Putin Defies the Cold while the Houthies Defy the USA. Russian Media Monitoring Report, 8-14 January 2024

Last week, the Russian media continued to insist that Ukraine was suffering defeat after defeat in the battlefield. However, the front line dynamic — or rather a lack thereof — suggests otherwise. The propagandists are trying to show that Russia is retaliating for the attack on Belgorod.

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Russian media covered Putin’s visit to Chukotka in vivid detail. The visit did not go without sensations. To everyone's delight, Putin said that Soviet cartoons were far better than Hollywood productions and disregarded a hat like a true macho. Here is a quick translation from propaganda speak: the Russian president is aware of what Russian children watch and is in excellent health.

The propaganda also accused Biden and Zelensky of murdering the arrested Gonzalo Lira and rejoiced at the strikes on the Yemeni Houthis conducted by the US and its allies.

This monitoring report covers these and other topics of the disinformation spread by Russian state media and online parajournalists to manipulate public opinion.

Russia’s Overwhelming Success

The number of news items on Ukraine’s failures in the battlefield has increased 16 times compared to the previous monitoring report. This could be part of a large-scale campaign to drown out any reports on the strikes on Belgorod.

In an effort to change the agenda, the disinformers are convincing the public that the Russian army is dominating the battlefield. In early January, they stressed that Kyiv was targeting Belgorod out of desperation for the lack of battlefield success.

The media are trying to convince the ordinary Russians that Russia is having its revenge. The message is simple: Ukraine struck Belgorod so we will kill them in the battlefield.

The propagandists are also trying to prepare Russians for Ukraine’s taking delivery of the first batch of F-16 aircraft. Again, the preparation follows the familiar template: whatever Western weapons Ukraine receives will be immediately destroyed.

“There aren't many places to stash those birds. No matter what the Ukrainians might claim, they only have as many suitable airfields. We know which ones are being used for permanent deployment”, "Let's not forget that the whole of Ukraine is within striking distance of the Russian army which the Ukrainians are regularly reminded of. Naturally, they will hide their precious aircraft in the safest places with reinforced concrete shelters. Such shelters are being systematically targeted”.

Zelensky's Regime Kills Foreign Journalist

On 13 January, reports emerged on X (Twitter) regarding the alleged death of the pro-Russian blogger Gonzalo Lira, who held both US and Chilean citizenship, in a Ukrainian detention center.

After the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Lira became actively involved in covering the events in Ukraine spreading the fakes created by Russian propaganda. He accused NATO of approaching Russia’s borders, denied massacres in Bucha, spread fakes about biological weapons and posted maps from the Russian Ministry of Defense, claimed that Volodymyr Zelensky was a drug addict and that Ukraine was run by a bunch of neo-Nazis. He also said that Russia did not target civilians and instead accused the AFU of war crimes.

In May 2023, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) detained Lira in Kharkiv on the charges of justifying Russia's armed aggression (Article 436-2 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine). He was later released under house arrest only to be arrested again in July for violating his bail conditions and attempting to leave Ukraine. Lira was detained in Zakarpattia oblast while trying to escape to Hungary to seek political asylum. Lyra was then sent to a pre-trial detention center in Kharkiv to await trial.

It did not take long for Russian propaganda to find the culprits. According to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it is first and foremost Joe Biden: “The White House is fully responsible for the death of American journalist Gonzalo Lira in a Ukrainian prison, says the official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia Maria Zakharova”. They claimed that Biden had let Lira rot in prison for considering him a second-class American: “Lira was treated as a second or third-class citizen in the United States”.

Ukraine was accused of ill-treatment of the arrested: “The Kiev regime is fully responsible for the deadly torture of the journalist and will be held accountable for its neo-Nazi practices”.

The accusations were soon supported by a number of Americans public figures notorious for their pro-Russian views such as Tucker Carlson, Elon Musk, and David Sachs. “The Biden administration obviously had a part in his imprisonment and torture. A few weeks ago, we spoke to his father who literally predicted his son’s killing” — such were the words of Tucker Carlson which were immediately picked up by Russian media.

Russian propagandists claimed that Lira had been illegally detained — not for promoting pro-Russian fakes and narratives, but for criticizing Zelensky: “He was imprisoned for committing the crime of criticizing the government of Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky”.

According to Russian propaganda, Zelensky wanted to silence Lira which he did: “Zelensky ordered the torture and death of the American journalist Gonzalo Lira in a Ukrainian prison for exposing corruption in the Ukraine-US crony collaboration”.

It is yet unclear what actually happened to Gonzalo Lira as there have been no official statements. However, it is quite evident that the alleged death of a foreign national was used by anti-Ukrainian propagandists to promote their agenda.

Anglo-Saxon Operation Against the Houthis

On 12 January, American and British aircraft and warships launched air strikes against Houthi military facilities in Yemen. The strikes were carried out in retaliation for months of attacks on Red Sea shipping by the Iran-backed fighters which effectively blocked the maritime trade routes in the region.

Russian propaganda immediately claimed that the strikes were unfair and once again accused the so-called Anglo-Saxons of cruelty and violation of international law: “The US actions represent yet another example of corrupting a UN Security Council resolution. By launching strikes across Yemen, the US is disregarding international law in the name of escalating the situation”.

The disinformers hurried to justify the Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping. Russian media said that the Houthis were only demanding humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza which is why they seized Israeli ships: “Contrary to the common belief of demanding Israel to end the war in the Gaza Strip, the Houthis only want uninterrupted supply of humanitarian aid to the civilians of Gaza”.

The so-called experts said that “the current US strike on Yemen is an insult to Saudi Arabia” because it followed the US refusal to help Saudi Arabia in fighting the Houthis. And now that the American interests are at stake the US has launched air strikes on the Houthis.

The disinformers claimed that the United States disregards the interests of Arabs because Americans are racist: “They still treat Arabs with the arrogance of racist imperialists. They call them friends, but in fact they only use them”.

They rejoiced at the West being forced to open a new military front which distracts the world from Russia’s war against Ukraine: “This marks the opening of a new front”.

The propagandists also expect energy prices to grow which will provide additional funds for the Russian budget: “The KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — editor’s note) and the UAE (United Arab Emirates — editor’s note) are not going to be happy at all. Those new developments will further strengthen the KSA’s relations with the Russian Federation. It also guarantees the high prices of the oil jointly set by the Russian Federation and the KSA”.

The Election Campaign: Mr Putin, Where Is Your Hat?

According to some reports on the visit of the Russian president to Chukotka, “Putin’s visit to Chukotka caused panic in the United States”. Russian media claimed that Washington interpreted the visit as “a hint that Russia has the potential to reach the very borders of the United States and has Alaska in its sights”.

Putin’s visit to Chukotka on 10 January marks the kick-off of his tour of Russia’s regions being part of his election campaign: "Putin’s trip today is his first visit to the regions in 2024”. The news was among the top ten most mentioned items on Russian media last week. Chukotka is the most remote region of Russia. Putin had never set foot in it for more than 20 years in power. However, this year's elections forced him to make the journey.

Once there, Putin “talked about supporting families and Russia being a whole big family promising to solve all the remaining problems of the participants of the special military operation”.

“He was asked if he had time to play sports, what was the last museum he visited and which one he liked the best, and what trades he was qualified in. The president was happy to satisfy the people's curiosity: two and a half hours of sport a day in the morning, Hermitage as his favorite museum, and a carpenter's qualification while working in a student construction brigade”.

In Chukotka, Putin revealed that he considers Soviet cartoons to be better than American ones: "Modern Western cartoons are all about shooting, jumping, running and all. Watch that nonsense for two and a half hours and you go crazy. How can our children stand that torture?”.

The propagandists did not forget to remind the public that Putin is too macho to wear a hat: “People are worried that Putin might catch a cold. Everyone was amazed that the president disregarded a hat even in in the blistering cold of Chukotka”.

Interestingly, the propaganda was kind enough to explain why Putin behaves this way. This is what the so-called political scientist Sergey Markov had to say: “Putin realizes that only a healthy president gets re-elected. Everyone remembers the sickly Yeltsin and Brezhnev”, “The head of state wearing a fur hat starts to look like an old member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. People used to call them “mushrooms”. That is a bad thing so off goes the hat”.

For Putin, the picture is always more important than the consequences.


The Problems

The Breakdowns: A Winter Without Heat.

Last week brought a slew of bad news from Russia’s housing and utilities sector. The reports about frequent accidents ranked second among the most frequently mentioned topics on Russian media. Incidents, breakdowns, and emergency situations such as the events in Podolsk, Moscow oblast, forced the media to respond and the propaganda to whitewash the central and local authorities. In early January, there was an interruption of heating services affecting almost 150,000 households in Podolsk. People complained about freezing and built fires in the street.

Propagandists never mention the systemic roots of the problem such as corruption, insufficient funding, and workforce shortages caused by mobilization. Instead, they point fingers at the employees of housing and utility companies. A vivid example of the “rule of law” in Russia is the retaking of state control over the Klimov cartridge factory, which operates a boiler house that provides heat to the residents of Podolsk. It was Putin himself that brought the factory along with the boiler house back to state ownership.

Cars and Spare Parts

The growing prices of cars and spare parts are becoming a serious problem for the media to cover. In addition to reassurances about Russia’s domestic automobile manufacturers to boost production, last week Russian car experts reported that Chinese cars had been tested in Russian weather conditions and proved to be no worse than their Western counterparts.

Eggs, Eggs Again

Russian media had reported on large shipments of “friendly” eggs from partner countries — primarily Turkey and Azerbaijan. However, this had no effect on egg and chicken prices in many places. Still, the propaganda keeps assuring the public that it is nothing to worry about — everything will be just fine.

The Methodology

To monitor the information published on disinformation websites, we analyzed approximately 410,000 news reports collected from ~ 1000 Russian and occupation websites. The data for the analysis was provided by SemanticForce.

Each paragraph was processed using an algorithm which defines its topic automatically. The resulting topics (i.e. groups with similar content) were short-listed by the topics relating to the war or its consequences for Russia. The number of mentions of a certain topic was then counted for each publication. Our conclusions are based on the respective findings and the quotes from paragraphs referring to each topic.

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