The level and tone of propaganda coming out of Russia today vastly exceed anything I recall from the Soviet Union. A quick look at the absurd tweets from Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (@MFA_Russia) and the bullying by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin (@DRogozin) should convince anyone. They are far from alone; RT (formerly Russia Today) is going hot and heavy. And no, I don’t think I’ll link to it.
Ukraine and EU, NATO, US, and European representatives, are slanting their communications to present themselves in the best light. But there is a qualitative and quantitative difference in what Russia is doing. Timothy Snyder (I have bolded the bottom-line purposes of propaganda):
In view of its patent absurdity, why is this propaganda so important to Putin’s regime? Most obviously, propaganda serves the technical purpose of preparing the way for war. An excellent propaganda apparatus, such as the Russian one, can find ways to repeat its message over and over again in slightly different ways and formats. Plenty of people in the West now spread Russian propaganda, sometimes for money, sometimes from ignorance, and sometimes for reasons best known to themselves. Those who repeat the Russian propaganda conceits do not need to convince everyone, only to set the terms of debate. If people in free societies have their discussions framed for them by rulers of unfree societies, then they will not notice the history unfolding around them (a revolution just happened in Europe!) or sense the urgency of formulating policy in a desperate situation (a European country has just invaded another!). Propaganda can serve this technical purpose no matter how absurd it is.
But propaganda has a deeper and more important function. Propaganda, at least in the old Soviet Union, was not an edited version of reality, but rather a crucial part of the endeavor to create a different reality. When we refute propaganda with facts and arguments, and even when we discuss its social function, we are inhabiting a certain mental world; we accept the constraints of observation and reason at the outset and seek to change our situation on the basis of what we think we can see and understand. But this is not the only possible psychic reality. In the Soviet Union, the assumption among many who believed in the promise of communism was that the future was as real if not more real than the present. Soviet propaganda was not a version of the world in which we live but rather a representation of the world to come. When we see Russia’s current propaganda in this way, we understand why its authors are utterly untroubled by what might appear to be factual errors and contradictions.
Vladimir Putin’s methods in Ukraine are confusion and evasion, valuable tools in propaganda’s kit. We do and do not know what his actions are. One one level, of course Russia is contributing to Ukraine’s destabilization. When Crimea was invaded and forced into a referendum, the soldiers were Russian, as were the posters and balloting materials. Russia has 45,000 troops stationed outside Ukraine’s eastern border. And the armed men showed up in Donetsk and other eastern Ukrainian cities only after the operation in Crimea was completed.
On another level, the use of unmarked soldiers in Crimea and local people in eastern Ukraine give pause to those who want, in good will, to understand the situation, even as the pattern repeats itself.
Then there are Putin’s words and actions. Denial of Russian soldiers in Crimea. Promises to pull troops back that are not met. Medals awarded for meritorious service in Crimea. And don’t believe your lying eyes… The constant drumbeat from Russia that the government in Kiev is Nazi, that the EU and NATO are conspiring to destabilize Russia, that Russia’s history demands the Crimea and even Kiev back, that Russian speakers must be protected.
Let’s look at the latest crumb of hope that Putin held out:
In this context, we appeal too, to representatives of southeast Ukraine and supporters of federalisation to hold off the referendum scheduled for May 11, in order to give this dialogue the conditions it needs to have a chance.
Let me stress that the presidential election the Kiev authorities plan to hold is a step in the right direction, but it will not solve anything unless all of Ukraine’s people first understand how their rights will be guaranteed once the election has taken place.
“This context,” earlier in the linked statement, was calling the government in Kiev illegal, calling for its operations in eastern Ukraine to end, and claiming that it holds political prisoners. As Snyder said, setting the terms of debate.
The word “appeals” suggests that Putin has no direct relationship with the “representatives” – a word that might be used for an elected government. And those “representatives” have decided to go forward with their referendum anyway. So Putin can say he tried, and we can speculate how much control he actually has over those “representatives.” But he can also claim a victory if the vote goes his way. His support for the May 25 presidential election is highly qualified and vague.
Putin also said in the same statement
As for whether proposed measures suit Russia or not, we are not a party to this conflict; the parties to the conflict are in Ukraine itself. We were told repeatedly that our forces by the Ukrainian border were a source of concern. We have withdrawn our forces and they are now not on the Ukrainian border but are carrying out their regular exercises at the test grounds. This can be easily verified using modern intelligence techniques, including from space, where everything can be seen. We helped to secure the OSCE military observers’ release and I think also made a contribution to defusing the situation.
The bolded sentence is the one that reporters picked up to mean that the 45,000 Russian forces near Ukraine were being withdrawn. But they didn’t bother to find out what Putin considers the “test grounds” to be. So the sentence may be technically accurate, although Russian statements don’t always bother with that. The observed fact is that there has been no movement of those Russian forces. But the news as reported gave a bit of credibility to Putin as peacemaker, allowing him to set the terms of discussion. Repetition of the propaganda provides a cumulative effect.
Meanwhile, Russia is playing nuclear war games in the Arctic, sending air patrols to the coast of California, launching missiles, developing fifth columns in its neighbors, requiring Russian bloggers to register with the government, cracking down further on Russian NGOs, linking North Caucasians to the Nazis, awarding contracts for building nuclear icebreakers. And, no, says the Voice of Russia, those patrols to California have nothing to do with the Ukraine crisis. So much for peacemaking.
How much of this does Putin believe?
Does Putin have a long-term plan to restore the Soviet Union or Tsarist Empire? Does he feel that people of Russian descent should be gathered together? Does he buy Alexander Dugin’s Eurasianism? Was the annexation of Crimea an emotional reaction to Ukraine President Victor Yanukovych’s flight?
Putin’s words have elements of all those possibilities. But there is no reason to assume a simple correlation between what he says and what he believes. Like any other leader, he says things to rally his people and confuse his opponents. And he says those things in the context that Timothy Snyder describes,
Propaganda, at least in the old Soviet Union, was not an edited version of reality, but rather a crucial part of the endeavor to create a different reality.
How far along does Putin believe that reality to be? The public statements, the repetition, all leave their mark on Putin’s thinking. It’s very difficult to say something over and over again and not begin to believe it. Putin is also reported to be narrowing down the number of his advisors, narrowing the range of discussion that he hears. Further, Russian/Soviet rulers have tended to dismiss events outside Russia as trivial or unreal. Mikhail Gorbachev dismissed the independence movements in the Baltic States until it was too late. Tsar Nicholas II could not believe that events outside his Moscow circle were relevant.
Is annexation consistent with a customs union?
Putin has put a lot of work and prestige into his plans for a Eurasian Union to compete with the European Union. The project is clearly important to him. Ukraine, with its industry, would be an essential part of the Eurasian Union. Last fall, negotiations were underway with Victor Yanukovych to join; the cause of the demonstrations in Kiev was Yanukovych’s turning down an association agreement with the EU to keep alive the possibility of joining Putin’s Eurasian Union. The demonstrators preferred the EU.
Invading a country and annexing part of it is not a good way to win friends in that country. Generally, an outside threat pulls a country together in opposition to that threat. Nonetheless, Putin took Crimea from Ukraine, the essential country for his Eurasian Union. What was he thinking?
A Russian friend explained to me that it was a peaceful invasion, that it was a favor to Ukraine to show that a strong neighbor will peacefully help Ukraine to overcome its divisions. Consider that Putin may have believed that, along with what he has been saying about protecting his Russian-speaking comrades. The ease of annexing Crimea would have reinforced those beliefs.
The next step, then, would be to supply just enough pressure to encourage the comrades in eastern Ukraine to join Russia, or at least split from Kiev. Hence the troops on the Russian side of the border and the protests clearly engineered by Russia.
It’s not possible, financially and logistically, to keep war-ready troops in place for long periods of time. The troops (45,000 seems to be the number I am seeing most commonly) are not enough to invade, and certainly not enough to occupy a country the size of Ukraine if there is resistance. Putin must have thought that his goal would be achieved fairly quickly. If the goal was to destabilize Ukraine in preparation for the presidential election, that’s probably not too long to keep the troops in place. But what then?
Has Putin misjudged the eastern Ukrainians?
Putin’s goal is more likely a federal constitution for Ukraine, which will require more time unless the EU and US agree to negotiate with him, relegating Ukraine to a minor role in the decisions. This would be an implicit acceptance of Putin’s claim that Russia must have a sphere of influence of buffer countries with no independence.
Very little of this seems to be happening. The people taking over government buildings in cities of eastern Ukraine are a varied group, with varied aims, most of which do not have to do with joining Russia. Last week’s incident in Odessa has not received the full propaganda treatment from Russia, seemingly already forgotten, probably indicating that that was not part of Russia’s plan.
Most Ukrainians want to remain in a united Ukraine. (More discussion of the Pew polls here and here.) Earlier polls show Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine not worried about their safety. Many are unhappy with the corruption of previous governments in Kiev or the breakdown of Yanukovych’s government, but few see Russia as the solution.
The US and EU have not accepted Putin’s frame of great powers deciding the fate of lesser powers and have not agreed to negotiate Ukraine’s fate with him. There is no indication that they will; such action would reverse too many of the understandings and agreements that brought peace to Europe after World War II.
Putin has also had some difficulty with his comrades in the Eurasian Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Belarus initially was cool to the Crimean annexation, although president Alexander Lukashenka now is willing to “coordinate with Russia on Ukraine,” which is not yet a ringing endorsement. President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan stayed in Almaty to confer with US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns instead of attending a CSTO meeting.
Perhaps Putin has misjudged the feelings of people in other parts of Russia on other issues, too.
Perhaps Putin has misjudged the feelings of people in other parts of Russia on other issues, too.
Putin knows how to put on a good show, so he flew to Crimea after attending Victory Day ceremonies in Moscow on May 9, part of projecting the world as it is to be according to Russia. Instead of watching the Eurovision contest, Putin competed in an ice hockey game in his Olympic city of Sochi. Putin is also a good enough strategist to have contingency plans; he must have done some courting of Lukashenka to have brought him back under the tent.
Putin seems to have misjudged the situation in eastern Ukraine and the response of other governments. The cash flow out of Moscow isn’t slowing down, and the IMF says that Russia is now in recession. Agitation in Ukraine can go only so far; it is hard to believe that Russia wants a civil war on its doorstep. Nor would a civil war or an invasion strengthen Putin’s Eurasian Union. Although it is clear that the outcome of this weekend’s election will be overwhelmingly for secession from Kiev, the practical outcome could be ugly.
It is hard to see an end-game that gains Russia much. Putin may have been misled by his own propaganda.
Photo: Putin speaking in Crimea On Victory Day 2014. From left: Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. (Source)
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner.