To Western audiences, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unfolded as a series of brutal attacks punctuated by strategic blunders. But on Russian television, those same events were spun as positive developments, an interpretation aided by a rapid jumble of opinion and falsehoods.
Much of Russian news media is tightly controlled by the Kremlin, with state-run television working as a mouthpiece for the government. Critical reporting about the war has been criminalized.
Russian television’s convoluted and sometimes contradictory narratives about the war are not solely intended to convince viewers that their version of events is true, disinformation experts say. Just as often, the goal is to confuse viewers and sow distrust so audiences are not sure what to believe.
The New York Times reviewed more than 50 hours of television footage to show how the war was being presented to Russians through the country’s news media.
Prized Russian ship sunk by Ukrainian missiles
Russia faced a significant loss when its flagship missile cruiser, the Moskva, sank after being damaged in mid-April. Ukrainian officials said the ship was struck with two Neptune anti-ship missiles. The New York Times reported this week that the United States provided intelligence that helped Ukraine locate and strike the ship. Independent Russian news media based outside the country reported that about 40 men died and an additional 100 were injured.
On Russian state-controlled media, though, news programs downplayed Ukraine’s strategic attack with a narrative that has shifted over time.
At first, Russia’s Defense Ministry said the ship was damaged after a fire on board had detonated ammunition. The ship was being towed back to shore and the crew was safely evacuated, the report continued.
Russian media later reported that the ship had sunk while being towed during a storm. A segment also showed a lineup of healthy Russian soldiers, describing them as the Moskva’s crew, alive and well.
Russia’s Moskva Narrative
Ship described as sinking in a storm.
Russian soldiers, reportedly from the Moskva.
For the Kremlin, the loss adds to its growing challenges in conveying a positive impression of the war at home. While Russian news media has repeatedly dismissed or downplayed Ukrainian civilian casualties, Russia’s own casualties — and the grieving families left in their wake — are harder for the Kremlin to ignore.
Russia acknowledged the overall death toll for the first time in March, making clear to Russian viewers that the war would involve domestic losses as well. But even those reports underestimated the Russian casualties, according to U.S. experts. Though it is difficult to get exact casualty figures during a war, Western intelligence agencies estimate Russian military losses could be as high as 10,000 killed and 30,000 wounded.
Dead bodies line the streets of Bucha
As Russian forces retreated from the region surrounding Kyiv, graphic images circulated showing bodies of dead civilians lying in the streets. In Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, some civilians were found with their hands bound or with gunshot wounds to the head. The images prompted renewed calls for war crime charges against Russia.
Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times
On Russian television, the discovery was cast instead as a hoax, with television presenters analyzing images and video for signs of fakery.
In one clip, Russian journalists noted that clothing on some dead civilians was too clean to have been in the streets for days, implying they could not have been killed during Russia’s occupation. A statement from the Ministry of Defense, aired on the nightly newscast “Vremya,” said the bodies lacked signs of decay and that blood in their wounds had not coagulated.
“All that is irrefutable evidence that the photos and videos from Bucha are yet another staging by the Kyiv regime for the benefit of Western mass media,” the ministry’s statement said.
Unblurred photographs run by Western media outlets, however, showed the bodies had clear signs of decay.
Another news report indicated that footage from Bucha showed some of the bodies moving, which was cited as proof the dead bodies were staged. One clip showed a body in a rearview mirror that appeared to move after the car drove by. But several photographs taken on the ground by Western photographers showed bodies in the area had clear signs of decomposition. The impression of movement appeared to be caused by distortion in the mirror, which was also seen affecting the buildings surrounding the body.
A Russian television report claimed the body seen in the rearview mirror on the right-hand side was moving.
The claim that the bodies in the streets were part of a staging collided later with an entirely different narrative pushed on Russian television: that the civilians were indeed killed, but that it was Ukrainian troops who had killed them.
To make that case, the Russian state-run station Channel 1 presented a convoluted alternate timeline, selecting footage to support the claim that no one was killed until days after Russian troops fled the region.
Russia’s Alternate Timeline
Russian troops leave Bucha.
The mayor of Bucha returns and gives an address but does not mention dead bodies.
Ukrainian troops arrive, but, again, no bodies are seen.
March 31 to April 2
Ukrainian neo-Nazi brigades are said to kill anyone not wearing a pro-Ukrainian blue ribbon.
Dead bodies appear in the streets of Bucha.
Disinformation researchers say scattershot narratives like this can overwhelm viewers, sowing doubts even if audiences aren’t persuaded by any specific claim.
Maternity hospital bombed
Russia drew international condemnation after a maternity hospital was bombed in the southern port city of Mariupol. Images of injured pregnant women, carried across charred hospital grounds or ushered down battered staircases, made clear to Western audiences the civilian cost of war.
Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo
In Russia, though, the attack was dismissed as a hoax.
In a flurry of claims over several days, Russian television dissected footage and raised numerous doubts about the Western account, often using the same imagery seen in the West to advance very different accounts of what happened.
Images of two women in particular were widely circulated in Western media. One, an influencer named Marianna Vyshemirskaya, survived the attack and later gave birth to a girl. Another woman, who has not been identified, was photographed on a stretcher and was later reported by The Associated Press to have died. In one segment, Russian journalists claimed the two were the same woman. Ms. Vyshemirskaya later denied being the woman seen on the stretcher.
In another segment aired on Russian television, victims being carried away from the hospital were described as soldiers from Ukraine’s far-right Azov Battalion, a unit of the Ukrainian National Guard with ties to the country’s neo-Nazi movement. But images captured by Western journalists showed the victims were women, with some wearing khaki-colored clothing that vaguely resembled troop uniforms.
Russia’s Alternate Narratives
Civilians were being used as human shields.
A bomb of this size would have destroyed the buildings.
There were no dead bodies seen inside the hospital.
The same woman can be seen in multiple places.
Ukrainian soldiers were seen in uniforms.
The damage came from two explosions, not one Russian airstrike.
Ms. Vyshemirskaya later gave an interview to Denis Seleznev, a Ukrainian blogger who backs the separatist movement in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. The portions that aired on Russian television focused not on her injuries but on the Azov Battalion, with claims that the military group occupied the hospital before the strike took place.
There was no evidence reported by Western journalists on the scene that Azov was using the building as a base, and an April report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe classified the attack on the hospital as a war crime.
In airing Ms. Vyshemirskaya’s interview, alongside a video she posted to Instagram, Russian news media focused on her description of Azov soldiers, casting them as belligerent occupiers who demanded food.
“They said they haven’t eaten for five days,” she said. “They took our food away and said, ‘You can cook more.’”
The Kremlin and Russian media have frequently focused on Ukraine’s neo-Nazi movement as justification for the invasion. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said that one of his central aims was the “denazification of Ukraine.”
Though the Azov Battalion was founded in 2014 out of Ukraine’s ultranationalist and neo-Nazi groups, experts say the group has quelled much of its extremist side under pressure from authorities. The neo-Nazi movement is not a significant force in Ukraine, according to experts who track the far right, who point to Ukraine’s election of President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, as evidence.
Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant attacked
Russian forces advanced on Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in early March. A skirmish with Ukrainian forces ended with a fire on the compound, which Mr. Zelensky warned could result in “the end of Europe.” The fire was later extinguished, but Ukrainian officials accused Russia of “nuclear terrorism.”
Zaporizhzhya Npp/Zaporizhzhya Npp Via Reuters
But Russian audiences were told another story: that Ukrainian soldiers had attacked the facility, setting fire to the building before fleeing. Russian forces were described as defending the facility from “Ukrainian saboteurs,” according to a government statement repeated in state media.
In footage released weeks later, the power plant was shown functioning normally, with drone shots showing workers arriving at a spotless facility and passing through security checkpoints in an orderly fashion.
“While the special military operation is underway, the nuclear power plant hasn’t stopped working for a second,” said Aleksey Ivanov, a reporter for “Vremya,” the Channel 1 evening news broadcast. “And now it has even grown in strength.”
Mr. Ivanov also said that Russian guards “do not interfere with the work of the plant.”
A soldier interviewed at the facility said that “employees of this plant show a certain amount of respect” and that workers “maintain order and discipline in their work.”
The idea that Ukraine is faring better under Russian control continues to be a frequent claim on state television, bolstering the dubious argument advanced by Mr. Putin that Russian troops were sent in to protect Ukrainian citizens.
Russia’s View of Zaporizhzhia
A Russian state news report describes the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which was recently captured by Russian soldiers, as functioning normally.