Putin Ascendent as Russian Media Says War in Ukraine is Near

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • Putin’s popularity has increased by 5 percentage points to 69% during the crisis in Donbass. Russia’s annexation of Crimea led to record approval ratings in 2014.
  • Representatives from breakaway states in Eastern Ukraine, Russian legislators, and Russian media persistently claim the Ukrainian government has violated ceasefire agreements and believe a Ukrainian invasion is imminent.
  • The likelihood of war during the Winter Olympics has subsided following meetings held by Putin, Xi Jinping, and Emmanuel Macron.
  • Russian leadership remains bellicose in its promises to “defend” Donbas and is likely to use supposed Ukrainian aggression as a pretext to covertly support Donbas fighters, providing reticent NATO members cover to claim an invasion has not occurred.
  • Russian state media continue casting the United States and Ukraine as the aggressors, promoting conspiracies that the US fabricated the crisis to sell weapons to Ukraine.

What Happened:

  • Tensions between Russia and Ukraine had escalated considerably ahead of the Olympics with partial mobilization of Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarussian armed forces, before receding somewhat following Xi’s request to Putin against invading and Zelenskyy’s statements calling for calm.
  • The crisis has revealed conflicts within NATO, including Germany disallowing Estonia from sending weapons to Ukraine, the Croatian president stating he would withdraw troops from NATO in the event of conflict, and the Czech president promising not to send troops to Ukraine.
  • Russia and Belarus conducted impromptu war games near the Ukrainian border in the first week of February.

What Was Said About Ukraine:

  • A leading Russian war correspondent claimed to have definitive evidence that Ukraine was preparing to break through the Donbas line of control. Moskovsky Komsomolets published an interview with a Luhansk fighter who claimed the war would begin during the Olympics. February 2–7, 2022
  • Belarus captured a Ukrainian drone that strayed into Belarussian air space, which the Belarussian Foreign Ministry said “deliberately provokes an escalation.” Russia has claimed that Ukrainian use of Turkish-built drones violates the Minsk Protocol. February 3, 2022
  • Following a difficult call between Biden and Zelensky, the US walked back earlier comments that suggested a Russian invasion of Ukraine was “imminent”. February 2, 2022

How Audiences Have Responded:

  • English-speaking audiences of Russian state media had mixed responses ranging from support of Russian narratives portraying Ukraine as the aggressor to outright denunciations of Russian claims. Russia expressed a slightly negative sentiment of -0.11 in English-language content to which audiences responded with a -0.13 sentiment score.
  • US state media had a more limited impact on English-speaking audiences. US state outlets expressed a neutral +0.06 sentiment in its English content, to which audiences responded with a neutral -0.04 sentiment score.
  • Russia had an outsized impact in Spanish-language content about Ukraine, publishing only 10% of all content but garnering nearly half of the 550k engagements in the past two weeks. The United States by comparison only attracted 7,000 engagements for its meager 600 posts.

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