Argentina had just beaten France, after penalties, in a mesmerising World Cup final. Lusail Stadium, Qatar’s Golden Bowl, was a heaving, throbbing cauldron of passion and far up in the stands, in the section for VVIPs – very, very important people – a 35-year-old Azeri was at work.  

Nailya Asker-Zade, a prime-time Russian state TV presenter, had scored a mini propaganda coup.  

She had got herself pictured with the world’s then richest man, the new owner of Twitter, Elon Musk. And now she was posting her selfie on social media. 

Paparazzi had already documented the right-wing billionaire with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Jared Kuschner, Donald’s Trump’s son-in-law and a former White House counsellor. 

They also had pictures of Ms Asker-Zade gesticulating in conversation with Mr Musk during the game.  

This was not a nobody. Ms Asker-Zade is used to the company of “VVIPs”. The Baku-born journalist has risen through the ranks of Russian newspapers and TV as the favoured interviewer of oligarchs and despots.  

She also has access to enormous wealth, huge sprawling properties, a super-yacht and a $60 million (£50m) Bombardier private jet.  

According, that is, to detailed research carried out three years ago by journalists working for the anti-corruption campaign founded by the poisoned and then jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. 

Ms Asker-Zade has a “prince”, she has repeatedly said on Instagram. However, the identity of this individual is so secret that Russia’s state media regulator in 2018 blocked all social media references to him. 

READ MORE: Why did some Scottish online warriors fall for Putin propaganda?

This is believed to be one of the biggest censoring operations ever carried out on the internet – all so Russians would not hear about Ms Asker-Zade’s romance with a long-serving state banker called Andrey Kostin, a man 30 years her senior. 

Mr Kostin, a close friend and alleged “wallet” of President Vladimir Putin, has chaired the giant government owned VTB for 20 years. He is, theoretically, on a civil service salary. 

The banker was sanctioned by the US in 2018 and banned from Britain in early 2022. His “secret” girlfriend was formally sanctioned by the UK earlier this year for “disinformation”. 

British authorities said it was “widely known” Ms Asker-Zade was in a long-term relationship with Mr Kostin. She was, they said, therefore linked to two regime entities, state TV concern VGTRK and Mr Kostin’s VTB. The cat was well out of the bag. 


Andrey Kostin and Putin

Did the boss of Twitter know this before his cosy selfie? Mr Musk did not answer questions about the incident. He may well have had no idea who Ms Asker-Zade was.  

That is because, despite the huge efforts of anti-corruption and anti-disinformation campaigners, Mr Putin’s propagandists are not household names outside Russia or the former Soviet Union. 

They should be.  

Mr Putin’s eight-year war on Ukraine, culminating in last February’s full-scale invasion, has come on a wave of lies and bile, especially on TV. 

Hate-mongers, often on evening talk shows, have been spewing out a diet of increasingly rabid commentary for domestic audiences.  

They are also, as Ms Asker-Zade’s example shows, intimately connected with the regime they serve: financially, professionally, politically and personally.They will share whatever fate awaits Putin. Good or bad. And they know this. 

So, echoing Kremlin views, the TV propagandists cast doubt on the legitimacy of Ukraine as a nation-state, describe its leaders as Nazis or illegitimate puppets of the “West” and constantly tells Russians their country is under threat. 

TV presenters and their guests riff on talking points rather than, Soviet-style, reading out verbatim communiques. Their work is set by usually oral instructions from on high called “temniks” – sort of themes of the day. 

Sometimes the propagandists get more specific orders. Last month, the New York Times analysed a huge cache of hacked and leaked emails at VGTRK and found direct contact with the state security apparatus, the successor body to the KGB and the Ministry of Defence. 

This does not mean such presenters have no agency, or influence. Some of these figures are key parts of the regime themselves – as is reflected in sanctions put in place against them. 

So who are the best-known hatemongers and disinformation actors? And how are they connected to the Kremlin or its proxies? 

Take Dmitri Kiselyov, who anchors a weekly show. He’s quite the character, a talented linguist and a well-travelled foreign correspondent who came of journalistic age with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Divorced three times by the age of 23, this serial husband is a huge fan of marriage, except for gays.  

His patter is so rank it sometimes makes headlines around the world. Mr Kiselyov is the guy who said Russia could wash away Britain with a single torpedo so powerful it would start a tsunami; who claimed Denmark has special animal brothels for zoophiles; and who called for the organs of dead homosexuals to be burned so they were not used in transplants.  

He was not always like this. There was a time, earlier in his career, when the part-Ukrainian Mr Kiselyov’s got European Union funding. He has now been formally sanctioned by Europe’s democratic bloc for eight years. 


Dmitri Kiselyov

He is not just a talking head. Mr Kiselyov is deputy director of VGTRK and the boss of the Rossiya Segodnya state media holding company that runs Sputnik, the propaganda outlet that tried and failed to establish itself in Scotland

Mr Kiselyov was in charge of Rossiya Segodnya when one of its agencies successfully spawned a conspiracy theory that the Scottish independence referendum had been rigged.  

Another top propagandist is Margarita Simonyan, boss of state-owned and controlled RT, another wing of the Kremlin’s international disinformation network. 

Just before Christmas Mr Putin presented Ms Simonyan with a state award in the Kremlin and she, in response, thanked her president for slaying or splattering “cannibals”. She was talking about his wars against Ukraine and Georgia.  

Ms Simonyan is best known in the UK because the now banned British incarnation of RT platformed former first minister Alex Salmond and one-time socialist firebrand George Galloway. But in Russia she is a regular guest on evening talk shows. She has whipped up support for war, claiming her country could take Kyiv in two days.  

It did not do so. Ms Simonyan, like Ms Asker-Zade, has been scrutinised by Mr Navalny’s counter-corruption investigators. They claimed she and her husband – pro-Putin movie-maker Tigran Keosayan – were skimming from the adverts that big state enterprises placed on RT. The couple insisted their intermediary role was legitimate. 

RT presenters have rounded on Mr Navalny. Mr Galloway, while standing for Holyrood in 2021 for a short-lived British nationalist party, used Ms Simonyan’s channel to smear the anti-corruption campaigner as a “white supremacist”. 

There is nothing unusual about deranged attacks against the Kremlin’s opponents on state TV. This is something of a speciality of another sanctioned propagandist, Olga Skabeyeva, another VGTRK stalwart, host of 60 Minutes on Rossiya-1. 

Dubbed the “iron doll of Putin TV”, the 38-year-old delivers what one critic called “prosecutorial” put-downs with her distinctive nasal, metallic voice.  

Ms Skabeyeva has immediate links to Mr Putin’s regime. Her husband and co-host, Yevgeny Popov, represents the president’s United Russia party in the country’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma.  

Ms Skabeyeva accused Mr Navalny of being a tool of the West. His investigators discovered she and Mr Popov had $4m (£3.36m) of property in Moscow. “These are not journalists, these are criminals who incite hatred,” the Navalny team said in their investigation into the couple published on YouTube. “Their only talent is to be as disgusting as possible.” 

Independent journalists and anti-corruption investigators have also revealed the hidden wealth and connections of another top VGTRK host, Vladimir Solovyov.  

The 59-year-old, who called the BBC “Nazi-loving scum”, lost his villa on Lake Como and other Italian property earlier this year after being sanctioned by the EU.

HeraldScotland:  The war in Ukraine grinds on

A former neighbour of Sting and George Clooney, Mr Solovyov portrays Russia as under siege, as the target of a decadent and immoral west – but cried when Italian police seized his homes. 

Sanctions are not all the propagandists fear. Both Ms Skabeyeva and Ms Simonyan have talked of facing the international court at the Hague if Mr Putin loses. But the talking point is always that all Russians, not just regime stooges, will face arbitrary justice if this war is lost.

READ MORE: Vladimir Putin battles for hearts and minds over a war going badly

There is a grim, almost morbid genre on social media outside Russia when international or Ukrainian monitors post subtitled videos of the most absurd outbursts from Kremlin TV. 

These soundbites may make the propaganda shows sound most exciting than they usually are. Those who carefully track Russian media will stress there are other things to watch.  

By late 2022, “news and social-political” programming accounted for 30 per cent of Russian TV viewing, according to analysis from a Moscow firm called Mediascope. That is up from 17% last February, when Putin ordered his troops over the border. 

TV remains the main source of news for Russians. But YouTube and social media platforms are crucial too. That is why heads turned when Ms Asker-Zade chatted with Mr Musk at the World Cup final.  

The information war over Ukraine is not over yet.