The outbreak of the Ukraine war left journalists at Russia’s most prominent independent television channel with a stark choice: risk arrest because of a new government ban on their work, stop reporting or leave the country.
And so journalists at the channel, TV Rain, joined hundreds of Russian peers 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.
On Tuesday, however, days after a correspondent made an unscripted call to provide unspecified aid to Russian soldiers, the Latvian media regulator revoked the channel’s broadcasting license because of what it called “threats to national security.” As Latvian and Ukrainian authorities accuse the station of supporting Russia’s war effort, TV Rain is now engulfed in the biggest crisis of its turbulent 12-year history.
The controversy, which also cost the journalist his job, has also exposed how Russian political exiles are struggling to find a role in the conflict unleashed by their nation, particularly in Eastern European states like Latvia, which were once controlled by Moscow. In these countries, support for Ukraine is partly driven by fears of Russian aggression and suspicion of their own ethnic Russian minorities, and it plays out against a historical backdrop of hardships endured under the Soviet Union.
“The team left Russia to continue showing the reality of Russia’s war to Russian people,” said Vera Krichevskaya, a TV Rain co-founder based in London. “But we are left without a territory. We have no rights in Russia and we have no rights in Europe.”
The controversy began after Thursday’s live evening news show, when the correspondent, Aleksey Korostelev, a well-known TV Rain news host, asked viewers to send information on conscripted Russian soldiers to a tip line that the channel had established to publicize the irregularities in the mobilization effort.
The response was swift.
“When ‘good Russians’ are helping ‘bad Russians’ — can the world understand finally that they are all the same?” wrote Ukraine’s culture minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko.
The revoking of the station’s license came after an investigation into Mr. Korostelev’s remarks. The media regulator said that his comment was TV Rain’s third violation of its rules, adding that it had received classified information about the channel’s activities from the state security agency.
Last week, the regulator fined TV Rain for using a map showing Crimea as part of Russia and for referring to the Russian military as “our army.”
Latvia’s defense minister, Artis Pabriks, went further, calling for the expulsion of the channel’s journalists.
Even before Tuesday, Kremlin supporters had pounced, calling the backlash against the remark an example of European hypocrisy.
“The TV Rain drama has shown many anti-Putin émigrés that there’s no freedom there,” a former Kremlin adviser, Sergei Markov, wrote on Telegram.
To try to contain the damage, TV Rain fired Mr. Korostelev hours after his comment, adding that the company never had and never would provide aid to any military.
TV Rain has 3.7 million subscribers on YouTube. Around 18 to 22 million unique visitors view its YouTube channel alone every month, with up to 80 percent of them from inside Russia, said Tikhon Dzyadko, the station’s editor in chief. It also has a cable channel in five countries with large Russian-speaking populations.
The loss of the license has cost TV Rain its access to the Latvian cable network, and its YouTube channel inside Latvia could also be banned, said Ms. Krichevskaya, the TV Rain co-founder. She added, though, that TV Rain would continue streaming on social media in other countries until it obtains a new license.
One topic that has strongly resonated with the station’s viewers is President Vladimir V. Putin’s decision to mobilize at least 300,000 Russian men to replace his military losses in Ukraine. That decision has confronted millions of Russians with the reality of the war, which many had previously ignored or downplayed.
Since the start of the mobilization in September, TV Rain’s audience has grown fivefold, Ms. Krichevskaya said, pointing out that the silence on state TV caused Russians to flock to TV Rain to find out who was being called up and what awaited them at the front.
She added that by covering the mobilization, TV Rain could reach beyond opposition supporters to the apolitical majority of Russian people. As the channel focused its efforts on documenting mounting cases of draft irregularities and the inhumane living conditions of the mobilized men, its journalists felt, she said, as if they had begun contributing toward their overarching professional goal: stopping the war.
In a telephone interview on Sunday, Mr. Korostelev, the correspondent, said that in his appeal he had been trying to help conscripted Russian men by collecting information on the wrongdoings of authorities, and then documenting the cases. He was not soliciting matériel for them, he added.
He said that the controversy had exposed a fundamental dilemma facing Russian journalists, and antiwar Russian exiles in general: How do they connect with compatriots back home without minimizing their country’s aggression?
“Ukrainians are undoubtedly the first and foremost victims of this war, but the suffering of Russians is also important,” said Mr. Korostelev, who left Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. “If they are dying in this war, then they are also its victims.”
He said that he acknowledged the moral ambiguity of that position: Even moral support for Russian conscripts fighting an illegal war on occupied territory could indirectly contribute to Ukrainian deaths, he said.
Nevertheless, he said he would continue highlighting the injustices faced by ordinary Russians.
“I am a Russian citizen working for a Russian audience,” Mr. Korostelev said. “I will not assume a position that will turn me from a Russian journalist into a person who defends the interests of other people.”
Three TV Rain journalists resigned in solidarity with Mr. Korostelev. And his supporters say that portraying all Russian citizens as aggressors merely helps to perpetuate Mr. Putin’s rule by marginalizing his opponents.
“Aleksey was looking for new allies, was trying to destroy the walls of this ghetto into which the Kremlin is trying to corral the liberal opposition,” wrote Abbas Galiamov, a Russian political scientist, referring to Mr. Korostelev. Mr. Galiamov was a speechwriter for Mr. Putin but has broken with the Russian president.
In the Baltic States, though, attempts to humanize Russian soldiers are particularly contentious. Many Russian ethnic minorities in those countries support the Kremlin in its claims of the unity of Russian people, and their ranks are being swelled by thousands of Russian arrivals since the start the war.
After Mr. Korostelev’s comment, the Latvian security agency called Russian journalists in the country an “intelligence risk,” because they could have ties to Moscow’s intelligence agencies or because they could be spied on by the Kremlin.
But some Russian journalists in Latvia say stigmatization of any national group goes against the European Union’s fundamental values and tests the bloc’s commitment to support Russians fleeing political persecution.
“Latvia is committed to its policy of supporting independent media, including those forced to flee Russia,” Diana Eglite, spokeswoman for the Latvian Foreign Ministry, said on Tuesday. She added that her country had issued nearly 470 visas to Russian journalists and their families since the outbreak of the war.
However, “Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has changed the security situation dramatically, also for Latvia,” she added.
TV Rain has run into other problems in Latvia, Ms. Krichevskaya said, including over its reference to Russia’s military as “our army,” for which it was separately fined.
That, she said, highlighted a fundamental sticking point.
“To be accessible to Russian viewers, to be able to connect with them in a manner that they respond to, we have to speak to them as Russians,” Ms. Krichevskaya said. “We have to be able to say to them that our army is responsible for 40,000 atrocities.”
But the use of this phrase broke Latvia’s digital media law, creating, according to the government, the false impression that TV Rain may have been referring to the Latvian military.
Exiled Russian dissidents “cannot find the required message that will be simultaneously accepted in Europe, Ukraine and not alienate the Russian audience,” Maria Snegovaya, a Russian political scientist, wrote on Facebook.
“In the war you have to choose,” she added. “There’s no middle ground.”