Greeted as liberators: Russia stages propaganda footage in captured Ukrainian city

(AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Of Putin’s many miscalculations about how this war would go, inside and outside Ukraine, the biggest must be his mystifying belief that Russian troops would be warmly received by the Ukrainian people. The only way invading made sense for Russia was if Zelensky’s regime could be quickly toppled and then the country pacified with little resistance. Russia wouldn’t have the men or the money to fund a long-term occupation. They needed Ukrainians to cooperate in their own subjugation.

Once it became clear that they wouldn’t, i.e. on day one, Putin was trapped. He can’t accept the humiliation of withdrawing and he can’t achieve his goal of Ukrainians quiescently agreeing to be annexed by Russia. He’s stuck.

But one thing he can do is lie to Russians about how well the war is going in order to keep them off his back. The shining virtue of the mega-sanctions the west has imposed on Russian finance is that the massive economic damage inflicted will be lie-proof. It’ll necessarily puncture the unreality bubble Putin is creating for his subjects that all is well with the war, a message that goes only so far when the ruble is worth a penny and the Russian economy is looking at a 10 percent contraction this year.

Still, he’s going to blow that unreality bubble as big as he can. Russia’s sole military success story so far is the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, which has been captured. Other cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol are in distress but haven’t fallen. Kherson has. Since it’s now under Russian control, it’s the logical place for the Kremlin to wheel in humanitarian supplies and turn on the cameras as hungry Ukrainians come forward to gratefully accept them.

Except the locals apparently won’t accept them. So Russia had to improvise by bringing in ringers:

Buses rolled into Kherson, but they did not carry the humanitarian aid that Moscow had promised.

They were full of supporters of Russia, some reportedly from annexed Crimea, ready to fight the Kremlin’s propaganda battle…

Vita Bondarenko, a 26-year-old project manager, told The Telegraph she had seen two Russian cars handing out stewed meat to queues of people for the benefit of Russian news cameras.

“They are trying to show a picture of how they saved the city from hunger and that the Ukrainian government makes people starve,” she said. “They want to film that Kherson wants independence, that we want to go to Russia, that they save us and we are happy about it. It is all a lie.”

Russia bused its own fans to an away game and then tried to pass them as locals. In a city, mind you, where so many have already been killed that residents have been forced to dig mass graves to dispose of the dead according to its mayor.

This footage reportedly comes from the Russian propaganda operation today in Kherson. No subtitles, unfortunately, but it seems clear enough what’s happening. The “director” is trying to get locals to cooperate and they’re … not cooperative.

Surely Russians are savvy enough about their own country’s propaganda to see through this, right?

Guess again. The BBC has a depressing story today about Russians living in Ukrainian cities like Kharkiv who’ve been calling home to tell their families about the bombing only to find that their own parents don’t believe them.

“I didn’t want to scare my parents, but I started telling them directly that civilians and children are dying,” she says.

“But even though they worry about me, they still say it probably happens only by accident, that the Russian army would never target civilians. That it’s Ukrainians who’re killing their own people.”…

“It really scared me when my mum exactly quoted Russian TV. They are just brainwashing people. And people trust them,” says Oleksandra.

“My parents understand that some military action is happening here. But they say: ‘Russians came to liberate you. They won’t ruin anything, they won’t touch you. They’re only targeting military bases’.”

One man who lives in Kiev called his father to describe the damage and was told “that this wasn’t true; there was no war and – in fact – Russians were saving Ukraine from Nazis.” Decades of propaganda have bred into the Russian population a skepticism of Putin’s critics so diamond-hard that it might be indestructible even in the age of social media, when photos and video of Russian atrocities are just a few clicks away. And the information bubble is only getting tighter.

If you’re banking on the Russian people to rise up and save the world from Putin, adjust your expectations.

But there’s some good news. Although Putin will likely win the propaganda war in the east, he’s lost it decisively in the west. John McCormack notes today that even populist Republicans like Josh Hawley are saying things like, “We need the NATO alliance. We stand by our security commitments. I take those very seriously.” Last night Tucker Carlson admitted to his viewers that he had gotten the prospects of a Russian invasion of Ukraine wrong, quickly adding that it was the White House’s fault that he did so. My guess is that even Trump would think twice now about fulfilling his fantasy of withdrawing from NATO if he’s reelected in 2024. Not because he doesn’t want to but because the idea of doing so has become politically toxic. He’d never get Congress to go along.

I’ll leave you with this. Propaganda-wise, it beats the hell out of some Russian Potemkin village in Kherson.