The horror that unfolded when a Russian missile struck a shopping mall in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk was shown around the world. But if you were watching Russian television that day, you would probably have seen nothing about it.
The Russian media blackout on the attack, which left at least 18 people dead according to the Ukrainian government, is part of a playbook on how similar attacks have been handled as the Kremlin tries to present itself as a liberating force that does not harm civilians.
And with images of charred bodies emerging in the foreign press, Russian officials began to declare the strike a “Bucha-like provocation”, disregarding evidence of war crimes amid growing international isolation.
Television, the most closely controlled sector of the Russian media, did not mention the strike in the main evening news broadcasts on Monday. Only when it was confirmed by the Russian defence ministry, which claimed without evidence that there had been ammunition stored in the shopping centre, did most Russian media begin coverage.
The blackout extended far beyond state-owned media. Private radio, online and print media also toed the Kremlin line, with tabloids such as the pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda and the business daily Kommersant ignoring the strike. Even private newswires such as Interfax did not mention it until Tuesday, carefully presenting their pieces as responses from Russian officials calling the attack a fake.
The response is a part of Russia’s evolving wartime propaganda. On the first day of the war, Roskomnadzor, the Russian censor, wrote that media were “obliged to use information and data they obtain only from official Russian sources”. Since then, local media have either been shut or have learned to take their cues from the Russian military before reporting the news of the day.
Channel One, Russia’s main television channel, began its Monday evening news broadcast with the story of a Russian soldier receiving an award from the Kremlin. The broadcast then moved on to Russian strikes against Kyiv, parroting claims by the Russian defence ministry that damage to a residential building was caused by Ukraine’s own air defence systems rather than a Russian missile.
“This is the building they’re talking about,” a reporter intoned with derision. “Western channels have presented it all as though our military hit a civilian building. But the rockets were actually Ukrainian and the building, according to available information, was empty since April.”
The pattern repeated itself with the strike in Kremenchuk, with a few Russian pundits preparing the ground to call it a fake even before Moscow commented.
“We should wait for official comment,” said Vladimir Soloviev, a popular Russian talkshow host. “But this site has probably been used by the [Ukrainian] military for a long time. There are very few women for some reason.”
Russian media that did race ahead were left reporting two contradictory stories: that there was no evacuation because the shopping centre had long been closed down, and that Ukrainians had been killed because the shopping centre was being used as an ammunition depot.
“It doesn’t even appear that the shopping centre was open,” wrote War against Fakes, a Telegram channel run by Russian state media. A day later, the Russian military produced a different story entirely, confirming a strike had taken place.
But that did not change the verdict delivered later by War against Fakes. “We have thoroughly reviewed where the missiles struck and why the Ukrainian version is not accurate,” it said.