.

In other news

In those three days, there was also coverage of the influx of outside military assistance for Ukraine. The topic gets occasional attention in the Russian media, typically presented within the same narrative: The West is doing everything it can to keep the war going, “to fight the Russians to the last Ukrainian, pumping huge amounts of money and weapons into Ukraine.”

The story that Putin had been poorly informed about the war received minimal coverage, and when it did, it channeled presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov: “The State Department and the Pentagon do not understand what is happening in the Kremlin, they do not understand the decision-making process.”

Finally, there was this item from Sunday, on the main Russian official news site RIA Novosti, under the heading “What Russia should do with Ukraine.” There needed to be Russian control over the “re-education” of the entire population of Ukraine, the report said: “The name ‘Ukraine’ cannot be retained as the title of any completely denazified state entity in the territory liberated from the Nazi regime. The people’s republics newly created in the space free from Nazism must and will grow. … In fact, their political aspirations cannot be neutral — expiation of guilt before Russia for treating it as an enemy can be realized only by relying on Russia in the processes of restoration, revival and development.”

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It is, again, a parallel universe.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Tom Nagorski
    Tom Nagorski

    Global Editor

    Tom Nagorski is the global editor at Grid, where he oversees our coverage of global security, U.S.-China relations, migration trends, global economics and U.S. foreign policy.

  • Ksenia Kirillova
    Ksenia Kirillova

    Ksenia Kirillova is an investigative journalist and analyst focused on Russian society, propaganda and foreign policy.