It’s just a ‘panic attack’ – Russian media accuse US of aggravating crisis in Ukraine

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(THE CONVERSATION) While Western media warn of a “countdown to war,” Kremlin-controlled Russian television takes a different view, accusing the United States of “hysteria” in its insistence on the fact that President Vladimir Putin is about to invade Ukraine.

The only attack the West has to worry about is its own “panic attack,” proclaimed a banner on Channel One’s evening news program “Vremia” on January 24, 2021. “Even Ukrainians can’t believe how far the United States has gone”. said the rival news program “Vesti” on the Russia-1 station, referring to the evacuation of US Embassy personnel from Kyiv.

A Russian historian interested in propaganda and media strategy, I was in Moscow both when NATO bombed Russia’s ally Yugoslavia in 1999 and again when Russia deployed troops to Crimea in 2014, allegedly to protect Russian citizens threatened by political upheaval in Ukraine. Both times, many people across Russia agreed with the government’s claims that the United States had started the conflict by interfering behind the scenes. Both events sparked waves of patriotic fervor and dozens of headlines promising a Russian fight against Western interference.

Now that Russian troops are massed along the Ukrainian border, the government’s tone is calmer, but arguably more insidious. Weeks of jingoist talk shows in which guests proclaimed the need for Russia to flex its muscles in front of the world, all clustered around the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991, have been replaced by relative calm.

According to Russian broadcasters, the only country that wants to fight is the United States – and America’s real battle is an internal battle.

The United States in decline

Perhaps the most famous anthem of the dying Soviet Union was the 1990 song “Train On Fire” by the dissident rock band “Akvarium”, in which a Soviet colonel calls his troops home, saying that after many years of war, it turns out “we only fought against ourselves. Today, the Kremlin-controlled media sends a similar message to the United States.

Long stories focus daily on America’s internal division – featuring inflation, rising crime, organized shoplifting, COVID vaccine protests, culture war battles about transgender rights and swear-laden US presidential outbursts. Joe Biden, according to Russian journalists, is creating a false sense of threat from Moscow to distract from domestic issues.

In one instance, a correspondent reinforced this claim by showing US citizens on the streets of Washington an unlabeled map of European countries and recording their confusion when asked to identify the location of Ukraine.

By contrast, these reports present Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, as calm, rational and efficient. Some point to the alleged superiority of Sputnik’s COVID vaccine over Pfizer’s, or the orderly departure of so-called Russian “peacekeeping” forces from Kazakhstan. These soldiers were deployed to quell citizen protests, but news anchors in Russia praise their actions and favorably compare their alleged “success” to the “failed mission” and chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

Ukraine is used

Russian government officials and Russian journalists acknowledge that there have been troop buildups near the Russian-Ukrainian border. But they accuse the West of indulging in overheated rhetoric and, at times, “inhuman lies and blatant provocation”.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the troop build-up ‘military exercises’ no different from those the US regularly conducts in Eastern European countries – just more legitimate, because they take place within the borders of Russia. He ridiculed Washington for being preoccupied with internal Russian maneuvers, while telling Russia that the actions of American troops in Europe were “not about” them.

In the daily news program “Vesti” on January 24, the situation in Ukraine was not even at the top of the show. A weather story did, with photos of record snowfall in another region of Russia bordering the Black Sea. Tensions with NATO allies were the fifth story of the evening.

In all coverage of Ukraine, a recurring theme is the weakness of the country and, in particular, of its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. On January 23, Channel One’s evening news showed old footage of Zelenskyy from his days as a practicing comedian, in a skit where he and several other men pretended to play the piano with their own genitals.

The following evening, Zelenskyy’s criticisms were more direct, citing a “catastrophic decline” in his popularity rating. “Experts have long said that Zelensky as an independent leader does not exist, that the Anglo-Saxons use him for their own purposes,” reads one script. “Zelenskyy is tired” ran the lead story on, a news agency for Russians in Ukraine.

The West is trying to “seduce Zelenskyy” into provoking a military confrontation, a “Vremia” reporter said on January 24. He is “torn between his desire to save his audience with a victorious little war and his fear of losing this same war”. .”

Is anyone buying?

State-controlled media is not the only voice Russians listen to, however.

Articles from Russian newspapers, talk show speakers and comments on Twitter express a wider range of sentiments. In a long interview titled “Talks Mean Nothing” published in the respected weekly “Literaturnaia gazeta”, military analyst Konstantin Sivkov speculated about the creation of a 100 megaton warhead capable of hitting Yellowstone Park. A prominent pro-Russian Ukrainian pianist recently retweeted an article by a self-proclaimed independent journalist titled “Documents Reveal US Biological Experiments on Allied Soldiers in Ukraine and Georgia.”

Many Russians seem to shrug their shoulders at such stories, although even Putin’s critics acknowledge that many also share the president’s condemnation of NATO expansion in the post-Soviet years. Independent media such as Meduza condemn “Kremlin precision” for fueling the confrontation.

The question then becomes: do most Russians really believe their local propaganda?

It’s hard to say, especially amid an ongoing crackdown to silence independent voices and organizations. Journalists have fled, opposition members have been imprisoned and human rights organizations have been shut down. What then becomes most difficult to gauge is the sense of a possible “silent majority” – citizens disillusioned with politics and feeling surrounded by larger forces beyond their control.

Another question is, do they care? Like others around the world, many news consumers in Russia are more concerned with national struggles.

A Russian friend who just returned from six weeks in St Petersburg says no one she knows favors a war with Ukraine, but the issue isn’t even on most people’s radar .

“Citizens are much more concerned about the ruble exchange rate and the economic situation,” she said. “Also, they are much more concerned about police-supervised COVID vaccinations and other household issues. People are tired of these endless political TV shows about Ukraine; they are absolutely indifferent to international issues, and this causes big problems for Putin”, who, she claims, “does not want to deal with the situation inside the country at all”.

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