Moscow has a tight grip on Russia's media. But instead of trying to fully control the few remaining independent media outlets, it learned how to manipulate them for its own purposes.
Since its invasion of Ukraine, even as it struggles on the battlefield, Russia has made significant progress on how to win on the information frontline inside the country.
Exiled Russian-language media outlet Proekt reports that Russians and people around the world have lost their last hope at actually understanding the Kremlin's actions.
That's because Russian leaders have learned how to play the few remaining independent Russian media outlets with Kremlin-spun “insights”. These are then used by the foreign media and key decision-makers at home and abroad.
One of these outlets is Meduza, an influential Russian- and English-language news website based in Riga, Latvia.
The Kremlin effectively deprived journalists of the opportunity to learn information directly and openly from officials. So, some media outlets began to pass off political strategists and experts as sources in the government. The war has only worsened the situation: millions of people read unverified rumors and make critical decisions based on them.
"High-ranking federal official"
In February 2017, for example, Sergei Kirienko, Putin's new first deputy head of administration in charge of domestic policy, invited a group of Russian journalists for a closed meeting.
Correspondents from newspapers, magazines, and online media had been coming to such briefings for years. They needed insider information, and meetings with top Kremlin officials were a good excuse to get it. What’s more, journalists accessed the Kremlin to get acquainted with lower-ranking officials. Through such acquaintances, important news with links to Kremlin sources appeared in the Russian and foreign media.
Meduza's articles sometimes stunned other journalists, but the flow continued unabated.
By Kremlin standards, Kiriyenko was very outspoken that day, and his statements interested the audience. Kiriyenko was only allowed to be quoted as "a high-ranking federal official." While only newspaper journalists went to the briefings, few paid attention to the fact that quotes by Kremlin sources periodically appeared at the same time in different media outlets.
Scoops and sources
A few weeks later, the Kremlin reconvened a group of journalists and made it clear that it would now fight leaks from officials and instead would give comments from pro-Kremlin experts. Since then, Kiriyenko has never briefed again, and many of his subordinates have shut themselves off from the press.
True, readers were still interested in insider information from the Kremlin, and the media did their best to accommodate them. Meduza was the most active in this way: by the end of 2018, it had become almost the leading supplier of news based on "Kremlin sources."
At some point, the publication editors decided to provide readers with exclusive information. In 2019, Meduza set up a never-before-seen conveyor belt, first publishing two domestic political exclusives a month, and after Russia attacked Ukraine, eight per month.
Meduza's articles based on Kremlin sources sometimes stunned other journalists and provoked accusations on social media, but the flow of such stories continued unabated. In particular, Meduza, citing Kremlin sources, named different dates for the referendum on the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). Five days before the war, it claimed that Russia had no plans to attack Ukraine.
Screenshot of Meduza's homepage
Inside Putin's mind
Ivan Kolpakov, Meduza's editor-in-chief, did not answer where these sources work or whether any of them are current Kremlin officials.
However, the most surprising thing is not the erroneous forecasts but that the publication dared to publish anonymous sources' accounts of what is going on in the minds of Putin and his subordinates. Here are some examples of such statements:
"There is an understanding (among the elite), or wishful thinking, that he (Putin) will not run the state in the fairly foreseeable future."
"Putin hates Lukashenko to the point of shaking."
"Putin approves of..."
"Putin remembers the 90s very well."
"Putin can't wait."
The problem with false forecasts
Meduza's false forecasts would have remained its problem if not for the many people who read them, who then used them to make important decisions about their future.
For example, in May, the newspaper promised that "we shouldn't wait for mobilization in Russia.” But when mobilization was announced, "a source close to the presidential administration" pledged that it would take place like this: "They will invite people to verify the data. They will insistently offer to sign the contract voluntarily. Many will be pressured. Those who disagree will be released and mobilized later."
Once again, the forecast did not come true.
In practice, the most common mobilization scenario looked like this: a person showed up for verification of documents but was immediately sent to a collection point, to a training unit, and then to the front line.
But the essential prediction of Meduza was the decision to go to war. On Feb. 18, 2022, five days before the invasion of Ukraine, "Kremlin sources" told the publication that Putin was not planning to recognize the LNR and DNR as independent republics in the short term. No war, the sources claimed, was planned, and "the constant statements [by U.S. intelligence] about new invasion dates are getting tiresome."
Once again, the forecast did not come true, but the Kremlin "insiders" in the Meduza have become even more numerous than before the war.