I examined these networks’ reporting by searching YouTube for their postings with phrases “Trump, Biden, Ukraine” and “Trump, Biden, Zelenskiy” in Russian and examining all such posts in the top 25 results for each search. This sample does not include the entire Russian TV news flow on the subject. But the Kremlin heavily controls the country’s mainstream television. And so the themes in the major channels’ YouTube news posts are likely replicated in other stories and on other Russian media outlets.
Theme 1: Ukraine is a hapless American puppet
Repeatedly, newscasters emphasize that Ukraine has been a willing U.S. client state — and is now paying the price. A nearly six-minute-long NTV report on Sept. 23 intimated that U.S. political leaders of both parties have been unscrupulously using Ukraine in pursuit of their personal political interests, disregarding Ukraine’s vital economic and security interests.
That particular NTV report started with the announcement that the Democrats were accusing Trump of putting pressure on Ukraine’s president “so as to allegedly remove from the race his likely contender in the forthcoming presidential elections, Joe Biden.” It then showed photos of Biden and his son taken in Ukraine, arguing that Trump had good reason to ask to have them investigated. A studio analyst then showed that Trump was 10 percent behind Biden in recent polls, with a Russian academic saying Biden could beat Trump in 2020. NTV then alleged that in 2015, Biden threatened to withhold economic assistance from Ukraine unless then-President Petro Poroshenko quashed the corruption investigation of Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company for which Biden’s son Hunter served on the board of directors.
A Sept. 24 Channel One report similarly implied that both sides are corrupt and that U.S. pressure messes up domestic politics. After alleging that an anonymous U.S. intelligence officer said Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate Hunter Biden, the Channel One reporter added, “But the source failed to mention that such an investigation had been underway in Ukraine in years past, until Joe Biden replaced Ukraine’s prosecutor general — something he proudly remembered last year.” This line of reporting also intimated that U.S. pressure prompts the Ukrainian government to undermine its own principles of truth and justice.
Theme 2: Democracy is just a cover for corruption
Both channels repeatedly referred to selfish political interests driving both Trump and Biden in their dealings with Ukraine — and often mentioned their different party affiliations. That juxtaposition implied that, no matter which party might be in power in the United States, Ukraine would not be safe from damaging political pressure. The subtext was clear: While publicly U.S. officials might claim to support democracy in Ukraine, in practice they would manipulate it, since all politicians are corrupt.
Another NTV report on Sept. 26 quoted Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) characterizing Trump’s demands that Zelenskiy investigate Biden as a “mafia raid” (mafioznyi naezd). But all the above-mentioned NTV and Channel One reports portrayed Biden’s alleged pressure on Ukraine as being the same kind of raid, if not worse.
A Sept. 26 Rossiya24 report added to this negative framing of U.S. political institutions as hopelessly beholden to narrow partisan interests and consumed by power struggles. The anchor claimed Zelenskiy was being not so much pressured by Trump as “dragged into yet another spectacle staged by the Democrats who called for Trump’s impeachment.” All the reports devoted a substantial amount of time alleging Ukrainian coverups of domestic corruption. The general impression from these reports is that corruption and lust for power, not support for democracy, is what brings Ukraine and the United States closer together.
Theme 3: Biden’s actions are the biggest scandal
While summarizing allegations against Trump, Russian TV presented Biden’s actions as the central issue. In all the reports I observed, journalists focused on evidence implicating Joe Biden in malfeasance for pushing Ukraine to get rid of its prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, who was allegedly investigating Burisma. Conspicuously absent was exculpatory evidence. Russian reports, for instance, didn’t mention statements from Shokin’s deputy, Vitaly Kasko, that the office was not investigating Burisma. Nor did they mention U.S. allegations that Shokin’s office was failing to assist a British investigation into corruption activities of Burisma’s founder, Mykola Zlochevsky, which Bloomberg has reported.
A regular viewer of Russian TV could very well assume that the Trump allegations are a sequel to Russian TV’s coverage since May of what Channel One has called the “Biden scandal” and “Biden family cabal operation” (semeynyi podryad). The first of those reports includes Hunter Biden hugging his father with a CNN chyron in English that reads “Navy Kicks Out Biden’s Son Over Cocaine Test.” A voice-over translates into Russian.
To sum up, the Russian government has been exploiting the Trump-Ukraine controversy to denigrate U.S. democratic institutions and show that the United States is a risky friend — both for Russia’s neighboring countries and, by implication, for Russia itself. The reports make clear that Moscow continues to frame the United States as a strategic adversary and is hardly inclined to change its policies toward Ukraine.
Mikhail Alexseev is the Bruce E. Porteous Professor of Political Science at San Diego State University.