Note: this debate took place before evidence emerged of the mass killing of civilians in the suburbs of Kyiv, including the city of Bucha.
We devoted our latest #BrusselsCalling media discussion, on 31 March, to the war against Ukraine, with European Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius as moderator. A Lithuanian national with a Ukrainian wife, he was the first Commissioner to visit Ukraine since Russia declared war. He was therefore able to draw on his personal and professional experience (including a stint contributing to the Lithuania Tribune) when steering the discussion.
The diverse panel included Vlad Makszimov, a Russian national raised in Hungary who covers Central and Eastern European affairs for EURACTIV; Jennifer Rankin, Brussels correspondent for The Guardian; and Simon Townsley, award-winning photojournalist, who was just back from covering the war for the Telegraph. Each panellist injected adifferent perspective into the discussion, based on their individual angles on the Russian aggression.
1. Powerful national narratives are driving the conflict.
Commissioner Sinkevičius launched the discussion by asking the journalists for their take on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech in February, in which he claimed that Ukraine is not a real country and expounded inaccurate anti-Ukraine narratives. Familiar with Russian national mythology, Vlad Makszimov agreed this type of narrative hasbeen readily used to justify Kremlin politics to the domestic audience for at least a decade, culminating in the annexation of Crimea, which was used as an anchor for Putin’s propaganda. Simon Townsley called out Putin’s tactic as counterintuitive. On the one hand, the Russian president tries to dehumanise Ukrainians. On the other hand, he poses as their liberator. As much of Russian national imagery is not only connected to Ukraine, but also positions itself firmly against the West, the Commissioner noted that Ukrainians are now also fighting for European values. Losing the war would be a humiliation to the democratic ambitions of the West, hurting its credibility. Jennifer Rankin added that the Kremlin has been spreading anti-Western sentiments for a long time, citing the example of state-owned broadcaster RT (formerly Russia Today).
2. Media influential as ever.
Because the war is so narrative-driven, media can influence the public opinion significantly. That is a double-edged sword, however – while photojournalists on the ground like Simon Townsley cover the war, Vlad Makszimov observed that even the most staunchly anti-Putin Russians are convinced by the propaganda. He attributes this phenomenon to the cognitive dissonance resulting from the contrast between the high cost and the pointlessness of the war. On top of that, generational divides are clear. In Ukraine, many younger people, including his own relatives, have been escaping Russian aggression, while some older members of society – again including his family – believe in the ‘Russian liberation’ narrative, proving the intensity of propaganda left over from the Soviet times. Asked about the success of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in emerging as the leader of the West, Jennifer Rankin said that, when addressing theEuropean Council and specific Member States, he did a brilliant job of using his acting background to make an impact and influence decision-makers. She said Zelenskyy successfully deployed his charisma to counter Putin’s narrative, as witnessed by the sanctions and decisions following his Council speech.
3. Toeing the line between curbing misinformation and censorship.
While many Russians do not believe in the war due to state propaganda, misinformation can also be found on social media across the world. The panellists agreed this is a very nuanced area. Simon Townsley recalled that many Ukrainian journalists he worked with were keen to shut down any non-supportive voices on the basis of misinformation, but commented that it is difficult to draw a line between that and censorship. Vlad Makszimov added that there appear to be many unintended consequences to curbing misinformation, as was the case with a right-wing Hungarian party that advocated for the partition of Ukraine on Facebook. After their account was shut down, they garnered a lot of sympathy for being ‘censored’. On the other hand, Jennifer Rankin noted that misinformation is not as prevalent this time around compared to the 2014 annexation of Crimea. The Ukraine-Russian war has united Western public opinion and statements unsupportive of Ukraine are considered fringe.
4. War is changing the news room.
Vlad Makszimov remarked that the mode of covering Ukraine has shifted. When the war broke out, ‘all hands on deck’ was the order of the day in the news room. In the beginning, virtually every new development on the ground was covered. Now, Ukraine is still a pervasive topic, but rather as an angle to every story – also due to limited resources of the media outlets. Jennifer Rankin observed that war coverage is not as intense as it initially was. Fatigue has not set in yet, however, and appetite for Ukraine war coverage remains high. In the Brussels bubble, Vlad Makszimov added, readers are more interested in the policy response and the implications of the war, as opposed to specific military developments. Reporting on the consequences of the conflict for Europe is particularly in demand, as more and more international actors become involved.