Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to Moscow’s global condemnation and isolation, prompting even the most seasoned propagandists to concede that the Kremlin is losing the information war to the West. Yet, as the conflict grinds on and media coverage of the hostilities starts to wane, Russian propagandists are now trying to convince their population that Moscow has been wildly successful with its info-ops and will be able to win back global public opinion once the “special operation” in Ukraine is over.
Emboldened by the likes of Tucker Carlson, whose show on Fox News is consistently translated and featured on Russian state television, the Kremlin’s mouthpieces are assuring everyday Russians that millions of Americans would rather side with Russian President Vladimir Putin than U.S. President Joe Biden. (Back in 2018, Russian state media had a field day with two men at a Trump rally in Ohio, who were photographed wearing shirts that say “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat.”)
During Thursday’s broadcast of The Evening With Vladimir Solovyov, one of the program’s recurring guests, Yaakov Kedmi—also known as Yasha Kazakov—an Israeli former politician and diplomat, bitterly disagreed with those pundits who conceded that the Western media’s coverage of the brutal war had battled Moscow at every turn. He argued: “It was said that [the West] is winning a propaganda war, but I’m not so sure about that. Look at any country in Europe. Look at France: who is more popular—Macron or Putin?” One after another, pundits in the studio said, “Putin!” Kedmi proceeded to opine that the same is true in just about every Western country, including Germany, France, Italy, and the United States.
Talking about American citizens, Kedmi asked, “In who do they trust? If tomorrow Putin announced his candidacy for the president of the United States, who in the U.S. could compete with him in popularity?” Foreign Policy Analyst Alexander Kamkin quickly added, “And Trump would become his Vice President.”
During Wednesday’s broadcast of the state TV show 60 Minutes, host Evgeny Popov, who is also a State Duma member, complained that the Jan. 6 Committee was targeting Russia’s own Donald J. Trump. He repeated the propaganda tropes about U.S. elections being “fake, unfair, and falsified” and threatened Americans about the upcoming elections: “The best is yet to come! Wait for it, Americans!”
While it may be tempting to dismiss constant discussions of Russia’s ongoing and planned interference in U.S. elections on Kremlin-controlled state television as “trolling,” Moscow is indeed funding and controlling these operations. An indictment unsealed by the Justice Department on Friday in Tampa, Florida, charged Aleksandr Ionov, a Russian national, working on behalf of the Russian government and in conjunction with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), with allegedly orchestrating a foreign malign influence campaign that used various U.S. political groups to sow discord, spread pro-Russian propaganda, and interfere in elections within the United States.
Working under the supervision of the FSB and with the Russian government’s support, Ionov recruited political groups in Florida, Georgia, and California and directed their activities on behalf of the FSB to further Russian interests in the United States. He became directly involved in state elections and repeatedly forwarded information to the Russian government, referring to one of the U.S. candidates as the one “whom we supervise.” After the said candidate advanced to the general election, the FSB Officer wrote to Ionov, “Our election campaign is kind of unique,” and proudly asked, “are we the first in history?”
Ionov and Russian government officials also involved themselves with a California-based organization whose primary goal was to promote California’s secession from the United States. They funded and directed various protests related to the coverage of Russia’s war against Ukraine, with the footage and photographs of the said events being later featured in the Russian media, as recently as March 2022.
Ionov’s activities in the U.S. closely match the discussions on Russian state television, wherein prominent pundits and decorated propagandists openly plot to harm the United States and other Western countries by stirring up unrest, promoting separatism, and advancing candidates preferred by Moscow. Head of RT Margarita Simonyan admitted that despite being blocked, her outlet’s operations are continuing on a covert basis. Appearing on The Evening With Vladimir Solovyov earlier this month, Simonyan said, “When they [Western governments] conducted carpet bombing against us and destroyed everything, denying us any access to disseminating information, we came to our senses and started to penetrate their defenses using partisan trails: under other names, with different people, in new ways. I won’t disclose the rest here.”
Since the Kremlin is pinning its hopes on the upcoming midterm elections and Russian state media experts anticipate major changes to the U.S. foreign policy if the Republicans were to take control of both the House and the Senate, state media chatter about Russia’s planned interference is far from trivial. Some crimes are committed in broad daylight—and openly plotted on live television.