In the Soviet period, watching the evening news broadcast on state television provided important clues into what was happening inside the Kremlin. One of my first jobs as a young Russian speaker living in Moscow was monitoring those broadcasts for American journalists — which leaders were shown shaking hands with whom could signal who was up or who was down in the Communist Party leadership.
Now that Russian President Vladimir Putin has eliminated the last vestiges of independent media in Russia, the evening news broadcast “Vremya” on Channel One — Russia’s main state TV channel — is once again one of the few ways to peek inside the Kremlin. The news show is little changed since Soviet times, heavily focused on Putin and the Kremlin’s official business.
So for the past few weeks, I’ve turned back to monitoring Vremya every night at 9 p.m. Moscow time. I’ve been watching it frame by frame — not so much for signals of what’s happening in Ukraine, but for what is becoming of Russia.
The signals have been contradictory. On the surface, Putin appears to be doubling down on his mission in Ukraine. On Wednesday night’s broadcast, he delivered a speech for over 30 minutes that repeated his accusations that Ukraine has become a “beachhead” for the West’s aggression against Russia, and that his “special military operation” is only taking defensive actions it needs to protect its own security and the Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine.
But beneath the surface, there are signs that the Kremlin’s posture is shifting. These shifts can be seen in changes of language and emphasis, particularly when compared to the messaging of the previous weeks. And they can be seen in the choice of topics; on Thursday, suddenly Putin was focused again on the status of Crimea despite the fact that its annexation has long been considered a done deal in Russia.
Taken together, these shifting messages suggest that at least on some level, Putin understands that all is not going well for Russia, and they may even point to ways that Russia might be beginning to look for a way out. [Continue reading…]