Ever since protesters in Ukraine toppled their Moscow-leaning president in 2014, Russian state television channels have depicted the country as a hotbed of fascism led by a “junta.” In one infamous broadcast, Channel One, the Kremlin’s flagship station, falsely accused Ukrainian government forces of crucifying a 3-old-year boy.
These inflammatory broadcasts helped to whip up unprecedented levels of hatred, plunging millions of Russian television viewers into what one academic in Moscow described as a “trance-like state.” Just before Ukraine’s Maidan revolution, 69 percent of Russians said they were positively disposed toward the country, a figure that slid to just 26 percent in its aftermath, according to polls published by the Moscow-based Levada Center think tank. No wonder then that Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, once described state media as another branch of the armed forces.
And so when Russian President Vladimir Putin declared this month that Kremlin-funded television channels should give Ukraine a break, it was seen by many as something of a stand-down in his country’s conflict with Kyiv.
“We shouldn’t paint our closest neighbor, this fraternal nation ... in an unflattering light,” Putin told the Valdai discussion club, an annual gathering of Russian and Western foreign policy experts. “This is wrong.” He admitted that there was “something lacking” in Russian state television’s coverage of Ukraine.
Putin’s eyebrow-raising comments underscored a thaw in relations between the two former Soviet states since Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old former comedian, came to power in Ukraine in May.
Last month, in a long-awaited development, the two countries exchanged dozens of prisoners, including 24 Ukrainian sailors seized by Russia during a naval clash in the Black Sea. And then, on October 1, Ukraine agreed to hold elections in its war-torn eastern regions controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists. It’s a move that could bring an end to a five-year conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced another million.
Putin had insisted on elections — part of a deal signed in Belarus by Russia, Ukraine, separatist representatives and the Organization for Security and Cooperation — as a condition for his participation in peace talks brokered by France and Germany. The Kremlin denies sending troops to eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, and insists that any Russians fighting on the side of separatist forces are “volunteers,” despite ample evidence to the contrary.
Even before Putin’s remarks, Russian state television had been toning down its aggression. The term “junta” had all but disappeared from broadcasts, while on September 15, in a notable departure from usual programming, there was not a single report devoted to Ukraine on either of the two main weekly news round-ups.
“Priorities have changed,” said Denis Volkov, deputy director of the Levada Center think tank. “There is a desire to improve relations with Europe to get sanctions scrapped. And for this, there needs to be some progress on the issue of eastern Ukraine. Putin’s comments were a signal more for a Western audience than a domestic audience.”
Although the Kremlin insists that European and U.S. sanctions imposed after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 haven’t damaged its economy, a majority of Russian business leaders think otherwise, according to a recent PwC survey. The real disposable incomes of Russians have declined every year since the sanctions were introduced.
“If sanctions can be eliminated by political compromise, then Putin will go for this. Donbass is not of such great value in [and] of itself for the Kremlin,” said Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank. “It’s not Crimea.”
The deal agreed in Belarus is known as the Steinmeier Formula, after Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the former German foreign minister who first proposed it in 2016. Under its terms, the two “people’s republics” in the Donbass region will be granted self-governing status within Ukraine after elections judged free and fair by OSCE monitors. The deal also stipulates the withdrawal of forces by both sides and that Ukraine will regain control of its border with Russia.
“The Steinmeier Formula is more or less what Putin wants,” said Baunov. “Putin’s plan from the beginning was never the annexation of the Donbass. The goal was the federalization of Ukraine, making it less centralized, to make Ukraine weaker, to force the government in Kyiv to listen more to Moscow.”
Putin’s orders to television chiefs to tone down the rhetoric is partly a bid to prepare Russians psychologically for the reintegration — at least on paper — of the Donbass into Ukraine. “This is a signal that Ukraine is not the hell on earth that it was painted to be. After all, we can’t reintegrate Donbass into Ukraine if the country is some neo-Nazi hell,” said Baunov. “They are trying to show people that Ukraine is not the same as it was in the Maidan era.”
Even though both Kyiv and Moscow seem determined to de-escalate, the path to a resolution of the Donbass conflict is unlikely to be smooth. Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst in Moscow, told Ukrainian media that the Steinmeier Formula was “no radical breakthrough,” and that the Kremlin would attempt to maintain control over the region through proxies and manipulation of elections. The deal with Russia has also sparked protests by nationalists in Kyiv.
Separatist leaders have also warned Zelenskiy that the elections will take place on their terms and vowed not to surrender control of the border with Russia. It was a message hammered home by Alexei Chesnakov, a former member of the Kremlin administration who continues to advise the Russian authorities on Ukraine.
“We need to be realists,” Chesnakov told Tass, the Russian state news agency. “In the final reckoning, Ukraine will have symbolic sovereignty over the Donbass. It shouldn’t count on anything else.”
There’s still plenty of room for things to go wrong. Last Thursday, Zelenskiy accused Russia of not doing enough to ensure a pullback of separatist forces from the Donbass frontline ahead of the planned peace summit. Yury Ushakov, Putin's top foreign policy adviser, blamed Ukraine. The row wasn’t enough to derail the peace process, but it was an ominous start.
Since Putin’s comments, Russian state television has stayed on message on Ukraine, with few if any signs of the full-on Orwellian hysteria that once characterized its broadcasts. But all that could change rapidly, if the nascent peace process collapses or if Western sanctions against Moscow remain in place, said Volkov, the Levada Center analyst.
“A positive model of Ukraine could be more advantageous for the Kremlin than a negative one,” Volkov said. “But if things don’t work out, Ukraine will continue to be portrayed as an enemy. This is all very cynical.”