Putin TV Wants You to Think Italy Is a Bigger Story Than Crimea

Haven’t heard about the Veneto referendum to leave Italy? You’re not watching enough RT.


Monday’s glorious Crimean exercise in democracy was not the only example of a European country devolving decision-making to the local level. The Italian region of Veneto also kicked off a referendum over the weekend that could see it separate from Italy.

Presumably, you did not hear about this major shake-up in Italian politics, which has serious implications for the future of the European project, nay, the future of a united Europe itself. That’s because you’re likely a consumer of the hopelessly biased Western media, a mix of “corporatocracy” and state-run propaganda outlets like the BBC and France 24. They chose to ignore the Italian vote and focus all of their attention on the Crimean one, which, in a Russophobic fury, they have inaccurately portrayed as a sham election held under the watchful presence of a foreign military.

This is the message you would have received if you bothered to watch RT, the multilingual global propaganda news channel funded by the Russian government. Because I am a glutton for punishment, I turned on the Internet livestream of RT America to learn how it was covering the Crimean referendum, which took place after Russia invaded the Ukrainian peninsula, violently installed a puppet as prime minister, and cracked down on the independent press. “Media coverage has been muted with the Crimean referendum getting center stage,” an RT anchor complained.

To emphasize the point of Western media bias, RT aired a man-on-the-street interview with perplexed Germans in Berlin, asking them if they were aware of the vote in Veneto. “Italian referendum?” asked a befuddled old German man in Potsdamer Platz. “Is it today? I haven’t heard.” Several other interviewees replied that they were only aware of a referendum in Crimea—apparent dupes of the “Anglo-Saxon mass media,” as Vladimir Putin calls it—but had heard nothing about the Venetian one.

But the reason why you haven’t heard much about the Veneto referendum isn’t due to Western media bias; it’s because the outcome is practically irrelevant. That stands in contrast to the snap Crimean ballot. The former is not taking place with the presence of foreign troops on Italian soil, as is the case in Crimea, despite the pathetic efforts of the Russian government and its American apologists to claim that the 20,000 men patrolling the peninsula without insignia on their uniforms aren’t Russian. Likewise, Venetians are voting for independence, not to join another country, as was the case with yesterday’s referendum in Crimea, which resulted in a North Korea-esque tally of 97 percent of citizens wanting unification with Russia. Another crucial difference is that the Veneto vote is non-binding, because it is unrecognized by the central government in Rome. While the Crimean referendum is de jure non-binding because the Ukrainian government in Kiev (along with the United States and European Union) have all vowed not to recognize it, it is de facto binding in the sense that Russia has the force of arms to make it so.

This wouldn’t be the first European separatist movement that RT has gleefully goaded along. The network has given an inordinate amount of attention to the upcoming Scottish vote on independence, which, also unlike the Crimean referendum, will transpire under a consensual agreement reached between the province seeking separation and the country from which it is seeking separation (in this case Scotland and the United Kingdom), take place in an atmosphere free of violent intimidation, and be legally recognized by other states and international bodies, regardless of the outcome. According to James Bloodworth of the British political blog Left Foot Forward, prominent members of the Scottish independence movement have frequently appeared on RT, including the leader of the Scottish National Party, as well as the Scottish health, justice and external affairs ministers. “One can understand RT’s enthusiasm for Scottish independence: the break-up of the United Kingdom would undeniably be in the Russian national interest,” Bloodworth writes. “Russia fears the projection of Western power; and Britain is far greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to an international presence.”

Watching RT’s coverage of Crimea, I also learned that Ukraine, under the leadership of far-right nationalists, is on the verge of gaining a nuclear weapon capability. In 1994, Kiev voluntarily returned its massive, post-Soviet nuclear arms stockpile—then the third largest in the world—to Moscow in exchange for Russia agreeing to respect its territorial integrity. But listening to RT, Kiev could supplant Tehran as the world’s foremost rogue state seeking nuclear weapons. Citing a parliamentarian of the far-right Svoboda party, which has earned a marginal presence in the new Ukrainian government, RT warned viewers that Ukraine could assemble a “low tech bomb in three to six months.” But Ukraine “does not have a plausible near-term scenario for developing nuclear weapons,” Gary Samore, former coordinator for weapons of mass destruction on President Obama’s National Security Council told Time. Even so, given that Russia has flagrantly violated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which the nukes-for-sovereignty deal was signed, is it really so crazy that Ukrainian politicians are pining for the days when they had a nuclear deterrent?

RT is funded to the tune of over $300 million a year, allowing the network to air without commercials, except promos for other RT shows. So instead of a much-desired commercial break, I had to endure advertisements for an upcoming documentary on the new “Iron Man suit” the U.S. military is building for its soldiers (“US war machine makes science fiction reality,” RT ominously declared) and another about Washington’s out-of-control drone warfare program (cue a guy ruefully intoning, “Martin Luther King Jr. said ‘I have a dream.’ Barack Obama said ‘I have a drone.’”) This was followed by a brief rant by Tim Kirby, RT’s in-house average American dude, a cross between Tokyo Rose and Joe the Plumber. Kirby relocated to Moscow from Cleveland and now hosts shows both on RT and the state-controlled Radio Mayak. “We Russians think that whenever something goes bad here that it must be better in America,” one Russian listener of Kirby’s program told the Wall Street Journal last year. But listening to Kirby, this man now realizes “that things are worse or the same over there.”

That pretty much sums up Kirby’s job; to tell Russians, and the world, how bad America is on a daily basis, usually wearing a flannel shirt (Kirby told the Journal that RT hired him after he delivered an “impressive presentation on a cucumber festival in the provincial city of Kirov,” which provides a window into how the network finds its on-air “talent”). Kirby hosts a recurring feature on RT entitled “Just My Opinion,” in which he offers a brief rant about the news of the day, done in the blue-collar style for which he’s become popular in Russia. In the segment I watched, Kirby began by attacking President Obama for meeting last week with the “self-elected Ukrainian president” Arseniy Yatsenyuk. He then marveled at how “America’s first black president and Nobel Peace Prize winner” could sit in the White House “smiling and chatting with a leader supported by right-wing white power groups,” echoing what has become a constant theme now in Russian propaganda aimed at undermining the international legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government.

So, after 20 minutes of watching RT, I learned that the internationally-condemned sham election in Crimea is no different than a non-binding referendum in Italy, that Ukraine is on the brink of bringing the world to nuclear war, and that Barack Obama is openly supporting “white-power groups” in Ukraine. It was at this point I did what any sensible person would do: turned RT off.