Russia state media has descended into a seemingly endless moan-fest about the unprecedented Western sanctions over the war in Ukraine, all while dishing out distractions and schadenfreude to convince everyday Russians that Americans are even worse off.
During Tuesday’s broadcast of state TV show 60 Minutes, referring to the shortage of baby food in the U.S. with a spiteful scowl, host Evgeny Popov said: “American children have nothing to eat.” Journalist Andrei Sidorchik replied with an even uglier diatribe: “Meanwhile, Ukrainian children are getting missiles and bombs delivered to them, which are supposed to somehow secure their future... They’ll have no fathers, no homes, their country will be burned out, they’ll have nothing that American children have.” Popov retorted: “But they’ll have McDonald’s!”
When Russia’s own problems are being discussed, the mood in Kremlin-controlled TV studios is far from jolly—in part because state media mouthpieces were so wrong in their earlier predictions about how the war would impact Russia. While Putin was mounting his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, his top propagandists were tilling the soil of public opinion, assuring everyday citizens that the war would be quick and relatively painless. In January, TASS published commentary by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who asserted that Russia isn’t afraid of sanctions because “We are quite big and quite self-sufficient to be harmed by these sanctions." He claimed that sanctions were even beneficial for the Russian economy: “To some extent we are trying to take advantage of them in terms of developing our domestic economy, our domestic production.”
In mid-February, appearing on the state TV show The Evening With Vladimir Solovyov, RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan boasted: “McCain is dead, Obama is gone, Putin is still here." She brazenly dismissed the idea that Russia would face severe sanctions for re-invading Ukraine: "What can they do to us? What did they do to us after Crimea? Where’s our ‘economy in tatters’?”
In a case of “be careful what you wish for,” Russia’s war was met with a barrage of punishing sanctions. While the Kremlin is repeatedly asserting that the sanctions are not working, these denials simply mean that the regime of President Vladimir Putin has no intention of altering its course. Meanwhile, the restrictions are battering Russia’s faltering economy, which was already undermined by decades of corruption and mismanagement.
One paramount problem plaguing the Kremlin is the lack of high-performance computer chips, due to the Western ban on the export of semiconductors to Russia. Advanced semiconductors power critical battlefield systems and without them, the Russian military’s fighting ability is severely eroded. The frustration over Russia’s current impotence to secure its own chip manufacturing is spilling out even in the tightly controlled state media environment.
On Tuesday’s 60 Minutes, host Popov shot down suggestions from pundits that Russia can quickly organize its own production of semiconductors. “One factory that produces semiconductors would cost us $20-30 billion... It’s quite clear that we can’t build them quickly. We have to look for them on foreign markets. It’s utopia for us to suggest we could be making them here,” Popov said.
Vladimir Avatkov, from the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, delivered a sunny—albeit an Orwellian—outlook: “In the non-Western world, they’re looking at us with hopeful anticipation. They’re waiting for the time when Russia can actively involve and attract others into its new security architecture.” Even seasoned a propagandist like Popov seemed aghast at the delusional forecast and snidely asked: “They’re waiting to join us, even though we have no Visa, Mastercard, iPhone, or McDonald’s?”
While Russia is waging war and promising peace, concerns about sanction-caused shortages keep leaking out in state media. Russian soldiers are reportedly buying supplies and equipment at their own expense, state media propagandists are crowdfunding the purchase of drones—and everyday citizens are sending toilet paper to the Russian troops. Last week, the deputy speaker of the Russian Duma, Pyotr Tolstoy, boasted on 60 Minutes: “Do you know what our constituents are doing? They’re buying packages of toilet paper... and bringing it to us, so we can send them to our soldiers.”
Desperate to free itself from the chains of unsparing sanctions, Russia is resorting to blackmail on a global scale. Putin’s state media is trying to twist the looming food crisis, caused by Russia’s war, to the Kremlin’s advantage. In April, RIA Novosti published an article about the daunting prospect of global hunger, entitled: “Russia has a weapon against the West that is more frightening than missiles.” Russia is preventing Ukraine from using its main ports on the Black and Azov Seas, which is interfering with the country’s extensive grain exports.
On Wednesday, news agency Interfax quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko, who responded to Western appeals for the Ukrainian ports to be unblocked by requesting the removal of sanctions against Russia’s financial sector and the country’s exports. While Ukraine’s grain is being blocked from reaching its recipients, the Kremlin’s state media mouthpieces frame the approaching crisis as a mere “market competition” which Russia intends to win. During last week’s broadcast of The Evening With Vladimir Solovyov, Simonyan boasted that unlike India and the United States, Russia had no drought and would experience no shortage of food. She added that Moscow could choose to share or sell its extensive food stocks, but only with those who behave “nicely” towards Russia.
In another state media venting session on Tuesday, senior member of the Communist Party Yuri Afonin delivered a grim forecast: “The West is ready to fight us until the end... How can we respond? Only with a sovereign economy, the rebuilding of our economy. Yes, there are some people—thankfully, there’s less and less of them—who keep hoping that everything will settle down, calm down and return to normal. They need to understand, that will never happen,” he said on Tuesday’s 60 Minutes.
Host Popov complained: “They’re offering us the ’90s, they want to humiliate us, they want hunger, unemployment, technological underdevelopment.” Afonin replied: “Unfortunately, there is no end in sight. This is only the beginning of the struggle.”