Russia’s aggressive state television talk shows are a familiar platform for Vyacheslav Kovtun. The broadcasting pundit was for years one of the few Ukrainians regularly invited to air his views in live broadcasts that often became so heated they ended with punches being thrown.
But Kovtun, who is introduced as a political analyst on air, is now worried about the possibility of war, as the shows heighten their bellicose rhetoric amid escalating tensions on the Russia-Ukraine border, in what some observers say is a move by the government to convince the public that any conflict would not be Russia's fault.
“They swing together with the party line,” he said, referring to the talk shows’ traditional pro-Kremlin positioning.
In recent weeks, state media have broadcast a stream of accusations against Ukraine even as 100,000 Russian troops mass along the border, sparking international fears Moscow could be planning to invade its neighbour. The picture painted by the shows is of Kyiv as an aggressor, backed by a belligerent West, with the alliance posing a dangerous threat to Russia and driving it unwillingly towards conflict.
The talk shows are particularly proactive. Participants – many of them on the fringes of Russian politics – were "constantly calling for a strike, to attack, to enter, to defeat, to annex", said Irina Petrovskaya, who hosts a show analysing TV content on the opposition-minded Echo of Moscow radio station, in a recent broadcast. The programmes were beset by "military hysteria", she added.
State news broadcasts tend to be more measured. But this week they alleged Ukrainian forces had transported chemicals to the country’s east for potential use as chemical weapons and listed towns held by Russian-backed separatists in the region where such “provocations” could take place.
In a report published last week, the US state department described this and other claims as “disinformation and propaganda” intended to “influence western countries into believing Ukraine’s behaviour could provoke a global conflict”. The document noted several cases where the US believed Russia was manufacturing pretexts for military action.
Ivan Davydov, a journalist who produces a media column for Russian online outlet Znak, recently wrote that "expectations of war are becoming routine" across state TV. The effect was to normalise the concept of conflict. "War becomes possible when people stop seeing it as something out of the ordinary," he added.
This contrasted with 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and backed a separatist uprising in east Ukraine, he said. Back then Russia and state media outlets denied or downplayed Moscow’s military and political involvement in east Ukraine. But pundits were now depicting armed conflict “as a possible – though not very desirable – option for solving accumulated problems”, he said.
Across state media, Russia was presented as “the most peace-loving country on the planet”, he added. According to media outlets, western leaders “don’t want to listen, they throw around accusations, they provoke, they threaten”, with Moscow forced to respond.
Denis Volkov, of the independent Russian polling centre Levada, said the state media messaging seemed to have succeeded in influencing the public.
In a December poll by the organisation, only 4 per cent of Russians said they believed their country was to blame for escalating tensions. Some 50 per cent blamed the US and Nato, while 16 per cent blamed Ukraine.
“Society is ready for war, in that it has absorbed the Kremlin and Russian state media’s depiction of the situation, that ‘it’s not us, it’s them’,” he said.
But despite the state media barrage, most Russians prefer not to think about conflict, say observers. Focus groups suggested people were tired of existing in a constant state of confrontation with the West and Ukraine, with the attitude being “it’s frightening, unpleasant, and I don’t want to get involved”, Volkov said.
“When you are living in Ukraine you feel the war, but in Russia, [people] do not talk about the war,” said Arshak Makhichyan, a 27-year-old Russian climate activist who was recently detained in Moscow after staging a lone protest against the potential conflict.
A Levada poll in December found that 53 per cent of respondents said an armed conflict would not happen or was unlikely.
"The public consciousness is somehow filtering it out, it doesn't want to know about it," said sociologist Sergei Belanovsky, founder of the Belanovsky Group research group. People, especially outside central Moscow, were more focused on domestic problems than foreign policy, with online discussions dominated by price rises, local news or anti-vaccine content, he said.
Some 32 per cent of respondents to a poll by Levada in January said their quality of life had deteriorated in the previous year, while just 11 per cent said it had improved.
In addition, as elsewhere, the influence of TV is declining as the role of the internet grows, analysts say.
The degree to which the talk shows can be considered a bellwether of the Kremlin mindset is also unclear. “Nobody knows, not you, not me, what Putin thinks,” Kovtun said. “And [the broadcasters] are trying to guess it too.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022