Which territory should Russia annex next? A couple of Moscow’s ambassadors in Africa allegedly joked about that on the phone, according to a leak that sounds like the latest skirmish in the battle of intercepts. Forget “all these limitrophes,” one said, referring to territories on the Russian border; they’re “shit.” And maybe the European Union would like to give back Romania and Bulgaria. No. Better for Russia to annex Venice, Catalonia or Alaska (all of which have well-publicized if improbable secessionist movements). But best would be “Californialand” and especially “Miamiland,” where, one of the ambassadors said with some exaggeration, but perhaps not much, almost 95 percent of Russian citizens are living already. (The two voices on the line cracked up.)
The jokes in this phone conversation circulating on the Internet did not really surprise anybody in Moscow. After a state channel news presenter, Dmitry Kisilyov, reminded his audience that Russia is the only country in the world capable of turning the United States into “radioactive dust,” the idea of annexing, say, Scotland, did not really sound too shocking. In fact, jokes about conquest have become quite common lately.
In the seemingly tapped phone conversation posted on Youtube a voice described as that of Igor Chubarov, the Russian ambassador to Eretria, was laughing with his colleague, Sergei Bakharev, the Russian ambassador to Zimbabwe about the outcome of a United Nations vote declaring the Crimean referendum opening the way to Russian annexation invalid. Chubarov was a little embarrassed by Eretria’s decision to abstain, while Bakharev was chuffed that Zimbabwe supported Russia.
The alleged Chubarov voice says he’s taken to telling the other heads of mission in Eritrea that he has a very simple approach to the U.N. Just keep repeating: “Guys, we’ve taken away Crimea but it’s not the fucking end. [laughter] In the future we’ll take away your [laughter] Catalonia, Venice, as well as Cattleland [Scotland], and Alaska. And we’ll never rest content with that.” More laughter. The two alleged ambassadors spiced their jokes with foul language.
A former Kremlin insider, Stanislav Belkovsky, was neither surprised about the rude language used in the audio nor the passion for conquest in the jokes. “Authorities think that by rejecting America as the world’s policeman, they win, but they do not realize that if tomorrow something terrible happened to, say, the Russian embassy in Rwanda, they might need the American policeman to help them,” Belkovsky told The Daily Beast.
Even listeners of the liberal Echo of Moscow radio station often make jokes these days bragging about the Russian Federation taking away more territories populated by Russians. Those territories would include Brighton Beach, said a caller on Saturday with the radio’s host Olga Bychkova. As for the originality of the audio conversation of the two diplomats, Bychkova had her doubts: “Even I, with my average knowledge of audio editing could take any recorded speech and change the context of it the way I needed,” Bychkova told The Daily Beast.
The Russian ministry of foreign affairs denied everything about the audio recording and claimed even the photographs illustrating the conversation were inaccurate. A source quoted by Itar-Tass agency referred to the fake audio as a “rough and cynical” attempt to distract public attention from scandals around audios by Western diplomats.
Provocative leaked recordings appearing on YouTube have provoked several scandals in the past few weeks of information war between Ukraine and Russia. Last month, a leaked phone conversation was posted on YouTube that recorded Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet sharing his suspicions with the EU's foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton that provocateurs were behind the Maidan sniper shootings. Another scandalous recording had the U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland saying, memorably, “fuck the E.U.” After another leaked recording in late March, the presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko denied that she ever said that 8 million Russians living in Ukraine should be destroyed with nuclear weapons.
As the conflict between Russia and the West continues, more provocative audio leaks are sure to come, and there is a grain of truth in every joke. The rough exchange by the two alleged Russian ambassadors did not, after all, contradict the flow of thinking and desires shared by many in Russia. The latest Levada Center social shows 48 percent of Russians expect their country to become a strong, “frightening and respected” empire once again.
And that, truly, is no joke.