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As Putin Hints At War In Ukraine, State TV Amplifies The Threat

By RFE/RL December 22, 2021

When presenter Olga Skabeyeva entered the studio of the popular Russian talk show 60 Minutes this week, she began the program the way she usually does: by slamming the Ukrainian government and pouring vitriol on its backers in the West.

This episode aired just days after Russia published a list of demands for security guarantees from the United States and NATO, including a binding pledge to keep Ukraine and other former Soviet republics out of the Western military alliance, and Skabeyeva launched into a summary of its main points.

Then things took a turn.

"Russia placed the United States in a zugzwang. Either they step back voluntarily or we'll make them do it by force," Skabeyeva said, staring hard into the camera as tense music blared from the studio speakers. "And we make no guarantees about Ukraine's sovereignty."

The segment, which aired on December 20, marked an escalation in the already hyperbolic tone adopted by anchors and commentators on Russian talk shows. In recent days and weeks, as the Kremlin has warned of a "military response" in Ukraine if the West does not agree to its demands, the narrative on TV has reached fever pitch.

In addition to an end to NATO expansion to the east, the demands put forward by Moscow include promises that the United States and other Western nations will abandon military activities in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, and will not establish any new military bases on former Soviet territory, among other things.

Ahead of Russian-U.S. talks expected to start in January, U.S. officials have said that some of the proposals are unacceptable and that Russia knows it. Some analysts in both Russia and the West suspect that Moscow introduced them as a pretext so that it can accuse Washington and NATO of being unconstructive and blame them if it goes ahead with a new offensive against Ukraine.

In the meantime, officials in Moscow have called for a quick response. And in bellicose remarks at a meeting with the heads of Russian military leaders on December 21, President Vladimir Putin reiterated Moscow's readiness to use force if the West does not acquiesce.

"We have nowhere further to retreat," Putin said. "Do they really think we'll sit idly as they create threats against us?"

Putin recited a litany of grievances against the United States and its allies that he's voiced many times over his 22 years as president or prime minister. It's a refrain that has featured heavily in state TV coverage since Russia raised the stakes in its standoff with the West over Ukraine, whose government has been battling Russia-backed separatists in the eastern region known as the Donbas since 2014.

"Let's be honest. We have reached a breaking point," firebrand host Dmitry Kiselyov, who is seen as one of the Kremlin's chief propagandists, said on the popular Sunday night show Vesti Nedeli, or News Of The Week, apparently referring to what Kyiv and NATO say are groundless claims of military actions threatening Russia.

"If you put a gun to our head, we'll do the same to you," Kiselyov said. "We have the capability for that."

When earlier this month Putin baselessly described the ongoing armed conflict in Ukraine as akin to "genocide" perpetrated by Kyiv, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv tweeted that "false accusations of genocide are dangerous and irresponsible."

But programs like 60 Minutes wasted no time in amplifying Putin's claim.

"What's happening in Ukraine is a genocide carried out by the same CIA operatives who first destroyed the U.S.S.R. and then engaged in illegal privatization under [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin and sought to dismantle Russia," Skabeyeva said on December 13.

Some analysts say that even if Russia stops short of actually invading Ukraine, this incessant warmongering on state TV, as well as the obsequious coverage of Putin's tough talk on NATO, will in itself serve to increase the Russian strongman's flagging approval ratings at home.

But while that effect was substantial after Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and helped separatist forces take over parts of the Donbas in 2014, Russians' broad dissatisfaction with a troubled economy today may prevent widespread support for any military adventures abroad.

"While the Kremlin's TV and online propaganda machines are formidable, they can't change the way people think and feel about the things that matter to them most," Russia experts Sam Greene and Graeme Robertson wrote in a December 8 article in The Washington Post. "If Putin does invade Ukraine, he will do it without broad public support at home, and in a manner that will almost certainly weaken that support still further."

But there are also suggestions that public opinion may yet get behind Putin's rhetoric, at least in the short term.

A recent survey by independent pollster Levada Center showed that half of Russians blame the United States and NATO for worsening tensions over Ukraine, 16 percent blame Ukraine itself, and only 4 percent see Russia as the guilty party.

Whether that translates into a collective readiness to back Russia's leadership in the event that it launches a new offensive against Ukraine is another question.

Andrei Kolesnikov, who chairs the domestic Russian politics program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, argues that, ultimately, coverage on government-controlled TV channels can do little to overturn Russians' deep-rooted aversion to war.

"State propaganda has overused its powers of mobilization," Kolesnikov wrote in a column for The Moscow Times last week. "Instead of mobilization, it has created a fear of world war."

Source: https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-ukraine- state-tv-fears/31621638.html

Copyright (c) 2021. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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