The Russian Media and the Fall of Aleppo

State-run outlets are essential to making the case for Putin’s intervention in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on the viewfinder of a camera during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, Russia, December 23, 2016. (Sergei Karpukhin)

The shocking murder of Andrei Karlov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, generated a swell of outrage across Russia, much of which would sound familiar to Americans. Karlov was widely described as a patriot and skilled diplomat. “He was killed carrying out his duties,” said the chairman of the Russian parliament’s lower house, which observed a moment of silence for Karlov. Russia’s Foreign Ministry called the attack an act of terror. President Vladimir Putin condemned it as a blow against the Russo-Turkish relationship and the “peace process in Syria.” Similar or identical formulations have been repeated across Russia’s state-run media, where most Russians get their information.

But one element was notably lacking. The Syrian city of Aleppo, held for years by anti-government rebels, had just fallen to Bashar al-Assad’s regime while suffering terrible casualties. Russian airstrikes and other military assistance made the regime’s victory possible, and the ambassador’s killer seemed to have a message for Moscow. His shouted motivation—“Don’t forget Aleppo!” and “We die in Aleppo, you die here!”—featured prominently in Western stories detailing the assassination, sometimes even in their very first lines. But it was conspicuously absent in the Russian press. One segment on Russia’s state-run Vesti news program included interviews with witnesses and even showed footage of the gunman yelling at the cameras, but provided no audio or translation. Another investigation into the killer’s background, in which the anchor noted that “there are many versions” of what may have driven him and that “all must be investigated,” cited theories advanced by Turkish officials that he had been associated with the anti-government Gülen movement, but failed to mention Aleppo. These and other stories about the assassination never failed to echo the line set by Putin and other senior officials: That the attack was a cowardly blow against Russia for taking on international terrorism, a savage response to a mission whose righteousness is self-evident.

This coverage fits neatly into the narrative that Russia’s largely state-run mainstream press has pushed about Syria ever since its intervention to prop up the Assad regime began in the summer of 2015. In this alternate world, the Russian-supported Syrian advance on Aleppo marked the city’s triumphant liberation from terrorists and jihadis. Meanwhile, the images of suffering civilians which have outraged the world and the atrocities painstakingly documented by human rights organizations seem to barely register. If you’ve ever wondered how ordinary Russians—folks who go to work each day, love their children, are kind to their pets, and run fundraising campaigns for orphanages—could countenance their country’s wholesale slaughter, the Russian media is your answer.

Consider a typical segment, aired last Saturday on Novosti, a news program on Russia’s state-run Channel One. “Peaceful residents are returning to Aleppo’s liberated neighborhoods,” the anchor began. A reporter interviewed a young boy who had been wounded by an exploding mine. He then followed a crew of Russian sappers clearing mines from the grounds of a school, assisted by a dog named Berta. Aleppo was returning to life as thousands of people filled its streets, the reporter said. “The people,” he intoned, “have heard statements by Western politicians about the delivery of mythical humanitarian assistance to Aleppo.” In other words, the segment implied, Western promises about being on the side of the Syrian people had, once again, rung hollow. Instead, as the next shots of aid deliveries suggested, it was the Russians who were really bringing the goods.

In another scene, interviewees talked about their mistreatment in Aleppo under rebel rule. “Now these horrors can be forgotten,” the reporter continued. “Syrian forces are continuing to liquidate bands in eastern Aleppo. And the local citizens are sure it will be only a matter of time.” In these images, Russia’s presence in Syria is presented as a mission of liberation and renewal. Not only have the rebels, unfailingly referred to as “terrorists” or “militants,” been destroyed; thanks to Russia’s generous assistance, a return to ordinary life is now just around the corner.

The segment, which lasted only a few minutes, managed to present an image of Aleppo that couldn’t be more different from the version seen around the world. For Russians, instead of ruin and destruction, the battle for the city looked like a triumph of decency and civilization. In a way, the presentation is not dissimilar from how the Soviet “liberation” of Eastern Europe from the Nazis is still taught and remembered in Russia.

A comparison with Western reporting from Aleppo around the same time is instructive. The Independent warned of “house-to-house murder.” ITV News reported shootings of fleeing civilians. Just days prior, The New York Times reported “execution-style killings” and bodies piling up in the streets. In a widely cited quote, the United Nations despaired at the “complete breakdown of humanity” in Aleppo. The Russian reporting, by contrast, made no reference at all to the city’s humanitarian catastrophe. It did not discuss the suffering of civilians at the hands of the Syrian forces it supports in its war against the rebels. Like Assad, it described without distinction all those opposing the Syrian army as “terrorists.” And it focused on subjects that are compelling but very narrowly focused—mine-clearing, delivery of food aid—without providing the wider context of a city laid to waste by Russian and Syrian forces.

The best propaganda—and Russia’s is arguably the most sophisticated in the world—doesn’t have to lie, exactly. Instead, it presents a careful selection of convincing facts that point to just one side of the story. It shows people celebrating their liberation in government-controlled western Aleppo, for example, while failing to show any images from the city’s decimated eastern half. In so doing, it takes advantage of the inherent mismatch between the world, with its infinite happenings, and a news cycle in which only a tiny fraction of the world’s infinite happenings can be presented.

While undoubtedly offering a clearer account of the war than their Russian counterparts, Western news outlets have also been criticized for failing to give the full picture on Syria. For example, consider this four-minute Vox video that purported to “explain” the fall of Aleppo, emphasizing Russian bombardment and Syrian government atrocities. It presented the battle for the city as a tug-of-war between two sides—the “government” and the “rebels”—of which the government is the only one committing any atrocities. “They make some valid arguments,” Konstantin Benyumov, an editor with the independent Russian publication Meduza, told me. “On the other hand … they’re not making the effort to inform the audience that there are various groups within the rebels with connections to al-Qaeda.” In October, PRI’s The World interviewed a Syrian-American who criticized the Western media for downplaying the presence of extremists among the rebels and the suffering of their victims. Some Western news organizations also have the problem of relying excessively on official sources—as New York Times editors acknowledged the paper did “in a number of instances” in the run-up to the Iraq war.

But the state-run Russian media occupies an entirely different place on the narrative spectrum. “The [Russian] state-owned media doesn’t function as media normally would,” Benyumov said. “They don’t see it as their job to verify information, necessarily, that they’re getting from the Russian defense ministry or other officials. That’s just not how they operate. They merely convey the official message.”

Given the advances made in recent weeks by the Syrian regime—and the key role Russia has played—it’s useful to pay attention to how Moscow is presenting the story. But, as a new administration takes control in Washington, it’s also more important than ever to be clear-eyed about what’s happening on the ground. A sophisticated approach to understanding the Syrian conflict surely includes an appreciation of how radically the Russian narrative differs from America’s, and all the myriad ways in which it obscures what’s really happening.