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A Putin Crony's Unrequited Love for Europe

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Dmitry Kiselyov, the public face of President Vladimir Putin's propaganda machine and one of the regime's top functionaries, is suing the European Union for subjecting him to a travel ban and asset freeze on the grounds that he backed Russia's military intervention in Ukraine. 

The case provides an interesting insight into the psychology of Putin's acolytes, who have long viewed Western Europe as their playground. Now, they refuse to believe they have been cast out. 

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Kiselyov is head of the state-owned information agency Russia Today. When he took over in December 2013, he told employees: "Often, under the slogan of objectivity, we distort the concept: We look at our country as if it were somebody else's. I think this period of 'distilled' journalism is over." He puts those precepts into practice every Sunday night, as the anchor of "Vesti Nedeli," one of the 10 most popular Russian TV shows. His program is a relentless stream of anti-Western invective, delivered with a mixture of anger, sarcasm and exaggerated patriotism. The effect on the viewer is akin to being under heavy artillery fire. 

Kiselyov was added to the EU sanctions list on March 21, 2014, as a "central figure of the government propaganda supporting the deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine." On Monday, the EU's official journal published details of his lawsuit against the EU Council, filed May 22, 2015. It says he "never expressed support 'for the deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine' as the Council claims."

That denial can be contested with a YouTube search. 

On March 2, 2014, for example, he heralded the Russian annexation of Crimea:

Russia is reacting to the request of Crimea and of Russians in Ukraine for protection. In full accordance with the constitution, President Putin has received the right to use troops in Ukraine.  Orders may be given any minute. 

He went on to describe the Ukrainian revolution, which toppled President Viktor Yanukovych, as a bloody extreme nationalist coup. The video accompanying his words was from a Soviet movie showing Nazi tanks on the attack. 

Perhaps realizing the shakiness of his claim, Kiselyov's lawsuit went on to say that "the restrictive measures punish the applicant for the political views that he has expressed as a journalist and a commentator" and that "there is no evidence that he has incited violence or done anything to justify a restriction on his free speech rights." 

That's a line he has taken for some time. "We have swapped roles: Russia is for the freedom of speech but the West no longer is," he told the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia in an interview. 

The obvious riposte is that all the big TV channels in Russia belong to the government and don't allow other points of view. Yet Kiselyov appears to believe in the power of his arguments. He has retained high-powered U.K. lawyers, including Timothy Otty, a Queen's Counsel specializing in human rights and international law. 

Although Kiselyov has assailed Europe in public, he speaks English, French, Norwegian and Swedish, and he enjoyed traveling in Europe with his family. 

Last year, Kiselyov said the sanctions would provide "an opportunity" for him to travel in Russia. That opportunity undoubtedly existed before the sanctions, but being kept out of his favorite European holiday spots for a year must have heightened Kiselyov's sense of injustice. Other Russian companies and individuals affected by the Ukraine-related sanctions didn't take that long to sue: Arkady Rotenberg, a billionaire friend of Putin, did so last October, and the state oil company Rosneft, run by another Putin pal, Igor Sechin, filed its complaint in February 2015. 

They also hired top U.K. lawyers. Over the last two decades, wealthy Russians often have used the British legal system to settle their disputes. These oligarchs learned the ropes, joined the international jet set, acquired property abroad (Rotenberg has had some real estate seized in Italy). They believe in Western institutions enough to seek recourse from them when they consider they have been wronged, and they don't hold themselves responsible for the absence of such institutions in Russia. In his lawsuit, Kiselyov claims he has no influence on Russian policies, including those toward Ukraine.

They are, in their own way, orphaned: They never believed the Western system could turn against them. That's why the personal sanctions -- if not the halfhearted, badly targeted economic ones -- make sense: They're a public demonstration that European values are not for sale, or at least not always. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net