Democracy Lab

Imagining Invasion on Vladimir Putin's Doorstep

Life was already hard enough for Ukrainians. But now they also have to worry about a Russian army on the march.

ODESSA, Ukraine — On the night of April 12, inhabitants of this Black Sea city discovered that they had something in common: They couldn't sleep. Facebook, the most popular form of social media in Ukraine, was swamped by an unusual late-night surge of anxious commentary: Was Russia about to invade?

Earlier in the day, pro-Russian gunmen had stepped up their efforts to assert control over key locations in the country's East. Ukrainian TV aired dramatic footage of 20 masked, uniformed militants assaulting a police station in the small town of Kramatorsk. In Donetsk and Luhansk, other heavily armed men tightened their hold on other government buildings, repeating their demands for regional independence and holding referenda on the possibility of accession to Russia.

Early Sunday morning, it emerged that at least one Ukrainian officer had been killed and five others wounded during an attempt to recapture official buildings held by the gunmen in the small town of Slovyansk. That was the first reported bloodshed in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainians held their collective breath. The challenge to the post-revolutionary administration in Kiev was clear: A failure to respond firmly to the militias would undermine the authority of the government, but confronting them with force could also cause casualties that could be used by the Kremlin as a pretext to unleash the 40,000 troops it has massed on the border.

Most of the Ukrainians who self-identify as "Russians" or "Russian-speakers" live in the country's three eastern provinces -- which is presumably why it's those areas that have been targeted by the gunmen. But there's another part of Ukraine that has also been mentioned as the target of a possible Russian intervention: Odessa.

Capturing the city would rob Ukraine of its last remaining access to the sea and also enable Russian President Vladimir Putin to establish a corridor connecting Russia with the breakaway region of Transnistria in the Republic of Moldova on Ukraine's western border. (Transnistria is populated mostly by Russians and Ukrainians who mourn the collapse of the Soviet Union and who have repeatedly declared their desire for Crimea-style union with Russia.)

There are, undoubtedly, many Odessans who might welcome rule from Moscow. One hears little Ukrainian spoken on the streets; it's estimated that about 90 percent of the 1 million people inhabitants of the city prefer to use Russian in their daily lives. Politically, though, Odessa is sharply divided between those who applaud annexation by Russia and those who remain loyal to the goals of the Euromaidan revolution that toppled the government of President Viktor Yanukovych. (The image above shows pro-Euromaidan demonstrators gathering around an Odessa monument on March 30.) The two groups have been staging competing demonstrations over the past few weeks, sometimes clashing with each other -- as they did on April 10, when members of the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector blockaded a visiting pro-Russian politician in his hotel, and were surrounded in turn by his supporters. (The confrontation was ultimately defused without bloodshed.)

Yet despite the differences in opinion, it's hard to find anyone in Odessa who welcomes the possibility that Russian forces might invade. "I'm afraid of war," says Alina Savchenko, a 25-year-old teacher, who notes that her family has members in both Russia and Ukraine. "I live here. I don't want to see any conflicts among my relatives." She can think of little positive to say about the revolutionary government in Kiev, but says that she would prefer to see Ukrainians solve their own problems "without interference from the outside, whether it be from Europe or Russia." Poll figures suggest that Savchenko speaks for the mainstream. Recent surveys in eastern Ukraine have found that even there only a tiny minority -- from 4 to 4.7 percent -- want to break away from the country.

Many Odessans seem overwhelmed by the pace and intensity of change over the past few months. Ukraine's currency, the hryvnia, has lost 35 percent of its value since the start of the year, resulting in higher prices for many foodstuffs and imported goods. Gasoline and utility prices have also surged. Odessans worry that the all-important summer tourism season, the basis for many livelihoods, is already being undermined by the talk of war.

Meanwhile, the evening news bombards viewers with reporting on the frantic international diplomatic efforts to address the crisis, images of military mobilization on both sides of the border, and coverage of the political jockeying leading up to next month's scheduled presidential election. (No matter the network, the upper left hand corner of every TV screen currently bears a small Ukrainian flag and the hopeful slogan "The Country is One.") Just to add to the sense of general disorientation, Odessa has now become the homeport of the Ukrainian navy's flagship, the Hetman Sahaidachny, one of the very few vessels in the fleet that wasn't captured by the Russians when they took over Crimea.

Boris Hersonsky, an Odessan poet and political analyst, believes that Putin doesn't actually want to invade Ukraine. The costs of such a move, he says, would simply be too high -- in treasure as well as blood, given that Moscow would suddenly find itself supporting the heavily subsidized economy of Ukraine's eastern industrial region. He believes that it's in Putin's interest to keep Ukraine weak and off balance, fomenting instability that can then be exploited as the Russian leader sees fit.

Hersonsky admits, though, that the possibility of an invasion can't be ruled out altogether -- and he says that the prospect fills him with dread, even despite his strong emotional attachment to the Russian language. For all of Ukraine's problems, Hersonsky says, he wouldn't want to exchange Ukraine for Russia: "Ukraine's contradictions are still better than Russia's complete lack of contradictions." He and his friends cite a bit of black humor that extends the comparison between Putin's authoritarian Russian and the dysfunctional but relatively democratic Ukraine: "The pro-Russian forces are staging rallies in favor of a referendum so that they can join a country in which there are no referendums."

Zoya Kazanzhi, a journalist and Maidan supporter, says that the loss of Crimea prompted her and her husband to start talking about what they'd do if Putin decides to gobble up Odessa as well: "We've already discussed it," she says. "We'd leave." The idea is especially painful, since they've just witnessed the fate of a number of Ukrainian journalists who have sought refuge in Odessa after fleeing the Russians in Crimea, leaving everything behind. But Kazanzhi has already made up her mind: "We wouldn't want to live here if it becomes part of Russia."

For the moment, all Odessans can do is wait -- and go about living their lives amid a growing sense that their fate will be decided, not by them or their own government, but by one small man in an office in faraway Moscow. It seems profoundly odd that millions of Europeans should find themselves facing a situation like this in the second decade of the 21st century. Like it or not, that's where we are.


Democracy Lab

War of Words

The European Union has leveled sanctions against Russia's chief propagandist. Is this the right way to fight back against Putin's information monopoly?

The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on dozens of high-ranking Russians in retaliation for Moscow's seizure and annexation of Crimea. The idea, of course, is that imposing asset freezes and visa bans on these individuals will make them think twice when contemplating, say, further military moves against the rest of Ukraine. Both the Americans and the Europeans have chosen to target the same sorts of people: government officials, lawmakers, and prominent businesspeople with close associations to Vladimir Putin.

But there's one man on the list announced by the European Union on March 21 who stands in a class of his own -- and not necessarily in a good way. His name is Dmitri Kiselyov. He heads the state news agency Russia Today as well as serving as the deputy director of the national TV company. But he's best known for his most public function as the host of News of the Week, a general current-affairs show broadcast each Sunday evening on the country's most-widely watched TV channel.

So why has the EU decided to go after a man described by his Wikipedia page primarily as a "Russian journalist"? And is the decision really such a good idea?

Well, first off, calling him a journalist is like describing Kim Kardashian as an actress. Kiselyov is notorious for his incendiary TV appearances. In one broadcast, he infamously declared that gay people should be prohibited from "donating blood or sperm," and the hearts of gays who die in traffic accidents "should be buried or burned as unfit for extending anyone's life." He's compared Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to Adolf Hitler. He's described the pro-European demonstrations in Kiev that led to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych to his viewers as a "war against Russia," and accused Sweden and Poland of manipulating events there in order to avenge Moscow's 1709 victory in the Battle of Poltava. Just a few weeks ago, after the U.S. government issued a statement condemning plans for the Crimean referendum, Kiselyov told his viewers that "Russia is the only country in the world that is realistically capable of turning the U.S. into radioactive ash." (The corresponding segment of his show is shown in the photo above.)

Some American commentators have tried to help their readers understand Kiselyov with comparisons to our world of tabloid TV, likening him to right-wing host Glenn Beck or his shows to segments on Fox News. That's actually quite misleading. No news channel in the United States has anything like the reach or the unchallenged authority of Russia's Channel One, which is accessible to over 90 percent of Russia's 144 million people, most of whom get their news from just two or three of the big state-owned national broadcasters.

In stark contrast to the rabidly libertarian Beck, moreover, Kiselyov is directly employed by the Russian state. He's a bureaucrat who wields all the power and pull that comes with being appointed to a job directly by Vladimir Putin. As a result, it's really impossible to compare him with any journalist or media administrator in the United States, where the media belong to a fairly wide range of private players. In Russia, even the private media are in the hands are overwhelmingly owned by Putin-friendly oligarchs.

And there's no question that Putin himself goes to great effort to ensure that all Russian media, public or private, convey precisely the messages he wants. For all of Glenn Beck's baleful influence, the American media are filled with competitors who can challenge, mock, or correct him at their leisure. In Russia's tame information universe, Kiselyov's opponents have long since been banished to the margins.

That Kiselyov plays a central role in this carefully calibrated propaganda machine is beyond dispute -- and it is a role has been on vivid display throughout the crisis in Ukraine. He has used his own shows, as well as the various media under his control (including the Voice of Russia radio station and the assets of the former RIA Novosti news agency), to hammer away at the same narratives persistently advanced by the Russian government: that the pro-Europe protesters in Kiev's central square consisted above all of "fascists" and "Nazis" involved in an "illegal coup" to overthrow Yanukovych, thus legitimizing the desire of Crimeans to seek "protection" from Mother Russia. All this is why the European sanction list specifically describes Kiselyov as "a central figure of the government propaganda supporting the deployment of Russian forces in the Ukraine."

Sergei Parkhomenko fully agrees with that characterization. Parkhomenko, a journalist and opposition leader recently singled out by Kiselyov as a member of a traitorous "fifth column" inside Russia, put it to me this way: "The sanctions are targeting the organizers of propaganda in Russia, not journalists. I absolutely do not consider Kiselyov to be a journalist. He's the director of a huge propaganda structure that has nothing in common with journalism. And I think it's the activities of this propaganda machine that have enabled Russia's aggression against Ukraine." Russians who see it the same way have posted an online petition [in Russian] demanding Kiselyov's ouster.

Joel Simon, of the Committee to Project Journalists in New York City, agrees with the characterizaation. Kiselyov, he says, is a "noxious and destructive force in Russian society," especially in light of Putin's continuing crackdown on the country's few remaining independent media. Yet Simon says that the European decision to include Kiselyov in its sanctions list nonetheless sets an ominous precedent. "I'm not comfortable when governments weigh in and say 'you're a journalist' and 'you're not.' It's a slippery slope. You don't want governments involved in that discussion."

All governments, Simon says, can be tempted to classify foreign media that take critical positions as propaganda -- and that can lead to dangerous consequences, especially when such classifications are used as the basis for military action. (For just these reasons, Simon notes, his organization -- which routinely assails autocratic governments for their treatment of the press -- has criticized NATO for targeting Qaddafi's media during the Libyan revolution and Israel for its attacks on media organizations in the Gaza Strip.)

The sanctions imposed on Kiselyov hardly represent a comparable threat, of course: at the worst, as things stand now, he won't be making any trips to his beloved Amsterdam anytime soon. But he hasn't let that stop him from turning the whole affair into a propaganda coup on Russian TV. No sooner was the EU list published than he took to the airwaves for a bitter denunciation of what he called "an open attack on freedom of speech." The audience greeted his words with enthusiastic applause. True to form, Kiselyov then proceeded to accuse leaders of Russia's domestic opposition of helping foreign embassies to draw up the lists of those who deserve to be sanctioned.

Meanwhile, Kiselyov supporters have drawn up a petition [in Rs.] defending him and accusing the Europeans of attempting to impose censorship on their political opponents. It's only too easy for the authors of the text to make the EU look like a bunch of hypocrites: "Are certain topics now forbidden in Europe?" "Does the European Union have the right to punish any journalist for his professional work?" "Is a journalist's personal opinion now punishable?"

One might respond that journalists who work solely for an authoritarian government (and who implicitly help that government marginalize dissenting views) aren't exactly being targeted for their "personal opinions." All governments generally impose strict constraints on the private views expressed by their employees, and such constraints are hardly compatible with "journalism" in the modern sense of the word.

But here's Simon again: "I'm comfortable with you and me making that distinction. I'm not comfortable with governments making that distinction." I think he's on to something here. If the aim is to make Putin think twice about snatching Crimea, causing economic pain for the oligarchs and corrupt officials in his entourage seems like a logical strategy. Targeting Kiselyov, however, just gives him extra material, and the chance to pose as a martyr.

The best way to counter propaganda is by providing access to the truth. The West needs to dramatically boost its efforts to challenge Putin's hegemony by providing alternate sources of information, whether by radio, TV, or internet. I suspect that there are plenty of Russians who are open to other messages -- just take the big demonstration in Moscow last month, when tens of thousands protested the possibility of war in Ukraine. We in the West always say that we believe in the freedom of information. Let's act like it.