March 13, 2023
It occasionally occurs to Putin’s mouthpieces that they may one day face charges in a war crimes tribunal. The case for the prosecution is in their own words.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s elite propagandists wanted to drink champagne in the studio to properly celebrate the moment. Head of state propaganda agency, RT, Margarita Simonyan, expressed “an overwhelming sense of euphoria” and added: “I’ve been waiting eight years for this and it finally happened. This is true happiness.”
With the bloody all-out invasion now in its second year, the euphoria has been replaced by a lingering sense of dread, with Putin’s mouthpieces routinely fretting about the possibility of war crimes tribunals. The issue is playing on their minds.
Appearing on the state TV show, Evening With Vladimir Solovyov in November, Simonyan said: “Let me tell you that if we manage to lose, the Hague — whether real or hypothetical — will even come for the street cleaner sweeping the cobblestones behind the Kremlin.” The same month, Olga Skabeeva, the host of the state TV show 60 Minutes, likewise predicted that if Russia loses its war against Ukraine, every Russian will be considered guilty. She argued that a resounding victory was the only way “to avoid tribunals at the Hague, criminal cases, and having to pay reparations.”
As the months go by, these concerns have not subsided. During Solovyov’s show on March 6, Vitaly Tretyakov, dean of Moscow State University’s Higher School of Television, worried out loud about the statements from “significant” Western figures expressing the demand that Putin and other Russians face war crimes tribunals.
The Kremlin’s propagandists have plenty of reasons to be concerned; street sweepers and other average citizens rather less so. The agitation for war crimes against Ukrainians (described as animals and worse), the descriptions of them as Nazis, and the delight at the attacks on their homes and civilian energy grid have, after all, not been broadcast by people on the street. From the lowliest pawns on Putin’s chess board to the queens of propaganda like Simonyan and Skabeeva, the state-controlled media has played a central part in prompting, encouraging, rationalizing, and normalizing the Kremlin’s massacre of its next-door neighbors.
It may be tempting to interpret such lurid language as silliness designed for a domestic audience. But the outpourings of the propaganda machine have often foreshadowed or justified serious acts of state violence against Ukraine, including the mass murder of civilians, the mass kidnapping of Ukrainian citizens, the weaponization of migrant flows, and the evisceration of the Ukrainian polity.
Examples of such talk are easy to find. They proliferate nightly on live TV. Before the full-fledged invasion, Russian state media favored the description of pro-independence Ukrainians as “pigs,” with corresponding cartoons featured on state television, where Ukraine’s language, food, and traditions were routinely mocked. Since February 2022, the descriptions have descended into the realm of open dehumanization. During his show in July, Solovyov said: “When a doctor is deworming a cat — for the doctor, it’s a special operation, for the worms, it’s a war, and for the cat, it’s a cleansing.”
In October, RT’s director of broadcasting, Anton Krasovsky, suggested drowning Ukrainian children, setting Ukrainian homes on fire — with the inhabitants inside — and alleged that Ukrainian grandmothers would gladly pay to be raped by Russian soldiers. He insisted that Ukraine should end in its current form, with its only surviving sliver zoned for pig rearing. Krasovsky felt the need to clarify that when he said “pigs,” he did not mean Ukrainian women.
In October, Pavel Gubarev, a Russian political figure who proclaimed himself the “People’s Governor” of the Donetsk Region in 2014 and later as leader of the Donbas People’s Militia, explained that Ukrainians were, “Russian people, possessed by the devil,” and that Russia’s aim was to “convince them” that they are not Ukrainian. He added: “But if you don’t want us to change your minds, then we will kill you. We will kill as many of you as we have to. We will kill 1 million or 5 million, we can exterminate all of you.”
Months earlier, in May, State Duma deputy Aleksey Zhuravlyov appeared on 60 Minutes to outline his calculations about the number of Ukrainians to be reeducated by “re-installing their brains,” as opposed to the millions who would refuse to abandon their Ukrainian identity and who must therefore be killed. “A maximum of 5% are incurable. Simply put, 2 million people. These 2 million people should have left Ukraine, or must be denazified, which means to be destroyed.”
There is a widespread consensus in the state-controlled media that this so-called “denazification” means mass murder. In April, again on 60 Minutes, Zhuravlyov and Skabeeva concurred that this process is “accomplished by shooting, or ripping heads off.”
Nor was there any question in the minds of Russian officials that the invasion’s aim was to oppress, not to “liberate” its population. In his RT interview in December, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s former ambassador to NATO and former Deputy PM for Defense and Space Industry, acknowledged that Ukrainians did not welcome their Russian invaders and that a huge effort would be needed to change their outlook “Many years will pass even after our victory before we will be able to secure total loyalty of this population.” Turning this “extensive territory” into Russia will require plenty of manpower, time, and effort, he said.
The theme of a long occupation is common. State Duma Deputy, General Vladimir Shamanov, Russia’s former airborne commander, estimated that it would take the “re-education” of at least two generations of Ukrainians before they would tolerate Russia’s dominance. Appearing on 60 Minutes in March, Shamanov concluded: “Today, it can be clearly predicted that we will have to remain in Ukraine for 30-40 years.”
During the same show, military expert Igor Korotchenko surmised, “It’s obvious that the process of the denazification of Ukraine will take a minimum of 15-20 years.” He predicted that Russian troops would have to remain on Ukrainian territory, with a substantial Russian presence for the foreseeable future.
On March 6, Tretyakov, of the Higher School of Television, emphasized that Russian military bases should be established throughout Ukraine, “in order to control the mentality of this territory.” He claimed that Ukrainians have “turned into animals” and Russia must plan its actions accordingly.
It is easy enough to understand the link between talking points that routinely compare the Ukrainians to animals, bugs, or worms with atrocities like Bucha, the torture and murder of Ukrainian prisoners of war, attempts to freeze and starve civilians to death by destroying critical infrastructure and forcibly deporting Ukrainians — including children — to Russia.
Russian academics are happy to explain the logic of Kremlin-directed violence and to provide an intellectual gloss. It is explained that attacks to deprive Ukrainians of electricity, running water, and food are part of a bigger plan. So the forced movement of millions to Russia is to compensate for its severe demographic shortcomings, while 8 million more have been pushed westwards to overwhelm Europe and undermine its economy by creating a refugee crisis. In October, speaking on Solovyov’s show, Andrey Sidorov, Deputy Dean of world politics at Moscow State University, acknowledged that Ukraine’s destruction had a secondary benefit. “We should wait for the right moment and cause a migration crisis for Europe with a new influx of Ukrainians,” he said.
And in January, the host of Solovyov Live, Sergey Mardan, rejoiced at the souls forced to leave their homes and enter Putin’s Russia: “Look at how much the Motherland is spending to solve the demographic problem. We got these people [Ukrainians] for free, for nothing—approximately five million of them! Five million souls!”
In the world of Russian state TV, everyone has a soul, but not everyone has a right to live out their life. Some things are just more important, as Professor Elena Ponomareva of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations explained on Solovyov’s show in March: “Never let morality prevent you from doing the right thing. I understand the importance of a humanitarian component, but morality shouldn’t get in the way.”
It is not hard to imagine those words echoing in a courtroom, as the prosecution lays out its case against Professor Ponomareva and her co-defendants.
Julia Davis is a columnist for The Daily Beast and the creator of the Russian Media Monitor. She is a member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the Screen Actors Guild, and Women In Film.