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The state-owned Vesti television station, for example, is meant to be a news channel, but it spent most of Friday rebroadcasting year-old footage. The same Georgian rocket launchers shelled Tskhinvali, the same Russian tanks rolled down dusty Ossetian roads, and the same South Ossetian civilians wept as their villages burned. At intervals of about 45 minutes Russian representatives in the United Nations denounced the Georgian attack and Western complicity in it.
It may have been the sheer power of repetition that made it was hard to remember that this is an anniversary, not a reenactment. The effort to give a historical twist to the coverage was only more confusing - again, the same footage, but this time in back and white with the cigarette-burn blotches and streaky distortions of a mid-twentieth century newsreel.
Whether or not that was a conscious attempt to elevate August 2008 to the same historical footing of May 1945, or just the work of a producer with a sense for the dramatic, the effort put into it and the time devoted to it points to one important fact: for mainstream Russian media organizations, and the officials who control them, the propaganda war they fought last year is not over.
Despite their decisive victory in the land war, the Russians have always been incredibly frustrated by their failure to replicate that success in the “information war” - the propaganda battle for hearts and minds. Why on earth, officials, talking heads and indignant bloggers all ask, can no one understand that Mikheil Saakashvili is a maniac, that the Georgians started it, that the 58th Army was, in President Dmitry Medvedev’s phrase, on a “Peace Enforcement” mission?
They blame all kinds of things - censorship and bias in the Western press, Georgian duplicity and manipulation - but seldom the fact that Western news agencies could only report from the Georgian side of the lines because the Russians wouldn’t let them into their zone of operations, or that Saakashvili speaks fluent English and went out of his way to make himself available to interview-hungry Western news organizations.
Lavrov did admit that the Russians themselves “could have been more active” in their PR efforts, and for the past week they seem to have been making up for that. Both the mainstream media and the Russian state have rolled out the same faces and tactics they fielded last year in an effort to get that point home once more.
First up was Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, a deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, who on Wednesday called a press conference to reprise his August 2008 role as spokesman for the Russian war and describe how one year ago Georgian pilots used aircraft with Russan markings to attack a column of refugees fleeing Tskhinvali. A report he had apparently held onto for the past 12 months.
In between all this various junior ministers emerged to warn that Russia would not rule out sanctions against anyone who tried to re-arm Georgia, that no aggression would be tolerated, that Saakashvili’s “revanchist” tendencies should be guarded against. The Communist Party and the Liberal Democrats organized demonstrations outside the Georgian and U.S. embassies. Pro-Kremlin Youth groups held a candle lit vigil at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.
Even the more legally dubious elements of the propaganda war resurfaced. On Thursday cyber attacks aimed at silencing a Georgian blogger temporarily crippled Facebook, My Space and Live Journal. It is impossible to know whether that attack was ordered by the Russian security services - plausible deniability is one of the great attractions of denial of service attacks - but seeing what Russia’s “patriotic hackers” have done to Russia’s enemies in the past several years, there’s not much need to.
Polls released this week confirm that the Russian public needs no convincing that last year’s intervention was justified on humanitarian grounds, so one would assume that all this is for the benefit of a foreign audience. From Moscow it is difficult to tell how much of it is getting through. But it gives one an eerie feeling that the war is being fought all over again.