For the past two weeks, TV audiences in Russia have had a chance to see something exceedingly unusual on Russian airwaves: candid exchanges about U.S. and Russian policies, including criticism of the Putin government. The exchanges took place on a new program called Cold War?, a joint project of the Russian Business Channel (RBC) and Voice of America’s Russian Service, that premiered on RBC at the end of August. The program, which is broadcast throughout Russia by RBC in prime time on Thursday nights, links VOA hosts and guests in Washington and New York with RBC’s Moscow-based anchor and reporters.
The result is a discussion in which Russians hear views and opinions available on no other TV program in Russia. While RBC’s anchor controls the show, and often seeks to dominate the debate, Russian viewers are hearing something new—both sides of the argument.
Some samples from the first broadcast, on August 28: (VOA’s studio guest for this program was Erica Marat, a Research Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at John Hopkins University):
–Marat to RBC anchor Andrey Reut: “You … repeat word for word what Kremlin officials keep saying. You look at the video of Russian troops on the territory of Ukraine, the Russian equipment, new equipment, not Soviet, and new technology that went into the Ukraine. You look at it and say, ‘But there is no evidence! How can you prove it?’”
–Marat on the West’s view of Russia: “I think this is a turning point for Putin because finally, the West and the international community are calling a spade a spade: it is a full-scale war between two countries—Russian military are fighting with the military of Ukraine.”
–Marat on the future: “You have to understand that this situation is not forever. When (the Russian) economy starts to shrink … public trust in Putin will be reduced…. We all remember that a couple of decades ago, the economy was probably the most important factor in leading to a collapse of the USSR.”
Samples from the second show, broadcast on September 4: (VOA’s studio guest was Donald Jensen, of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University. Before joining Johns Hopkins, Jensen was Director of Research and Analysis at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty).
–Jensen on the strong and growing Russian presence in Ukraine: “The Russian invasion, especially in recent days, is in fact an escalation.”
–Jensen on supporting statements: “As we learned from the head of [the Russian non-governmental] organization Soldier’s Mothers there are seven to eight thousand Russian troops fighting in Ukraine.”
To be sure, the Russian anchors and guests on Cold War? have often been dismissive of Western views. The show is on Russian television, broadcasting to a public where President Putin is said to enjoy high approval ratings in the wake of the Russian invasion of Crimea and military activities in eastern Ukraine, but pro-Kremlin views are heard all the time on the air since the government began its media crackdown. They are not new. What is new is for Russians to hear something from the other side.
RBC estimates it has an audience share of 11 percent within the Russian Federation, with particular strength in the influential Russian business community. According to Elez Biberaj, head of VOA’s Eurasia Division, “the program gives VOA a rare new opportunity to present U.S. policies and views to millions of Russians. Accepting such a challenge is part of our mission at VOA.”