Putin wins in Russia only by escalating his war rhetoric

o13-iconMasha Gessen writes: Vladimir Putin has won. In Russia, support for his war in Ukraine is overwhelming. And his approval rating has finally recovered after falling drastically in December 2011, when the Russian protest movement erupted.

Putin claimed reelection to his third term as president in March 2012, as mass demonstrations were taking place in cities and towns across Russia. Official tallies said he won with 63 percent of the vote, but independent exit polls suggested he captured about 50 percent — hardly a show of overwhelming support for a virtually unopposed candidate (none of the four opponents he handpicked for the ballot had campaigned).

After the election, Putin began cracking down on opponents while mobilizing his shrinking constituency against an imaginary enemy: strong, dangerous, Western and, apparently, homosexual. Laws were passed restricting public assembly and the activities of nongovernmental organizations; about three dozen people of various political and social stripes were jailed for protesting.

The crackdown proved effective: When the risks of demonstrating became extremely high and the benefits apparently nonexistent, the number of protests and protesters dwindled; the loose leadership structure of the 2011-12 protest movement dissolved in a haze of mutual recriminations.

As for the mobilization effort, the results were mixed: Putin’s approval rating, as measured by the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent polling organization, bounced back soon after his reelection but sank again and then plateaued. The high approvals that he enjoyed in his first decade at the helm, around 70 percent, were a distant memory. [Continue reading…]

For many of those observers who view Putin as having been pushed into a corner by Western governments who recklessly and foolishly hijacked Ukrainian politics, the Russian president is a cool realist acting in Russia’s national interests, doing what any responsible leader would do.

One of the multiple problems with this interpretation of what is currently unfolding is that it discounts the effects of the psychological imperatives to which Putin is now strapped.

A full-scale invasion of Ukraine might seem irrational now that Crimea is already fully under Russian control — 93% of voters are reported to have supported Crimea becoming part of Russia. But Putin’s next choices may be shaped much less by his assessment of Russia’s geopolitical interests than they are by the image of a strong leader around which he has drummed up so much popular support. He has been stacking up more and more reasons to continue his military advance, leaving less and less room to climb down without appearing to have lost his courage.

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9 thoughts on “Putin wins in Russia only by escalating his war rhetoric

  1. Steve Zerger

    Why would Putin need to escalate his war rhetoric with people like John McCain saying things like “Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country”? Putin can just play that over and over on Russian television.

  2. Paul Woodward Post author

    If statements like McCain’s were playing over and over on Russian television, I would imagine that it would be in order to demonstrate that American taunts are puny and worthy of contempt.

    Who’s going to top Dmitry Kiselyov’s observation that “Russia is the only country in the world realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash”?

    Imagine the cries of indignation from inside the U.S. if McCain or a Fox News commentator was to brag about America’s ability to turn Russia into radioactive ash.

    No one could dispute the accuracy of such a statement or that made by Kiselyov, but apart from misanthropes who are indifferent about the fate of humanity, I think that most people will have found the Russian TV anchor’s statements disturbing.

  3. Paul Woodward Post author

    Kiselyov has been appointed by Putin as head of the official Russian government-owned international news agency Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today). According to a presidential decree, the agency’s purpose is “to provide information on Russian state policy and Russian life and society for audiences abroad.” So Kiselyov’s polemics should not be viewed as being on a par with the antics of someone like Glenn Beck. Kiselyov is now one of the most prominent figures in Russian state media.

    RT said in December “the newly created agency will not be in any way related to RT television channel, which was known as Russia Today before its rebranding in 2009.” Not in any way related — except for the fact that they share the same editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan.

  4. Paul Woodward Post author

    The demographic of the audience of Rossiya Segodnya? It’s aimed at an international audience.

    Kiselyov said that the creation of the new media entity was necessary to redress what he called an unfair international perception of Russia.

    The creation of a fair attitude toward Russia as an important country with good intentions – this is the mission of the new structure that I will be heading up,” he said in December.

    I’m not quite sure how his remarks about turning the U.S. into radioactive ash fit in with that objective. Maybe “international” means everywhere except the U.S. (Rossiya Segodnya isn’t in operation yet.)

  5. Paul Woodward Post author

    He’s been polishing his public persona for some time — lots more detail in the following AP report from last December.

    President Vladimir Putin on Monday appointed a controversial news anchor to head a restructured state news agency, a move signaling the Kremlin’s intention to tighten control over the media and use it increasingly for propaganda of ultraconservative views.

    Dmitry Kiselyov, who spent much of his weekly news program on state Rossiya television maligning homosexuality and speculating about Western-led conspiracies, was put in charge of all the resources of the former RIA Novosti, which was renamed Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today).

    The agency has been known for news coverage that at times appeared too comprehensive for the government’s comfort, including active reportage on the anti-Putin protest movement.

    The appointment makes Kiselyov the chief executive in a company of 2,300 employees, removable only by Putin himself. That promotion has come as a shock to many who previously derided the pro-Kremlin pundit — who controversially suggested that the internal organs of homosexuals should be burned and buried rather than donated — as an irrelevant lackey.

    Kiselyov’s conspiratorial, almost coquettish grin and over enthusiastic hand gestures have made him a recognizable staple of Russian television. But it’s his toxic cocktail of punditry and sensationalism that has gained him his reputation as one of Russia’s most famous —and reviled— news anchors.

    Kiselyov has often led the attack in taking down the opposition movement, the West, homosexuals, and other groups that top the Kremlin agenda. His pugnacious punditry contrasts with that of some other anchors on state-owned channels, who often are more eager to censor issues out of the limelight than attack them head-on.

    When Ukrainians flooded the streets last week to protest their president’s shelving of a treaty with the European Union, Kiselyov lambasted Sweden and Poland, accusing them of encouraging massive protests in Kiev to take revenge for military defeats by czarist Russia centuries ago.

    Kiselyov, who earned his degree in Scandinavian literature, rolled a clip of a Swedish children’s program called “Poop and Pee,” designed to teach children about their bodily functions. After the clip finished rolling, Kiselyov turned to the camera to suggest that this was the kind of European decadence awaiting Ukraine, if it signed a deal with the EU.

    In Sweden there is “the radical growth of child abortions, early sex — the norm is nine years old, and at age 12 there is already child impotency,” he said after the clip rolled.

    That reportage gained him few friends in Ukraine, where one man bounded over to hand “an Oscar for the nonsense and lies” of Dmitry Kiselyov to the state television correspondent standing on Kiev’s main square. He was brusquely pushed out of the shot before finishing his speech.

    Kiselyov has also proven an avid attack dog on the issue of homosexuality, as international criticism over a Russian law banning gay “propaganda” reached a fever pitch this summer. The TV anchor said that homosexuals’ hearts should be buried or burned, and that gays should be banned from donating blood or organs, which were “unsuitable for the prolongation of anyone’s life.”

    He has turned his guns as well on the Kremlin’s internal foes, airing critical accounts of opposition activists such as Alexei Navalny, who garnered nearly a third of the vote in an election for Moscow mayor in September. Kiselyov ran footage of Nazi marches, directly comparing the crowd’s adulation of Hitler to that of Navalny’s own audience: “A recognizable exultation, is it not?”

    Russian media outlets speculated that the reshuffle was aimed at RIA Novosti’s former director, Svetlana Mironyuk, who presided over the company’s more objective coverage of massive anti-Putin protests sparked by a fraud-tainted parliamentary vote in 2011. While Mironyuk was said to be backed by some liberal figures in the Kremlin, that reportage received a more critical reception among its hawkish wing.

    RIA Novosti’s relatively broad coverage — particularly in its foreign language services — was even on display in the report on its own dissolution that said the changes “appear to point toward a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector.”

    While officials have claimed that the move is simply an attempt to make the company run more efficiently, Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov asserted the importance of the company’s new political message in comments on Monday: “Russia … strongly defends its national interests: it’s difficult to explain this to the world but we can do this, and we must do this.”

    In 2005, RIA Novosti helped found Russia Today television, or RT, which now employs more than 1,000 people and broadcasts in English, Spanish and Arabic. It will remain separate from the revamped news agency, and Kiselyov will have no say in its operation.

  6. Steve Zerger

    My god. Sounds like Fox News on steroids. Surely this is too ludicrous to be taken seriously. I think they are going to have to tone it down. Censorship is bound to be more effective. It looks like it probably has entertainment value though.

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