KYIV, Ukraine — Considering the situation, there was little Robert Pszczel could do to prevent the verbal assault.
For a while, he stood his ground in the state television studio and appealed to Russian viewers’ sense of reason.
Then a couple of guests — as well as the host — pounced.
“You’re a Pole!” one guest cried out lividly. “You’re a Russophobe from the outset already.”
Shouldering that sort of abuse has become more or less part of Pszczel’s job these days.
As director of the NATO Information Office in Moscow, he’s the chief spokesman of the military alliance there. Amid the worst standoff between Russia and the West since the Cold War, stumping for NATO isn’t the easiest of gigs.
Thanks to the crisis in Ukraine, which Russia’s powerful state media machine has exploited to shore up domestic support for the Kremlin, a wave of anti-Western hysteria has swept over Russia.
Criticizing the Russian government has had deadly consequences. Witness last weekend’s apparent political assassination of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader painted as an “enemy” for allegedly siding with the West against Russia.
It’s an environment that leaves little room for open discussion.
“Russia is a great country, and a great country needs a great debate,” Pszczel said in a telephone interview from Moscow. “But where is it?”
Pszczel first arrived in Moscow in late 2010, not long after a successful NATO summit raised hopes of closer cooperation between Russia and the alliance after several years of tension.
At the time, Moscow’s commitment to help NATO in Afghanistan and to easing its opposition to a European missile defense system suggested Russia’s willingness to keep peace in Europe.
“For the first time in history,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said back then, “NATO countries and Russia will be cooperating to defend themselves.”
Since then, it’s been mostly downhill.
Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012 marked a rise in conservative and anti-Western sentiment.
Then, last March, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. NATO called it “illegal” and refused to recognize it. But it gave many Russians a patriotic recharge — their country was reasserting itself on the world stage, Putin supporters believed, and the West simply had to deal with it.
The Western military alliance has a lot to contend with when it comes to Moscow’s propaganda juggernaut, though many Russians would say the reverse is true.
Russia faults the West for fueling protests in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv that ousted Putin’s ally, ex-President Viktor Yanukovych. Putin critics blame Russian state media for helping start a rebellion in eastern Ukraine by reporting the new Kyiv government would persecute Russian speakers.
Fighting between separatists and Ukraine's forces in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 6,000 people in less than a year.
That all makes things professionally difficult for Pszczel, whose task is to promote understanding of NATO and facilitate dialogue in Russia.
Public events and outreach projects with local organizations have decreased since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, he says.
Strangely, he has seen an uptick in media requests.
The downside is that the state-friendly press — and political talk shows in particular — are light on genuine debate and heavy on bashing an allegedly imperialistic West.
“I try to avoid it, but sometimes I take a little pill before going on [TV] just to stabilize my blood pressure,” Pszczel says.
Death of a critic
Since last Friday’s murder of Nemtsov, who was shot near the Kremlin by unidentified gunmen, a renewed focus is falling on the power of Moscow’s propaganda.
Some critics are directly blaming the Kremlin for the murder. But most believe the climate Russian state media have created, casting critics as “enemies” and implicating them in high treason, is what really killed Nemtsov.
Mourners have been disappointed to find the killing apparently did little to stem state TV’s virulent attacks on government critics.
NATO’s spokesman is dismayed as well.
“One was hoping, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, that when they switched on the television on Sunday evening, that there would be maybe at least a different tenor, at least out of respect for what happened,” Pszczel said. “Frankly speaking, there wasn’t much of that.”
Many, including Amnesty International, have noticed the lack of honest dialogue in the country. In its annual human rights report, released in February, the group says “the space to express and communicate dissenting views shrunk markedly” amid Putin’s clampdown on the media.
That’s probably why when a small handful of Western commentators like Pszczel appear on state television, they’re often the bad guys by default. That comes with the territory of Russia’s uneasy relationship with NATO.
The Kremlin has been especially skeptical of the alliance’s eastward expansion. The fact that US military vehicles took part in a parade in Estonia along Russia’s border late last month doesn’t help those fears.
Meanwhile, Moscow repeatedly hoists NATO bombing campaigns in Yugoslavia in 1999 and in Libya in 2011 as examples of Western aggression.
Pszczel, however, says NATO has “nothing to hide” over its supposed role in Ukraine — which, if Moscow has its way, will never join the alliance.
“And I don’t feel in any way apologetic,” he says.