A voter moves to cast their vote after filling out their ballot at a polling site inside The Shed arts center, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

Russia is placing ‘a major bet’ on US midterm election outcomes, journalist says

Journalist Mikhail Fishman, an anchor at the independent Russian news outlet TV Rain, joined The World’s host Marco Werman to talk about how the Russian government is placing “a big bet” on US midterm elections outcomes that will favor Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

The World

The US midterms are important, not just for Americans across the globe. Millions of people are paying close attention, especially in Russia. TV channels funded by the Kremlin are full of commentary on the US midterms. 

Journalist Mikhail Fishman is keeping tabs on this. He’s an anchor at the independent Russian news outlet TV Rain and is also the author of “The Successor,” a new book about why democracy failed to take hold in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Fishman spoke with The World’s host Marco Werman from Amsterdam about the spin that commentators on Russian state TV are giving their audiences.

“The new Russian television sends the message that the Republicans will most likely take the House and probably the Senate, and then after that, they will stop writing blank checks to finance the war in Ukraine. That’s a big hope in Russia, and that’s what Russian television is spinning,” Fishman said. 

Marco Werman: So, aside from some prognosticating here, what’s going on? What are the commentators saying?
Mikhail Fishman: [Commentators are] expecting Donald Trump to get back into the White House. And that’s the second part of this big hope of failing Democrats during these midterm elections and presidential election of 2024. You have to understand that Moscow at the moment, the Kremlin, is eager to get into some kind of peace talks with Ukraine, with Kyiv. It urgently needs to freeze the conflict until the Russian military is rebuilt and Vladimir Putin can send it back to invade and attack Ukraine. But right now, they need to freeze the conflict and they rely on the West, that the West will push Kyiv to enter peace talks with Moscow on Moscow’s terms. And it’s a major bet now on the midterms, and that after that, the White House will stop financing the war, will stop writing huge checks, and it’s a big bet.
I mean, listening to these commentators, it almost feels like an echo chamber, assuming these commentators are watching US media. Do you get the sense they are reformulating GOP talking points or Democrat talking points?
They basically rely on Fox [News]’s coverage of the election, most importantly, hosts like Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity. They also personally attack Joe Biden. They say that he might be personally involved financially in this war, that he probably has his own financial interest, which is hardly true, of course. So, this will also have to stop after the situation gets normal and [the] American population has its vote and has its voice heard, finally.
Generally, how big of a deal are the US midterms on Russian news right now?
It’s quite a big deal these days, because there is a hope that these midterms will really have an impact on what’s going on on the battlefield. That’s one of their biggest bets at the moment. They’re desperate to make [Ukrainian President Volodomyr] Zelenskiy stop the military campaign right now. They have to stop the war for at least some time until they rebuild their army.
Aside from Russian state TV, what are the sources of information, and can Russian audiences easily access [them]? Like how much effort does it take to kind of get beyond the prevailing narrative? 
The censorship grip is extremely tight, and every independent newsroom had to leave Russia after the war. But you still have YouTube in Russian. You have Telegram channels, which are gaining popularity because there’s nothing left. And on social networks, some of them are banned. Telegram is not. And on YouTube, you can find pretty much everything you want and everything you need to know the real picture.
The US is portrayed as a nation that’s encouraging war with other countries, even relishing it, perhaps. Aside from supplying weapons and other support to the Ukrainian military, what else do those commentators point to as evidence?
Generally, the message is that Western elites — and you can hear it from Putin himself and from the state television propaganda, from the minister of foreign affairs, whoever — you will always now hear the message that the elites, the governments, are detached from their nations in the West. And this battle that Russia has entered is not with Ukraine, but with these governments, with these elites who represent evil and spread evil across the world. And you can remember Putin recently talking about two different Wests, the traditional West, which cares about traditional values and history and whatever, and the progressive neo-liberal elites who actually run the world right now. And that’s what Russia has to stop, because it found itself on the frontline of this major existential battle. That’s basically the narrative, part of which are now American midterm elections.
You’re saying it’s a vast ideological critique of the US and the West? 
Yes, absolutely. It’s a new narrative since it became clear that Russia is losing the war on the battlefield. Putin had to frame it as something different, to explain to a Russian audience why Russia is losing and why they have to be emotionally involved in what is going on. Specifically taking into account that he declared partial mobilization and hundreds of thousands of men [were] drafted in October.
Yesterday, we heard provocative comments from Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. He was asked about election interference and answered, “We have interfered. We are interfering. And we will continue to interfere carefully, accurately, surgically and in our own way as we know how to do.” I mean, Prigozhin does have a motive for bragging, but the US has also accused him of past meddling. What do you make of his statement yesterday?
I think it reflects two trends. One is a domestic Russian trend in which Yevgeny Priogozhin is getting more and more in the spotlight. And it looks like his own political campaign. At the moment, he evolved during this war as one of the major political players on the Russian political arena. And the second thing is that in this war, there are no rules anymore. And as Putin has stated, “What are the rules? Who invented these rules? We do not play by the rules.” And Prigozhin is following this line. And if there are no rules, everything is permitted. And Russia can do whatever it wants to get the result, because this is an existential battle. Everything is allowed.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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