MOSCOW—Russia these days may look frightening to Americans, who hear often of election meddling and poisoning among other ill deeds. But consider for a moment the view from the other side of the divide, or at least the view presented to Russians by their television sets.
The looming potential for World War III has become a regular topic on Russian state propaganda shows. Night after night, Vladimir Soloviev, who is often described as the Kremlin’s top propagandist, condemns the West’s “economically suffocating” strategy of imposing sanctions and suggest war is the logical outcome.
The conclusion reached by Soloviev and his like-minded panel of guests is that the country’s politicians and titans of business should break all ties with the West, including communicating with their relatives. A long history of grievances spills out; Soloviev says the conflict between Russia and the West started in the 13th century: “They believe we are barbarians and they are civilized, so they have a right to point out to us how we should live and behave.”
The show, which is broadcast nightly on state channel 1, heats up quickly. This week, Sergei Kurginyan, a pro-Kremlin political expert close to the secret services, accused the West of tearing Russia apart by creating a fifth column in the Far East, where thousands of Russians have been marching in anti-Putin rallies for two months. Putin’s nemesis Alexei Navalny was out East bolstering the opposition rallies when he was poisoned with a deadly nerve agent.
Kurginyan has been consistently criticizing the Russian elite for pursuing naïve dreams about becoming part of European society: “Our elites have grown together with Europe through family connections, children, grandchildren. But in the current situation they will have to tear these connections apart. That will be terribly painful but you will have to do that,” he said.
A popular newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda announced in plain language on Friday that: “The world is under a threat of the Third World War over the Russian COVID-19 vaccine.” The paper claimed the European Union and the U.S. were furious about Russia selling millions of doses of its vaccines to Brazil and Africa.
The Russian nationalist publication Tsargrad also carried an overheated headline on Friday, claiming an invented military victory: “NATO Exercises Failed: Russian Ships Scared Americans and Ukrainians Away.”
What has caused this latest storm of anti-Western propaganda?
This week, the U.S. imposed new commercial restrictions on Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the oligarch known as “Putin’s chef.” The companies operated by Prigozhin, one of Putin’s most trusted lieutenants, are linked to the Wagner mercenary army and troll farms responsible for U.S. election interference. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also suggested this week that the order to poison Navalny came from senior Russian officials, the pressure grows on Putin to explain the poisoning or face yet more sanctions. Both the European Union and Britain are also preparing sanctions against Putin’s partner in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, after a violent crackdown on the opposition and a fraudulent election.
The age-old theme of a “conflict of civilizations” between East and West has been resurfacing on state media outlets. This undercurrent is at the core of the West’s issues with Russia, the propaganda outlets insist.
If the West continues to punish Vladimir Putin’s allies with economic sanctions and block Russian movement around the world, they say, Moscow will come up with a new strategy building on alliances with other Western antagonists. “We have not sent forces to Ukraine, to Kyiv only for the sake of our relations with Europe. By the new strategy we would deploy the forces and surely our allies in Turkey and China would respect us for such a strong decision,” prominent Kremlin-aligned political analyst Sergey Markov tells The Daily Beast.
The propaganda outlets portray Putin and his allies withdrawing from the world, as if in a besieged castle, to isolate and defend themselves.
Russia’s ability to respond in kind with sanctions is limited. A few weeks ago, the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov imposed sanctions against Pompeo after the U.S. State Department sanctioned members of his family. But this was widely seen as little more than a joke since Pompeo has no property or bank accounts in Chechnya. Still, the story made the Russian-speaking news. Olga Skobeyeva, a host of one of the more popular political talk shows, 60 Minutes, praised Kadyrov’s “cool” sanctions.
Germany and France are demanding that the Kremlin investigate last month’s poisoning of Navalny with the Soviet-era chemical weapon Novichok. But the last two decades of Russian history show how strongly Putin resists any demand imposed by the West. Instead, they are ramping up the propaganda. “They say, ‘Oh, you once again want to tear us apart, here is our answer to you.’ And Putin comes out with a speech about the most powerful hypersonic weapon,” a commentator on independent Rain TV, Pavel Lobkov, told The Daily Beast.
Last weekend, on Russia’s Day of the Gunsmith—an obscure holiday which is usually ignored—Putin went on television to discuss Russia’s latest nuclear weapons. They can reach anywhere in the world, he said. The Avangard hypersonic glide vehicles can wipe out a territory the size of Texas or France, viewers were told. Putin blamed the U.S. for the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic-Missile treaty back in 2002. “We had to create these weapons in response to the U.S. deploying a strategic missile defense system, which in the future would be able to actually neutralize, nullify our entire nuclear potential,” Putin said.
On Friday, Putin asked the White House for a truce on the “information war,” which is laughable since Western intelligence agencies say the Kremlin has already been targeting the 2020 presidential election. Nonetheless, Markov explains that Moscow is expecting incoming rhetorical fire during the height of the American election season: “Russian intelligence has informed Vladimir Putin earlier this year of rough attacks on him personally coming up,” he said. “That might happen during the U.S. elections, the conflict might enter a hot phase, so it is time to buy canned food.”