Five years have passed since the annexation and occupation of the Crimea
The Russian aggression in Ukraine, which started five years ago and still continues, was quickly named “hybrid warfare”. Such a state of affairs is more a war of words, waged with information technology tools rather than direct military action. It’s more an exercise in soft rather than raw power. It’s a fact that the West, which had experienced a similar situation with Georgia in 2008, allowed itself to be surprised all over again with the so-called “little green men” who appeared out of nowhere, taking Ukrainian military bases and administrative agencies by force and remaining politely silent when people asked who they were. Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed for several months that they were just men who were looking for clothes and weapons from local stores. However, the Russian propaganda machine provided explanations in abundance—“partisans”, “volunteers”, “militants” who were fighting against the fascist junta that had seized power in Kyiv, and so on. The world was unexpectedly struck, as it seemed that a new performance of the “Great Patriotic War” had started between the sides of right and wrong, good and evil. To date, hundreds of studies have been written and generalisations made about this propaganda war, which, as a rule, don’t involve linking the success of the event with the preconditions earlier established for it—the discrete three-year periods of Russian propaganda—a practice that continues today. In other words, the events are not placed in a wider context. Besides, due to its regime, Russia is trying to do everything big.
The latter is what journalists of Ukraine’s Novoje Vremja declared at the beginning of the aggression, when they titled a 3 July 2014 article by Lev Gudkov, the then director of the Levada Center in Moscow, “Speaking and Cheating Moscow: The Kremlin had been preparing a propaganda basis for at least 14 years”.1 This was one of the first reports of the campaign of targeted slander, which, according to Gudkov, served to dehumanise Ukrainians (Russian: разчеловечить). For this purpose, it was “proved” that the Ukrainians did not have their own political thinking, and that their revolution was the handiwork of the West, that ultra-nationalists, e.g. Banderites2 and Nazis, would emerge as the victors of these events and that Russia would simply take back the land that had been taken from it illegally. The results of this brainwashing could only surprise people with a poor understanding of the Russian mind: while in January 2014, 66% of Russians had a good or excellent opinion of Ukrainians and 26% had a poor or very bad opinion, four months later these numbers stood at 35% and 49%, respectively. At the same time, the number of people with a poor opinion of Ukrainians had quadrupled.
The Novoje Vremja article reminded readers that the foundation for propaganda work had been laid during Vladimir Putin’s first year in power: in the autumn of 2000 an information security doctrine was adopted that provided for the improvement of the work and financing of state media. This was followed by the takeover of NTV, ORT, etc. from private hands and subjecting them to the will of the Kremlin. The completion of this process was marked by the establishment in 2005 of the TV channel Russia Today, which soon began broadcasting in Arabic and Spanish, followed by German in 2014 and French in 2017.
Practical policies aimed at restoring Russian power were carried out in the same way and equally persistently. As a presidential candidate, on 22 February 2000 Putin visited Volgograd, where he promised all kinds of support to all war veterans at a meeting with participants in the battle of Stalingrad. A day later, in a speech at the traditional anniversary of the army and fleet in Moscow, Putin promised to restore the prestige of the Russian armed forces. At the end of that year, 23 February, which had not been a holiday for ten years, was again declared a national holiday, to be known as Defender of the Fatherland Day. This was followed by an even more controversial move: while the Tsarist anthem was played at the Victory Day parade on 9 May 2000, as approved by a decision of president Boris Yeltsin, on 9 December 2000 the State Duma restored the use of the Soviet Union anthem originating from the time of the Great Patriotic War. In the shadow of these changes, on 5 August 2000, the Russian Pobeda (Victory) Organising Committee was established, which established the internet portal Pobeda-60 in late 2003 to publish news about the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War.
Since then, this committee has acted as the main coordinator of targeted campaigns to restore Russia’s force-based power and imperial influence, the cornerstone of which is the memory of “our victory” in World War II, which is constantly reinforced in all sorts of refreshing ways (e.g. the declaration of new “Hero Cities”, and the Immortal Regiment campaign).
The incessant victory policy and planning of victory campaigns characteristic of the Soviet empire was taken to a new level during the celebration of the 60th anniversary of winning the Great Patriotic War. It began with the celebration of the anniversary of the victory at the battle of Stalingrad on 2 February 2003. This was followed by a celebration of the 60th anniversary of victories at the battles of Kursk and Smolensk and other major engagements, the liberation of Karelia and the Caucasus, freeing Leningrad from the blockade and Sevastopol. In other words, the grand parade in Moscow’s Red Square on 9 May 2005 marked the end of a campaign that had lasted for more than two years. The source document “List of main events for celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945) victory” was approved on 28 August 2003. As the climax of these events approached, an additional plan titled “60 years from the victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945” was formalised with Putin’s presidential decree of 28 February 2004. This included events organised outside Russia (the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Ukraine and Belarus, etc.).
In reality the scale of these events was even larger. Although Eastern European governments had attempted to declare the communist regimes criminal following NATO’s eastern enlargement, as the Nuremberg trial had done with the Nazi regime, Russia was able to counter European actions through UN resolutions. On 22 November 2004, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that, inter alia, proclaimed 8–9 May a “time of remembrance and reconciliation” for those who lost their lives during the Second World War. The Kremlin quickly interpreted this as declaring the two days equally important, which effectively gave it the right to celebrate 9 May as the day of “our victory” in addition to 8 May, the Victory in Europe Day marked by the Allies. Since there is no tradition of marking 9 May in the West, this was a great propaganda victory for the Kremlin in the eyes of the Russian people, because “everyone would come to celebrate our victory”. On 16 December 2005, the UN adopted a Russian-sponsored resolution combating the glorification of Nazism, which has since been updated by adding individual facts at the end of each year, although European states have either voted against the resolution or abstained.
After such successes, similar campaigns were conducted to celebrate the 65th and 70th anniversaries of the Great Patriotic War, and on 12 December 2018 the 40th session of the Pobeda committee chaired by Putin was held as the first step in celebrating the 75th anniversary on 9 May 2020.3 In conclusion, discrete three-year periods can be observed in Putin’s Russia (2003 to 2005, 2008 to 2010, 2013 to 2015 and now 2018 to 2020) during which a large part of the country’s domestic and foreign policies, and especially the propaganda supporting them, form a comprehensive campaign aimed at strengthening the cohesion of society by facilitating patriotic sentiment among the masses as well as creating and reinforcing the cult of the authoritarian leader. When one of these three-year periods is completed, the campaign will rest for two years before starting all over again.4
The campaign for the 65th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War was influenced by a new incumbent assuming office—Dmitry Medvedev became president in May 2008. The Pobeda committee meeting in March 2008 was chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov and the first meeting chaired by Medvedev was held in January 2009. By this time, the war in Georgia was over and the gas disputes between Russia and Ukraine had begun. President Medvedev was even able to include Serbia in the campaign, and in October 2009 it celebrated the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade—in which the Yugoslav People’s Army had been supported by the Red Army. In October 2014, at the height of events in Ukraine, and because power in Serbia had shifted from pro-European to pro-Moscow forces, Vladimir Putin visited Belgrade. There was a joint Serbian-Russian military parade and the world leaders who gathered in Belgrade had to wait four hours for the Russian president to turn up. On 9 May 2015, a Serbian unit marched in Red Square for the first time. Following Putin’s visit to Belgrade on 17 January 2019 it can be assumed that Serbia will continue to participate in the new three-year campaign, taking the place initially intended for Ukraine in the international part of the events. (The course of the events has been as follows: in 2004 Putin celebrated the 60th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War in Minsk and Kyiv; in July 2013 the 70th anniversary was marked in Sevastopol with then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, and in July 2014 in Minsk with the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko.)
Putin signed off the programme for the Pobeda campaign for the period 2013–15 (titled “70 years from the Victory in the Great Patriotic War 1941–1945”) on 21 December 2013, when the Euromaidan demonstrations had already begun in Kyiv. It must be emphasised that in 2014 the propaganda coverage of aggression against Ukraine became a separate line of activity in the campaign. To stop Ukraine from getting closer to Europe and keep it in Russia’s grip, the Kremlin triggered a real hybrid propaganda war related to the campaign activities.
In order to justify Russia’s new (post-Georgia) aggression and goals—especially denying the occupation of foreign territory and breaking the Ukrainians’ fighting spirit—it used vocabulary and labels that had been employed in the victory campaigns of the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany to slander Ukrainian leaders on a massive scale. This unconventional revival of the past was accompanied by an intensive campaign of historical negativism (especially over the territorial ownership of the Crimea from 1917 to 1921 and since 1954, but also the entire Novorossiya project).
The line on Ukraine is still being pursued and it is not difficult to see how it is related to the victory campaign. On 2 February 2018, Putin attended festivities for the 75th anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad as a presidential candidate. However, more importantly, the date of the election was postponed to 18 March—the anniversary of the annexation of the Crimea—to emphasise Putin’s role in “taking back Russian territory”. Only time will tell how the Kremlin will continue to draw parallels between the victories in the Great Patriotic War, the annexation of the Crimea and the establishment of separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine. The Pobeda committee meeting on 12 December 2018 (at which it was claimed that 16 working groups had started work three weeks earlier) was told that the 75th anniversary celebrations were to be more modest than previous campaigns. Paying annual support to veterans (payments had hitherto been made only on jubilee anniversaries) and more effective cooperation with museums and the young was considered important. However, the correct interpretation of events in the war was also mentioned, mainly in connection with the production of the film epic Nuremberg.
Similar “correct interpretation” is also being sought in dealing with the Ukraine crisis. Thus, the Russian leadership and Kremlin propaganda have stuck to a literal interpretation of a particular event, proclaiming the results of the Verkhovna Rada’s vote of 22 February 2014 unconstitutional, counter-revolutionary and even a military coup.5 It is also worthy of note that Putin, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and others use these concepts in every possible and impossible case, and with a fierceness that inevitably leads one to think that the real reason for the incessant repetition may be the opposite of the one alleged.
What really happened on 22 February and how should it be interpreted? The confrontation that emerged in November 2013 had previously reached a point that promised to leave Ukrainian president Yanukovych—who had turned away from Europe towards Eurasia—out of a job, because even his own people turned their backs on him in the Verkhovna Rada. At a time when the government and opposition were ready to share power and were awaiting the arrival of an EU delegation and the Russian Special Presidential Representative to formalise it, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov unexpectedly warned about the danger of a coup in Ukraine on the television channel TV1 on 19 February. Reports (which had previously been heard from time to time) on the pro-Russian forces from the Crimea visiting Moscow to talk about joining Russia and a forthcoming meeting of pro-Moscow ambassadors at Kharkiv came a day later. The latter had occurred repeatedly in Ukraine in 1990–1 and most recently in 2004, when Yanukovych gathered his supporters after he lost his position when the Orange Revolution broke out.
On 21 February 2014 Yanukovych, three opposition leaders, and the Polish, French and German foreign ministers signed an agreement—in the presence of other top leaders, EU representatives and Russia’s Special Presidential Representative Vladimir Lukin (who was the only one not to sign the agreement)—to end the use of force, establish a joint government and hold new presidential elections by the end of the year. After the event, Yanukovych disappeared from the capital, allegedly heading for Kharkiv. This clearly signalled that the agreement could not be implemented, and a day later the Verkhovna Rada voted to remove the president from office after replacing the speaker. The Constitution did not provide for such an option, but revolutions have always given birth to their own laws. Of 447 members of parliament (three seats were vacant and up to 400 members were presumably present), 328 voted to remove Yanukovych, but no one counted the votes. According to the Constitution, the president could be dismissed with 75% of votes in favour, but in the event it was decided by 73%.
It is on this constitutional norm that Putin and others base their interpretation of these events. First, they are silent about the fact that there was an alternative authority, which included members of the Verkhovna Rada, at the other end of the country. Second, the decision to remove Yanukovych involved two stages, because new presidential elections were to be held on 25 May. As these elections were organised, most political experts believed that the these elections would resolve the controversy.
Russia’s categorical opposition to all this must be addressed by drawing attention to what happened in Kharkiv. The question is not only about what was declared on behalf of the 3,477 representatives (three times as many people were present at the meeting) of all administrative levels—from the Verkhovna Rada to local authorities—in south-east and southern Ukraine, including the Crimea and Sevastopol: that they did not recognise the authority of Kyiv and that they would begin to restore “constitutional order” in the country. It is also important that the heads of the foreign affairs committees of both chambers of the Russian State Duma, Alexei Pushkov and Mikhail Markelov, took part in the clearly separatist event. Leaders of neighbouring oblasts in Ukraine were also present.6 At this point, it is worth recalling the situation in the Baltic states in 1940, when the change of power in the three capitals was led by Andrei Zhdanov, of whose titles we usually do not mention the most important in the present case—he was chairman of the foreign affairs committee in one of the chambers of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, through which committee states wishing to join the USSR had to apply (as was standard procedure during the “accession” of West Ukraine and West Belarus in October 1939).
The following day (23 February), representatives of Sevastopol, who were in Kharkiv at time, went ahead with a change of power in their city. This was the result of a protest that started on the streets—the same pattern of overthrowing power was used three days later in Simferopol and in the following months in many cities in south-east and southern Ukraine. The fact that the meeting in Kharkiv took place a day before Defender of the Fatherland Day gave the Kremlin propaganda machine the opportunity to claim that there was a new Ukrainian front, which would free the country from the coup (Yanukovych initially claimed that his removal from office was also a coup).
A detail in the ongoing propaganda war that also deserves greater coverage is that Russia got caught lying about when it started the occupation and annexation of the Crimea. The reverse of the medal awarded for returning the Crimea (Russian: возвращение Крыма) created by the Russian defence ministry reads: “20 February–18 March 2014”, i.e. Russia’s aggression had already started while Yanukovych was still president. This begs the question: who broke international law first?7
The word “junta” in the Kremlin propaganda machine’s vocabulary also deserves discussion. This was, of course, borrowed from the days of the Spanish Civil War, when the Soviet Union and the Red Army were involved in the fight against the fascist junta under the name of the International Brigades. In fact, the latter can and must be considered the predecessors of today’s “little green men”. Since this foreign loan disappeared after the major battles in eastern Ukraine in the autumn, it might be assumed that the word was deliberately used to prevent Germany from taking offence about constant references to fascism and Nazism. Moreover, it should be recalled that in the Ukraine-Russia gas disputes of 2008–9, Germany pressured Ukraine as well as Russia.8 In other words, an ally or a partner (in the sense of Nord Stream 2) had to be spared in the propaganda war.
In fact, it could be gleaned from the coverage of the battles of 2014–15 that dozens of volunteers from different countries, who also formed national units (as in Spain from 1936 to 1939), fought on both sides. If we consider the recent news that one of the French “yellow vest” protesters fought in Afghanistan and the Donbas, as well as the fact that the notorious Russian motorcycle club called the Night Wolves (with whom Vladimir Putin has been associated since 2009 and whose leader also received a medal for returning the Crimea) have always tried to attract international members into their group, it is logical to conclude that both the international part of the Kremlin’s victory campaign and the campaign against Ukraine were thoroughly thought through in terms of keywords.
It can be assumed that the forthcoming fourth victory campaign will also offer surprising discoveries for Russia experts, confirming the high abilities of the opposing camp and the fact that it will stick to its established scheme.
2 Stepan Bandera (1909–59) was a Ukrainian nationalist who fought against the domination of Poland, the USSR and Germany. In Soviet times he was depicted as a Nazi criminal, in 2010 he was awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine.
4 Toomas Alatalu, “Les Russes ont-ils gagné la guerre tout seuls?”, 6 May 2016, Institut d’histoire sociale, Paris. http: //www .est-et-ouest.fr / chronique / 2016/160506. html
5 Katri Pynnöniemi and András Rácz (eds.), “Fog of Falsehood: Russian Strategy of Deception and the Conflict in Ukraine”. Finnish Institute of International Affairs Report 45, 5 October 2016.
7 www.profi-forex.org/novosti-rossii/entry1008208512.html .
8 Georgi Potšeptsov, Propaganda trummipõrin. Uus külm sõda ja infokonfliktid postsovetlikus ruumis (Drum Roll of Propaganda: The New Cold War and Information Conflicts in the Post-Soviet Space), Olion, 2009.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.