|Author: Mykola Riabchuk|
COMING TO TERMS WITH RUSSIAN PROPAGANDA
Within the past two months, on March 12 and April 9, the reputable international Committee to Protect Journalists condemned twice the Ukrainian authorities for the alleged encroachment on freedom of information and journalistic activity. In one case, the culprit was named the National Council on Television and Radio Broadcasting of Ukraine which ordered cable and satellite providers on Tuesday to cut off the transmission of Russian state-controlled TV stations in the country. In the other case, they expressed their deep concern over the reports that Ukrainian border guards have denied entry to the country to several Russian journalists over the past few days. “Reports say that journalists with the newly reshuffled RIA Novosti news agency, TV channels Rossiya and Russia Today, the business daily Kommersant, and Forbes-Russia magazine have all been turned down at the border”.
In the first case, the CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova called Ukrainian authorities “to ensure that the citizens of Ukraine have a plurality of information sources available" and “be able to choose for themselves what information and opinion to access." In the second case, the same officer strongly reprimanded the same villains for “barring journalists from working based on nationality”.
Little surprise that in such a distorted context Dmitri Kiselev, the chief Russian propagandist, blacklisted recently by the EU with a number of other Russian officials, called this decision a punishment for his views and encroachment on freedom of speech. By the same token, Dr. Goebbels may have raised the same claim. And of course, Nazi scribblers prevented from entering allies’ territory could be considered “barred from working based on nationality”, whereas Al Qaida messengers should be treated as important contributors to a “plurality of information sources”.
The incidents reveal graphically two problems. On one hand, they illustrate how Western liberals, with all their wishful thinking, are often detached form reality on the ground in different parts of the world. In our case, they simply fail to grasp that Russian media had long ago ceased to be mere sources of information or hubs different opinions. Increasingly, under Putin, they became a powerful propagandistic weapon – a tool of manipulation, disinformation, hate speech, jingoism and warmongering. In the situation of a de-facto war between Ukraine and Russia, they are as important weapon and an element of the special operation as the economic blockade, subversive intelligence and notorious “green men” with kalashnikovs.
On the other hand, we encounter here, once again, an old problem of the due limits for the freedom of speech and, more generally, for any freedom that, however unrestrained, cannot under any circumstances encroach on, or threaten the freedom of other subjects. I would leave this problem for a later time and perhaps for more seasoned experts, focusing instead on the first one as more topical at the moment – and daunting.
The art of chutzpah
The Russian anti-Ukrainian propaganda has been thoughtfully elaborated within the past ten years and transformed into a full-fledged information war since November 2013 to acquire the Russian population's support for action against Ukraine. Three major narratives emerged that can be summed up as "Ukraine's borders are artificial", "Ukraine's society is deeply divided", and "Ukrainian institutions are irreparably dysfunctional". To put it simply, Ukraine is a failed state ("not a country", as Putin reportedly told George W Bush at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest), and it, therefore, needs external, apparently Russian, guardianship.
Within the past months, as the Russian propagandistic war against Ukraine ran in full swing, a great number of publications emerged in both Ukrainian and international periodicals, which caught Russian media unabashedly lying. No reaction to these revelations, however, has ever followed.
The Russian media have neither apologized for the false reports, nor corrected them, no bothered to respond in any coherent way. They simply ignored any unsuitable facts and counterarguments, and this is the major feature of any totalitarian propaganda: it power dwells not in facts that can be easily faked and not in arguments that can be easily manipulated. It strength stems from the sheer quantity, from unscrupulous and unrestrained repetition of the same lies, distortions and innuendos. There might be not a single racist, or Russophobic, or anti-Semitic incident in Maidan, not a single proved “fascist” in the Ukrainian government, and not a single properly documented encroachment upon Russophones' rights. Nonetheless, the massive reference and cross-reference to the brazen fakes as indisputable facts creates a hypnotic feeling in many recipients that there should be, indeed, something wrong – maybe not that wrong as the Russia Today TV reports, but not quite right either. The recipient does not question the information in principle but wonders instead only what percentage of truth might be there – in a thoroughly forged “news”.
The results of this massive brainwashing are appalling. A solid majority of TV-watchers in Russia and a substantial part in Ukraine believe in the Kremlin's claim that there is no legitimate government in Kiev that it is run by a gang of Nazis and anti-Semites who took power by coup d’état and terrorize Russians and Russophones all over the country. The spill-over of this propaganda affects not only too many intelligent Russians who are willing for various reasons to be fooled but also quite a few foreigners who candidly buy at face value the Kremlin's perfidious "anti-fascist" and "minority-protection" rhetoric.
Putin’s claims, however calumnious and fully disproved on the ground by independent observers, opinion polls, and the minorities themselves, are accepted by so many people not only because of their extremely intensive, mantra-style multiplying and not only thanks to effective elimination of alternative sources of information. It draws its influence on a common imperial wisdom and traditional – both Soviet and pre-Soviet – anti-Ukrainian stereotypes. At the bottom line, they divide Ukrainians into a loyal majority of "Little Russians" (a dull but harmless provincial branch of Great Russians) and the perverse minority of "nationalists" (arguably corrupted by Western influence and therefore obsessed with a crazy idea of Ukraine's difference and separateness). Even the word “independence” in this narrative have never been applied to Ukraine in a proper Russian form – “nepodleglost”, but only in a deliberately distorted Ukrainian – “nezalezhnost”; the sarcastically caricatured linguistic form had to emphasize a ridiculous, artificial, and essentially obsolete character of the phenomenon itself.
Anders Aslund, a Swedish-American economist, who spent many years in both Ukraine and Russia, contends that Russian attitude toward Ukrainians has always puzzled him: “Russians will tell you that Ukrainians are their brother nation, but at the same time they claim that Ukraine is not a real nation, Ukrainian not an actual language, and Ukrainians are intellectually backward. Russians can barely hide their superiority complex toward Ukraine.”
Such an imperial legacy makes many Russians highly susceptible to anti-Ukrainian propaganda that works especially well today, in the increasingly homogenized media environment where unsuitable facts are silenced, alternative sources of information are blocked or marginalized, and any alternative is deemed deviation, obsession, extremism, and national betrayal.
As a result, as many as 56 percent of Russian respondents believe that Ukrainians and Russians are a single nation; 83 percent believe that there was coup d’état in Ukraine in February, 77 percent blame Ukrainian leadership for the deterioration of relations between Russia and Ukraine; only 7 percent disapprove the annexation of Crimea. Only 13 percent recognise that the main reason for the negative Western reaction is Russia's violation of international law - all the others ascribe it to either misunderstanding of the real situation in Ukraine (20 percent) or intrinsic hostility of the foreigners toward Russia (58 percent).
Remarkably, many more Russians trust in state media (62 percent) than independent media (16 percent); 54% agree that "there are important social issues and topics about which it is permissible to distort information in the public interest"; and 72 percent agree that "there are important social issues and topics about which it is acceptable to remain silent in the public interest".
With such popular attitudes and firmly controlled media, the Kremlin does not find it hard to sell any information it wishes to the larger population.
Propaganda as a self-fulfilling prophecy
The lack of alternative views not only in the society at large but also within the ruling elite does not bode well for Russia. Its leadership is trapped in the virtual propagandistic world it created and is completely dependent on its logic. Propaganda, as Timothy Snyder, a Yale professor of history, notes, is not "an edited version of reality, but rather a crucial part of the endeavor to create a different reality … not a flawed description, but a script for action. If we consider Putin's propaganda in these Soviet terms, we see that the invasion of Crimea was not a reaction to an actual threat, but rather an attempt to activate a threat so that violence would erupt that would change the world. Propaganda is part of the action it is meant to justify."
The Russian elite, infected by its own propaganda, becomes increasingly paranoid and determined to fight the invented "fascists" in neighboring countries as if they are real. This means that whatever Ukraine does or says in this regard, it matters little. The real choice is either to share the fate of the 1956 Hungary and 1968 Czechoslovakia invasions by the Red army or to follow the example of the 1920 Poland and 1940 Finland (when the Russians were contained).
As the Ukrainian presidential election scheduled on May 25 gets closer, Kremlin's window of opportunity for invading the country and derailing its European course is gradually narrowing. If the elections happen as scheduled, in due term and orderly fashion, the propagandistic task for the Putin’s hacks would become much tougher. Neither Yulia Tymoshenko nor Petro Poroshenko - the frontrunners of the current presidential campaign - resemble anything close to the proverbial "nationalists", "extremists" and "Russophobes". In fact, both have actually been and remain primarily Russian-speaking in their life, even though, as most citizens of Ukraine; they have good command of Ukrainian as well.
The alleged "far-right" candidates - the heavily demonized Dmytro Yarosh of the Right Sector and Oleh Tiahnybok of the Svoboda Party - fall far behind in opinion polls and will likely barely be able to muster more than two to three per cent support. This is how the myth of the "fascists" drawing Ukraine into a civil war may fade, unless of course the civil war is instigated from abroad.
The Kremlin is acting quickly before the new Ukrainian regime gets consolidated. Currently 40,000 troops standing at the Russian border and thousands of militia storming local administration buildings in Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk are putting strong pressure on the Ukrainian government. The Ukrainian authorities are cornered in a lose-lose situation. They are tempted to use force against the attackers, but must also be careful not to give an excuse for a Russian intervention.
Currently there are three possible scenarios that endanger Ukraine's sovereignty. First, attempts to appease the separatists may result in a complete collapse of the Ukrainian authority over the eastern regions and the emergence of a puppet pro-Russian state similar to Moldovan Transnistria. It will likewise exist in legal limbo without international recognition.
Second, the eastern region may decide to proclaim itself the "true Ukraine" and, with Russian backing, launch an offensive against the central government in Kiev to re-establish Viktor Yanukovych's "legitimate" presidency. The scenario is barely new since it was fully employed in 1918 when the Bolsheviks created a puppet "Ukrainian" government in Kharkiv to overthrow the democratic government of the Ukrainian National Republic (1918-1920) in Kiev. The main advantage of the scenario is to disguise a Russian-Ukrainian war as a Ukrainian-Ukrainian war.
The third option the Ukrainian government faces today is to submit to Russian pressure and bullying and accept a broad range of Kremlin-designed constitutional and administrative changes. These would transform Ukraine into a loose confederation of weak states – something like a greater Bosnia – highly vulnerable to external subversion, manipulation and sabotage.
Whatever happens in the next weeks, Ukrainians should learn to live for years, perhaps for decades, not only under persistent political and economic pressure but also under blatant propagandistic war, prone at any moment to turn into quite a real military invasion. If it does not happen by May 25, it may well happen eventually, albeit under some different pretexts and slightly modified rhetorical wrapping. No government in Kiev will be recognized by Kremlin as legitimate until and unless it is the Kremlin's government.
 CPJ condemns Ukraine's order to take Russian TV off air, March 12, 2014 ,
 Ukraine must allow entry to Russian journalists, April 9, 2014
 Dmitri Kiselev, “Russia and the west are trading places on freedom of speech”, 10 April 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/10/russia-west-trading-places-freedom-of-speech-sanction-eu-dmitry-kiselev-putin
 John Schindler, “Understanding the Crimea Crisis”, 7.03.2014, http://www.businessinsider.com/john-schindler-without-deterrence-crimea-is-the-beginning-2014-3; see also his “The Coming Age of Special War”, September 20, 2013, http://20committee.com/2013/09/20/the-coming-age-of-special-war/
 Peter Leonard, “Russian propaganda war in full swing over Ukraine”, Associated Press, March 15, 2014, http://news.yahoo.com/russian-propaganda-war-full-swing-over-ukraine-085411498.html
 James Marson, “Putin to the West: Hands off Ukraine”, May 25, 2009, http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1900838,00.html
 E.g., Halya Coynash, “Russian channels caught lying”, 11.04.14, http://khpg.org/index.php?id=1397216972; “Bordering On Delusion: Where Are All The Russian Refugees?” March 28, 2014, http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-russia-refugees/25313128.html; “НТВ: антисемитизм как пропагандистское оружие против Украины”, Еврейские новости, 30.03.2014, http://eajc.org/page16/news44168.html; Claire Bigg, “Ukraine's 'Euromaidan' Through The Lens Of Russian Television”, December 09, 2013, http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-euromaidan-russian-media/25194912.html
 Barbara Frye, “Lie to Me”, 2 April 2014, http://www.tol.org/client/article/24244-lie-to-me.html
 See, e.g., Nick Cohen, “Noam Chomsky in the Crimea”, 3 March 2014; http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2014/03/chomsky-in-the-crimea/; Anton Shekhovtsov, “Pro-Russian network behind the anti-Ukrainian defamation campaign”, 3 February 2014, http://anton-shekhovtsov.blogspot.ch/2014/02/pro-russian-network-behind-anti.html
 Timothy Snyder, “Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda”, March 1, 2014, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2014/mar/01/ukraine-haze-propaganda/
 Timothy Snyder, “Freedom in Russian exists only in Ukraine”, 17 March 2014, http://www.standard.co.uk/comment/timothy-snyder-freedom-in-russian-exists-only-in-ukraine-9196833.html
 “OSCE didn't get complaints about encroachments on minorities' rights in Crimea”, March 6, 2014, https://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/osce-didnt-get-complaints-about-encroachments-on-minorities-rights-in-crimea-338571.html; “Are Non-Russian Ethnic Minorities Facing Persecution In Ukraine?” April 01, 2014, http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraineunspun-minorities-facing-persecution/25317466.html
 “IRI Poll: Majority of Russian-Speaking Citizens in Ukraine Don’t Feel Threatened; Majority Support Closer Ties with Europe”, April 5, 2014 http://www.iri.org/NEWS-EVENTS-PRESS-CENTER/NEWS/IRI-POLL-MAJORITY-RUSSIAN-SPEAKING-CITIZENS-UKRAINE-DON%E2%80%99T-FEEL-THREATE
 “Mr Putin: We ethnic Russians and Russian speakers don’t need protection”, 28.02.14, http://khpg.org/index.php?id=1393586383; “Ukrainian Jews slam Putin in full-page ad in New York Times”, March 27, 2014, http://www.jta.org/2014/03/27/news-opinion/world/ukrainian-jews-slam-putin-in-full-page-ad-in-new-york-times
 Anders Åslund , “What Kiev's Democratic Turn Means for Moscow”, Feb. 25, 2014, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/what-kievs-democratic-turn-means-for-moscow/495143.html
 “'Traitors' Slur Goes Mainstream In Russia”, March 26, 2014, http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-nationalism-traitors-crimea-media/25310606.html
 “Россияне об отношениях с Украиной”, 14.03.2014, http://www.levada.ru/14-03-2014/rossiyane-ob-otnosheniyakh-s-ukrainoi
 Robert Coalson, “Russia Wags The Dog With Ukraine Disinformation Campaign”, 13 April 2014, http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-big-lie-ukraine/25286568.html; also his “The World Through The Eyes Of Russian State Television”, 13 April 2014, http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-through-eyes-of-television/25321677.html
 Timothy Snyder, “Crimea: Putin vs. Reality”, March 7, 2014, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2014/mar/07/crimea-putin-vs-reality/
 “Україна на старті президентських виборів. Результати соціологічного дослідження”, 26.03.2014, http://www.socis.kiev.ua/ua/press/rezultaty-sotsiolohichnoho-doslidzhennja-elektoralni-orijentatsiji-ukrajintsiv.html
 Ivan Krastev, “Putin’s World”, April 1, 2014, http://www.iwm.at/read-listen-watch/transit-online/putins-world/