Commentators on Russian state television have been forced off script by the rapid advance of Ukrainian forces into the country’s Kharkiv region and swift withdrawal from Moscow.
Since the start of what Russia calls its “special military operation”, belligerent guests on state television talk shows have often tried to outdo each other by supporting President Vladimir Putin and denouncing Ukraine and its allies.
However, after the kyiv Lightning Counteroffensive, the mood was muted and the narrative turned to how Ukrainian forces overwhelmingly outnumbered the Russians in the northeast.
The Rossiya 24 news channel interviewed Vitaly Ganchev, a Russian-appointed administrator in the Kharkov region, on Monday, who said Russian troops in the province had been outnumbered “eight times.” He also said, without providing evidence, that the Ukrainian forces had been reinforced by “Western mercenaries.”
“A most difficult week at the front,” presenter Dmitri Kiselyov said at the opening of his prime-time show on Sunday night.
Under a backdrop reading “Regrouping”, Kiselyov said Russian forces had abandoned “previously liberated settlements” under pressure from “superior enemy forces”.
In a rare display of dissent, Boris Nadezhdin, a former liberal politician and regular talk show guest, told the Gazprom (MCX: GAZP )-owned NTV channel that Putin had been misled by his advisers into believing that Ukraine was surrender quickly and urged immediate peace talks to end the conflict.
Other presenters opted for a positive spin.
On the daily talk show 60 Minutes, host Olga Skabeyeva opened Monday morning’s broadcast by describing Sunday’s Russian shelling of Ukrainian power plants and the resulting power outages in eastern Ukraine as “a turning point in special military operation.
Several guests also brought up Putin’s remarks from July in which he claimed that Russia “hadn’t started anything serious yet” and said that Moscow was now going to step up military action.
Press coverage of the Russian withdrawal was framed by words from the Defense Ministry about a “tactical redeployment” of its troops, although some newspapers quoted military experts as suggesting that all had not gone as planned.
The Izvestia newspaper, in its weekend summary, said that Russia had killed 4,000 Ukrainian soldiers and that the military had “redeployed forces to focus on Donbass.”
Nezavisimaya Gazeta was more critical, saying the Russian Defense Ministry had not commented on “extremely disturbing reports from Ukraine (…) for several days.”
The newspaper noted that while Ukrainian forces were advancing on Russia’s western border, Moscow’s military leadership was thousands of miles away in the far east of the country for annual war exercises involving 50,000 soldiers.