Russia state TV paints Moscow as savior of eastern Ukraine

Dasha Litvinova
Associated Press

Moscow — As the West sounded the alarm about the Kremlin ordering troops into eastern Ukraine and decried it as an invasion, Russian state media painted a completely different picture — of Moscow coming to the rescue of war-torn areas tormented by Ukraine’s aggression and bringing them peace.

The fanfare came hours after Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s recognition of the separatist areas in eastern Ukraine as independent states and ordered its troops to “maintain peace” in territory where Russia-backed rebels have been fighting Kyiv’s forces since 2014 — a conflict that has killed over 14,000 people.

TV presenters hailed the “historic” day and professed the end of suffering for the residents of the breakaway regions.

People wave Russian national flags celebrating the recognizing the independence in the center of Donetsk, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, eastern Ukraine, late Monday, Feb. 21, 2022.

More: The latest on the Russia-Ukraine crisis

“You paid with your blood for these eight years of torment and anticipation,” anchor Olga Skabeyeva told residents of the areas known as Donbas during a popular political talk show Tuesday morning on Russia 1 state TV. “Russia will now be defending Donbas.”

TV pundit Vladimir Solovyev echoed those sentiments on his morning show on state Vesti.FM radio. “We will ensure their safety,” he declared. “It is now dangerous to fight with them … because one will now have to fight with the Russian army.”

Channel One, another popular state-funded TV station, struck a more festive tone, with its correspondent in Donetsk asserting that local residents “say it is the best news over the past years of war.”

“Now they have confidence in the future and that the years-long war will finally come to an end,” she said.

Whether ordinary Russians are buying it is another question.

After his announcement Monday evening, Putin said he was “positive about the people’s support.”

But critics denounced the moves as harmful for both Ukraine and Russia.

Imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in a message from behind bars posted on social media, said Putin “won’t let Ukraine develop, drag it into a swamp, but Russia will also pay the same price.”

A Facebook campaign with the hashtag “I’m not staying silent," launched by independent Russian news site Holod urged people “to express their opinion about the war aloud — and also to remember that each of us has something connecting us to Ukraine.” It brought dozens of posts sharing memories about Ukraine and condemning the Kremlin’s moves.

Still, many have voiced their wholehearted support for Putin's decision.

“It should have been done a long time ago,” said Irina Nareyko, a Moscow resident. "These poor people who identify as Russian, who mainly identify as Orthodox, who cannot wait anymore and live expecting to be killed … we should have accepted them a long time ago.”

Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, Russia’s top independent pollster, said that according to its poll data, more than half of Russians were ready to support Putin's moves.

“The situation, as it is understood by the majority, is that the West is pressuring Ukraine" to make a move against the rebel-held areas, “and Russia needs to somehow help,” Volkov told the AP. “This notion of helping in an extraordinary situation translates into support” for recognition of the separatist regions.

The narrative of Ukraine having aggressive designs on Donbas has been actively promoted by the Russian authorities — along with accusations that the West is pumping Ukraine full of weapons and warmongering.

The Kremlin has denied plans to invade Ukraine, something the West fears due to a massive buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders. Russian officials point fingers at Kyiv instead, saying it has massed its own troops and could try to retake the rebel-held areas by force, which the Ukraine government denies.

The official rhetoric heated up last week, when Putin charged that “what is now happening in Donbas is genocide.” Popular newscasts and political talk shows on state TV channels started widely using the term.

Prominent news anchor Dmitry Kiselev likened what was happening in Donbas to World War II atrocities committed by Nazi Germany and dressed down German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for challenging Putin’s use of the word “genocide.”

“It is, simply, solidarity with the genocide of today,” he charged on Russia 1′s flagship news show .

Over the weekend, separatist officials added a sense of urgency to the picture, announcing mass evacuations of Donetsk and Luhansk residents into Russia and mobilizing troops in the face of a purportedly imminent attack by Ukrainian forces.

News bulletins showed emotional visuals of women and children lining up to board buses, followed by segments alleging massive shelling of the areas by Ukrainian forces. Some of those segments stressed that Kyiv's military was deliberately targeting civilians.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech at a Munich security conference Saturday, during which he threatened to pull out of an agreement to abandon the nuclear weapons left in Ukraine after the Soviet collapse in exchange for security guarantees, fueled the fire even further.

Russian state TV channels aired multiple segments about Kyiv’s capability to develop its own nuclear weapons, and news show hosts warned the threat shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Finally, to drive home the point about Ukraine’s alleged aggressions, Russian officials on Monday accused Ukrainian forces of an attempted incursion into Russia— an allegation Ukraine dismissed as false “disinformation.”

“The invasion has begun,” Russia 1 TV host Yevgeny Popov proclaimed. “But it wasn’t Putin who invaded Ukraine — instead, Ukraine went to war with Russia and Donbas.”

Several hours later, Putin announced recognition of the self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine.

Political analyst Abbas Gallyamov says that while the majority of Russians will support the decision, the impact of such propaganda on the domestic audience is limited, compared to 2014, when the Kremlin managed to rally Russians around the idea of annexing Crimea.

The only popular show of support for the moves on eastern Ukraine took place in St. Petersburg on Wednesday — the day Russia celebrates Defender of the Fatherland Day, a holiday that commemorates the country’s veterans.

Russian media reported several hundred pro-Kremlin activists gathered in the city center with Russian flags and banners saying: “We don't abandon our own.” According to reports, some of the demonstrators didn't know what the rally was about and said they were promised a hot meal after it.

At the same time, rights groups in Moscow reported six protesters detained over holding pickets against a war with Ukraine.

State TV channels showed a top official from the Kremlin’s United Russia party laying flowers at a memorial for the “defenders of Donbas” in Donetsk, along with the area's separatist leader.

Putin will score some political points at home, but not too many, Gallyamov believes.

“People remember what (the annexation of Crimea) led to. People understand that there will be sanctions now, the economy will decline even further, and living conditions will continue to worsen.”

“They remember that there was a hangover after the party.”

Moscow resident Sergei, who only gave his first name, appeared to be one of those skeptics. “It’s terrible, it’s very bad,” he said.

“As usual, nobody asked anybody about anything,” he said. “The economic repercussions are economic repercussions for us, not the ruling elite.”

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Vladimir Kondrashov and Anatoly Kozlov in Moscow contributed to this report.