By Fred Weir, Christian Science Monitor, 6/23/22
Alexander Sladkov has been covering military conflicts for Russia’s main state TV channel for three decades. The burly, bearded, motorcycle-riding ex-military officer is considered by many to be Russia’s top war correspondent.
Now, he’s one of dozens of reporters, including several women, who have been embedded with the armies of Russia and its Donbas separatist allies to report on Russia’s war in Ukraine over the past four months.
Millions of Russians see the conflict, often in detailed and graphic daily reports, through the observations, assertions, and basic narratives formed by these reporters who travel with Russian forces, follow military guidelines, and appear to fully support the Russian cause. Opinion polls suggest that majorities of Russians increasingly trust these reports.
While a handful of independent Russian journalists, such as Meduza’s Lilya Yapparova, have produced some compelling alternative coverage by striking out on their own in Ukraine, the Russian reporters mostly offer a view of the war at odds with that of their Western counterparts. But their coverage is nonetheless more than simple propaganda; it reflects a combination of journalistic methods and a Russian understanding of the world.
“Everyone knows that I’m a person who wouldn’t report anything that I’m not 100% certain of,” Mr. Sladkov says. “I am not an information warrior – I know that there are lots of such people – but I am a reporter. These days I get a lot of time [on the premier Channel One news program] because interest is very high. Nobody tells me what to report.”
“No need to explain … what war is”
Mr. Sladkov, who intensively covered the devastating two-month siege of Mariupol, a Donbas port city on the Azov Sea that was defended by Ukrainian forces for the past eight years, spared his viewers – and the subscribers to his Telegram channel – none of the horrific destruction and gruesome scenes of a city in flames amid brutal street-by-street combat. He actually went out of his way to show the forests of sad, temporary graves of civilians caught in the crossfire that sprang up in apartment courtyards amid the smoke and relentless gunfire.
He says it’s not surprising that Russian audiences can look at all that horror without flinching, much less questioning their state’s purpose. “Russia has been constantly at war for decades. There is no need to explain to society what war is,” he says. “Every schoolboy can tell you the difference between a tank and an APC [armored personnel carrier], and identify all different sorts of weapons and what they are for.”
There was the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, two devastating wars in the separatist Russian region of Chechnya, a brief but bloody conflict with Georgia in 2008, a highly kinetic Russian intervention in Syria since 2015, and an ongoing war against Kyiv in the Donbas for the past eight years, which the Russians claim the present “military operation” is designed to bring to a victorious end.
Mr. Sladkov has covered most of those wars. He was also embedded with United States infantry in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he says he learned much of what he knows about his trade.
Though he served 10 years in the Soviet army, he insists that he is not a soldier. And he says that his relations with the military are often “complicated” regarding where he can go and what he can report. “Of course there are military secrets, and you do need to keep a balance. If I have a weakness, it’s that I probably haven’t looked hard enough at the people, the civil population, who are trapped in the middle of the war. It’s not just about the troops.”
A supportive public
Though embedded journalists like Mr. Sladkov and Alexander Kots, another leading war correspondent interviewed for this story, enjoy massive advantages in terms of access to the troops and the front lines, as well as mega-audiences at home, nobody denies that the format is restrictive.
“Our war correspondents work according to the rules of wartime, and they must know how to behave on the battlefield,” says Viktor Baranets, a former official Russian military spokesman who is now the military columnist for the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. “The journalist must accept the rules, and never deviate from them. A battlefield is not a playground.”
Mr. Baranets adds: “Personally, I think the Russian public gets more information than it should. As for casualties, I would never declassify this data before the operation ends. Why give the enemy the pleasure of hearing about our losses? We can square everything when it’s over.”
The improving levels of trust in the Kremlin’s decisions, engendered by official war reporting, seem reflected in recent public opinion surveys. A poll published this month by the state-funded Public Opinion Foundation found that 78% of Russians express confidence in President Vladimir Putin, reversing a prewar slide in his standing, while 85% identified themselves as “patriots.”
Another June poll, by the independent Levada Center, found that majorities of Russians pay close attention to events in Ukraine, and growing numbers are turning to state TV for their primary news about the conflict. A study by the internet research firm Mediascope supports that. The Levada poll found that 53% of respondents believe that TV coverage of the war is “objective.” Only a third said they rely on internet sources for their information about the war.
“I didn’t set out to report on war crimes”
There are things that embedded Russian correspondents don’t do: providing information about casualties, or graphically showing Russian losses. Neither will they finger Russian service members for crimes, whether looting, corruption, rape, or murder. Mr. Sladkov defends the record of the Russian military for punishing its own criminals – he cites the case of Yuri Budanov, a Russian officer convicted of murdering a Chechen woman during the first Chechen war – but insists it’s up to courts, not himself, to make such judgments.
When Russian troops were accused of war crimes in the Ukrainian city of Bucha in April, Mr. Kots, who had been there at the time of the Russian withdrawal, went public to say that he saw no bodies in the streets. He suggested that Ukrainian punitive squads who entered later actually did the killing. Though evidence impugning Russian troops has mounted since, he still stands by his claim.
Ms. Yapparova, a war correspondent with the Latvia-based opposition outlet Meduza, has a different perspective. She says she went to Bucha following the Russian withdrawal with no intention other than to find out what happened.
“It seemed to me that the priority should be [to document] the human suffering,” she says. “There might be a lot of unclear situations, facts that need to be established, but it was quite obvious what was happening, and who the aggressor is. I didn’t set out to report on war crimes committed by my own country’s army. I just turned on my tape recorder and that’s what I found myself doing. I was doing my job.”
Journalists and patriots
Anatoly Tsyganok, an independent military expert, says it’s a pity that Western countries have mostly banned or curtailed Russian-sourced reportage from reaching their own populations. There is no doubt that the aggregate work of Russian war journalists sheds a lot of light on the nature of the conflict, including the Russian conviction that it is a war to liberate the Russian-speaking people of the Donbas from Ukrainian nationalist oppression, he says.
In the battle of Mariupol as described by Russian war correspondents, it was mainly the forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic who fought their way through the city, which they consider their own territory. Their main opponent was the notorious Azov Regiment, who set up their fighting positions in homes and schools, leading to their destruction. In Russian reportage, the surviving civilian population emerged to express gratitude for their liberation. The degree of truth in this narrative may only be determined by historians, but it’s what most Russians today appear to believe.
“You can’t get a full picture of what is really happening if you exclude what is being reported by one of the sides,” says Mr. Tsyganok. “I get my information from every possible direction, and I can say that Russian correspondents, like Sladkov, are as professional as any in the West.”
Somewhat ominously, Mr. Sladkov and Mr. Kots believe that Russia is locked in an existential struggle against the entire West, not just the pro-Western regime in Kyiv, and both think the war will be long and hard, lasting at least five years.
“I am a patriot of my country, and I understand that there is no choice but to go forward to victory,” says Mr. Kots.
Ms. Yapparova, the independent journalist, says she doesn’t approve of her embedded colleagues. “Sladkov works for a huge, wealthy propaganda machine. I’m just a journalist.” But she does have one essential point of agreement with him. “I still consider Russia to be a great country. And I am a patriot of Russia.”