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Putin is putting on a show, and he has a stranglehold on Russian media


By Brian Stelter, CNN Business

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Russian President Vladimir Putin put on a show on Monday — first with a Security Council meeting that was likened to a Netflix drama, then a long speech that was intended as a history lesson and justification for Russian aggression. CNN cut away from the speech to provide viewers with context about how, in Jim Sciutto’s words, Putin was evincing “clear nostalgia for the Soviet Union” and a desire to put those pieces back together.

As Monday turned to Tuesday, many news headlines were about Putin ordering so-called “peacekeeping” troops to two pro-Moscow regions of Eastern Ukraine. I was surprised some sites used the “peace” term without any quote marks at all. As Jane Lytvynenko, a veteran of the disinformation beat, tweeted, “Don’t even get me started on the schmucks printing headlines on Russian ‘peacekeepers’ going into Donetsk. Was Putin’s speech the speech on a peacekeeper? Use words wisely.”

CNN’s homepage said it more clearly: “Putin orders troops into eastern Ukraine.” The Washington Post went with a similar headline, with an off-lead story titled “White House wrestles with whether Russia has ‘invaded’ Ukraine.” On American cable news, the word invasion was used over and over again. Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said on MSNBC that Putin “sounds like a guy that’s ready for a big war.” Don Lemon said on CNN that “these are not peacekeepers.”

>> This quote stood out during the UN Security Council’s emergency meeting on Monday night: Ukraine’s Ambassador to the UN Sergiy Kyslytsya said Russia is spreading a “virus that has so far as no vaccine…”

Putin’s playbook

I highly recommend this analysis piece by CNN’s Nathan Hodge. “Putin’s passion for history is no secret,” he wrote Monday: “Last summer, the Kremlin lit a slow-burning fuse under Ukraine when he published a more than 5,000-word essay that, in essence, cast doubt on the legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood. But the Kremlin leader’s history obsession has now brought him into a new and more heightened phase of open conflict with the West — and that confrontation threatens to flare into a cataclysmic new war.”

Remember: Putin has a stranglehold on Russian media

“Putin has spent the past year, especially since Alexei Navalny’s return, methodically and effectively putting an end to the last remaining vestiges of independent media,” CNN anchor Bianna Golodryga told me. “He’s been doing this gradually for years but nothing as ruthless as this past year — either through arrests, intimidation killing their business models, and/or by labeling them as foreign agents.”

“Now that he and the Kremlin have had total control of the media, the propaganda machine (via state media) has convincingly turned average Russians onto his side,” Golodryga said. “Though they don’t want war, they believe him when he says (as his did today in his hour long revisionist history lesson) that the West is the aggressor and has always wanted us to fail, thus corrupting our ‘brothers in sisters in Ukraine,’ while Russians are the aggrieved party.”

Her point: Putin’s framing is working with his intended audience. For more on this, read this Julia Davis dispatch for The Daily Beast about Russian TV…

Right-wing media’s rhetorical jujutsu

NPR’s David Folkenflik speaking with Alex Wagner on MSNBC Monday night: Right-wing media figures like Tucker Carlson are “accusing the Biden administration of some sort of aggression, as though it’s intending to go to war, something the administration has ruled out. It’s a kind of rhetorical jujutsu, the kind which Carlson all too readily embraces.”

It’s “the world we now live in,” Wagner reacted, “where we have to care equally about what Vladimir Putin wants to do, and what Tucker Carlson’s response to Vladimir Putin’s actions is…”

>> Carlson said Monday night that his show is pursuing interviews with both Putin and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky…

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