MOSCOW — As I was preparing to leave for Moscow, Russian friends were telling me that the TV talk shows – in expectation of a U.S. missile strike on Syria — were hyping the advent of World War III.
President Trump had warned Russia, which has forces in Syria, that the "missiles were coming." But by the time I arrived late Sunday, the mood had totally shifted. Neither TV news nor Russians I spoke with were talking about war.
U.S. military officials had given prior warnings to Russian counterparts: The strikes on three Syrian sites had been largely symbolic, and no Russians had been hurt. With the advance warning from Trump, the Syrians probably moved out anything they wanted to save.
But even as I settled into Moscow, the yo-yo of U.S.-Russian relations kept bouncing.
On Sunday, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, announced that Trump would impose new sanctions on Russia shortly. On Monday, the White House said Trump hadn't approved new sanctions. The Russian Duma (parliament) was poised to draft counter-sanctions on U.S. goods, then delayed the recommendations.
As I strolled through Bauman's Garden park in a Moscow neighborhood, watching kids whip around on scooters and parents push strollers, the scene seemed light years away from the week's tensions. Yet an hour of watching one of Russia's premier TV talk shows, whose host, Dmitry Kiselyov, is a megaphone for anti-Western propaganda, was a sobering reminder of why U.S.-Russian tensions are likely to get worse.
Note that national TV networks in Russia are state-controlled, and most Russians get their news from television. Kiselyov makes Sean Hannity look tame and there is no CNN or MSNBC to offer a contrary version. (Better-off Russians can subscribe to get BBC or CNN, or watch the liberal TV, Rain, which can only be viewed on the internet.)
Kiselyov's presentation of the "facts" about the missile affair, reflecting the claims of the Kremlin, were 180 degrees opposed to the news from Washington. According to him, the Syrians shot down the bulk of the U.S. missiles (which the Pentagon says is totally untrue).
The talk show host declared there was no chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Douma. In his version, the scenes of gasping children were faked by the White Helmets, the courageous network of Syrian volunteers whose members rush to the scenes of Syrian regime bombing to rescue civilians from the rubble.
"There were no chemicals," Kiselyov insisted. He featured footage of a Russian reporter on the scene in Douma who insisted that no one in the town ever heard anything about chemicals.
The fact that a Russian journalist could get safe passage into Douma was fascinating, since international weapons inspectors were blocked for days from entering the town – long enough for any evidence of chemicals to have been destroyed.
The Kiselyov/Kremlin version of the attack is illustrative of the Alice-in-Wonderland quality of debate between the United States and Russia – over almost all key points of contention.
Take the poisoning of former Russian double agent and his daughter, Sergei and Yulia Skripal, in Britain – which provoked the latest U.S. and European sanctions against Russia. It never happened, according to the Kremlin or Kiselyov. It was all fake news. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has suggested that the British might have done the poisoning. On Tuesday, the Kremlin flatly denied British and U.S. claim that government-backed Russian hackers had infected computer routers around the world, targeting government agencies, businesses and critical infrastructure. And so the denials go.
The issue here is not that Moscow, or Kiselyov, contest the facts. (Nor can one complain that Kiselyov's show went on to feature footage from Fox News, or a critique of new U.S. national security adviser John Bolton as a warmonger, or shots of Stormy Daniels popping out of her dress. All that is fair game, and U.S. cable channels do likewise.)
The problem is something far more dangerous. It is hard to imagine any serious dialogue occurring between Moscow and Washington because – apart from all the political obstacles – there is no factual basis for such a discussion. Whatever grievances Vladimir Putin holds against the West and vice versa, there can be no negotiations based on denial of facts.
Putin denied invading Crimea (until the facts became visually indisputable), denied sending mercenaries to eastern Ukraine, and apparently will continue to deny election meddling in the United States and Europe (and yes, Trump is also culpable on this one).
The Kremlin denies the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons on many previous occasions since Russia guaranteed that Damascus had destroyed them. It denies any role in previous targeted assassinations of Kremlin opponents in the West. The list is a mile long.
There are still some optimists in Moscow who believe the tamped-down missile affair could spark a breakthrough. Konstantin Remchukov, publisher and editor of the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, told me he believes there will be a meeting between Trump and Putin by June, and that they will do some kind of big deal that will include arms control, North Korea, Syria and Ukraine.
Clearly, Trump wants such a meeting. But it's hard to see one happening, even if the political stars aligned, unless the Kremlin is willing to talk facts rather than conspiracy theories. At some point, a dialogue between Washington and Moscow must begin, but watching Kiselyov echo wholesale Kremlin denials, it's hard to see how.