Putin, Propaganda, and the Politics of Censorship

On Friday, the Levada Center—one of the only independent polling firms in Russia—released the results of its two most recent surveys: one on domestic support for President Vladimir Putin and the other on Russians’ opinions of the ongoing war in Ukraine. For those who have been following the brave anti-war demonstrations in places like St. Petersburg and Moscow, the poll results are, unfortunately, a disheartening reality check.

As of last month, 71 percent of Russian respondents approve of Putin’s job performance, compared with only 27 percent who disapprove. This represents a slight uptick in support from last month, and it marks the third consecutive poll in which Putin’s domestic support has increased. At the same time, Russians’ attitudes toward Ukraine have worsened. Only 35 percent of Russians responded that they generally feel good about Ukraine, as opposed to 52 percent who had a negative perception of the country. Most tellingly, 60 percent of respondents blame the U.S. and NATO for the recent escalation in eastern Ukraine, while only 4 percent believe Russia is at fault.

These poll results are a stark reminder that Russians live in a very different media ecosystem than other Europeans or Americans. While Western media outlets have portrayed Ukrainian resistance to Russian invaders as both justified and heroic, Kremlin news sources have been issuing very different messages. Some stories simply echo Putin’s rhetoric, claiming Russian actions aim is to “save people, demilitarize, and denazify this state” [Ukraine]. Others draw from internal divisions within America itself, such as this RT piece amplifying a recent Tucker Carlson segment that argued that the U.S. is not protecting Ukraine but “getting revenge” on Russia. Others bluntly insist that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are vindicated by previous U.S. foreign policy blunders.

It’s worth noting that Russian propagandists aren’t necessarily fair—or even consistent—in their arguments. In a February 16 RT column headlined “Guilty Without War” (a Russian-language wordplay on an old Soviet drama called “Guilty Without Guilt”), journalist Sergei Strokan mocked the U.S. for its hysteria about an upcoming Russian invasion.

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