Head of the Kremlin's Rossiya Segodnya news agency Dmitry Kiselyov projecting the image of a nuclear mushroom cloud and boasting Russia's ability to turn US "into radioactive ash." (Image: screen capture)
The Russians came to Washington yesterday. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. met with U.S. Congressional leaders on the dire situation today in Russia after the assassination of colleague Boris Nemtsov, including the current animosity towards the West as well as the hostile environment towards liberals and reformists inside Russia. They brought with them a request to expand the Magnitsky List of human rights abusers to include eight employees of Russian state television whose journalistic practices they say have been fanning the flames of hatred and intolerance to such an extreme that Russians now live in fear of their personal security.
Radio Free Liberty reported Kasyanov and Kara-Murza were meeting with five lawmakers, including Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Senator Roger Wicker, co-chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission.
Their trip to the US comes on the heels of the most significant political union against Putin’s authoritarian regime we have seen in his tenure as president. Kasyanov, who was Prime Minister during Putin’s first term, co-founded Russia’s opposition party RPR-PARNAS with Boris Nemtsov and is a vocal Putin critic. Last week he announced that the PARNAS Party had formed a political alliance with popular Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny’s Progress Party, and at least five other parties and organizations are on board to elect a slate of opposition candidates in the next Duma elections. (See my previous post for more detail on the recent activity of Russia’s opposition.)
Kasyanov and Kara-Murza are asking the United States to impose sanctions on 8 prominent Russian television personalities and executives, chief “propagandists” who they say have engaged in a media vilification campaign that helped lead to the brazen assassination of Boris Nemtsov at the foot of the Kremlin on Feb 27. By adding these figures to the Magnitsky Act, they would be barred from traveling to or holding assets in the United States.
Kommersant reported that the list includes news anchor and state media boss Dmitry Kiselyov, senior pro-Kremlin lawmaker Alexei Pushkov who hosts the show “Postscript” on TVTS. Pushkov is already sanctioned by U.S. over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Also included in the list are Vladimir Solovyev, Arkady Mamontov, Andrei Karaulov, Oleg Dobroyedev (director of the main state broadcasting company VGTRK), Konstantin Syomin, and Vladimir Kulistikov (director of pro-Kremlin channel NTV).
In addition to the list of propagandists, a document entitled “Examples and evidence of public appeals to the extrajudicial killing of Boris Nemtsov” was submitted to the congressmen. In it are cited statements these figures made specifically about Nemtsov which they contend take their rhetoric outside the bounds of free speech and the First Amendment.
Kara-Murza explains that these propagandists are not engaging in journalism:
The responsibility for the murder of Boris Nemtsov is shared by those who, month after month, vilified and denounced him in government-controlled media outlets as a ‘traitor,’ the ‘fifth column,’ and an ‘enemy of Russia’ for opposing [President] Vladimir Putin’s corruption and repressive policies at home, and his war on Ukraine. This was not journalism or the exercise of the freedom of speech. This was state-sponsored incitement to murder. Denying these individuals the privilege of traveling to and owning assets in the West is the least the democratic world can do to honor the memory of Boris Nemtsov.
Today’s Russian propaganda is as beguiling as it is powerful. As many have pointed out, it isn’t the traditional form of propaganda the world is used to, one that’s promotional and full of bravado. Russian propaganda today is an enormous behemoth that combines elements of slick marketing and public relations with KGB style psychological manipulation, made more powerful by an increasingly authoritarian state. It feeds on Russia’s historical traumas of war and sacrifice as well as infamous personality cults of Stalin and now Putin, creating a distorted and violent form of patriotism that is founded on resentment of Western “enemies” who are portrayed as fascist killers. And since Russians get all of their news from state-controlled media, mostly television, Putin’s regime is able not only to control information. The regime can use Russian television to persuade people that patriotism means hating those who oppose Putin or his policies. Moreover, if one fails to embrace this type of patriotism, then one has betrayed Russia and become a traitor, and must be a foreign agent. Such propaganda seeps into Russian society via a constant barrage of images and narratives on Russian television daily, 24/7, presented and interpreted by the nation’s chief propagandists.
These messages are further amplified and spread through online sources, paid Kremlin trolls and otherwise, particularly in social media. In this way, not only has civil society been poisoned against opposition figures like Boris Nemtsov before his tragic assassination, but now, even after such a horrific event, many are convinced he deserved to die. Within minutes of Nemtsov’s assassination, these are the tweets you could find on social media. The first is essentially a hit-list of Russian liberals, with Nemtsov crossed out. The second speaks for itself.
The impact of such manipulation might seem utterly foreign and even unbelievable to those who have been lucky enough not to have been exposed to it. But this truly Russian cultural phenomenon exists and needs to be exposed and understood because it is connected with today’s global crisis in international relations, including the war in Ukraine. Kasyanov therefore has quite the challenge not only to transmit the list of propagandists but also to explain to Americans the host of complex issues of translation and cultural interpretation of the propaganda itself so that they can appreciate the serious nature of the threatening climate in which Russians today live.
We got a chance to hear Kasyanov at length when he spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank. There he presented his candid views on Putin’s regime in Russia today, relations with the West, past and present, Ukraine, and the uphill battle his new coalition of opposition leaders and activists have before them in light of the propaganda machine. You can watch the video of the event here.
As former Minister of Finance (1999-2000) and Prime Minister (2000-2004), Kasyanov is in the unique position of having worked inside the Russian government before and during Putin’s administration. In Putin’s early years, he stated, Russia was embracing democratic values and moving toward a democracy, having established a new constitution, instituted significant political and economic reforms and formed positive international relations. He pointed out that Putin was the first leader to call Bush after the 9/11 tragedy to express his sympathy and support. Russia also had good relations and strategic cooperations with Europe. Since then, however, Putin has turned in a markedly authoritarian direction, so much so that Russia is now a completely different country.
We don’t have a single feature of a democratic state anymore. We don’t have a free media, an independent judiciary, separation of powers. And we have lost the main institution of a democratic state: free and fair elections.
Kasyanov stated he never imagined that in the 21st century, the world would see Russia as an aggressor state, an inconsistent and unpredictable power. His democratic movement now must fight in a new climate, one extremely hostile to change. “This very hostile climate, created deliberately with the instruction of Mr. Putin…[with] a special propaganda machine creating intolerance and a hostile environment in my county.” “Propagandists are destroying the future of my country.”
Asked whether he was being naive to think his new opposition coalition could succeed in the new hostile environment, Kasyanov said that he still believed in a chance for peaceful democratic transformation of Russia by building grassroots support for an alternative to Putin as well as an exit strategy for his administration. The economy and people are suffering because of Putin’s policies over the last 10 years. It’s not sanctions that are hurting Russia, he said. No one wants to invest in an unpredictable and aggressive state.
Kasyanov spent a good deal of the discussion on the political environment created by the enormous propaganda machine, laying the blame squarely at Putin’s feet. He expressed outrage that Putin himself invoked a “fifth column of national traitors” in an official speech, which Kasyanov considered destructive and irresponsible. Nemtsov’s murder, he said, was a direct result of this extremely hostile environment. He also noted that Russia has growing fascist features, which while perhaps not Nazi fascism, certainly resembles Mussolini style fascism, with its unified ideology, business consolidations with political power, and of course, nonsupports are traitors. “We’re not there yet, but we’re moving in that direction.”
On Crimea, Kasyanov said the justification given by Putin for Crimea’s annexation were “a joke,” changed 3 times in one year and ignored hundreds of years of Crimean history. Kasyanov believes that Putin invaded Crimea in order to bolster his power inside Russia. “It’s a classic authoritarian regime, which needs an external enemy and quick victories.” But Putin miscalculated, he said, and assumed the civilized world would let it pass, as happened in Georgia in 2008. The world was outraged then, but went back to business as usual within a few months. This time, he said, the world’s united and unyielding reaction of outrage took Putin by surprise. He agreed that Putin’s actions of redrawing sovereign states’ borders and redistribution of land are wholly untenable in the modern world.
Asked about Putin’s reference to putting nuclear forces on alert during seizure of Crimea, Kasyanov stated Putin likely doesn’t want to start a nuclear war. Such statements nonetheless are plainly irresponsible and inappropriate from a nation like Russia which sits on the UN Security Council as a guarantor of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine to make.
On the issue NATO enlargement, Kasyanov stated that there were never any promises or commitments not to enlarge NATO. In fact, when he was in government, he and others dreamed that Russia would also join NATO, which was not viewed as an enemy at that time. What changed? Not NATO, he said, but Russia. Furthermore, he sees Russia’s essentially blackmailing the West with threats of nuclear war as absolutely reckless and another dangerous development.
On Ukraine, Kasyanov stated Putin is in trouble. Russia can’t afford to subsidize Crimea and Donbas. He also favored arming Ukraine to place it on a level playing field with “Putin’s separatists,” as he called them, with their enormous stock of sophisticated military equipment, clearly supplied by Russia.
One of the final questions from the audience concerned a “reset” of relations and engagement with Russia. Kasyanov was adamant that any reset of relations with Russia would be impossible because a reset would necessitate compromising Ukraine’s sovereignty. Such a compromise now would be tantamount to punishing the Ukrainian people, he said.
Why would we punish the Ukrainian people? For their desire to live in an independent state? For their desire for freedom and building their own destiny by themselves? There should be no compromises.