- By Hanna KozlowskaHanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a fixer, researcher and freelance contributor for the New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Huffington Post and several Polish publications. She graduated from Swarthmore College where she was coeditor in chief of The Daily Gazette.
Under the terms of the sanctions the Obama administration imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, senior Russian lawmaker Sergyi Zheleznyak has been barred from traveling to the United States, but that didn’t stop him from appearing Monday at Washington’s National Press Club for a virtuoso performance of Kremlin agitprop.
Zheleznyak, the deputy speaker of the Russian Duma, treated the journalists gathered in Washington and Moscow, from which he appeared via video-link, to a two-hour display of deceit and deception. Using every trick in the big book of Russian propaganda, Zheleznyak shamelessly fearmongered, touted Russia’s alleged moral superiority and military might, and proceeded to dismiss realities on the ground in Crimea, which was invaded and absorbed into Russia.
Zheleznyak appeared alongside Sergei Markov, a political analyst and a former member of parliament, and their remarks, laced with colorful Russian proverbs, were poorly translated into English by an interpreter. Zheleznyak is one of 11 Kremlin insiders sanctioned in response to Russia’s actions in Crimea. The panel was co-hosted by Kremlin-backed news service RIA Novosti and moderated in Washington by Edward Lozansky, the president of the American University in Moscow.
What ensued was nearly two hours of unabashed, old-school propaganda.
Nuclear fear-mongering never did any harm
When Lozansky, the Washington moderator, asked about a proposal made by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham to provide lethal arms to the Ukrainian government, Zheleznyak responded with an incendiary threat about Ukrainian nuclear power plants. If U.S-provided weapons fall into the "wrong hands," these facilities could be attacked by rogue Ukrainian militants, Zheleznyak warned. "We don’t know where the wind will blow," he said, offhandedly reminding his audience of the "Chernobyl tragedy."
You think you’re so smart, John McCain?
According to Zheleznyak, it’s a dog-eat-dog world in Ukraine. If American weapons were to fall into the hands of a man with no food, "he will kill people." And if America doesn’t believe Zheleznyak’s warnings, he has a perfect guinea pig in mind to explore the situation on the ground. "If American colleagues want tests they should send McCain there and see if he can survive."
Nationalist "bandits" have "taken the country hostage"
The Kremlin has repeatedly described the anti-government protesters who toppled former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych as "Nazis" and "fascists." Monday’s conference was no different. According to Zheleznyak , the entire country of Ukraine is "populated by armed militants in balaclavas," who are "outlaws" and whose motives are "unknown." The country, according to Markov, needs "free democratic elections, not under the neo-Nazi AK-47." The threat of "radicalization," Zheleznyak warned, has extended to all of Europe, especially in light of the recent financial crisis.
"Full soldier is better than a hungry soldier"
When asked about a recent aid shipment from the United States to Ukraine, Markov responded by first making allegations about the U.S. Navy’s presence in the Black Sea. (A Navy destroyer, the USS Truxton, has left the Black Sea after a training exercise.) He then proceeded to compare the current crisis to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which was eventually resolved by President John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev through a behind-the-scenes deal. "We think Obama should be wise as Kennedy" instead of "wrangling with his gun across the world."
Zheleznyak seemed less concerned about U.S. aid to Ukraine. "Full soldier is better than a hungry soldier. If the Ukrainian soldiers have to be fed, that’s okay. It’s better than cannons." In the end, it doesn’t matter to the Russians. "Ukrainian army is very weak, no morale," Markov said.
Russia as the upholder of international law
Repeatedly referring to the current government in Kiev as a "junta," Zheleznyak rejected upcoming parliamentary elections in Ukraine as illegitimate and maintained that only one binding international document remains: the Feb. 21 agreement between the opposition and the then-president, Yanukovych. That agreement called for early elections and constitutional reform, and, according to Zheleznyak, international law "is the only anchor that we have to stick to." Never mind the fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been roundly condemned as a violation of international law.
Russia as the upholder of political freedoms
Markov presented three demands for Ukrainian authorities: Release all political prisoners, curtail "political censorship," and introduce a federal system for governing Ukraine. While it is unclear which political prisoners he hoped to free from the "junta" in Kiev, he failed to mention Russia’s long list of prisoners of conscience and restrictions on media freedoms.
Ukraine has gone back to the stone age
Throughout the conference, Zheleznyak repeatedly referred to Ukraine’s alleged "return to the stone age." In the last three months, Zheleznyak said, conditions in Ukraine have regressed from those of a civilized European country and now resemble the stone age — "where everyone is trying to survive … where anyone can be assaulted or attacked by gangsters." Needless to say, most reports suggest a tense calm has settled in Ukraine.
Poverty and oppression have prepared Mother Russia well for sanctions
Zheleznyak, one of the officials targeted by U.S. sanctions, dismissed the threat of more sweeping punitive measures under discussion by the United States and Europe. "Due to complex living conditions that Russians used to have, the level of survivability and adaptability is much higher than for US and EU citizens," Zheleznyak said.
The Russian people may not like it, he said, but they have been through worse.