President Vladimir Putin has pulled off a targeted propaganda operation against the U.S. that’s so simple it never should have worked—and he did it in plain sight as part of the build-up to last week’s summit with President Joe Biden.
This weekend, Russia’s favorite propaganda shows celebrated a job well done. State TV propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov asserted on his show on Sunday, “Biden should keep in mind that not only America is back, but Russia is back too.”
The ploy began when Putin sat down for an interview with NBC’s Keir Simmons. He directed the conversation away from his suspected involvement in the murders and attempted murders of his critics. Instead, asking, “Did you order the assassination of the woman who walked into Congress and who was shot and killed by a policeman?”
The Russian president was referring to Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt, who was fatally shot by a Capitol police officer as she tried to climb through the broken window of a door leading directly onto the House floor during the Jan. 6 riots
The bait had been thrown.
This line of attack was no surprise to people who follow Russian propaganda. It had been preplanned and foreshadowed by pro-Kremlin experts appearing on Russian state TV talk shows prior to the summit. “[Biden] is planning to tell us about Navalny and we will tell him about the woman shot on January 6 at the Capitol,” explained Olga Skabeeva, the host of state TV show 60 Minutes, on June 1.
Ten days later, Putin did exactly that in his NBC interview.
On June 16, with the world’s attention fixed on the Geneva summit, the Russian president reiterated the same flawed premise during his press conference: “About my opponents being jailed or imprisoned. People went into the U.S. Congress with political demands. Four hundred people now facing criminal charges… On what grounds? Not quite clear… One of the participants, a woman, was shot dead on the spot. She was not threatening anything.”
Putin’s plot paid off in spades when Tucker Carlson played the clip of his comments to NBC on his show and expressed agreement. Carlson said, “Now, under normal circumstances, we would never play tape of a foreign adversary criticizing our government. But honestly, those are fair questions.”
Without a hint of irony, Carlson added, “Vladimir Putin knows authoritarian systems very well, and he sees clearly what is happening in this country.” The Fox News host seemed to assume that an authoritarian adversary was providing this advice without an ulterior motive—and eagerly shared it with his American audience.
His decision was cheered by pro-Kremlin propagandists in Moscow.
During his nightly show, The Evening with Vladimir Soloviev, host Vladimir Soloviev proudly surmised, “Putin knew whom he was talking to and his message was heard. This is Fox News and its very popular program—one of its highest-rated programs. Republicans listened and couldn’t help but agree… Putin was heard and what he said hit the bullseye.”
Russian political scientist Sergey Mikheyev enthusiastically replied, “This is a good illustration of the thesis as to whether we should be influencing public opinion in America. Yes, of course we should—of course! The question is how to do it and which resources to use. Without a doubt, we should be using any existing divisions. Sometimes I hear, ‘What’s in it for us?’ and I will cynically tell you: whatever harms them benefits us. That is terrible but true.”
Putin is already polling higher than President Biden among Trump voters, according to the recent poll by Economist/YouGov, which also found that Republicans viewed Russia as less of a threat than Democrats do.
Now that Republican voters are increasingly influenced by conspiracy theories spread through the QAnon movement, pro-Kremlin propagandists seek to capitalize on that trend as well. During the broadcast of his show on May 31, host Soloviev asked, “What if the heroic city of Moscow hosted a forum ‘Free America’ by American QAnon supporters, and their living expenses would be funded by the Russian government, how fast would we hear accusations of interference with their [U.S.] internal affairs?” RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan promptly replied, “We need to be doing that.”
Carlson’s commentary also flagged another line being pursued by Russian state propagandists. The Fox News host asked, “Who did shoot Ashli Babbitt and why don’t we know?” Rossiya-1 probed that question, quoting Republican Congressman Devin Nunes in a state TV news show on June 11.
Russia’s state media previously worked alongside the GOP in their attempts to unmask the Ukraine whistleblower whose revelations contributed to Trump’s first impeachment. It would not be surprising if the Kremlin-controlled media yet again takes the first step to publicly finger the law enforcement officer in question, further inflaming political divisions in the U.S.