Gloves Come Off
June 3, 2014
Watching Russian current-affairs programs can be an edifying experience—though in recent weeks it’s been a blood-chilling one as well. The way in which the Ukrainian crisis is being commented on in Russia has changed dramatically. Until not long ago, those taking part in televised debates at least tried to pretend to be objective and seek peaceful solutions to the crisis. Today, normal political discourse has been replaced by cold, almost technical, analysis of the steps needed to take control of further chunks of Ukraine.
On the night of May 18, I watched Sunday Night, a popular political talk show aired on RTR Planeta, a major Russian television channel available on most cable networks in Poland. The show host is Vladimir Soloviev, a 51-year-old journalist who popularity polls suggest is a charismatic figure for Russian audiences. He started his show with a statement that Russia is being “exploited” by its partners in the West, a practice that he said had taken on unacceptable proportions recently. Soloviev lashed out at the United States and its “lackeys,” among them Poland.
A seasoned Kremlin propaganda expert, Soloviev had not exactly done his homework and said something about a “former Polish prime minister who got a reward for his political services, landing a job with a Ukrainian gas tycoon.” Soloviev probably meant ex-President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, who has indeed stirred a lot of controversy in Warsaw by accepting a seat on the supervisory board of a company owned by a Kyiv-based oligarch.
Poland was discussed a lot in the show. Participants in the discussion repeated some old conspiracy theories about Ukrainian fighters allegedly being trained in camps in Poland, the Czech Republic and Norway. The show’s guests several times mentioned Polish military experts who had allegedly played an active part in the “Ukrainian coup” and helped oust Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
All of that was just a prelude to the main topic of the “analytical talk show,” as Sunday Night calls itself. The seven guests on the show moved on to a straightforward analysis of the fastest possible methods to bring Russian “volunteers” to the “Republic of Donetsk” and “Republic of Luhansk.” The term “Ukraine” was only used occasionally and the guests agreed that the two regions had voted to be autonomous in a referendum. The guests talked about how to deploy volunteer squads, what the volunteers should be equipped and armed with and so on.
The star of the night was Irina Yarovaya, the chairwoman of the Russian parliament’s committee on security and corruption prevention. As for corruption, Yarovaya does not seem to be particularly successful. The media has recently reported that, in 2006, the daughter of the 47-year-old deputy bought an apartment in the prestigious Tverskaya Tower in Moscow. The daughter, aged 17 at the time, paid around $1.4 million for the apartment while the combined annual income of her parents totaled less than a twelfth of the amount. But then again, things like that hardly raise any eyebrows in Russia.
Yarovaya appears to more than active in the field of security. In the show, she held forth with impressive expertise that Russia needed to mobilize volunteers similarly to what happened “in 1936 when Spain faced the fascist threat.”
The icing on the show’s propaganda cake was the commander of the Aliyah Battalion, a unit formed 10 years ago by Russian veterans who settled in Israel. The guest spoke about operations his men had carried out in Lebanon and, as he praised their professionalism, he declared that the battalion was ready to take part in the “denazification of Ukraine.” Polish viewers with some knowledge of history can’t help but feel alarmed, to put it mildly, when such words as these are aired on Russian prime-time television.