Manipulations, guessing game from experts and total hype: how Ukrainian media have been writing about the nuclear threat
The Kremlin has always emphasized the aggressor state's powerful nuclear potential, even before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, after the Russian troops deliberately shelled the industrial area of the South Ukrainian nuclear power plant on September 19, even absurd statements from the Russian side are no longer unambiguously perceived as "saber rattling." The resonance in both Ukrainian and Western mass media increased due to the Russian President's September 21 video address with "nuclear" threats. It would seem that the subject of the potential use of nuclear weapons is worrying in itself; however, not all media refrained from manipulation and fearmongering for the sake of getting more views. So, whose coverage of the nuclear threat met journalistic standards, and who was playing on people's nerves and hunting for hype?
For this article, IMI analysts monitored news and posts on the websites of ten online media (Suspilne.Novyny, Channel 24, TSN, Ukranska Pravda, RBC-Ukraine, UNIAN, GORDON, NV, Censor.NET, KorespondenT.net) for the period of September 19–26.
For some Ukrainian media, the nuclear threat has become a TOP topic. Among all the media included in the monitoring, Channel 24, TSN, and UNIAN wrote about the so-called "nuclear question" more often than others. It seems that they decided to “pad” their websites by making more content with comments from people whose names are “in the air.” As a matter of fact, some of the commentators have gained recognition precisely by "touring" as "experts" from topic to topic – even if their expertise in some specific issues, such as the nuclear threat, is questionable.
For example, TSN asked former State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev for his opinion on a potential nuclear attack and posted an article with a strange emphasis in the headline: "He is a coward:" Russian oppositionist predicts whether Putin will use nuclear weapons. It is not entirely clear if TSN believes that since Ponomaryov used to belong to the Russian political community at one time, he has earned the life-ling right to comment on any issue related to the Russian authorities to some extent. Or do the authors of the news item think that Ukrainians must surely be interested in the speaker's point of view just because he positions himself as a Russian oppositionist?
On the Channel 24 website, the subject of the nuclear threat was discussed with Russian journalist Igor Yakovenko, whom the media also calls "oppositional." "Many underestimated Putin's madness:" will the Kremlin will use nuclear weapons. We cannot help but note that Yakovenko's "predictions," like those of many other commentators whom the Ukrainian media has asked for an "expert" opinion on the "nuclear button," are mostly based on subjective speculations regarding Putin's mental health and sanity. Channel 24 journalists write: "'pressing the red button' is equivalent to suicide, and Putin does not seem like a suicide." Yakovenko, on the other hand, insists that "Putin is in a parallel reality, so a nuclear war is still possible." The thoughts of another Russian, political and public figure, blogger Mark Feigin, regarding the probability of nuclear weapons being fired at Bankova St. generally came down to a phrase that is difficult to argue with: "I don't rule it out [...] who knows." Putin is insane – Feigin on the possibility of nuclear weapons use and the Kremlin's other levers.
In fact, such "arguments" went hand in hand with predictions from astrologists and fortune-tellers. You may remind yourself how they "Wangaed about" on the probability of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine by reading IMI's article MARS IN CAPRICORN. WHAT PREDICTIONS DID ASTROLOGISTS HAVE ABOUT THE WAR IN THE DONBAS AND A POSSIBLE RUSSIAN OFFENSIVE IN 2022.
During September 19–26, IMI researchers recorded no predictions specifically about the "nuclear question" from magicians or astrologists in the Ukrainian media that we chose for this monitoring. Although, lest we be accused of being overly picky, we note that there have been such precedents before. Astrologer Vlad Ross assesses the threat of a nuclear war and talks about Putin's illnesses. However, there were plenty of articles with conjectures about a nuclear strike and its consequences, as well as manipulative headlines. For example, the UNIAN website had some articles that contradicted each other, although both were based on the opinion of military expert Oleh Zhdanov. Initially, they published an article which, said that "Russia is unlikely to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, the probability is very low," citing Zhdanov. Zhdanov explains the West's plan in the event of Putin's attempt to use nuclear weapons (video). And in a few days, the website posted a news item with the "clickable" headline "Putin's nuclear blackmail: Zhdanov explains how the dictator may strike Ukraine (video)." Zhdanov's opinion on the risks of using nuclear weapons was also requested by TSN, GORDON, Channel 24. However, it is unclear whether a military expert has the knowledge in such a narrow field to make assessments and what exactly he bases his predictions on.
A similar question arises regarding the expertise of political consultant Mykhailo Sheitelman, who used to be a personal consultant to Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky and now makes 11 minutes long predictions about the end of the war on the Ukrainian mass media! But, as they say, there is a nuance here. According to Sheitelman, it all will happen if Putin strikes Ukraine, and the Americans or the British strike Russia in turn. "The nuclear potential will fly towards Russia:" political consultant explains why the West will respond with an all-out strike. Ukrainian military expert Dmytro Snegiryov and Russian politician Gennady Gudkov also make bets on the "nuclear button activation," weighing the Russian dictator's mental health against his bluffing skill.
- Should Ukraine be afraid of Putin's new threats: expert on the Kremlin's nuclear blackmail
- The edge of madness. Will Russia dare to make a nuclear strike
For comparison, NV published a conversation with Polina Sinovets, head of the Center for Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, "One can forget about intimidation." Expert explains why it is not beneficial for the Russian dictator to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. The expert believes that if Russia employs nuclear weapons, Moscow will lose its last trump card in blackmailing Kyiv and the Western states, but she does not draw conclusions such as "will they or won't they." In addition, Sinovets reminded that there is an unofficial dialogue between the US State Department and Russia regarding the inadmissibility of using nuclear weapons. The media published news citing US officials who had confirmed that Washington is indeed holding talks with Moscow. For example, the adviser to the US President, Jake Sullivan, mentioned the "catastrophic consequences" Russia would face if it used nuclear weapons and the "decisive response" of the United States. Earlier, Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the White House's National Security Council John Kirby also emphasized the grave consequences a nuclear, aggressive state would face. And although there were no specifics in these statements – only warnings – both speakers and the media did not waste the opportunity to manipulate and promote themselves. The above-mentioned Oleh Zhdanov gave a radical interpretation of the words of the high-ranking US officials in TSN's "The US will launch a preventive strike: Zhdanov explained what will happen if the Russian Federation uses nuclear weapons" and Channel 24's "As soon as they start discussing a nuclear strike in Putin's bunker, it will be fired at immediately – Zhdanov." Channel 24 website also published an assumption from the adviser to the Ukrainian President's Office Oleksiy Arestovych, who said that the United States could respond to Russia's nuclear aggression – quote – "with a massive non-nuclear strike." Arestovych speculates whether Putin would dare to launch a nuclear strike on Ukraine and what the response would be. TSN also published a comment from Russian political scientist and publicist Andriy Piontkovsky, which he gave to Espreso TV with regards to the West's reaction to the Russian President's nuclear blackmail. Piontkovsky quotes some secret conversations with Putin with such confidence and in such detail that it appears as if he was personally there. "They told Putin that the use of nuclear weapons will not make the West capitulate, but on the contrary, it will be ready to use tactical nuclear weapons and other means and will deal a devastating blow to Russia, including Putin. To put it simply, he was told that he would be killed if he used nuclear weapons. They will kill him personally," says Piontkovsky. "The game is already over:" Piontkovsky speaks about the West threatening Putin for using nuclear weapons. Moreover, Piontkovsky assures Channel 24 that "the US has already developed a clear response protocol to the possible use of nuclear weapons by Russia." Russian-Israeli businessman Leonid Nevzlin, former board member of YUKOS oil company, shared similar guesses in an exclusive edition of Gordon. Nevzlin about the Russian Federation's nuclear blackmail: Biden, in the most diplomatic terms possible, told Putin: "We will end you, boy. Don't do that."
Any baseless assumptions without references to officials' statements or intelligence data should be treated rather as dubious content that does benefit anyone, because opposite opinions with no evidence only increase uncertainty and anxiety in the society. Moreover, replacing facts with assessments and prejudices is a direct violation of journalistic standards. The reality in which the discussion on the probability of nuclear weapons use and the assessment of risks have become real can already be shocking and frightening to many. Even official sources, who usually have more information, are now speaking cautiously, do not rush to conclusions and avoid harsh statements, because the topic is too serious and hardly anyone will dare to give any guarantees.
Suspilne.Novyny, Censor, Ukranian Pravda and NV wrote about the nuclear threat in the most "ecological" manner. These media avoided "clickable" headlines and manipulation in their content, gave "raw" facts, without emotional presentation or assessments, mainly in the format of short-back news. Moreover, on September 19–26, the listed mass media were reporting in various ways on the support for Ukraine in the world and the involvement of international institutions in helping amidst Russia's "nuclear blackmail" – namely on the day of Putin's September 21 video address:
- "Russia will not be able to win a nuclear war" – Stoltenberg critiques Putin's rhetoric (Suspilne.Novyny)
- Russia will not be able to win a nuclear war – Stoltenberg (Censor)
- Stoltenberg: Putin's speech demonstrates that the war is not going according to his plans (European Pravda)
- Kuleba and Grossi discuss the security and protection of the ZNPP (Censor)
- "Dangerous nuclear adventure." EU responses to Putin's threats and blackmail (NV)
- Zelensky: the world will not let Putin use nuclear weapons, but there are risks (Ukrainska Pravda)
Such news reduce the panic to a certain extent, because the Ukrainian audience sees that the West is determined and is figuring out a plan, unafraid of threats. For a better understanding, let's give an example an exactly opposite situation from the news of the same day (September 21) published on the Gordon website – emotional fearmongering occurs through the manipulative headline "Peace under threat." Borrell reacts to Putin's nuclear threats. The website's editors decided that "peace in the world is under threat," and not Borrell's calls on the international community to unite in order to prevent dangerous actions, is the most important part of the highest EU representative's post. Therefore, the audience may form a falsely negative impression of how Europe is responding to Russia's nuclear blackmail. Moreover, on the day the Russian President made his "nuclear threats," the Gordon decided to publish a post from the Telegram channel run by Ksenia Sobchak, whose point of view is increasingly similar to the Russian propagandists' "manual." The post is probably addressed to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who responded to Putin's threats by saying that he "does not believe that the world will allow the use of nuclear weapons." According to Sobchak, the US are deliberately provoking the Russian dictator to use nuclear weapons, and the worsening of Russia–Ukraine relations and Russia's so-called "special operation" took place against the background of – quote – "conversations, among all else, about the nuclear state status for Ukraine." Sobchak believes that "the US are provoking Putin" into a nuclear attack and that "it is either over or worse now" due to Zelensky's conversations about the nuclear status for Ukraine (Gordon).
This is not the first time that the Ukrainian media promote openly Kremlin narratives on their platforms or quote Russian propagandists for some unknown purpose. For example, on September 20, UNIAN news agency decided to treat their audience to a "cringeworthy" (as the authors themselves admit) statement from propagandist Simonyan's Telegram channel. She prophesized that Russia was "on the eve of a quick victory" or "the eve of a nuclear war." Propagandist Simonyan is hysterical: "The eve of a nuclear war." Also, UNIAN and Gordon cited a Telegram post by the State Duma deputy Gurulyov, who stated that Russia is not interested in using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, because "we are yet to live there." In addition, the Russian deputy threatened a nuclear attack on Germany and the UK – the latter, he says, will turn into a "Martian desert." Reproducing such extremist statements is unacceptable and does not carry socially significant information. We are not in the habit of retelling everything that the Kremlin fools publish on Ru TV and pro-government online media – so why we decided to make an exception now, when the situation is already tense?
- "Ukraine is of no interest:" Putin's associate threatens a nuclear strike on Germany and the UK (UNIAN)
- State Duma deputy Gurulyov proposes nuclear strikes on Germany and the UK: Ramstein air base is, of course, a tempting target, but not the most urgent one (Gordon)
TSN, in turn, published quotes by the Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs Uladzimir Makey, given during his interview with the French TV channel France24. Makey assured that a nuclear attack on Ukraine would not be carried out from the territory of his country. If you are already relaying statements by Russian or Belarusian officials, it is worth giving the news an extended background, so that their dubious statements are not perceived as truth. The head of the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs calls the Russian invasion a "war" and assesses the possibility of nuclear weapons being used.
RBC-Ukraine and Korespondent straight up "copypasted" publications from the Russian propaganda resource RIA Novosti, in which the deputy head of the Russia Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that Russia – quote – "is not threatening anyone with nuclear weapons," but warning about the risks of a Western intervention in the so-called "special operation" in Ukraine. Without a proper detailed background/refutation, posting such statements may be perceived as spreading Russian propaganda fakes. Merely citing Putin's September 21 video address with threats is not enough.
- Not threatening, but warning. RF makes another statement about nuclear weapons (RBC-Ukraine)
- Moscow clarifies their stance on nuclear weapons (Korespondent)
The Center for Countering Disinformation at the NSDC included the lies of the Deputy Head of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in its Russian fakes compilation. The list of misinformation is also available on TSN: "Russia has not threatened anyone with nuclear weapons:" what disinformation the enemy continues to spread.
Now let's move on to jeansa. Oddly enough, even the subject of the nuclear threat was not exempt from it. From the headline alone, it is already clear that the article Tymoshenko: Demilitarization and nuclear disarmament of the Russian Federation is the world's first priority task appeared on RBC-Ukraine as a result of collaboration with political PR specialists. Tymoshenko's Facebook statement, which was posted by the news agency, contains no specifics, proposals for resolving the issue, even appeals to Western leaders or tags to their official pages – only populist slogans of the "for everything good and against everything bad" kind. The politician calls: "It's time to put an end to blackmail and threats. The world must get a new security system."
Finally, about reviews and analytical content about the "nuclear question." Compared to the news, those were very few. The Western leaders' responses to threats of Russia using nuclear weapons have been compiled by TSN and KorespondenT.net. However, links to the original sources of the statements were not added. Links would have made it much easier for the audience to draw conclusions about the quality of those publications. After all, statements or quotes from foreign mass media are not always relayed correctly. We will cite the following TSN news item as an example: "The US secretly warned Russia about the consequences of a nuclear attack." The word "secretly" in the headline makes it seem that the US is conducting some negotiations with Russia behind the backs of Ukraine and the EU. In fact, the original publication in The Washington Post refers to private, not secret, talks. The meaning of the word "private" in English is not the same as the word "secret" – it is important to feel the difference so as not to distort the meaning of the text. UNIAN posted an in-depth article with world leaders' reactions to the nuclear threat and analysis by Ukrainian experts: "This is not a bluff: will Putin be allowed to press the nuclear button. Evropean Pravda, in turn, published the article "What will be the West's response to the Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine. Options and scenarios analyzed." The article is of high quality; however, there are no references to specific individuals anywhere ("There are also politicians in Europe (who specifically?) who believe that a nuclear strike will definitely not happen," "there is a hypothesis in the security circles..." "security analysts highlight..."). In addition, "Ukrainska Pravda. Lifestyle" published a humorous selection of social media memes created by Ukrainians in response to Putin's threats "Go to Shchekavytsia:" Ukrainians making intimate plans in the event of nuclear weapons use.
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