Russian State TV replaces entertainment with war propaganda
The hysteria on Russian state TV has reached a new level.
“Europe, you need to understand one thing: you will get a nuclear war! Yes – there will be a nuclear war,” screamed a commentator into the camera of the state Rossiya-1 channel this week.
Millions would have tuned in to hear the rant, in which Sergey Mikheev, a political scientist, argued that the West is preparing for a big war and is leaving Russia no choice but to go with the nuclear attack option.
Rants like Mikheev’s are easy to dismiss but Carl Bildt, former Swedish foreign minister, argues that we can no longer afford to ignore what is happening on Russian television.
Historian Timothy Garton Ash agrees. Paying attention to what goes out on Russian TV and what is being said to the domestic audience, he argues, is key to understanding the scale and nature of the threat that Putin poses to the world.
The Russian army is looking weak and humiliated in Ukraine, but at home the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has been put on steroids: independent channels have been shut down and main state television channels have replaced (link in Russian) all entertainment programming with political talk shows for the “duration of the military operation.”
Having banned the use of the word “war” in relation to Ukraine, Russian television is pumping out an unprecedented amount of war propaganda, all in the name of “denazification” — and not only of Ukraine.
“Brave Poles, there will be nothing left of your Warsaw in 30 seconds,” Mikheev screamed into cameras. A couple of days later, an editorial in Pravda called for “denazification” of the “hyena of Europe”: Poland.
“Of course, we have to be careful with extreme comparisons with Adolf Hitler, but for the first time I am comfortable making it,” Garton Ash told me. “If you had read Mein Kampf and taken it seriously, you would have been warned.”
FOOTSOLDIERS OF RUSSKIY MIR
But is Russian State TV Vladimir Putin’s Mein Kampf?
The concept of a “Russkiy Mir” (the Russian world) is the closest thing that Vladimir Putin has to an ideology. Sergey Mikheev, who is now calling for nuclear war with Europe, has been proselytizing it for years.
For most people in the West, Mikheev is a little known figure, dwarfed by the A-list propagandists like Margarita Simonyan, Vladimir Solovyov and Dmitry Kiselyov, who have spent years spewing hatred of the West at millions of Russians. But it is people like Mikheev, the footsoldiers in Putin’s propaganda army, that the Kremlin has relied on to push the messages of “Russkiy Mir.”
Russkiy Mir is not a doctrine, not even an intellectual construct. It is, rather, a pseudo-ideology that argues that Russian speakers should all unite because they share a culture superior to that of the West. The “proof” of this superiority lies primarily in Russia’s embrace of a traditional family and aggressive rejection of everything that deviates from it.
For years, Ukraine has been Russkiy Mir’s most important frontier. Its advocates, including Vladimir Putin himself, would present themselves as defenders of traditional values. They built a violent campaign against LGBTQ rights, came on Russian television to argue that men should be free to abuse their wives, argued that gay teenagers should be “re-educated” and that gender fluidity is one of the greatest dangers facing the humankind. They eventually got the Russian legislation changed to outlaw so-called “gay propaganda.”
In 2021, Vladimir Putin published a long essay titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in which he questioned the legitimacy of Ukraine’s borders. Petro Poroshenko, the former president of Ukraine, responded by equating the essay to Mein Kampf, because “it was preparing the Russian population for aggression.”
But in effect, this is exactly what Russian television has been doing for years before. Mikheev, a self-proclaimed chauvinist, was one of many propaganda foot soldiers who justified hatred for the West in the name of traditional values and argued for territorial expansion in the name of re-unification of Russian speakers. Putin’s infamous essay just sealed the deal.
While Russian television got on with the brainwashing, the West spent years obsessively trying to get into Vladimir Putin’s head: from George W. Bush who looked into his soul to endless articles psycho-analyzing Russia’s modern Czar.
Should they have been just watching Russian TV instead? “For sure,” says Timothy Garton Ash. “We simply did not see what was in front of our eyes and did not hear what was in front of our ears.”
For millions of people who live in Ukraine, a country that banned Russian television and spent years warning the West about its dangers, it is now too late. The hateful rhetoric has spilled off of TV screens, destroying cities and lives, killing children and forcing millions to flee.
But what about these new, outlandish nuclear threats that are being shouted from the screens of Russian state TV? Could they materialize too?
“There are plenty of opportunists who realize the Kremlin wants them to be war mongers,” says Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev. But, he adds, with “Putin so isolated and high on his own propaganda,” outlandish statements are worth paying attention to.
Like many (myself included), Kovalev, a former Coda editor and now investigations editor at the Riga-based Russian newsroom Meduza, did not believe that Russia would launch a full scale invasion of Ukraine in the name of defending the “Russian world” Putin’s propaganda machine spent years creating.
With the same machine now ramping up and giving the hateful rhetoric more airtime than ever before, opportunists and Kremlin strategists are feeding off each other in ways they have never done before. Not everything you hear on Russian State TV is a message from the Kremlin, but all of it is dangerous because in Russia, it is no longer clear who is influencing whom.
TRENDS WE ARE WATCHING:
Beyond the Western Bubble: Throughout the invasion, there’s been an idea bouncing around about how Ukraine is winning the information war. “I’m just never really sure these ideas are true,” disinformation-watcher Carl Miller told reporter Isobel Cockerell this week. “There’s a whole world out there for Russia to play with.” On March 2, a vast network of thousands of foreign social media accounts in Africa and Asia jumped into action to pump out the hashtag #IStandWithPutin. Miller described it as “clearly inauthentic and coordinated” activity, pushed by a range of accounts — some clearly bots — that usually tweet in support of Modi’s BJP party, Imran Khan, or Jacob Zuma to name a few. Suddenly, this apparently diverse range of accounts began tweeting in a symphonic chorus of support for a different leader — Vladimir Putin. When Miller woke up to this on March 2, he said he was “pretty astonished that Twitter was letting this trend.” And although it shows that the Russian narrative is gaining traction in online spaces outside the West, it’s important that we don’t use this hashtag as a bellwether of actual public opinion in those countries.
The story Isobel is looking into may indicate that the Russia info-op is not particularly concerned with winning the Western narrative right now. But makers of this video, promoted by Russian embassy accounts, look desperate for Russian to be liked. It uses the internet’s favorite tool — a cute pup to win your hearts and minds. Does it work? You be the judge.