August 15, 2008 – Russians were told over breakfast yesterday what really happened in Georgia: the conflict in South Ossetia was part of a plot by Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, to stop Barack Obama being elected president of the United States.
The line came on the main news of Vesti FM, a state radio station that – like the Government and much of Russia’s media – has reverted to the old habits of Soviet years, in which a sinister American hand was held to lie behind every conflict, especially those embarrassing to Moscow. Modern Russia may be plugged into the internet and the global marketplace but in the battle for world opinion the Kremlin is replaying the old black-and-white movie.
The Obama angle is getting wide play. It was aired on Wednesday by Sergei Markov, a senior political scientist who is close to Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister and power behind President Medvedev.
“George Bush’s Administration is promoting interests of candidate John McCain,” said Dr Markov. “Defeated by Barak Obama on all fronts, McCain has one last card to play yet – the creation of a virtual Cold War with Russia . . . Bush himself did not want a war in South Ossetia but his Republican Party did not leave him any choice.” The Americans were now engineering an armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia, Dr Markov added.
The Establishment and its media supporters are dusting off favourites from the Cold War shelf. Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister, accused Washington of playing dangerous games. The West was guilty of “adventurism”, supporting aggression against peace-loving Russian forces who are engaged on a humanitarian mission to protect human life. Yesterday’s headline in Commersant, a generally admired newspaper, announced with old-style sarcasm the imminent American “Military Humanitarian Landing” in Georgia.
A classic of Soviet-speak also came from Vasili Lickhachev, a former Russian Ambassador to the EU. “The West has spent a lot of time, energy and money to teach Georgia the tricks of the trade . . . to make the country look like a democracy,” he said.
“We and many other nations see through this deceit. We understand that the seditious tactics of the so-called colour revolutions are a real threat to international law and the source of global legal nihilism.”
These grooves from the Cold War grave are shrugged off by many Russians but they strike a chord in a nation ready once again to see itself as the victim of outside conspiracy. Blogs everywhere attract conspiracy lovers but Russian blogs have been exceptionally rich this week in theories of Western skulduggery over Georgia.
The old thinking finds more fertile ground now because, in the view of disillusioned Russians, President Bush relaunched the ideological war through a compliant American media, especially at the time of the invasion of Iraq.
“In the old days under Soviet rule we didn’t believe a word of our own propaganda but we thought that information was free in the West and we longed for it,” said Katya, a middle-aged Muscovite. “But we have learnt since that the West has its own propaganda and in some ways it is more powerful because people believe it.”
Moscow is using novel methods to spread a very unsubtle, Cold War version of the Caucasian conflict to the world. Chief among them is Russia Today, a state 24-hour news channel that is fronted much of the time by cheery British and other English-speaking television professionals.
The smiles and studio banter could come from BBC World or CNN but the story is unrelentingly the Kremlin version. Banners flash along at the bottom of the screen saying such things as “genocide” and “aggression” or “city turns into human hell, many people still trapped under rubble”. Recapping the conflict yesterday RT’s presenter said that Georgia’s “brutal assault” had killed 1,600 civilians in its breakaway province in a campaign that destroyed 70 per cent of the buildings in Tskhinvali, its capital. Russian forces had moved in only to bring peace as Georgian forces killed women and children who were trying to flee, it said. Throughout its rolling cover of alleged Georgian atrocities, there was no mention of the heavy Russian military offensive.
The coverage goes down well in developing countries that want an alternative to CNN and BBC World Service, a Russian official said. “We have learnt from Western TV how to simplify the narrative.”
The Soviet crackdown
– In January 1968 Alexander Dubcek became First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, instituting the “Prague Spring” liberalising reforms
– In August the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invaded, below, claiming that its assistance had been requested by Communist Party leaders. Dubcek was arrested
– Lyndon Johnson, the US President, declared the invasion in violation of the United Nations Charter, but America was in the middle of a presidential election campaign and a war in Vietnam. The West took no action
– In 1988 mass demonstrations marked the anniversary
– The Communists were finally ousted in 1989 and Václav Havel was elected President in what became known as the Velvet Revolution. Soviet forces withdrew in 1991