Preaching to the Choir: The Crimea and Putin’s Domestic Audience
On February 28th, the Federal Council, Russia’s upper house, granted Vladimir Putin’s request to use military force in Ukraine. By that time, Russian troops stationed at the Black Sea Naval Base in Crimea had already left their garrisons and secured the area. Russian forces now effectively occupy the Crimea, which is a semi-autonomous and self-governing region of Ukraine with a majority ethnically Russian population.
In response, the U.K., France, the U.S. and Canada have announced that they are suspending their preparatory meetings for the G8 summit due to take place in Sochi this summer. On March 1st, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on the crisis in Ukraine. President Barack Obama has warned that Russia’s actions will have “costs.” As several academic and media sources have noted, Russia is potentially in violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which guaranteed the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine in exchange the country’s denuclearization. The official rational for military intervention used by the Kremlin and repeated at the UNSC meeting by Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin – namely, to protect “Russian citizens and compatriots” in Ukraine through the deployment of troops “on the territory of Ukraine” not “against Ukraine”– is vague and not in line with international laws such as the responsibility to protect (the R2P doctrine). The problem is that there is no clear way to punish Russia for an incursion into the Ukraine. An open military confrontation with European powers is unlikely, and Russia’s resource exports, like the natural gas it ships to Europe, make economic pressure ineffective in the short term. The prospects for a peaceful resolution that would leave Ukraine intact are grim. As President George W. Bush’s former deputy national security adviser, James F. Jeffrey, has said “There is nothing we can do to save Ukraine at this point.”
Putin’s actions seem, from the perspective of the West, to be a clear opportunistic land grab of a region that, despite its long association with Russia, held a referendum in 1993 to join the newly independent country of Ukraine. Putin’s exact geopolitical motivations are unclear. He may hope to use the Crimea as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the new Ukrainian government or simply be taking advantage of post-revolutionary chaos to lay claim to a long desired peninsula. Whatever the reason, this action effectively wastes any international goodwill generated as a result of the Sochi Winter Olympics. It doesn’t look good from the outside, but what does it look like from the inside?
It is worth noting at the onset that not all Russians support war with Ukraine. This weekend saw anti-war protests in Moscow and other Russian cities. Russian users of Twitter even developed a new hash tag, #НетВойны or #NoWar, which is being used by activists and politicians to rally support for Ukraine and the EuroMaidan movement. Nevertheless, there is considerable support for Putin’s actions among the Russian population. According to a February survey carried out by the Moscow-based, non-governmental researcher, the Levada Center, only 16% of respondents sympathized with the protesters on the Maidan while 36% were outraged by their actions. Furthermore, 43% of respondents characterized what was happening in Kiev as a “coup” against the elected government and 45% thought that the protests were a result of “Western influence”.
Putin is playing to his domestic audience and the state-controlled media is helping him craft the message. As I have pointed out before, state-controlled media, especially television, is an important element in Russia’s competitive authoritarian regime. Although the Russian media, and its role in promoting regime candidates, is a favorite topic of discussion among academics and analysts during election time, it has recently gained attention for its coverage of the events taking place in Ukraine. So what are the Russian people hearing?
First, Russians are being told that ethnic Russians or Russian speakers in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine are fearful for their safety. Media reports have quoted a claim made by the deputy speaker of the Federal Council that as many as 143,000 refugees from Ukraine have arrived in the Belgorodsky region of Russia. Second, Russians are hearing that Russian language and culture are being attacked throughout Ukraine; the Russian language, spoken by many in Southeastern Ukraine has lost its official status and many statues of Lenin as well as monuments to WWII soldiers have been toppled or vandalized in cities around the country. Russians are also hearing that the citizens or Crimea and other regions in the Southeast are either welcoming Russian troops or calling for Russian intervention. Just today, the chief of the Ukrainian navy surrendered the Sevastopol headquarters after defecting to Crimea and siding with the pro-Russian leader there. Finally, and most importantly, Russian people are hearing that not only did the new government in Kiev come to power as the result of a coup, but that the coup was supported by right-wing nationalists and fascists. Rhetoric about the threat of fascism appeals to the mythology that exists in Russia surrounding the liberation of Ukraine and WWII. In this context, the Crimea is especially symbolically important given that the port of Sevastopol was retaken in 1944 from the Nazis by the Soviet Army at great cost. Along with these messages, Russians are also hearing their top politicians proclaim: “Russians and Ukrainians are one nation.”
None of this justifies Putin’s actions. But it explains how the message about Ukraine is being manipulated for the domestic audience. It is worth noting that a similar framing was happening in the lead up to the six day armed confrontation with Georgia in 2008. More recently, Western concerns about the role of anti-gay laws at the Sochi Olympics were reframed in Russia as unfair criticism of a highly touted international event. Now warnings by the UN, American, Canadian, British and French about the crisis in Crimea are being similarly twisted by the Russian media into a message of European and Western aggression in an area of the world that Russia considers to be within its immediate influence. While what the West says about Ukraine certainly matters, for Putin, what Russians hear about Ukraine matters even more.