NEW YORK — An avalanche of sleekly produced, glitzy talk-shows took over prime time television in Russia in the aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s military adventure in Ukraine in 2014. He needed to sell the war to his electorate, and the Kremlin kicked its vast apparatus of state-controlled print and broadcast media into overdrive.
The shows created an alternative, topsy-turvy reality in which Ukraine became the Western-backed aggressor and Russia became the victim.
As a native of Ukraine’s Donbas region, I had seen how Moscow’s disinformation machinery bombarded the hearts and minds of locals, setting brother against brother, as barely disguised Russian tanks rolled across eastern Ukraine.
As a U.S.-based, pro-democracy and pro-Ukraine activist, I also soon began to receive dozens of invitations to appear on political round-tables and TV programs produced by highly-rated Russian channels, some of which attracted millions of Russian viewers.
It’s no wonder: to achieve a modicum of plausibility and increase the show’s entertainment value, these propaganda extravaganzas need a foil. With my background, and my political views, I fit the bill perfectly.
I have been offered and refused fees in the $500-1000 range. By Ukraine’s standards, this is a substantial amount.
On Russian TV, token pro-Ukraine participants are picked for their ability to play a certain role: Depending on the talk show, they can be deadly earnest and thoughtful, or slightly absurd and bumbling, or downright clownish. There is usually at least one guest from Ukraine and one ostensible ally — usually an easy-to-caricature Westerner or a discredited local “liberal.”
When the host deems they’ve been given a “fair” amount of time and attention, the pile-on begins. The pro-Russia majority soon drowns the Ukrainian and his hapless allies in jeers and mockery, while the host picks and chooses out-of-context and often misleading statistics to highlight on a large screen. There have been instances of Ukrainian guests, or their “allies,” being unceremoniously thrown out of the studio and even physically attacked by the host.
I typically rejected these offers. I had seen too many Ukrainian guests ridiculed and defeated, goaded into often gladiatorial combats for truth on the stage that is rigged against them.
Why are they willing to stomach such public humiliation? Some, no doubt, do it in an attempt to convey the truth. I suspect most are motivated by money. I have been offered and refused fees in the $500-1000 range. By Ukraine’s standards, this is a substantial amount.
When I finally relented and agreed to go on “60 Minutes,” I attempted to do it on my own terms: on an unpaid basis and via Skype. Expected to deliver the usual anti-Putin diatribe, I used my time to address the Russian president directly and engage in some over the top satire: I urged him to pursue an aggressive plan for continent-wide domination and brought out kitchen knives as a reference to his saber-rattling.
Ukraine’s experience is a reminder that we have an obligation to try everything at our disposal.
What was most chilling was that, for a while, the audience appeared to be on my side. The anchors couldn’t tell whether I was a Putin fanatic or making fun of the Russian position.
In the face of interference on this magnitude, small-scale stunts of political theater may not seem like much. Russia’s propaganda machine may seem too massive, too well-oiled to take down. We have not yet found the tools to counter it effectively, but as Putin’s disinformation strategies spread across Western liberal democracies — including the United States — Ukraine’s experience is a reminder that we have an obligation to try everything at our disposal to make a dent in it.
Peter Zalmayev is director of Eurasia Democracy Initiative, a pro-democracy NGO based in New York with offices in Kiev, Ukraine.