2paragraphs: In March former Ukraine Ambassador Steven Pifer wrote at 2paragraphs that “Russia’s propaganda machine appears to be creating a pretext for a broader intervention in Eastern Ukraine.” How effective has Russia’s propaganda machine been–both in Ukraine and more broadly? And do you see it operating in a disciplined way–or more willy-nilly, as has been the portrayal by some Western media?
Juliane Fürst: The one-sentence answer to this two-pronged question is, “Yes and both.” The two-paragraph answer to this question will run something along the lines of, “Yes; maybe; we do not know; and there is nothing like a perfect propaganda operation.” Let’s first look at the case made in one sentence. Yes, Russian propaganda has been very effective in Ukraine – or at least in the part of Ukraine it was aiming at, namely the Russian-speaking part. Half a year ago, even those who staged anti-Maidan demonstrations in Eastern Ukrainian cities were not talking about separation or joining Russia. The Independent Republic of Donetsk was an assembly of local madmen, which nobody – not least the locals – took particularly seriously. Now separation and Russian irredentism is a real political option supported by many. New symbols and colours (the black and orange of Russia’s patron saint St. George) are visible in demonstrations and according to Russian and Eastern Ukrainian sources, several towns including Donetsk and Lugansk have just voted for independence and seem poised to continue with a vote to join Russia in a few weeks. All of this has been promulgated, repeated and supported by Russian media in conjunction with the assertion that the new Kiev government is both illegal and fascist. The latter has found a willing audience not only in Eastern Ukraine and Russia but also in many parts of the West. The more disciplined line pursued by the big Russian news outlets has been supplemented by rumours and unconfirmed horror stories, especially about persecution of ethnic Russians, which might or might not be the work of a carefully concerted campaign, but are likely to be a mixture of deliberate and random dissemination.
Yet there are a number of important qualifications, which have to be made in a second paragraph. First of all, just as the linguistic line cutting through Ukraine is neither straight nor defined, the success of Russian media, even in the Eastern territory, is patchy. It all depends on what else is consumed, who consumes it and in what kind of peer group. Secondly, and possibly more importantly, propaganda is at its most successful if it taps into existing sentiments and fears. While strong allegiance to Russia and Russian nationhood is new in its intensity, dissatisfaction with Kiev’s pro-Western leanings, fears of Western Ukrainian politics and a different evaluation of the events of the Second World War have always been issues that have moved Eastern Ukrainian minds – and not always in an unjustified way. The new government did itself no favors when it abolished Russian as an official language the day after it came to power, even if that law was immediately repealed. Stepan Bandera, the hugely controversial WW II Ukrainian nationalist with fascist and anti-Semitic convictions, should never have been made the symbol that he has become in the last few years. The Donbass has long felt it was cheated out of its former glory as an economic power house. To blame the West and Western Ukraine is a convenient explanation. Thirdly, it is notoriously difficult to gauge the extent to what people have internalized any kind of propaganda, even in better circumstances. There is no doubt that many of the tropes spread in Russian media outlets have first appeared in the communication and messages given out by the so-called pro-Russian separatists. Yet reports about those currently fighting Ukrainian troops suggest a hugely heterodox worldview among even the more radical element. Some truly want to unite with Moscow, others are more inclined towards autonomy within a federal Ukraine. We know very little about what those people who do not go out on the street, fight and demonstrate are thinking. The referendum on independence of some Eastern Ukrainian regions was conducted in such a shambolic (and partially repressive) style as to be completely meaningless in terms of reflecting popular opinion. And last but not least every propaganda effort relies on a net of disseminators to transmit a message. People are fallible. They sometimes do not understand the message and/or add their own convictions and ideas (the pictures coming out of Odessa after the fire in the Trade Union House were in all likelihood part of such rogue propaganda efforts). There are misinterpretations and errors in the dissemination (such as the online publication of Russia’s Human Rights Council’s report which stated that only 15% of Crimeans voted for annexation). In short, Russian propaganda is not perfect and not everything that sounds like it, deserves the pedigree.
—Juliane Fürst is a Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Bristol and currently a fellow at Harvard’s Davis Center. She is the author of Stalin’s Last Generation: Soviet Post-War Youth and the Emergence of Mature Socialism