Russia’s media narratives are again changing, along with shifts in Russian foreign policy. The constant drumbeat of hysterical stories about “fascists” and “anti-Semites” running the Ukrainian government—common after the Maidan Revolution—later gave way to extensive coverage of Russia’s Syrian adventure and then to stories about how NATO’s decisions at the Warsaw summit threaten Russia. Some themes have remained consistent—such as the claim that Putin has made Russia a great power—with newer themes also becoming popular, such as the Kremlin’s frequent labeling of its critics as “russophobes.” The U.S. presidential elections were a favorite theme throughout 2016, with media outlets openly rooting for Donald Trump even though they never expected him to defeat Hillary Clinton.
Since Trump’s victory, Russia’s TV networks are increasingly turning to popular participation programs like Pervaya Studiya
and Vremya Pokazhet, which feature second-rate politicians, shrill pundits and plenty of shouting. These programs usually lionize Putin and Trump—often distorting the latter’s comments—and in at least one case warning that at home Trump already faces a “coup d’etat.”
Ukraine is back on the agenda as well. A few days ago, one commentator predicted Trump will soon lift sanctions and that Ukrainians will be “back where [they] belong” (i.e., with Russia). The 30 January edition of Pervaya Studiya featured Denis Pushilin—a former politician from the so-called Donetsk Peoples’s Republic—and a live Skype interview with a separatist commander at the front. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has recently ratcheted up the fighting, according to the narrative, because Putin and Trump are close to a deal. The tone and content of the programming strongly contrast with the comments of Russian officials in recent weeks. Since December, when Trump mentioned he might expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and January, when cabinet nominees Rex Tillerson and James Mattis took tough lines on Russia at their confirmation hearings, the Kremlin’s tone has been noticeably more cautious when it comes to a possible “reset” with Washington.
Two factors likely explain the latest shifts. First, Russia must keep its population mobilized—or at least actively interested—in its sometimes inconsistent approach to Ukraine and the United States. Second, Moscow is positioning itself to take advantage of any sign the Trump administration may relax tough U.S. economic sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Portraying the Ukrainian government as the aggressors in the Donbas crisis may sway some people in the West who doubt Kyiv’s cause.
As this week’s CEPA briefs illustrate, the change in U.S. leadership has also given pro-Kremlin outlets in the Baltics the chance to spread a new set of narratives aimed at undermining Western unity. Trump’s criticism of some NATO members for shirking their alliance obligations, for example, has led some commentators to question Washington’s commitment to Baltic security, even though Trump has not said he would back off NATO commitments and key nominees have reaffirmed them.