Russian propaganda campaign finds fertile ground in Ukrainians’ mixed sense of who they are

The Russian invasion of Ukraine began long before separatists seized control of eastern Ukrainian city buildings.

It began long before an estimated 40,000 Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border, engaging in “training exercises” as Moscow threatened “consequences” for Ukrainian resistance. It even began long before the mostly bloodless seizure of Crimea in March.

Experts and officials in Ukraine insist it began during the autumn of 2004.

It was then, they say, while Ukrainians and much of the world rejoiced at the power of democracy shown through the Orange Revolution, that Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite a landslide victory earlier in 2004, saw the potential of democratic unrest spreading into his nation. Analysts say he worried.

Shortly after, he began a media campaign demonizing Ukraine, to both Russians and Russian-speaking eastern and southern Ukrainians. Ukraine, long considered an inseparable ally for Russia, was portrayed as dangerous, untrustworthy and a puppet that the United States was using to harm Russia.

Newscasts and newspapers painted Kiev as tragically out of control, a place that in the interest of history and even of love needed to be brought back under the safe control of mother Russia. Even entertainment programming added to a new, negative perception of Ukraine. Television police dramas began to feature Ukrainian villains. Today, an evening of Russian television typically features newscasts and talk shows that depict an America eager to destroy Russia, a Europe on the brink of collapse and an inept and chaotic Ukraine.

Ukrainian media analyst Maksym Savanevsky noted in a Facebook post on the topic that Russian drama shows are “powerful propaganda.” They paint an “image of Russia as a beautiful, rich and happy country. The Ukrainians, as a rule, serve as the underdogs, traitors, blunt,” Savanevsky wrote. The overarching message, he said, is that Ukraine would be better off under Russian rule.

Georgy Satarov, a prominent Putin critic who was an adviser to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and attended a conference on peace initiatives last week in Kiev, said the strategy is not new. The Soviet Union applied similar demonization tactics to create a strong negative perception of the United States.

The campaign has worked. Satarov said some polls have shown about 70 percent of Russians support Putin’s plans for Ukraine, and as many as 60 percent say they’re willing to take part.

“When you spend 10 years preparing the soil, it’s easy to get the new seeds of discontent to grow well,” he said. “Remember, it’s also about a monopoly of the views being sent out. The opposition in Russia is very weak, and very disorganized. The Kremlin controls the message that the people see.”

Ukrainian experts agree that the most obvious recent example is the notion that Ukraine has become a very dangerous place for Russian speakers. It’s a narrative that most Russians, and many if not most eastern Ukrainians believe. But Ukrainian experts insist there is nothing to back it up. In fact, most insist that seen from Kiev or the West, it’s clearly absurd.

“That Ukraine stands against Russia in all things, that Ukraine is run by radical nationalists, is a myth,” said Bogdana Kostiuk, a Radio Free Europe journalist who covers the Ukrainian government. “It is not true and from Kiev, it’s obvious that it isn’t true.”

But what is true isn’t all that matters, she notes.

“In the east, they believe the myth,” she said. “So Ukrainians live in parallel realities. The great failing here is that those in Kiev have not been able to make what is really happening clear to those in the east.”

The Russian narrative, that Kiev is run by thugs and fascists, is repeated often not only by Russian separatists who have seized government buildings and demanded a vote on whether eastern regions should secede and join Russia, but also by many citizens who have no interest in secession, but don’t believe they can trust their own government.

The lack of trust was aggravated by the Ukrainian parliament’s quick approval of a bill that would downgrade Russian’s status as an official language. The bill hasn’t become law, but it is frequently mentioned by Russian critics of the interim government in Kiev.

Kostyantyn Gryshchenko is a former vice prime minister of Ukraine and a former minister of foreign affairs who served in the administrations of both Viktor Yanukovych, the president who in February fled to Russia after the Maidan protests and is considered Russia-friendly, and Viktor Yushchenko, Yanukovych’s predecessor and the hero of the Orange Revolution. Before Ukrainian independence, he was influential in the Soviet Union’s foreign ministry.

In an interview Friday, he said that the picture many in Russia and eastern Ukraine have of what happened in Maidan and what the government is trying to accomplish now is twisted. But he also blamed the government for not getting the facts out as well as the Russians have promoted their spin.

“They had to create a sense of inclusiveness, and they failed to do that,” he said. “There was no consistent message from Kiev, so the people believed the worst.”

He added, “People believe what they are told is the truth.”

Promoting a different message now is difficult. Presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko, who polls show is the front runner in elections set for May 25, found that out when he went to eastern Ukraine to campaign. Known to many Ukrainians as “the chocolate king” and owner of a string of candy stories, he’s not often subjected to hostile meetings, but this time he was the subject of a blockade after landing at the Donetsk airport.

“When I finally got downtown to meet people, quite a few had turned up to hear what I had to say, but as soon as I started talking, the lights went out,” he recalled Friday, laughing at what he called a difficult campaign stop. His visit to the east ended when he went to the border and was told that Russian helicopters had flown into Ukrainian airspace.

Volodymyr Viatrovych, the director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, said understanding Ukrainians’ experiences is important to grasping why the propaganda campaign has been effective even among some Ukrainians.

“Ukraine has three identities, really,” he said. “The first of course is Ukrainian, but it’s just new that people see themselves as only Ukrainian. The second is Soviet, and for many people this was a time of greater security. They may not have had as much opportunity to succeed, but they also didn’t have as great a chance to fail, so this is a comforting identity. And the third identity is Russian.”

He said that while 25 percent of Ukrainians have Russian backgrounds, many more have extended family with Russian background. And many more than that speak Russian. After hundreds of years of shared history, the power of Russian identity is strong in Ukraine.

One aspect of Putin’s campaign was to merge the Soviet identity with the Russian one, focusing on larger pensions and a stronger military and foreign policy position, and by taking a similarly anti-American stance.

“The Soviet identity is more than symbolic; the Soviet Union was a powerful force in the lives of many Ukrainians,” Viatrovych said.

In the Ukrainian military, for example, essentially all high-ranking officers began their careers in the Soviet military. Among Ukrainians over 40, much of their education was in Soviet schools. “Putin has used that to his advantage. There are quite a lot of Ukrainians who accept his propaganda because they have fond memories of growing up Soviet,” Viatrovych said.