Russian TV sees US plot behind Ukraine and IS militants
Russia is the target of a global plot orchestrated by the United States and involving fighters from the self-styled Islamic State (IS) and nationalist Ukrainian troops - that is the latest conspiracy theory broadcast on Russian state TV.
"America is everywhere, the West is everywhere, Nato is everywhere. Everything is organised against Russia," the veteran Russian nationalist MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky railed during a talk show on Channel One, Russia's most popular TV station.
There was a "certain link", he hinted, between Ukrainian troops "raiding our western regions" and IS, which he said was being armed by the US.
Joining the studio discussion by video link, pro-Moscow Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov alleged that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a "CIA employee". He suggested that he had been recruited while in prison.
Mr Kadyrov and Mr Zhirinovsky were speaking on Time Will Tell, a new daytime political talk show on Channel One. Its appearance at a time of day normally reserved for soaps, cookery shows or celebrity chat is just one example of how highly emotive coverage of the Ukraine crisis is increasingly dominating Russian TV schedules.
'Gallery of horrors'
Time Will Tell host Pyotr Tolstoy took up the IS-Ukraine conspiracy theme by suggesting a link between IS leader Baghdadi and Ukrainian ultra-nationalist leader Dmytro Yarosh - they were both born in 1971, both went to university, both have written a book, he said.
Mr Zhirinovsky eagerly agreed. They were both members of a "new generation of gunmen" being trained by the US, he claimed.
Moreover, Mr Zhirinovsky added, Mr Yarosh is "more dangerous because he wants to take Moscow, while the Islamic militants only want to take the Caucasus".
These frenzied exchanges were triggered by reports about unmarked graves in an area of east Ukraine said until recently to have been under the control of pro-Kiev forces.
Russian state TV has referred to them as a "mass grave", but a local official appearing on Time Will Tell said four bodies had been discovered. The bodies in the graves are said to show signs of torture.
Mr Tolstoy said the discovery was part of a "gallery of horrors stretching from Donetsk to the Middle East".
Earlier in the Ukraine crisis, Channel One had highlighted claims by a woman refugee that Ukrainian troops had crucified a three-year-old boy on an advertising hoarding.
It showed her testimony in its prime-time bulletins three days running. But no evidence was ever produced to substantiate the claims.
In an article in US magazine The Atlantic, London-based TV producer Peter Pomerantsev said the "crucifixion" story was an example of how the "borders between fact and fiction [on Russian news] have become utterly blurred".
This was particularly true, he said, following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over east Ukraine in July, when the "Kremlin and its affiliated media spat out outlandish theories" about the disaster - from a plot to kill President Vladimir Putin to claims the airliner had been packed with corpses.
Conspiracy theories like these are now "all over Russian TV", Mr Pomerantsev said.
A UK-based researcher, Ilya Yablokov, wrote in a recent article for the Moscow Times that conspiracy theory has been a key element in Russian political discourse stretching back to Soviet times.
The latest wave of conspiracy mania, though, began with the mass anti-Kremlin protests that rocked Moscow in 2011-2012. It was then that Russian state TV started to systematically demonise the opposition as American agents.
Today opponents of Moscow's intervention in Ukraine are routinely dubbed "traitors" or "fifth columnists".
Nationalist commentator Alexander Dugin has even coined the term "sixth column" - to denote members of the establishment who profess support for Mr Putin but also espouse the values of Western liberalism.
Conspiracy talk now appears to be rife in Russian society from top to bottom.
Mr Putin has described the internet as a CIA "special project", while a recent poll by the state-funded All-Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) found that 45% of people believed in the existence of some sort of organisation which "exerts influence on all global processes and the actions of many states".
According to Mr Yablokov, the function of conspiracy theories is to mobilise society through "fear of foreign or internal deception and subversion".
He also suggests that if the current stand-off with the West continues, the Kremlin will turn more and more to conspiracy theory as a "major tool" with which to manage its own people.