A Marxist-Leninist-flavored dissent disrupted Russian state TV this week. But does it matter?

Natalia Antelava

 

Of all the damning assessments of Russia’s military performance in Ukraine, the most unexpected, and possibly the most consequential one, aired on Russian state television this week.

In a daily debate show called Sixty Minutes, that is normally confined to the tight parameters of the Kremlin’s narrative of the war or “special operation” in Ukraine (“war” is fake news as far as the Russian government is concerned and spreading fake news is punishable by 15 years in prison), former colonel-turned-military-journalist Mikhail Khodaryonok warned of Russia’s geopolitical isolation and said Russians were detached from reality.

“Sooner or later the reality of history will hit hard, it will be a huge blow,” Khodaryonok said.

With the U.S. military equipment lend lease about to kick in, and with the European weapons now flooding Ukraine, Khodaryonok predicted the situation for Russia was “about to get worse.” He even played the Marx-and-Lenin card, ever relevant for the Russians, to fortify his argument. Followers of Marxism-Leninism, he said, have always said that “ultimately victory on the battlefield is determined by a high level of morale among personnel.” 

“Ukraine has the upper hand,” he said, because Ukrainians were ready to “shed blood for their country.”

The other four guests in the studio looked visibly uncomfortable as presenter Olga Skaveeva tried to challenge Khodaryonok, but did not stop him. Rossiya 1, the channel that aired Khodaryonok’s jaw-dropping narrative detour, scraped the entire show from its YouTube page, posting another program on the day instead. But the clip lives elsewhere on the internet, and it already has sparked plenty of conversation about Russian military elites dissenting against Putin and preparing for capitulation

Then came a corrective measure: two days after he made headlines Khodaryonok was back in the Rossiya 1 studio, this time sounding a lot more aligned with the official Kremlin line. 

What does it all mean? In an attempt to find an answer, the Russian language service of RFE/RL even hosted a debate during which military analyst Alexandr Kushnar labeled Khodaryonok’s outburst as part of a “growing avalanche of domestic criticism” of the Russian army’s disastrous performance. 

Among pro-Putin bloggers and influencers on social media, grumbling about Russia’s military performance has indeed grown recently, but despite the wishful thinking of many Russia-watchers, Khodaryonok’s outburst is not necessarily a marker of change. 

He has been a dissenting voice in the past: a month before Putin’s invasion, Khodaryonok published an article arguing against the war, predicting that it would spell disaster for Russia and that it was against Russia’s geopolitical interests. That did not get in the way of him appearing on flagship Russian television shows at least five times since the war began. None of those appearances are particularly notable, but in all of them he appears a lot more clear-eyed about Russian military capabilities than any other guests.

Why does he keep getting invited? I asked Vasily Gatov, Russian media analyst and senior fellow at the Annenberg School of Journalism. “In part because they don’t have enough people with real military expertise whom they can get on the show,” Gatov tells me. 

Khodaryonko is a rare ex-employee of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces who has a clearance from the Russian Broadcasting Corporation and can therefore be more or less trusted to toe the line. His personal Telegram channel is full of Russian military propaganda and he did not post neither his initial nor corrective TV appearance.

“His opinion reflects that of people working at the General Staff. People on the operational side of things are appalled by how this so-called ‘special operation’ has been handled,” Gatov told me.

But as Russian opposition politician Galina Mikhaelva warned in the RFE/RL discussion of Khodaryonko’s outburst, “military failure does not necessarily mean the end of the regime.”

META DELIVERS FOR FAKE BANS ON FAKE NEWS  

The Russian government may be increasingly isolated, and plotting its survival roadmap but when it comes to getting its message out to the world, Big Tech continues to deliver for Vladimir Putin. 

Take Meta: after the invasion, the company took several measures to fight disinformation on its platforms. Considering the intensity and the scale of the attack on Ukraine, Meta made an unusual exception to its incitement rules and allowed some calls for violence against Russian soldiers in Ukraine. It also banned RT, Sputnik and other Russian propaganda accounts in certain geographies, including Western Europe and Ukraine.

The ban on Russian propaganda sources might sound good on paper, but as I reported last month, it has caused serious collateral damage in real life: as dozens of independent newsrooms in the region pivoted to covering the war, they noticed dramatic drops in their audience, as Meta demoted or blocked their accounts after they posted about the war. Small media are getting caught in the nets of whatever system Meta is using to weed out propaganda.

Meantime, Russia Today and Sputnik, the mouthpieces of global Russian propaganda seem to be doing just fine. Meta’s ban on their pages, is in effect a “shadow ban,” says journalist and social media expert Andrey Boborykin. From his home in Ukraine, Boborykhin needs a VPN to access Facebook accounts of RT and Sputnik. But once he can get a link to their sites, he can post and re-post RT’s content without any restrictions. 

The ban, Boborykin says, is a half measure. What would a full measure look like? Perhaps like the one Meta appears to have instituted against Azov Battalion, the far-right Ukrainian military regiment that has a controversial past but has been key to Ukraine’s military success. Try posting to their site from your Facebook account. Spoiler: you won’t be able to. 

Whether or not such a ban against RT or Sputnik is a good idea in the first place, is of course, debatable. But so are measures that Facebook is currently taking. Boborykin’s in-depth analysis shows just how effectively Kremlin propaganda is seeping through the myriad cracks in a system that Facebook says it has built to protect societies from the toxic effect of Russian authoritarian disinformation.

The debate around Ukraine continues to expose the extent to which social media platforms have become the skeleton on which a global authoritarian network hangs. Autocrats manipulate the platforms to shape uniform opinions from India to Africa to Europe and then recycle these opinions to entrench their power locally. This cycle is changing societies. My colleague Katia Patin has taken a quick look at how similar dynamics are playing out in Hungary.

PUTIN HAS A FRIEND IN HUNGARY

By Katia Patin

Almost three months into the war, the number of Hungarians supporting Ukraine is plummeting. Known for his chummy relationship with Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has taken a quasi-neutral tone on the war, describing it as an “aggression” but also condemning sanctions against Russia and clearly maintaining his ties to the Kremlin. As a member of both the EU and NATO, Hungary is isolated in this position, and represents a weak link for both blocs. But Orban, who handily won a fourth term in office in national elections last month, seems undeterred. And his friends in the national media are happy to give his narratives a boost. 

A number of recent polls, commissioned by independent newsrooms in Hungary and by IPSOS, show that Hungarians are less supportive of Ukraine and of the international community than they were at the start of the war. One poll shows a steady decline over the past two months in the number of Hungarians who believe Russia is an aggressor in Ukraine, from 64% in early March to 56% in early May. Results are dramatically polarized, with the biggest divide between opposition supporters and those who side with Orban’s Fidesz party: 81% of opposition voters say Orban must condemn Russia more harshly, while just 15% of Fidesz voters say the same.

The independent Hungarian outlets that commissioned these polls — 444.hu and Publicus Népszava — directly link these results to the “impact of news coverage in the Orban government’s state-controlled media.” 

Peter Kreko, director of the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital, described what this messaging has looked like in recent weeks, especially around Orban’s re-election: “If you support Ukraine in the war, then you enrage Moscow and you are pulling the country into the war. If you want cheap energy, and not to be conscripted into the army to go to fight in Ukraine, then vote for the government.” Kreko sees the shift as an indication of how effective the government’s monopoly over media has been. “Hungary is becoming an information autocracy. Consensus is guaranteed without needing to use repression or violence and information is working extremely efficiently to keep the population behind the government,” he told Coda.

WHAT WE’RE READING: 

To much of the world, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a ruthless villain with blood on his hands as his brutal invasion of Ukraine presses on. But for thousands of users on Douyin, TikTok’s sister app in China, he’s “daddy Putin” — a handsome, valiant leader who simply wants world peace. Coda’s Isobel Cockerell recommends this Foreign Policy piece that looks at how for months, users on Douyin have referred to Putin as “handsome daddy,” “older brother,” and even “Prince Charming” or “male god,” with one user writing they wanted to “worship” him more each day. Last week, a user from Anhui, China, wrote that Russian citizens must come together to support Putin. 
And check out this piece from our friends at CEPA that looks at how Russian propaganda has regained its footing in Ukraine.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.