They may have handily crushed Georgia’s army in last month’s Caucasus conflict, but Russians are smarting over what they see as total defeat in the “information war” that raged across the world’s airwaves and broadsheets while the tanks were rolling.
To the Kremlin’s dismay, its own narrative appeared to get drowned out amid a tidal wave of headlines that screamed of Russian “invasion” and “aggression” against the tiny, ex-Soviet state of Georgia.
It was the glib English-speaking Georgian president, Mikhael Saakashvili, who seemed to dominate the major global networks during those stormy days with dramatic soundbytes, such as “if the whole world does not stop Russia, then Russian tanks will be able to reach any other European capital,” and “today Georgia, tomorrow the world.”
Saakashvili’s eloquence appears to have been especially crucial in rallying public opinion in the US behind Georgia. Republican Presidential contender John McCain — a personal friend of the Georgian leader — even went on TV to declare that “we are all Georgians now”.
By contrast, Russian commentators, trying to argue their case that Moscow actually intervened to prevent Georgian aggression against the tiny enclave of South Ossetia, 80 per cent of whose population are Russian citizens, sounded awkward, evasive and way too complicated for today’s fast-paced TV news culture.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reflected ruefully on this when he told the independent Ekho Moskvi radio station during the war that “we Russians are children as regards methods of using the mass media. We need to get better advice.”
The Kremlin appears to be particularly upset at CNN, which took a 30-minute interview from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on August 29, and subsequently left most of Putin’s remarks on the cutting-room floor.
According to the blog Exiledonline.com, which often has an accurate line on Moscow’s gossip grapevine, Kremlin officials are thinking of banning CNN in retaliation.
Despite running half a dozen lengthy interviews with Saakashvili, CNN apparently dropped most of Putin’s explanations for Russia’s conduct in the war, including his evidence that Georgia actually started the hostilities.
Instead, the network repeatedly ran a brief clip of Putin’s admittedly odd assertion that hardliners in the Republican Party goaded Saakashvili into starting the conflict in order to improve McCain’s chances of winning the US presidential election — thus making Putin look like a crackpot.
“CNN doesn’t know it yet, but that decision might have cost them their Russian broadcasting rights,” the website says.