Russian TV audiences seem to be tired of the rhetoric being shouted at them daily about the war in Ukraine, according to viewership numbers for some of the country’s popular news programs.
Two spikes in viewership of Russian TV news shows have come during what it calls “the special military operation”—when the war started in February 2022 and after Vladimir Putin announced a mobilization in September.
However, in the summer of 2022, and over the last few months, audiences have waned, said Maxim Alyukov, a postdoctoral fellow at King’s Russia Institute in London who researches Kremlin propaganda.
“People are quite tired of propaganda, and Kremlin messaging on TV is less popular,” he told Newsweek.
Relatively little-known outside of Russia before Vladimir Putin‘s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Kremlin propagandists have achieved renown thanks to viral social media clips of their fierce fulminations.
Every evening on channel Russia 1, Vladimir Solovyov portrays the war as a “holy one” and Olga Skabeyeva, co-host of 60 Minutes with her husband Evgeny Popov, regularly speaks of the war in Ukraine as a civilizational conflict between Russia and the West.
On the other main state channels, NTV and Channel One, studio battle cries emanate from anchors and guests who stand like sentries behind a podium, in a format aimed at engaging the skeptical viewer which became popular after 2012 following anti-Kremlin protests.
But enthusiasm for the messaging is dwindling. In the week ending May 21, 60 Minutes was the 16th most popular news program in Russia, down from eighth in September, according to data from Mediascope, which measures audiences in the country. Last week, Solovyov’s evening show was 36th, and his Sunday program was 27th—down from 12th and 15th respectively in September.
“People can’t consume aggressive propaganda all the time. It naturally leads to fatigue,” said Alyukov.
The rhetoric from anchors, and their guests like RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, and retired general Andrey Gurulyov, are regularly shared by BBC Monitoring, Russia watcher and journalist Julia Davis, and Ukraine’s internal affairs adviser Anton Gerashchenko in tweets that provoke questions about how much it reflects Kremlin thinking.
“People make this conclusion that if they say these terrible things, that’s what they are told to do by the Kremlin. That’s not exactly true,” said Alyukov.
In fact, Russian media executives are regularly given a set of instructions from the Kremlin called “temniki” which outlined themes, angles and points of emphasis for the anchors and guests in upcoming shows. Often it pertains to the war, but it could also be about the economy or another political issue.
“They’re not very specific because you can’t really predict what will happen next week,” Alyukov said. “Often, they’re playing it by ear. When for instance something unexpected happens, such as an attack on the Crimean Bridge, commentators can’t really wait for instructions.
“People like Solovyov and Skabeyeva have to improvise. I would rather think of them as interpreters—they compete for attention, not only in terms of the public but also from the Kremlin. They want to demonstrate that they’re useful,” he said.
The attention-grabbing soundbites lasting seconds are made within the context of much air time. Solovyov’s TV show lasts for two and a half hours, while 60 Minutes is over two hours.
“I think of it like a salesman with a script,” said Jade McGlynn, the author of Russia’s War, which examines why Russians support the war on Ukraine and looks at the impact of Kremlin propaganda on the population.
“You have a product to sell, the war, you have a basic script, but obviously you can divert from it a bit, provided you don’t completely revolutionize it,” she told Newsweek. “It is entertainment, as weird as that sounds, and entertainment makes the propaganda go down easier.”
McGlynn said that there is a diversified approach to Kremlin messaging, with television channels typically appealing to Putin’s core support base. The Kremlin’s approach is not to convince everybody, because not everybody is completely signed up to its propaganda line, “You don’t need everybody to be a true believer,” she said.
“They do try out different lines, particularly on television to see responses and also because it adds to that sense of what I call a polyphony of agreement,” she said, referring to views that might seem at first conflicting, “but when you look at it closer, they often turn out to be views that are broadly the same, but maybe they just have a different frame.”
Away from the airwaves, many Russians are turning to social media. Military bloggers on Telegram have been giving unvarnished views of battlefield setbacks.
Former commander instrumental in the war in the Donbas region, Igor Girkin, as well as his nemesis, Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been very critical of the way Russia has fought the war.
“Lots of people in Russia are critical of the way the war is being waged because they feel like it’s not achieving its outcomes,” said McGlynn, adding that the milbloggers give people “a valve to get some of that anger out.”
Over the 15 months of the war, there has been a shift in rhetoric from Kremlin propagandists. Anchors and guests initially did not talk about military losses and setbacks may have been framed as tactical regroupings.
As the war wore on, and Russian retreats from Kherson and Kharkiv, as well as a mobilization announced by Putin in September widely seen as botched, presented different problems.
The supply of weapons to Kyiv from Western allies sparked calls on TV for nuclear Armageddon as a fitting punishment for the West.
“It’s a reminder to people who might be feeling anxious, ‘don’t worry, look at all these nukes we’ve got,'” said McGlynn, a research fellow at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. “It’s almost like a rallying of morale, that’s how I often interpret it.”
But the widely anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, and the role of the West in facilitating it, is the focus for the Kremlin’s messengers now. Independent Russian language outlet Meduza reported this month it had obtained Kremlin guidelines on how Russian setbacks and successes should be spun.
If Ukraine were to make gains, it should be explained within the context that Russia was fighting against the full force of NATO, and as such, the Russian Army was able to hold its own. If Ukraine’s offensive failed the Kremlin will say that Russia had repelled a powerful, Western-assisted attack.
“There are many attempts to sort of emphasize this Western support now,” said Alyukov, adding that if Ukraine succeeds, Kremlin propagandists can say “it’s because we are fighting a much more powerful enemy.”
Meduza reported in August that the Kremlin had recommended media outlets and politicians should put the invasion of Ukraine on a historical par with the 10th-century Christianization of Kievan Rus that laid the foundations of Russia.
The theme of war against Ukraine’s “satanic” allies emerged in fall 2022, which Alyukov said may have been a creative interpretation of instructions to propagandists to compare the invasion to a religious war between Orthodox Russia and the godless West.
“They rely on more radical narratives at critical moments, such as the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the fall of 2022 or the period before and after mobilization, to agitate people,” he said.
But war fatigue among the Russian population also appears to be setting in. A Levada poll in March found only one-fifth (21 percent) of people are following the war closely, compared with 29 percent a year ago. Nearly half (47 percent) pay little attention to the conflict at all.
Amid growing apathy and dissatisfaction, propagandists are trying to come up with compelling narratives.
“They’re trying all kinds of narratives and many of them fail, do not work, or are not clearly understood by the public,” said Alyukov. “They are definitely running out of ideas.”