Analysis: Unable to pretend nothing has happened, Russian TV cries ‘fake’ as images emerge from town
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No matter that some of the explanations were contradictory, with state television amplifying claims that the images of dead civilians in Bucha were both staged and that the civilians had been killed by Ukrainians themselves.
In recent years, the Russian government has developed a familiar playbook in response to allegations of bombing runs in Syria, the downing of the MH17 airliner in east Ukraine, the Salisbury poisonings or acts of violence targeting Chechen civilians during the conflicts there in the 1990s and 2000s.
“I think it’s similar to what it was in connection to shocking reports from Aleppo or Idlib – meaning that state-sponsored media is always ready to deny war crimes allegations as ‘fakes’,” said Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch.
“But until recently, the country had a few independent media left and now it’s practically none.”
The aggressive debunking of “fakes” has become a key component of Russia’s propaganda war in Ukraine.
On Monday, the government said it would begin an investigation into the events in Bucha – not for the alleged war crimes that took place as more than 280 people were killed in the small town, but into the distribution of “fakes” for discrediting the Russian army.
And government agencies and television hosts have got to work pointing fingers in every direction – except for at the Kremlin.
The quick denials and alternative theories resemble those of a crisis PR agency. Speed and shamelessness are prized above all else.
“The behaviour of the government … has changed over the years,” said Ilya Shepelin, a journalist for the banned TV Rain who has reported extensively on Russian news agencies and misinformation. “Ten years ago it would have been easier to keep quiet about an event like Bucha and pretend that nothing was happening and then slowly begin speaking about it.”
But with the advent of the internet, and the availability of news on Telegram channels, pretending nothing has happened has become more difficult.
And in that case it is important to muddy the waters as quickly as possible, even if the result is somehow incoherent.
“Now, immediately you have to get out front saying it’s all staged, it’s all invented. And if it’s not all staged and invented, then we’re not guilty for it,” he said. “These two ideas are contradictory … but the most important thing is to fight back on all fronts. And hope that one of them catches on with the audience.”
On Sunday evening, Vladimir Soloviev, a top Russian television host, told millions of listeners that the “war against us has entered a new phase. They’re leading us along the Yugoslavia scenario. Now they’ll cook up the scenario of a Srebrenica. We’ll soon be accused of genocide.” He also accused the British of being behind the “provocation”.
Another popular talking point, noted by BBC Monitoring’s Francis Scarr, was that the town Bucha was chosen as the site for the provocation for its resemblance to the word “butcher”. Just days earlier, a host noted, Biden had called Putin a “butcher”.
And while those narratives played out before millions of Russians on television, state investigators warned anyone spreading independent information about Bucha could face up to 15 years in prison.
“The perjury spread by the Ukrainian side is another provocation, a cynical lie and is aimed at discrediting the Russian army in the conditions of the information and propaganda war unleashed by the west,” said the Russian general prosecutor. “The circumstances of the creation and public dissemination of this deliberately false information under the guise of reliable reports will be established, and they will certainly be given an appropriate criminal legal assessment.”