Russia is "the only country in the world capable of turning the USA into radioactive dust."
That was the declaration made recently on a major Russian state TV channel by the popular anchorman Dmitry Kiselyov. The coarse tone in which he delivered this message was every bit as menacing as the actual words.
Kiselyov is not a shock jock or a fringe lunatic. He has just been appointed by the Kremlin to be the general director for the newly created primary state TV news organization "Rossiya Segodnya." (That's "Russia Today" in translation, but it shouldn't be confused with "Russia Today," the Kremlin's foreign-language propaganda network). Kiselyov is speaking for the Kremlin, and he is giving voice to the genuine feelings of many Russian citizens today.
What is the import of this cryptic threat? For starters, it is an expression of the fierce anti-American hatred and scorn that permeates Russia's airwaves.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cabal have constructed a massive propaganda machine worthy of the infamous Nazi German propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Piece by piece, the independent media has been dismantled and its former owners, managers and news personalities cowed into submission. By contrast, the official state media enjoys a massive budget to fulfill its mandate to broadcast the Kremlin message.
That message is simple: Only a resurgent Russia led by Putin, and purged of its internal "traitors" can defend its people against a rapacious and evil West led by the archenemy America.
In some respects, this isn't a new message. Anti-Americanism was standard fare under the Soviet regime after all, with Soviet newspapers and television routinely portraying America as a crypto-fascist capitalist regime that oppressed both the world and its own citizens.
But back in those days most Russians took their government's crude propaganda with a grain of salt. Such skepticism is rare today. Today, the situation is completely, and dangerously, different. Russian media broadcasts a relentless message of an existential threat to Russia from enemies internal and external. In certain respects, it is not at all an exaggeration to compare the tone and mood to Germany of the 1930s. Kiselyov is venting the deep anger and resentment many Russians, but especially the ex-KGB officer Putin, have for America.
Most Russians, especially the elite, agree with Putin when he called the end of the Soviet Union "the greatest geo-political tragedy of the 20th century." Notwithstanding the fact that Russians (and their former imperial subjects) live infinitely freer and more prosperous lives today, in Soviet times Russia was a superpower on par with the United States. Maybe consumer basics like toilet paper were deficit goods, but Soviet citizens could take pride in Soviet military strength.
Now, however, America is the sole world superpower, and its military and diplomatic allies stretch across both the Atlantic and Pacific. Russia essentially has no allies, unless one counts the laughably pathetic so-called independent states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and cheap rhetorical support from the likes of Venezuela and Cuba. Like Germany after the First World War, Russia feels that it has unfairly lost both territory and national prestige, and that it is surrounded by hostile states bent on harming its vital interests and restraining its freedom of action.
In Soviet times, there also was a certain grim satisfaction, a national pride, that however bad things were, numerous smaller peoples, ranging from the Estonians to the Hungarians, were under the Russian boot. This sense of the loss of empire also explains much of the animus expressed today against countries like Estonia, Georgia, and now Ukraine.
To many Russians it is the ultimate ingratitude that these countries might wish to escape the Russian yoke. And the Kremlin is gravely alarmed that the last remnants of the old Soviet Empire — Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova — are slipping away into the arms of the West.
After the fall of the Soviet system, Russian leader Boris Yeltsin embraced freedom of the press. The independent media flourished in the 1990s as a result. But Putin leaves nothing to chance, particularly public opinion. Beginning shortly after his inauguration as president (and now seemingly President-for-Life) he began to "tighten the screws" on the media (yes, Russian uses the same expression as English).
First, major publishing houses under the control of oligarchs were pried loose from independent hands and sold to government-controlled enterprises. As oil prices began to rise at roughly the same time, the rhetoric slowly began to change. Russia's treasury and economy grew stronger thanks to the flow of petro-dollars, and the country's state-controlled media began a campaign to convince citizens that the days of weakness were over and that Russia was back as a world power to be reckoned with.
The Kremlin was deeply alarmed by the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, where pro-Western governments replaced formerly reliable client regimes in Tbilisi and Kiev. The message being broadcast became increasingly anti-American: These popular revolutions were in fact covert operations by the CIA and other U.S. covert agencies to overthrow legitimate pro-Russian governments with fascist coups.
The tone and message intensified with the 2008 war with Georgia. The airwaves were filled with hysterical claims of Georgian "genocide" against the Russian-allied Osettian population (124 civilians were killed in the brief fighting). Conveniently forgotten were the tens of thousands of Russian citizens killed during two savage wars the Russian military conducted in Chechnya. And a new front was opened in the anti-American media campaign with the claim that America was using Georgia as a means of militarily threatening Russia.
Now with a new people's revolution underway in Ukraine, the Kremlin-directed state media are indulging in increasingly exaggerated and sometimes outright untruthful claims. For example, 94 people were killed by snipers on Kiev's Independence Square, and it is widely acknowledged that former President Viktor Yanukovych's security services were responsible, acting on his orders with Russian encouragement. Yet according to Russian media, the snipers were in fact either mercenaries from the American company Blackwater or shadowy Baltic operatives acting glove-in-hand with the democratic opposition, killing protesters to discredit the Russian-backed Yanukovych regime.
What is the "evidence" for this outrageous story? Russian security services tapped and then leaked a phone call between the foreign affairs ministers of the EU and Estonia where the Estonian asked, "Can we be sure who is doing the shooting?" This out-of-context snippet has been played and replayed on Russian state TV ad nauseum. Most Russians I speak to cite it as proof positive that it was American mercenaries murdering people on the streets of Kiev.
There has also been a steady drumbeat of hysterical accusation that the February revolution in Kiev has been led by hyper-nationalistic fascists and neo-Nazis determined to deprive Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine of their rights as citizens.
This propaganda is also based on scant real evidence. There are right-wing elements in Ukrainian politics, and they played a role in the street protests that overthrew Yanukovych. But they are more dedicated to defending Ukrainian national identity and the place of Ukrainian language as the single countrywide state language. In these respects they differ little from the far-right parties in France, Hungary, and other European countries.
In my own conversations with members of Svoboda and Pravi Sector, the two groups usually singled out for these accusations, I heard nothing to suggest neo-Nazi leanings. In fact, Russian is commonly spoken throughout Ukraine, it remains a second state language in several eastern provinces, and contrary to statements from Putin and other Russian officials, nobody from the Kiev government has advocated violence or other repressive measures against Russian speakers. Unfortunately, however, most people in eastern Ukraine watch Russian state media, and the Kremlin propaganda machine has convinced some of them that the Kiev government has been overtaken by neo-Nazis and fascists intent on doing them harm.
So far this toxic brew has led to a crackdown on dissent and laws expressly aimed against "undesirable elements" like gay people, a xenophobic fear of America and NATO, and popular support for the invasion of a neighboring country in order to annex its territory. Most Russians uncritically believe these propagandistic messages and unreservedly support the Putin regime.
The situation can easily get much worse before it gets better, especially if Putin begins to actually believe his own propaganda. And there are many signs that this obsessed former spy chief has started to do so.
Mark Nuckols is a professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, based in Moscow.
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