Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Why Vladimir Putin is Still the Boss

'The prospect of Vladimir Putin facing a backlash of public anger over suspected weapons supplies to separatist gunmen is zero.' Photograph: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images
Neither western sanctions nor claims of Russia’s involvement in flight MH17 influence its citizens, who live on a diet of state propaganda.

There is a satirical cartoon doing the rounds online in Russia that depicts a figure slouched in front of a television set, both the screen and the anonymous viewer’s brain filled with identical swirls of bewildering electronic static. Drawn by Russia’s finest political cartoonist, Sergey Elkin, it is at once a powerful portrayal of the stupefying influence of Kremlin-controlled TV and an indication of why neither increasingly harsh western sanctions nor international allegations of Russian culpability in the destruction of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 are likely to damage Vladimir Putin’s soaring popularity at home.

Dubbed the “zombie box” by opposition-minded Russians, state-run TV is perhaps Putin’s most valuable weapon, a tool for manipulating public opinion without even the pretence of objectivity. Indeed, Dmitry Kiselev, the controversial TV presenter appointed by Putin to head Rossiya Segodnya, Russia’s main state news agency, has declared media objectivity to be a “myth”. “Russia needs our love,” Kiselev told journalists at the Moscow-based agency’s headquarters earlier this year.

Three days after the suspected shooting down of flight MH17 by pro-Moscow rebels in east Ukraine, the Russian state-run channel Rossiya 1 aired its weekly round-up of current affairs. For anyone who has been paying even cursory attention to western media coverage of the tragedy, what followed must have seemed like a direct transmission from some bizarre alternative reality.

By the end of the 90-minute, primetime show, viewers would have been left blissfully unaware of mounting international anger at the Kremlin. There was no mention of western allegations that Russia had supplied separatists with the Buk surface-to-air missile thought to have brought down the passenger jet, killing all 298 people on board. Equally, the programme’s sanitised account of Putin’s telephone calls with fellow world leaders gave no hint of the fury widely reported to have been directed at the ex-KGB officer.

One week later, after an intense media campaign aimed at “proving” Ukraine’s army shot down the plane in a cynical attempt to make political capital, even Kremlin-run media was unable to pretend that Russia’s reputation had been left unblemished by the bloody fate of flight MH17. While initial reports had been reminiscent of Soviet-style “if we didn’t report it, it didn’t happen” news broadcasts, subsequent coverage saw a return to the aggressive and often absurd anti-western rhetoric that has flourished since Putin’s return to the presidency.

At the culmination of a rapid-fire, two-minute sequence halfway through the Vesti Nedeli news round-up on Rossiya 1 on 27 July, the show’s presenter, Evgeny Popov, remarked tersely that US allegations that Russia and Putin were “to blame” for the downing of MH17 stemmed at least in part from Barack Obama’s “anger” that the Russian leader had been late for a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Mexico in 2012. As an accusation, it was almost up there with the same programme’s infamous assertion late last year that the Maidan revolution in Kiev was organised by Lithuania, Poland and Sweden “to avenge” the 18th century defeat of their joint forces to tsarist Russia’s army in Poltava, part of modern-day Ukraine.

If all that makes your head spin, just imagine what it does to Russians who are fed a steady diet of this kind of stuff by state television, day in, day out. Since the majority of people get their news almost exclusively from Kremlin-run TV channels, it is coverage of this type that is shaping public opinion on the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

According to a survey published this week by the respected independent pollster Levada Centre, 82% of Russians believe MH17 was brought down by either a Ukrainian army fighter plane or missile. Just 3% thought the insurgents were to blame. Given these kind of figures, the prospect of Putin facing a backlash of public anger over suspected weapons supplies to separatist gunmen is virtually zero. Ironically, Putin probably faces more danger from Russians disappointed by his failure to provide more assistance to the rebels. “Many people feel cheated by his refusal to use military force [in east Ukraine],” Alexander Dugin, an ultranationalist thinker whose ideas are reported to have influenced recent Kremlin policy, told me recently.

Western officials may be hoping economic sanctions will force Russians to rethink their support for Putin, but in reality such measures will achieve little more than an entrenchment of a growing fortress mentality. State media’s routine and increasingly vitriolic attacks on the west’s “decadent” morals mean Russians are likely to accept any economic and social hardships brought about by US and European sanctions. Tellingly, in another Levada Centre poll this week, 61% of Russians said they were unconcerned by the threat of sanctions, while 58% were similarly unfazed by the looming possibility of political isolation over the Kremlin’s stance on Ukraine.

These head-in-the-sand attitudes are bolstered by what the director of Levada Centre, Lev Gudkov, calls a “patriotic and chauvinistic euphoria” rooted in the almost bloodless annexation of Crimea in March, which was popular among Russians across the political spectrum. It’s also worth noting that many “ordinary” Russians are uninterested in politics and have only scant knowledge of the issues at hand.

For Russia’s beleaguered liberals, if there is hope that Putin can be convinced to abandon his increasingly hardline policies, then – to paraphrase George Orwell – it lies with the political and business elite who make up his inner circle. “I have some small hope left that these people might be able to influence him,” a Muscovite businessman acquaintance confided this week. “They didn’t sign up for this nightmare.”

But it will take a brave – even foolhardy – tycoon or senior politician to break ranks with Putin now. After all, the president has the zombie box on his side – and with that, he can sell Russia almost anything.


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