Until recently, Ukraine and Russia have been as close as two nations can be: the Russian language is commonly spoken in Ukraine, there are many cultural similarities and the challenges for political and social development produced by the collapse of the USSR. However, with global geopolitical interests drawing the two countries apart, the media resources of both have started an ongoing battle of propaganda.
A cccording to a recent poll, 88% of Russians learn about the events in Ukraine trough local television and 73% consider the information reliable. Therefore it is no surprise that as much as 77% of the Russian public blames Ukrainians for the conflict, which erupted between the two sisterly countries in March. There is a lot of talk about the Russian state propaganda machine all around the world, especially in liberal democracies, however not only the Duma is manipulating public opinion through disinformation and propaganda.
Ukrainians do not look at Russia as favorably as before. In March 80% of the population considered themselves friendly to Russians, however in August that number fell to 40%. Therefore both, media and the political arena, in Kiev shifted from supporting a tight relationship with Russia to favoring as little to do with it as possible. It is important to understand that while, Euromaidan, the revolution, with which the conflict begun, had a “euro-“ prefix to it, the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Eastern Ukraine have shifted the nations’ focus from the importance of western leaning reforms to the rivalry with the oppressive neighbor.
Instead of debating pressing issues such as social security and financial stability, politicians are trying to gain favor with the public by donating to the military or creating an image of a war hero. In the recent elections the winning party, called “The Peoples Front”, built its platform upon the militaristic rhetoric of its leader, the Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk. TV talk shows now also predominantly feature soldiers, but what is worse is that the media space is going somewhat insane. While blaming Russian propaganda for posing images from the Chechen war as supposed evidence of Ukrainian military cruelty, mainstream media in Ukraine has tries to pull the same trick with image from Syria. There is a plethora of such examples and most Ukrainians can spot them. However, unfortunately, there will always be some consumers willing to buy into such lies.
The turmoil of the conflict serves leaders of Ukraine well by allowing them to draw attention away from important and urgent issues such as the absence of hot water and heating in some regions. However, there is no clear military agenda either. There is no war formally declared on any country and the Ukrainian government hasn’t officially accused Russia of illegal military activity within its borders, although the cabinet officials do not restrict themselves from such accusations on television, sometimes even presenting evidence. During a recent meeting with students the Prime Minister has replied to a question about president Putins’ remark on Russian military superiority:
“The one with more muscles and guns is not the strongest, the one who has faith is. We have faith and we will win this war”
Perhaps it was a demonstration of faith when his government authorized the construction of a wall along the entire Ukrainian-Russian border. Around $8 million were dedicated to the project. Initially the idea was proposed by a governor from Dnepropetrovsk, Igor Kolomoyskiy, and when it became too popular to ignore the Prime Minister took on to supervise the construction himself. A short moth later, the wall is old news and doesn’t seem to be on the table anymore, yet the political capital gained remains intact.
Another, even larger, scandal erupted, when the government purchased bulletproof vests. Not only where did they cost three times the market price, they also had a defect: they didn’t actually stop the bullets. The media attributed the scheme to the eccentric governor, whose political support has skyrocketed after the revolution, the same governor who came up with the idea of constructing the wall alongside the border. Even though investigations were carried out, nobody was held accountable and the deal was not reversed.
Moreover, the military campaign in the east has not proven to be effective. There were numerous incidents of friendly fire due to miscommunication in the chain of command, cases of encirclement of Ukrainian forces by the opponents and further heavy losses that could have been avoided. It is not disputed that these large mistakes were not simply accidents, but rather results of incompetence and lack of leadership in the Ministry of Defense. However, officials should not be too worried, since they are not pressured by an outraged public. Peoples’ thoughts are concentrated on the enemy, which has to be defeated, instead of the commanders, which have to do it.
More is needed
Ukrainian international politics have a more diverse agenda. Even though a deal with Russia to supply gas until March 2015 has already been struck, Ukraine is still facing an energy supply shortage, which it tries to solve by negotiating deals with Europe to reverse supply Russian gas. At last the IMF has successfully reached out to the Ukrainian government and credit requirements are being set in place as a step to solving the countries large financial woes. Yet, of course, the largest political issue is the relationship with Russia and the ongoing sanctions. There is some criticism for Ukraine’s European allies for not doing enough to pressure Russia. Many view Europe’s sanctions as weak, however each new measure is welcomed and further action heavily endorsed. There is a feeling of a big brother punishing a bully, who stole your lunch money. That is pleasing, but the lunch money doesn’t come back.
A new path
Interestingly, Ukrainian government, while lobbying for sanctions in Brussels, did not impose any sanctions against Russia itself. It was only in mid-August when the parliament has voted in favor of a “Law on Sanctions”, which most media outlets had promoted as the ultimate strike against the oppressor. The law was signed into action only a month later by the president, Petro Poroshenko, but as it turned out, did not have any real effect. The law does not include any specific sanctions to be implemented, but merely declares the possibility of doing so and explains the procedures for parliamentary vote on possible trade restrictions in the future. However, no further discussion was held and no vote to impose any sanctions was even scheduled. In a video that was accidently leaked on the Internet the Prime Minister said: “These events in Donetsk and Lugansk are signs of direct Russian military aggression. Their [Russian] regular army forces are close to Mariupol … All these sanctions are like bandages to a dead man, they didn’t help…” Notably, it was PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk himself who proposed the “Law About Sanctions” and capitalized on the public support for it.
There is no denying that a war is being fought in the east of Ukraine or that a new path for the country’s development has been chosen. With Crimea occupied and the densest Russian-speaking territory proclaiming its independence, there is no political future left for those who supported Russia as the choice for Ukraine’s main geopolitical ally. Now the agenda is completely European. But for Ukraine this, first of all, means internal change – fighting corruption and bureaucracy, creating competitive enterprises and new jobs. Unfortunately this is near impossible at times of war and those times are not nearing an end.
The revolution started when the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, decided last minute not to sign an important trade and political treaty with the EU. Even though he supported this decision while running for the presidency, after Russia’s objections and convincing, the signing was canceled and the Euromaidan erupted. Today, the treaty is signed, however, its implementation is postponed. It is said that the Ukrainian people are not prepared for a large change in the system during such turbulent times. For better or for worse the number one priority in Ukraine right now is defeating the enemy in the east.
“All these sanctions are like bandages to a dead man, they didn’t help…”