FIREWORKS, concerts, uplifting speeches and patriotic euphoria: the Kremlin is celebrating the annexation of Crimea as though Russia had won the second world war (again) rather than grabbing a piece of land from a smaller and weaker neighbour. The public seems intoxicated by victory in a war that was begun, conducted and won largely through propaganda.
Russians have been subjected to an intense, aggressive and blunt disinformation campaign in which they were bombarded by images of violence, chaos and fascism in Ukraine, sinister plotting by the West and evidence of Russia’s strength and nobility in response. The Russian media have always shaped reality as much as they have reflected it. But in the seizure of Crimea, television played as much of a leading role as the army. Russian television, widely watched in Crimea, bolstered the loyalty of the local population while justifying the Kremlin’s actions at home.
The propaganda campaign has seen several stages since the protests on Kiev’s Maidan began, says Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Centre, an independent pollster. It portrayed Maidan as a conspiracy by the West. It showed the protesters as nationalists, fascists and anti-Semites who had staged a putsch, posing great danger to Russian-speakers. It faked stories of Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Russia (using footage of a border crossing between Ukraine and Poland). The case for taking Crimea, to defend the Russian population from an imagined threat, morphed into Russia’s reclaiming historic lands. Addressing a crowd in Red Square, Vladimir Putin boomed: “After a long, hard and exhausting voyage, Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to their harbour, to their native shores, to their home port, to Russia!”
Nobody knows how long Mr Putin has been working on the idea of this homecoming (some say since the 2008 war in Georgia), but the appointment of Dmitry Kiselev as the face of Russian propaganda in December last year marks the moment when he began to execute it. Mr Kiselev’s anti-Western and homophobic rhetoric made him a marginal figure a few years ago. But as the new head of RIA-Novosti, the state news agency, and an anchor on the state news channel, he has become one of Mr Putin’s key weapons (and is now subject to European Union sanctions).
Russia’s disinformation offensive differs from its Soviet forebear in both style and intensity. Soviet propagandists had none of Mr Kiselev’s exaltation, sarcasm and theatricality. They spoke in grave, deliberate tones, drawing on the party’s lifelong wisdom and experience. The new propaganda, exemplified by Mr Kiselev, seeks to agitate and mobilise the audience, to stir hatred and fear. Wearing a tight suit, he paces up and down, gesticulating and accentuating his words, then drilling them home with a sadistic smile. It is close in style to Orwell’s two minutes’ hate, stretched to more than 30.
The propaganda machine is fuelled by a “cocktail of chauvinism, patriotism and imperialism”, says one journalist. It plays on deep feelings among the Russian public: post-imperial nostalgia for the Soviet Union, an inferiority complex towards the West, and a longing for self-justification.
The coverage relies on the scale of lies and the elimination of other sources of information, says one senior editor. When Ukraine suspended the broadcasts of Russian state TV channels, substituting the liberal Dozhd channel that had been cut off by cable providers in Russia, it was accused by the Kremlin of suppressing free speech. In Russia the state-controlled media creates an illusion of uniformity of thought. Many are scared to voice their opinions not because they may be punished, but because they may be isolated. Any dissenter is described by Mr Putin as a “fifth columnist” and a “national traitor”.
On March 24th the Kremlin made an example of Andrei Zubov, a Russian historian, who was among the first to draw parallels between Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the annexation of Austria and Sudetenland territories in 1938-39. He was fired from his teaching position at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, patronised by the foreign ministry. Mr Zubov’s articles and interviews, the institute said, “contradict Russia’s foreign policy and inflict careless, irresponsible criticism on the actions of the state, thus causing damage to the teaching and educational process.” In an article in Vedomosti on March 1st, Mr Zubov had cited a speech by Hitler that was strikingly similar to the rhetoric used by Mr Putin when he addressed the nation about the annexation of Crimea. As Vedomosti commented in an editorial, the sacking merely confirms the accuracy of Mr Zubov’s parallels.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea has lifted Mr Putin’s approval rating to 80%, up from 65% in January. The number of people wishing to see him re-elected has risen from 32% to 46%, according to Levada, the highest figure since the 2008 Georgian war. The question is how long such ratings will last. Trumpeting Russia’s moral superiority, the Kremlin is preparing ordinary Russians for an economic downturn that it will no doubt blame on America. Yet Mr Gudkov argues that, although most Russians support Mr Putin’s actions, they are not prepared to take responsibility or bear significant costs in lives or money. “Televisionwatching does not imply participation,” says Mr Gudkov. That gives some hope that Russia may not go farther into eastern Ukraine.
Yet patriotic hysteria and jingoism may have reached such levels that any de-escalation by Mr Putin would seem like a defeat. The danger is that he starts to believe his own propaganda and pursues its logic towards renewed confrontation. Ominously, the Kremlin appears to believe that Western sanctions so far leave it room for further adventurism.
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