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MOSCOW — Russia’s state-controlled media reached new heights of anti-American rhetoric Sunday as Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine and become part of the Russian Federation.
Dmitry Kiselyov — a prominent and controversial pro-Kremlin television news anchor who has been appointed to take charge of Russia’s new state media agency Rossiya Segodnya, which is replacing its respected predecessor RIA Novosti — told viewers of TV Rossiya 1 show that Russia was “the only country in the world that could realistically turn the U.S.A into radioactive ash.”
His comments, made late Sunday before polls closed in Crimea with over 95 percent of those voting for union with Russia, were accompanied by video graphics demonstrating how, even if Russia’s nuclear command center was disabled, “dead hand” automatically-triggered warheads could be fired at America.
Russia has an estimated 8,500 nuclear warheads. Ukraine gave up its arsenal of 1,800 nukes in 1994 following the breakup of the Soviet Union as part of a deal guaranteeing its sovereignty and borders. Russia was a signatory to that agreement.
Kiselyov, who has a reputation for controversial and homophobic comments, also criticized President Barack Obama for talking tough in public but continuing to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin in telephone calls lasting “up to 90 minutes.” He also unfavorably compared their approval ratings, citing a poll last week that showed that 78 percent of Russians approved of Putin, versus 45 percent of Americans who approved of Obama.
The Cold War on the airwaves could be a harbinger of icier international relations to come as Putin shows no signs of backing down over Ukraine, and the West gears up to impose sanctions this week against key Kremlin figures involved in the Crimean referendum, which has been condemned as illegal by the international community.
A U.S.-sponsored United Nations resolution, condemning the vote as illegal, was vetoed by Russia on Saturday after winning the support of 13 council members. China, which usually votes with Russia, abstained, underlining Putin’s diplomatic isolation on the issue.
The confrontation over Crimea, which until 1954 was part of Russia when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine, has pitched Europe into its biggest crisis since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Russia argues that Crimea was illegally transferred to Ukraine and that Sunday’s referendum is in line with international law.
The issue has sharply divided opinion in Russia’s film and arts world, with one of the country’s two cinema unions volubly supporting Ukrainian colleagues, while other top filmmakers, including Stalingrad director Fedor Bondarchuk throw their weight behind Putin.
Russian state media has been playing its part in supporting the Kremlin line: state TV gave lengthy coverage Saturday to a pro-Putin rally in Moscow attended by around 15,000 people, including a large group wearing identical red jackets of Sut’ Vremeni (Essence of Time) a pro-Kremlin neo-conservative group, but barely a mention of a Peace March by an estimated 50,000 people nearby that was addressed by opposition leaders including Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina.
Press freedoms are under growing attack in Russia as the international crisis mounts. In the past few months, the Kremlin has moved to shut down RIA Novosti, state owned but widely respected for its objectivity; independent TV station Dozhd (Rain) has been forced off cable and satellite platforms and last week Galina Timchenko, the chief editor of news website Lenta.ru was sacked after running an interview with Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector.
Many of the website’s reporters resigned after posting an open letter on Lenta’s front page stating: “The trouble is not that we’ve lost our jobs. The trouble is that you’ve got nothing to read.”
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