News of the poisoning of a former Russian military intelligence officer in Britain came slowly to state-run television in Russia.
For almost two days after the sudden hospitalization of Sergei Skripal, who has lived in England since being swapped for nearly a dozen alleged Russian spies in 2010, the incident was all over British front pages and led newscasts.
In Russia, the story was picked up by online news sites and newspapers, including Moscow’s prominent radio station, Ekho Moskvy.
But there was little mention of it on the main national TV channels, which are overwhelmingly the main medium by which Russians get their news.
That was until the evening of March 7, when Channel One’s main evening current affairs program, Vremya Novostei, reported on it, with a less-than-subtle commentary.
Skripal is “by training, a traitor to his country,” host Kirill Kleimenov said. “I don’t wish death on anyone,” he added, “but for purely educational purposes, for anyone who dreams of such a career, I have a warning: being a traitor is one of the most dangerous professions in the world.”
Though couched as a commentary, the prominence of the statement, and its placement in the evening newscast of the country’s main national TV channel, dovetailed with the adamant denials of Russian involvement, given by the Foreign Ministry and other official sources.
British officials have said the substance believed to have been used in poisoning Skripal and his daughter Yulia was a nerve agent, a toxin that requires sophisticated chemical expertise and laboratory equipment.Both remain hospitalized in critical condition; up to 21 police officers were also treated for exposure.
U.K. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, and outside experts, have said those facts alone suggest the involvement of a state security apparatus.
Skripal was a colonel in Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU. He was arrested in December 2004, and a Moscow military court found him guilty almost two years later of passing the identities of Russian agents working undercover in Europe to Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency.
Though the assertion that Skripal was killed for treasonous actions has raised eyebrows, the commentary wasn’t out of character for Russian state TV.
In 2006, in the days after the death of Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former officer with Russia’s Federal Security Agency who ingested the highly radioactive isotope polonium-210, several Russian TV channels opted to highlight the British reaction rather than the death itself.
A long-running Channel One editorial-style program known as Odnako (“However”), previously hosted by commentator Mikhail Leontyev, regularly spun outlandish conspiracy theories.
Leontyev, who later became spokesman for state oil company Rosneft, actively promoted the debunked theory that a Ukrainian fighter jet was responsible for shooting down the Malaysian MH17 passenger airliner over Ukraine in 2014.
In 2008, an anchor on a nightly news program for state-run Rossiya TV suggested that Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic “got a well-deserved bullet” for his pro-Western policies when he was shot and killed in 2003. Serbia’s Embassy lodged an official protest with the Russian Foreign Ministry at the time.
In his Skripal commentary, Kleimenov wrapped up his remarks by wryly suggesting that life in Britain might be hazardous.
“Something is wrong there,” he said. “Maybe it’s the climate, but in recent years there have been too many strange incidents with grave outcomes there.”