A few years ago US-Russia relations were at their lowest point since the Cold War. So entrenched was anti-American sentiment in Russian media that no policy reversal seemed able to fix it. TV viewers were relentlessly bombarded with conspiracy theories and the anti-Putin opposition were smeared as US puppets bent on destroying Russia at the behest of their “transoceanic” masters. America, the TV said, was Russia’s existential adversary, fundamentally incompatible with Russia’s (vaguely defined) values and encouraging brotherly nations like Ukraine to turn on Russia in fratricidal frenzy.
When talking about Russian propaganda, especially the domestic variant, it’s important to keep in mind that TV is still the medium of choice for the majority of Russians, and all three major national TV channels are owned and funded either by the state (Channel One and Rossiya) or by its loyal proxies (NTV is owned by Gazprom Media, a subsidiary of one of Russia’s largest oil producers). Nominally independent as well as state-owned media are micromanaged from the presidential administration’s office. The Russian state directly sets the agenda: it is also convinced that every other state works the same way, hence intermittent demands that the West “rein in” its “anti-Russian media campaign”.
This weight of influence can turn back the tides of public opinion. As soon as Donald Trump formally announced his presidential ambitions in June 2015, the Russian media launched into a chorus of unanimous endorsement. Trump was presented as everything that the universally vilified Barack Obama was not: an alternative to the Russophobic bipartisan “establishment”, a fresh voice in Washington who had spoken fondly of Russia and promised to improve abysmal relations. As Trump got closer to the White House, and the chorus on Russian TV grew more deafening (at one point the Donald officially became the most quoted public figure in the Russian media), ordinary Russians warmed to the United States. By early 2017 the number of Russians feeling positively towards the US doubled from the lows of 2015 to reach 40 per cent in some polls.
Still, there are strong indications that neither the Kremlin nor the media it controls actually expected Trump to become president. Anatoly Antonov, poised to become Russia’s new ambassador to Washington, is a hawk supposedly chosen to spite would-be President Clinton. Russian TV pundits were so convinced Clinton was going to win that they uncritically reported Trump’s claims of a “rigged vote”, pre-emptively declaring the entire presidential election illegitimate.
Like most of their American counterparts, Russian pundits were utterly baffled by Trump’s victory
So, like most of their American counterparts, Russian pundits were utterly baffled by Trump’s victory. Some Western media reported that on November 9th the floor of the Russian State Duma (parliament) burst into applause on hearing the news. But if you look at the footage, it’s clear that what occurred was far from the “standing ovation” that some outlets overenthusiastically reported: more a few seconds' nervous chuckle than celebratory thunder. And to any Russian speaker, the chair’s remarks on the news – “on which I congratulate all of you” – sound wholly sarcastic.
While this didn’t dampen the enthusiastic support for Donald Trump on Russian TV, it’s clear that the rigid narrative built around him doesn’t allow for much complexity. Now, with Trump ensconced in the White House, the verbal gymnastics are growing ever more intricate as pundits struggle to explain statements that don’t fit their story. Trump is supposed to be Russia’s best friend – so why do his appointees consistently undercut Russia on its most painful issues, like sanctions or the recognition of Crimea as a legitimate part of Russia?
Obama is gone, but he still maintains a menacing presence on Russian TV as Trump’s Manichaean evil twin
One of Russian propaganda’s defining features, though, is its flexibility. Obama is gone, but he still maintains a menacing presence on Russian TV as Trump’s Manichaean evil twin, throwing spanners into the works. Newly appointed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned Russia’s “taking” of Crimea during his congressional hearing – but he was only doing this to appease the “Russophobes” in Congress and get approved by any means necessary, Russian TV claimed. In her first speech to the United Nations Security Council Trump’s envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, promised to keep sanctions against Russia in place until Crimea is returned to its rightful owner, Ukraine. A prominent Russian pundit claimed that this was only because her predecessor in the post – “red-haired hysterical Russia-hater” Samantha Power – wrote the speech for her. Widespread anti-Trump protests? The machinations of George Soros, of course! The list of excuses and self-exculpations lengthens as Trump’s cabinet grows ever more hawkish towards Russia, despite their leader’s ambivalent stance and his consistent failure to address the pressing questions of his own personal relations with the nation.
One thing not accounted for in mainstream Russian media, however, is the system of checks and balances in the US and the independence of America’s estates. It’s clear that Russian TV commentators don’t understand institutional endorsement on the part of the media – or irony for that matter – when they declare it “obscene” that US media openly rooted for Hillary Clinton. The fact that a judge can defy a president’s orders is inexplicable in a country dominated by what is informally known as the “phone law”: that is, where judges simply read out decisions written on their behalf.
These differences between American and Russian media practice predate Obama. The cohort of scapegoats available to explain mainstream Russian TV’s misplaced enthusiasm is quickly dwindling. How Trump is presented to the Russian people will continue to reveal more about domestic media malpractice than it does about the machinations – imagined or otherwise – going down in Washington.