The annual “direct line” call-in televised broadcast with President Vladimir Putin brought few surprises. Crimea and Ukraine dominated the discussion. One of the moderators, from the state television program Vesti, did not mince words, calling the recent events in Eastern Ukraine “genocide” and claiming the country is on the brink of civil war. The phones were ringing off the hook, Putin’s press secretary noted, with Russians eager to express overwhelming support for Moscow’s actions: “Many people called just to say, thank you for Crimea, Mr. Putin.” And ethnic Russians living in Eastern Ukraine called for more “decisive” action from Russia.
As much as this depresses me (I’m a Russian living in Moscow), I’m neither shocked nor surprised. Following the Crimea referendum, Putin’s approval ratings have approached an all-time high.
The state-driven propaganda surrounding Crimea was shocking and dangerous. Russian channels poured out hours of terrifying images of Kiev overtaken by “Nazis,” and terrifying messages about “atrocities” and threats to ethnic Russians in Ukraine, who were therefore in need of protection.
During today’s call-in show, Putin dismissed allegations of Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine, calling it “nonsense” and saying that the armed uprising is a purely local phenomenon. Talk about déjà vu. In Crimea, mysterious armed soldiers without insignia referred to by locals and journalists as the “polite green men” took effective control over the Crimean peninsula in the lead up to the “referendum” on the status of Crimea in March. Russian authorities continuously denied their involvement.
But during the show Putin finally admitted, very nonchalantly, that Russian troops had in fact played a role in Crimea. I can’t help wondering if Russia’s role in Donbass will be revealed in a future news conference, once the Kremlin is confident of public support. It could count on public forgiveness – or even support – for temporarily misleading people. A poll conducted in March by a respected independent Russian public opinion polling group showed 54 percent of respondents don’t mind if the media distorts the news if it’s done for the sake of national interests.
One of the main messages of a report published on Tuesday by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was the need to end misinformation, propaganda, and incitement to hatred, which have played a crucial role in escalating tension in Ukraine. Everyone, including Russia and Ukraine, should follow this recommendation. The stakes are too high to ignore it.