Never heard of the "Crimean Spring?" That's probably because you haven't been watching Russian TV lately.
As troops have occupied Crimea in recent weeks, Russian TV has depicted President Vladimir Putin's annexation as an awakening that saved the region from being overrun by fascists -- part of a propaganda effort rivaling the machine that shaped public opinion a generation ago.
"What's happening now with state media and especially TV is unprecedented, even for the Soviet era," said Tatiana Vorozheykina, lead researcher at the Levada Center in Moscow, Russia's only independent polling company. "These are propaganda instruments and no one hides it."
The message is unrelenting: Correspondents across Ukraine and Russia weigh in several times daily with reports on chaos in Kiev, the desperate plight of Russian-speakers under the new regime, and the overwhelming support of Russians for the annexation. The campaign crowds out debate and helps bolster Putin's approval rating.
In today's privatized media environment, the news is packaged much more slickly than ham-handed Soviet-era fare -- no more turgid reports of government ministers visiting collective farms -- but it still follows the party line.
State-run channels such as the all-news Rossiya24 are complemented by NTV television, owned by Gazprom-Media, an arm of the state-controlled gas monopoly OAO Gazprom. Ren-TV and Channel 5 are owned by billionaire Yury Kovalchuk, a close adviser to Putin and among the 20 officials targeted by U.S. sanctions.
"The media are a weapon for the Kremlin," said Jadwiga Rogoza, an analyst at the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw.
A recent evening newscast on Channel 1, one-quarter controlled by Kovalchuk and the rest by the state, showed smiling women holding babies in the Crimean city of Simferopol, cheering on Russian troops. The focus shifted to Kiev, where the correspondent described a chaotic situation and the shooting of three traffic cops. It then turned back to Russia, where a grizzled veteran at a St. Petersburg rally held aloft a "Bravo Putin" banner and a middle-aged man got teary-eyed as he lamented the situation of Russian children in Crimea.
"A new generation of propagandists has grown up, and they are very creative," said Galina Timchenko, former editor of news website Lenta.ru. "Russian propaganda is now more agile than in Soviet times."
Deputy communications minister Alexei Volin disputes the suggestion that Russian media use their position to unduly influence public opinion.
"In modern democratic Russia, there is no propaganda machine," Mr. Volin said in an e-mail. "It's not those who criticize that get closed. Those who break the law do."
Independent media that have been sidelined include Kasparov.ru, a forum for Putin opponents run by ex-chess champion Garry Kasparov. Access to the site was blocked on March 13 for allegedly calling on Russians to join unauthorized rallies. And in January, many leading cable television systems dropped Dozhd, an independent TV station that had given airtime to dissident rockers Pussy Riot.
Editors and reporters at outlets who don't toe the line can be fired or demoted. Yuri Fedutinov, director of Ekho Moskvy radio, which often criticizes the Kremlin, in February was replaced with an executive from state-funded Voice of Russia. Writing in the daily Vedomosti this month, Andrei Zubov likened Crimea to Germany's 1938 annexation of Austria. On March 24, his employer, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, said Zubov's contract had been canceled due to his "inappropriate" public statements.
Lenta.ru editor Ms. Timchenko was sacked after she ran an interview with the leader of a Ukrainian ultra-nationalist group. Roskomnadzor, a government agency that regulates the media, had said the site was publishing "extremist content."
"My dismissal was partially related to our Ukraine coverage, but it has more to do with the gradual elimination of free media," Ms. Timchenko said.
With such pressure increasing, the bulk of news outlets hew close to the message the government wants them to deliver, said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a political research group.
"There is a shared line of coverage but not necessarily a centralized guiding body," Ms. Lipman said. "Media executives just know what the line is, and many of them feel that way too."
Indeed, even before the current crisis, most Russians believed Crimea belongs to their country. For decades, Ms. Lipman said, polls have registered overwhelming support for that view.
"I don't think TV is able to completely overturn people's beliefs," Lipman said. "This propaganda is falling on fertile soil."
~ Bloomberg News ~