It would have been nice to see this as an emperor’s-new-clothes moment.
For a naïve westerner like me, the storyline of a retired Russian colonel saying forbidden things on a major TV talk show was irresistible. The six-minute clip was pure dynamite, and it left the on-camera panel — and Russia watchers all over the world — speechless.
The show was hosted by Olga Skabeeva, star media figure and Kremlin hack of the first order. Think of her as Tucker Carlson in heels.
As with all Russian TV — at least as of late February — it is absolutely forbidden to say, imply, or blurt out anything that might be construed as even hinting that all is not right in the world, or that Russia’s image on the world stage is anything but stellar.
Yet there was Colonel Mikhail Khodaryonok, on the show to discuss the Ukraine situation from a military standpoint, telling Russian viewers that:
[I]n a way, we are in full geopolitical isolation … However much we would hate to admit this, virtually the entire world is against us.
From the outside, this looks like the sort of thing that gets you fifteen years in the gulag. Which is why it seemed strange coming from someone who didn’t look to be planning an imminent escape to Finland.
And he had more to say:
[Y]ou hear reports about a moral psychological breakdown in the Ukrainian armed forces…To put it mildly, this is not true.
[T]he Ukrainian army can arm a million people … [S]ince Lend Lease will kick in soon … we need to treat [these] million Ukrainian soldiers as a reality in the near future.
We need to consider this in our strategic calculations, that the situation for us will clearly get worse.
When against us is a coalition of 42 countries, and when our resources — military-political and military-technical — are limited, this situation is not normal.
Khodaryonok has been a journalist since retiring, writing on arcane military matters. He wouldn’t be where he is in the world without being ideologically reliable, and he certainly wouldn’t be on Skabeeva’s show if he didn’t know where the lines are and which ones can’t be crossed.
Skabeeva is known for her slavish devotion to all things Putin, for her on-camera rants and withering criticism of any guest who deviates even a scintilla from the party line. Which doesn’t happen a lot, since her guests are, without exception, “acceptable” from an ideological standpoint. Just as Tucker wouldn’t bring on, say, Elizabeth Warren, Skabeeva won’t soon be interviewing Alexei Navalny from prison in Siberia.
That said, there were signs, even before the invasion, that Khodaryonok was not prepared to whitewash the army’s prospects in a war with Ukraine. In an article well worth reading (Google Translate does a decent job), he basically said that an invasion of Ukraine would not be anything like the cakewalk being envisioned by the Kremlin’s political — as opposed to military — leaders. The Ukrainian resistance would be far fiercer, and NATO would underwrite that resistance with copious amounts of advanced weaponry. As we know, he was right on both counts.
Now, three months later, on Skabeeva’s show, Khodaryonok was telling a much wider audience that the Ukraine situation will “frankly get worse.” The video went viral immediately, all over the world.
On the face of it, Khodaryonok appears to have gotten off with just a slap on the wrist — he went on TV again, four days later, and walked back much of what he’d said.
But significantly, he didn’t really retract anything specific. He just amped up the flag-waving, belittled Ukraine’s armed forces in general terms, and sang the praises of Russia’s righteous military might. As punishments go, this was hardly at the gulag level.
So what’s going on here? Was this an act of heroism, an act of suicidal foolishness, or just an act?
The temptation is to tell ourselves that there are small fissures slowly appearing in the Russian political culture, fissures that we can expect will grow exponentially over time as the military bogs down, the sanctions take full effect, and the Russian economy slides into the abyss.
It was Mark Galeotti — British journalist and go-to Russia watcher — who put me straight:
[W]hat this reflects is an important shift in how the Kremlin’s political technologists seek to redefine the narrative. In particular, how an apparent variety of perspectives can nonetheless combine to form a picture that suits the Kremlin’s needs.
In other words, even Putin knows he can’t mask the truth forever. Sooner or later the deaths will mount up, the sanctions will truly bite, and the grim reality of the war will seep through, even to the most thoroughly brainwashed. How could it not?
So he’s evolving the media narrative to accommodate a longer and more problematic war. He’s laying the propaganda groundwork for wrenching changes coming to the lives of average citizens.
Khodaryonok’s role was not duplicitous. He meant what he was saying. Like most in the Russian military hierarchy, he knows full well what a catastrophe this war is.
So the point isn’t what he said, it’s that he was allowed to say it. In a rigidly controlled propaganda environment, he was permitted to let a little piece of the real picture trickle out in such a way that viewers can now begin to understand that Ukraine won’t be the pushover they’d been led to believe it would be.
The narrative Putin is now putting together is that Russia, the last bastion of Christian morality, is once again alone in the world. That Russia is under existential threat from its enemies. That this war will be long and hard.
And that — above all else — great sacrifice will be required of every citizen.
The sacrifice will be on the scale of World War II — the “Great Patriotic War” — which is understood by every Russian to mean it will be massive. The talking points being echoed in all media now make it clear that sacrifice is being equated with heroism. As Galeotti says:
Russia is portrayed as nobly standing up for what it thinks is right, against the assembled might of a United States bent on global hegemony and its debauched and craven European puppets.
This is a significant narrative shift. A month ago, Ukrainians were Nazis who refused to understand that they’re really Russians. But as of today, Ukrainians have been recast as mere cannon fodder, pawns of the perfidious West, credulous agents of American aggression.
As Putin adjusts to the world of hurt he’s brought down on his country, he's adjusting his various propaganda postures accordingly. After two months of a total shut-down of all dissident voices, some measured amounts of criticism are now permitted in the public sphere.
Seen in that light, Khodaryonok’s performance was carefully controlled. His criticisms were genuine and informed. Yet, far from serving to disturb Putin’s narrative, it actually sustains and extends that narrative by throwing cold water on rosy assumptions that Putin himself originally promoted.
Russia continues to shine a bright light on our own nation’s descent into a world where propaganda replaces reality. Russia shows us where we’re heading, because Russia has long been there, literally for centuries. Our own propaganda industry, in contrast, is still in its infancy.
So it’s instructive to see in action the rich variety of tools — blunt like Skabeeva, subtle like Khodaryonok — that are available to that industry.
We want to be able to recognize those tools when they turn up on Tucker Carlson. If they haven't already.