GWEN IFILL: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state of the nation speech today. Defiant in the face of international sanctions, he boasted of his country's incursions into Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, reiterating that it belongs to his nation.
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter): For Russia, Crimea, ancient Korsun, Khersones, Sevastopol have a major civilizational sacred meaning, the same as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem has for those who confess Islam and Judaism. And this is exactly how we will treat it from here forever.
GWEN IFILL: For many observers, the speech was classic Putin, using television to assert his view of reality to his own people and the world.
Putin's use of the medium is the subject of a new book, "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible," by Peter Pomerantsev, a Russian-born British writer and television producer. He returned to Moscow to work in the Kremlin's vast television apparatus, creating Russian reality TV shows.
Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner spoke with him yesterday.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Peter Pomerantsev, thank you for joining us.
You have described television as the nuclear weapon of politics in Russia.
PETER POMERANTSEV, Author, "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia": Yes, it takes on a — it's at the core of the political system.
You have to imagine a country that is absolutely huge. It's about a sixth of the world's land mass and it's also sociologically very varied. So you have sort of very contemporary towns like Moscow, and then you have near feudal villages, which have a completely different sense of reality.
And the only thing that brings them together is the television. Television is at the core of the present political system.
MARGARET WARNER: You say, now, at the center of all of this is the president himself as performance artist. What do you mean?
PETER POMERANTSEV: Putin was no one. He was this great guy famous for wearing horrible suits everywhere he went. Nobody would notice him in meetings. He was a no one.
And they took him and created him to be what we know today, oligarchs who control TV, and P.R. TV producer guys who were very close to the KGB. It's this incredible mix of secret services and television producers. And they made him into sort of a hero for all seasons.
So he could be the president who is the ideal lover, the ideal matcher guy, the ideal businessman. And this was all done through television. And the first thing that Vladimir Putin did in 2000, when he came to power, was to get rid of the oligarchs who controlled television and take it over.
MARGARET WARNER: And at a very young age, from London, you got a chance to get in on the inside. You describe this one organization that essentially, you said, controls everything on television, entertainment and news.
PETER POMERANTSEV: That place is actually the Kremlin.
There was always a telephone to all the major TV channels, but all kind of coordinated by the Kremlin itself.
MARGARET WARNER: But you started out as a producer for one of the networks in that big apparatus called TNT doing reality shows.
It sounds harmless, sounds apolitical enough.
PETER POMERANTSEV: Around 2000, TV started making a lot of money. And they wanted to get producers from the West to come and make their version of "The Apprentice" or "Housewives of New York."
And that's why they needed people like me. You have to understand the Kremlin is very, very aware that they have to make TV entertaining nowadays. Their aim is kind of synthesize political manipulation and entertainment.
And so very soon, I found that even entertainment had this sort of very insidious element of social control. Politics has become like a reality show. So, you have debates on Russian TV. They're completely sort of scripted from the Kremlin.
So, you have a puppet right-wing opposition, a puppet left opposition. They kind of shout at each other. And the result is to make you feel, oh, my God, Putin is in the middle and kind of let's have Putin instead, the opposition is mad. People become very malleable. The population becomes almost sort of incapable of critical analysis. So, that's a much sort of deeper form of manipulation.
MARGARET WARNER: This has much broader international implications. This isn't just a problem for Russia.
PETER POMERANTSEV: Well, increasingly, the Kremlin has been thinking about information in terms of — basically as a weapon, weaponized information. It's a tool to distract, demoralize the enemy, to be used as a decoy in a military operation.
So now you have a huge international sort of broadcasting arm being set up by the Kremlin, whose aim is really to sort of do psychological operations against Russia's enemies, whether that's Ukraine or increasingly the West.
MARGARET WARNER: And we have certainly seen it play out in Ukraine.
PETER POMERANTSEV: Well, in Ukraine, it's been total.
That's really been the new thing about this war in Ukraine. So, there's a small military operation, covert mainly, and 98 percent propaganda. They are using the idea of freedom of information, which is something that we value very much, to do disinformation.
Let's say Russia today after the MH-17 crash spits out tens of conspiracy theories about why it might have happened. The idea that Ukrainians thought it was President Putin's personal plane and they shot it down? They're not doing this out of a search for the truth. They're not doing this out of a passion for investigative journalism.
They're doing this to kind of muddy the waters as quickly as possible.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, one of the great mysteries in the West is why, as the sanctions tighten around Russia, as oil prices drop, as Russia's headed into recession next year, Putin remains wildly popular.
PETER POMERANTSEV: In Russia, love is always very close to fear. So, when 84 percent of say they love Vladimir Putin, they might almost be saying that they fear him.
MARGARET WARNER: Is there something about him that touches something in the Russian soul?
PETER POMERANTSEV: I think they have manipulated it to make people feel that there is something in him which touches the Russian soul.
Listen, his polls were doing very, very badly after coming back into power. They started a big war in order to get his ratings up. And 84 percent is what Bush had after the start of Iraq. It's the classic figure for a wartime president. And the question is, how are they going to hold this? Are they going to have invent new wars?
And you have to understand who the war is with. So, Russia isn't in a war with Ukraine, according to Russian propaganda. It is at war with America. It's kind of this funny thing. America is like barely paying attention to Russia. Russia, if you watch Russian TV and if you increasingly talk to Russians, is now at war with America.
MARGARET WARNER: Peter Pomerantsev, thank you so much.
PETER POMERANTSEV: My pleasure.