BY MAXIM TRUDOLYUBOV
While Russia is a major presence on American television networks, Russia’s own media treatment of current U.S. politics is now a pale shadow of what it used to be only a few months ago.
The daily reports that would enthusiastically follow President Donald Trump’s every step are long gone. These days the coverage of all things American is targeted at explaining the current stalemate in a relationship that immediately after the Trump win was heralded as highly promising.
Sometimes Russian politicians are just giving angry retorts to American statements. “Mike Pompeo’s recent accusations are fake news and are Russophobic, their aim is to intimidate the minds of Americans,” Irina Yarovaya, vice-speaker of the Duma, the Russian parliament’s lower chamber, said on Monday.
The statement in question comes from Pompeo’s MSNBC interview, in which he said that “we are decades into the Russians trying to undermine American democracy. So in some ways, there’s no news, but it certainly puts a heightened emphasis on our ability to figure out how to stop them.”
The other type of Russian media response is to add sophistication to the discourse and draw a picture of a United States that is an aging power struggling to keep up with the demands of a changed world. President Donald Trump is often presented as fighting an uphill battle against the forces within the United States that see America as the world’s only power center.
“Two approaches to America’s national interest are competing in U.S. politics. There are realists, who think that the U.S. is overextending itself in the world.… They are represented by Trump,” said Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the information committee of the Federation Council. “And there are others who think that the U.S. is the world’s only master.”
These latter forces are attacking both Russia and Trump, Pushkov continued. They have set up a political trap for Trump as he is presented as someone defending Russia’s interests. “He does not want to fight Russia, which means he has ties with Russia, which means his team had contacts with Russian officials, which means he himself is, voluntary or not, an agent of Russian influence. This scheme repeats itself time and again in American media,” concluded Pushkov, speaking on the weekly talk show, Sunday Evening, with Vladimir Soloviev.
The question Soloviev and Pushkov were discussing was this: “Why did the Obama administration plant a cyber bomb under Russia?” This apparently was a reference to a Washington Post report that President Barack Obama authorized planting cyber weapons in Russia’s infrastructure in retaliation for Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. elections. None of the context was explained; the allegations were not dismissed but simply left unmentioned. The Russian public watching the talk show was treated to a thoughtful discussion of America’s unprovoked aggression against their country.
The coverage of the United States has changed, but what has barely changed is the Russian media’s reliance on foreign news at the expense of the domestic agenda. Russia’s success on the world stage is the success that makes most Russians proud. It is not for his handling of Russia’s economy or for fighting corruption, inflation, or inequality that Putin is loved. He is universally praised in Russia as a foreign policy president: 87 percent of those polled express their confidence in Putin “to do the right thing regarding world affairs” and think their country has gained stature on the world stage, a recent Pew Research Center report says.
No other issue is held in comparably high regard in Russia, the poll found. In fact, whenever a poll question was asked about any particular policy, even if it was a foreign policy, the scores were significantly lower. For example, Putin earns much lower marks today (63 percent) than he did two years ago (83 percent) for his handling of relations with Ukraine. Fifty-five percent approved of Putin’s economic policies. The overwhelming majority of Russians see rising prices, corrupt politicians, and a lack of employment opportunities as major problems, but none of these grievances affect their overall approval of Putin based on an appreciation of him as an outstanding foreign policy leader.
The gap between a demand for stature in international relations and a demand for sounder economic policies has long existed in Russia. But it turned into a wide gap in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea. Confidence in Putin as a leader enhancing Russia’s international status has stayed high ever since, as opposed to the diminishing confidence in him as executor of a domestic economic agenda.
One important difference between foreign and domestic policies is the way they are experienced. We all go shopping and experience rising prices, we all drive or use buses and experience Russia’s roads. None of these latter encounters with reality get our high marks. The way we experience foreign policy, on the other hand, is through television. Foreign policy successes and a high status in international affairs are intangible assets.
Of course, a lot of this is due to intense propaganda pressure, which every member of Russian television audiences is subjected to on a daily basis. But that alone cannot explain the phenomenon. After all, despite constant threats of bans on specific resources or services such as messengers, the internet environment is largely free. The experiences of decaying infrastructure and a lack of employment prospects are real. The demand for a feeling of national greatness must be real too.
This is why the Russian media’s stories of America struggling to contain an increasingly powerful Russia get a lot of traction domestically. The Kremlin is pushing for the kind of understanding of greatness that is almost an exact opposite of the variety Trump has made his trademark: greatness on the job front at home and few international engagements. The irony is that both Putin and Trump have tried to use each other to promote their respective—and opposing—visions of national greatness.