Russia’s State Media Is Curbing Its Hostile Coverage of Ukraine
(Bloomberg) -- Even as Russian President Vladimir Putin masses troops near the Ukraine border and threatens action unless his demands from the West are met, there’s a potential positive glimmer emerging via the country’s state media.
With senior officials from Russia and the U.S. meeting this week in Geneva for high-stakes talks, the media in Russia has gone oddly quiet.
Hostile Russian coverage of Ukraine has declined since early December, following a steep rise in the months before, according to a study of almost 19 million online items with Russia’s “.ru” domain name by Semantic Visions, a Prague-based data analytics company that offers risk assessment to corporations.
The pattern is almost identical to last spring. In that case, negative Russian media sentiment toward the nation’s ex-Soviet neighbor peaked shortly before the government announced in late April that it was ending another major build-up of forces.
That came after the U.S. offered Putin an in-person summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in Geneva (they ended up meeting in June). There is now a renewed diplomatic flurry with talks between U.S. and Russian officials, again in Geneva, followed by other discussions including a NATO-Russia council meeting. Dialing back the heat in state media could be a move to see if such talks bear fruit.
There was no such decline in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea.
“As a master of the ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategy, Putin is looking forward to being praised as a peacekeeper,” Semantic Visions Chief Executive Officer Frank Vrabel said in a note. “Our data indicates he is once again playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the West.”
Media sentiment tends to boil ahead of war and is often manipulated by governments to prepare populations for conflict. Research has shown how the media was used to foment wars, including in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
Yet news coverage is just one indicator among many, as intelligence agencies, diplomats and others seek to parse the Kremlin’s true goals and intentions.
It’s unclear just how much Russian news organizations -- let alone less formal outlets among the 24,000 sources scraped by Semantic Visions -– reflect Putin’s thinking. If media sentiment does indeed presage Kremlin policy, it’s taking longer than last April.
More granular evidence, such as intelligence assessments of the build-up of Russian equipment and troops, suggests the risk of conflict remains. U.S. diplomats are increasingly concerned about the hurdles to a negotiated settlement, after the Kremlin published its sweeping demands for limits on NATO membership and deployments.
One worry is that diplomatic efforts to avert war probably won’t come quickly, according to Michael Kofman, research director in the Russia Studies Program at CNA, a think tank based in Arlington, Virginia. A large number of troops and their equipment can be kept in the field for at most a few months, while negotiating European security architecture could take years, he said.
Semantic Visions trawled for material over a 12-month period through Jan. 5. It takes in news blogs as well as output from government, company and academic websites. It doesn’t include social media content. Russia was also on national holidays from Dec. 31.
The company’s analysis was drawn from more than 55,000 news items that discussed Ukraine, after filtering out topics related to Covid-19, business and other issues with no relevance to political sentiment.
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