Now that Vladimir Putin has launched a full-scale invasion against Ukraine, it is difficult to argue with the reality that Russia should now be considered a fully autocratic regime. Putin has shown that he is okay with disregarding long-standing international norms by authorizing the bombing of major Ukrainian cities— destroying infrastructure, and killing many innocent civilians.
During his address to the nation on February 24th, Putin announced the escalation of the war between Ukraine and Russia, which has been growing in intensity since the annexation of Crimea in February 2014. In his argument, he emphasized that he is not leading an invasion, but rather a “special military operation” to help “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine”— and most importantly, keep Russian civilians safe from Ukrainian aggressors.
I want to emphasise again that all responsibility for the possible bloodshed will lie fully and wholly with the ruling Ukrainian regime.Vladimir Putin — February 24th, 2022
As a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it has become increasingly clear that the idea of democracy no longer exists in Russia’s government. The transformation from the uncertain, somewhat democratic, “semi-presidential” federation, to full autocratic regime was swift— using the definition of an autocracy, it is now much easier to see that full authority lies completely in Putin’s hands.
The narrative that Russia is intervening to “liberate” Ukraine from the “tyrannical” rule of the Kyivan Regime has been broadcasted by Russian media across the world. However, there has also been immense backlash against these claims by Putin. The majority of the international community have condemned Russia’s actions and imposed harsh economic sanctions on Russia. NATO countries, including the U.S., have threatened military action if Putin chooses to cross into the borders of membering countries.
The use of media— television, radio, and the internet— in autocratic regimes has become increasingly used to quickly spread false information and help autocrats spread narratives that help justify their policy agendas. It can be argued that limiting media freedoms leads to democratic backsliding when autocratic populists, such as Putin, are able to justify and accomplish their political actions by enforcing censorship and neutralizing the media, through owning and controlling major media platforms and forcing independent outlets to “go out of business”, through the use of fear and coercion .
Using Bright Line Watches’s 7 Dimensions of Democracy, under the pillar of “Protections”, a government should not interfere with journalists or news organizations, and should also not engage in politically-motivated violence or intimidation .
As war continues in Ukraine, the national media in Russia— which primarily includes Russian-controlled channels such as “RT” and “Kanal Number 1”— continue to echo claims made by Putin in his initial February 24th speech, re-emphasizing his main points to the public.
Through this centralized media coverage, not much is reported about what is happening to Ukrainians— the rising death count, destruction of major cities, and emerging refugee crises— and not much is explained about the ramifications on Russia’s economy that are arising from the condemnation and sanctions imposed on Russia, as well.
Independent Russia media channels, such as “TV Rain” and “Echo of Moscow”— usually known for being more liberal, and less prone to spreading propaganda— have been blocked in Russia by the government. The claim is that these independent sources have violated a ban that states that you cannot call the war a war, or call out the Russian government for being guilty of an invasion.
The Russian government also released a statement that makes the spread of “fake” information about the government’s actions in Ukraine punishable by up to fifteen years in prison, curtailing the abilities of these independent media sources to safely operate, due to the Russian government’s use of fear.
In addition, the country’s national Internet agency, Roskomnadzor, has announced that they will be blocking access to Facebook in the country. This is especially worrying, as many Russians have turned to the Internet to obtain information to avoid the “unadulterated propaganda” that Russian television demonstrates, which keeps people guessing about what is fact and what is fiction, and erodes trust in the government .
Neutralizing the media
Since he began his rule over 20 years ago, Putin has “consolidated rule over the media on the cheap” , and has generally allowed for independent media sources to exist, while Kremlin-supported media sources have been put to the forefront. By being broadcasted nationally, they are the most well-known news sources that Russians have access to.
As a result, Putin is able to have “plausible deniability” about the extent of state control, while also having the ability to use the power of economic pressure and fear tactics to make sure that people comply with what his general “vision” is for how “much” freedom reporters are able to have in the country .
The way that Putin enforces censorship and neutralizes the media shows how Putin exhibits one of Linz’s four autocratic warning behaviors— being willing to censor information from political opponents, and minimizing the civil liberties of his people— through the use of censorship .
He is able to continue to spread propaganda that tries to help justify his undemocratic policy decisions to the people in Russia, and make them believe that what he is doing is ‘right”, or at least make them confused enough to not know the difference between fact and fiction, so that they begin to question the legitimacy of the government less and less .
What is next?
To demonstrate the extent to which Putin has been able to control his narratives through media, it is useful to analyze the Press Freedom Index’s report— initially reported by Reporters Without Borders in 2021— which looks at the issue of media freedoms in 180 countries. Russia was ranked 150th out of 180, and was categorized as being in a “difficult [media freedom] situation”.
However, while the Kremlin has a large control on the media, the war has brought out cracks on how intact the narrative is that the media portrays to Russians. Protests have emerged across the country, even after police have cracked down on anti-war protestors— people have been sent to jail, there has been state-induced violence— and yet, Russians are not backing down.
Now that Russia has invaded Ukraine, it will be interesting to note how the Press Freedom Index rating changes as a new report comes out for 2022, especially as the war unfolds and as Putin continues to try and control his narrative to paint himself as the hero (rather than as what he actually is).
With the rise of the internet, though, as more people begin to look away from state-controlled media channels— it is becoming clearer that no matter how many bans Putin continues to make on free media, it seems as though he doesn’t have as tight of a grip on his control as he previously might have thought he had . Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, “How Democracies Fall Apart — Why Populism Is a Pathway to Autocracy”. The Council on Foreign Relations, 2019.  Susan Stokes, “Lecture 1,” in Democratic Erosion. The University of Chicago: Class Lecture, 2022.  Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, “Subverting Democracy,” in How Democracies Die, 75-85. New York: Crown Books, 2018.  Scott Gehlbach, “Reflections on Putin and the Media”, Post-Soviet Affairs, 2010.
Hi! Great analysis of freedom of press in Russia; this was a very interesting read. Echoing your conclusion, I’m interested to see how the Press Freedom Rating Index changes in 2022 and, in particular, how (if at all) other states will react to such changes. In our class at Brown, we recently read a powerful piece on Stealth Authoritarianism (Varol, 2015). One of the aspects of the theory which I found convincing was the claim that stealth authoritarianism – i.e. authoritarian measures couched within a democratic disguise – is less costly than outright authoritarianism, because of the potential loss of legitimacy on an international scale. It appears that Putin is not particularly concerned with international legitimacy and coalitions. I think the extent to which other states react negatively to specific measures taken by Putin, such as those you mentioned in your piece, could have long lasting consequences. If the international community fails to specifically condemn Putin’s actions regarding freedom of the press, this may signal to other would-be-authoritarian regimes that repressive actions are permissible.