The closing of the RIA Novosti news agency in the middle of the Ukrainian crisis reflects Vladimir Putin’s increasingly pronounced view of a zero-sum world, in which enemies at home and abroad plot against Russia. In depicting the Ukrainian protests as a “pogrom,” and in replacing a respected news agency with a propaganda machine, Putin followed the more openly aggressive stance of his return to the presidency in May 2012 — what Russians call Putin II, or Late Putin.
Though government controlled, Novosti was known for a relatively straight news report and a nuanced presentation of Russia’s national interests and policies (its report on its own dissolution called it one of several changes that “appear to point toward a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector.”) Putin was said to have been irked by Novosti’s reporting on the mass protests after he announced that he would run for the presidency again in 2012. Novosti’s coverage of Ukrainian protests may well have hastened its demise.
In general, the agency reflected the more liberal approach of Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and current prime minister, who is credited with trying to modernize Russia’s economy, combat corruption and reform law enforcement. That “good-cop-bad-cop” approach of Putin’s earlier years in power is gone. Medvedev is still prime minister, but he has a lesser role.
Novosti’s main function, the dissemination of information abroad, is being taken over by a new organization called Russia Today, whose director, Dmitry Kiselyov, is well known for his slavishly pro-Putin broadcasts, his hostility to America and his homophobic pronouncements. In a Page 1 editorial, Russia’s respected business daily Vedomosti said: “The Kremlin acknowledged that it has lost the educated community and has neither the means nor the will to hold a dialogue about values, and therefore instead of culture began to impose ideology, and instead of information, propaganda.”
The Kremlin, Vedomosti wrote, sees hostile interests or hostile money behind everything it does not like.
Reared in this mind-set, Putin evidently refuses to acknowledge that the Ukrainian protesters are motivated by the intense frustration with post-Soviet rule by corrupt, self-serving and arrogant cliques that he and President Viktor Yanukovych personify.
What infuriated Ukrainians when Yanukovych balked at closer ties with the European Union was the sense that their ambitions and hopes were utterly disregarded.
By all accounts, the Ukrainians understood that the European Union was not offering a panacea for their economic and political problems. And they expected little from the corrupt, Soviet-style rule of Yanukovych. But he was tolerated so long as he and his cronies promised Westward movement.
Yanukovych, Putin and other post-Soviet leftovers may find ways to gain time. There are no obvious successors in the wings, personally nor institutionally. But with every crisis, it becomes clearer what these leaders stand for. Closing down Novosti will not alter the reality that Novosti reported. It will add to the resentment of people sick and tired of being taken for fools.