A Russian journalist’s reference to Russian forces sparks anger and soul-searching

The outbreak of the Ukraine war left journalists on Russia’s most prominent independent TV channel with a stark choice: the risk of arrest due to a new government ban on their work; Stop reporting or leave the country.

And so the journalists of TV Rhein joined hundreds of their Russian counterparts in exile. Eventually, they settled in neighboring Latvia, where they continued to counter the Kremlin’s propaganda and denounce its aggression to millions of viewers back home.

Now, though, a reporter’s unwritten call for unspecified assistance to Russian soldiers has swept TV Rain into the biggest crisis in its turbulent 12-year history, with Latvian and Ukrainian commentators accusing the station of supporting Russia’s war effort. The journalist lost his job. The Latvian government launched an investigation into the station on suspicion of aiding a sanctioned country; Local regulators have warned that the station could lose its licence.

The controversy reveals how Russian political exiles struggle to find a role in the conflict unleashed by their nation, particularly in Eastern European countries such as Latvia, which was once controlled by Moscow. In these countries, support for Ukraine is partly motivated by fears of Russian aggression and suspicion of its own Russian ethnic minorities, and plays against a historical backdrop of the hardships they experienced under the Soviet Union.

“The team left Russia to continue showing the Russian people the reality of the Russian war,” said Vera Krychevskaya, a London-based co-founder of TV Rain. But we were left without land. We have no rights in Russia and we have no rights in Europe.

The controversy began after Thursday’s live evening news show, when TV Rain’s popular correspondent, Aleksey Korostelev, asked viewers to send information about Russian soldiers to an information line the channel had set up months earlier to publicize irregularities in the mobilization effort. .

He added, “We hope to be able to help many military personnel, among others, with equipment or just the basic amenities at the front.”

The response was fast.

Ukraine’s Minister of Culture, Oleksandr Tkachenko, wrote, “When ‘good Russians’ help ‘bad Russians’ — can the world finally understand that they are all the same?”

The Latvian government, which has already had strained relations with exiled Russian journalists, on Friday announced its investigation into the TV Rhein case. Separately, the local media regulator fined the channel €10,000 for previously using a map that placed Crimea in Russia, and for referring to the Russian military as “our army”.

The regulator added that another violation would result in the suspension of TV Rain’s broadcast license.

Latvia’s defense minister, Artis Pabriks, went further, calling for its journalists to be fired.

Kremlin supporters pounced, calling the reaction an example of European hypocrisy.

“The Rain TV drama showed many anti-Putin emigrants that there is no freedom there,” Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser, wrote on Telegram.

To contain the damage, Mr. Korostelev was shot by TV Rain hours after he was suspended, adding that the company has not and will never provide any assistance to any military.

In a message on Telegram on Friday, Mr. Korostelev agreed with the management’s decision and apologized for his comment, which he said was taken out of context.

But the backlash continued. Mrs. Krichevskaya, co-founder of TV Rain, said Mr. Korostelev’s comment could make the channel’s Latvian operations untenable, and ruin a year of painstaking efforts to build trust with the Ukrainians.

TV Rain has 3.7 million subscribers on YouTube. Tikhon Dzyadko, the station’s editor-in-chief, said that between 18 and 22 million unique visitors view her YouTube channel alone each month, up to 80 percent of them from within Russia. It also has a cable channel in five countries with a large Russian-speaking population.

One theme that resonated strongly with viewers was President Vladimir Putin’s decision to mobilize at least 300,000 Russian men to replace his military losses in Ukraine. This decision confronted millions of Russians with the realities of war, which many had previously ignored or underestimated.

Since mobilization began in September, viewership of TV Rain has increased fivefold, Ms. Krychevskaya said, noting that the silence on state TV prompted Russians to flock to Rain TV to find out who had been called up and what was waiting for them at the front. .

She added that by covering the crowd, the television rain could bypass opposition supporters to the apolitical majority of the Russian people. As the channel focused its efforts on documenting the spiraling cases of conscription and the inhumane living conditions of the Templers, its journalists felt as if they were beginning to contribute to their overarching professional goal: to stop the war.

In a phone interview Sunday, Mr. Korostelev, the reporter, said that in his appeal he was trying to help the Russian men enlisted by gathering information on wrongdoing by the authorities, then documenting the cases. He added that he was not asking them for equipment.

He said the controversy revealed a fundamental dilemma facing Russian journalists, and anti-war Russian exiles in general: How do they communicate with their compatriots back home without diminishing their country’s aggression?

“Undoubtedly, the Ukrainians are the first and most important victims of this war, but the suffering of the Russians is also important,” said Mr. Korostelev, who left Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. “If they are dying in this war, they are its victims too.”

He said he recognized the moral ambiguity of this situation: even moral support for Russian conscripts waging an illegal war on occupied territories could indirectly contribute to the deaths of Ukrainians, he said.

However, he said he would continue to highlight the injustices faced by ordinary Russian citizens.

“I am a Russian citizen working for a Russian audience,” said Mr. Korostelev. “I will not take a position that will turn me from a Russian journalist into a person who defends the interests of others.”

Three TV Rain journalists have resigned in solidarity with Mr. Korostelev. His supporters say that portraying all Russian citizens as aggressors only helps perpetuate Mr Putin’s rule by marginalizing his opponents.

“Alexei was looking for new allies, and he was trying to destroy the walls of that ghetto into which the Kremlin is trying to storm the liberal opposition,” wrote Abbas Galliamov, a Russian professor of political science, referring to Mr. Korostelev. Galliamov was a speechwriter for Mr. Putin, but he has severed his relationship with the Russian president.

In the Baltics, though, attempts to humanize Russian soldiers are particularly controversial. Many of those countries’ ethnic Russian minorities support the Kremlin in its demands for the unity of the Russian people, and their ranks have swelled with thousands of new Russian arrivals since the start of the war.

In a statement announcing the investigation on TV Rain, the Latvian security agency described Russian journalists in the country as an “intelligence risk”, because they could be linked to Moscow’s intelligence agencies or because the Kremlin could be spying on them.

But some Russian journalists in Latvia say stigmatizing any national group goes against the EU’s core values ​​and tests the bloc’s commitment to supporting Russians fleeing political persecution.

The Latvian media regulator did not respond to a request for comment.

Ms. Krichevskaya said TV Rhein had other problems in Latvia. Despite the majority of its viewers being Russian, the channel was fined by Latvian authorities for not including Latvian language subtitles on a programme, which it said put further strain on its already scarce finances.

And a separate fine on TV Rain’s reference to the Russian military as “our army” highlighted a more fundamental sticking point.

“In order to be able to reach Russian viewers, to be able to connect with them in a way that they respond to, we have to speak to them crosswise,” Ms. Krychevskaya said. “We should be able to tell them that our The military is responsible for 40,000 atrocities.”

But the use of the phrase violated Latvian digital media law, creating, according to the government, by leaving the false impression that TV Rain may have been referring to the Latvian military.

Maria Sengovaya, a professor of Russian political science, wrote on Facebook that exiled Russian dissidents “cannot find the desired message that would be accepted simultaneously in Europe and Ukraine and would not alienate the Russian public.” “It may be an unattainable task.”

“In war, you have to choose,” she added. “There is no middle ground.”

Milana MazevaAnd the Valeria SafronovaAnd the Neil Macfarquhar And the Andrew Higgins Contribute to writing the story.

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