Analysis

(3/3) Words made flesh – Russia, the West… and Ukraine

In the final instalment of this three-part series, Paul Hansbury argues that whilst Russia may be winning the propaganda battle, this may well lead to it losing the war.

One indicator of a state’s power is its ability to mobilise the masses.  Indeed, Russia has demonstrated a major strength in this respect; the Kremlin has very effectively mobilised public support to its arguments.  It is for this reason that it can be said to be winning the propaganda battle.  Russian leaders and commentators have criticised anti-Russian sentiment in the Western media, and they do have a point (much of the British media portrayed Russia as a backward state prior to the Sochi Games), but in the current climate this accusation is employed to deflect from any truths contained in the Western narrative.  This final instalment indicates why there may yet be a sting in the tail for Russia.

First, Russia couches its support for the anti-Kyiv protestors by making an identity claim.  Ukrainians are all-but-Russians anyway.  Since 1991 many in Russia have long denied any distinction between Russians and Ukrainians, and Putin recently publicly called Ukraine “an artificial state.”  Of course, but only in so far as ALL states are artificial.  The insistence that Ukrainians are Russia’s (Slavic) brothers is at the very least an assertion of similarity.  When the Russian people tire of rallying round the flag, as eventually they must (not least because of the financial burden), then there are good reasons to suspect that this claim will come back to haunt Putin.

The problem here is that those most similar to Russia present the most significant threat to the regime in Russia itself.  Claiming that Russians and Ukrainians are kin raises the stakes for Putin and his leadership, because if the Ukrainian people were to make a successful move against kleptocracy, arbitrary power, and embrace democratic government (the putative Western narrative), then there is no reason to doubt that the Russian people can do this too.  The only option for Putin would then be new campaigns to display his strength and build popularity.

Second, this is even more likely if we recognise that Russia is weakening.  The Russian state today is weaker than it was before the financial crisis despite Putin winning kudos for his position on Syria.  It would seem true to say that the 2008 Georgia War marked something of a Russian resurgence, but since then things have not gone so well and problems with the economy (including corruption) need concealing.

The street protests in Moscow at the beginning of Putin’s current term were small but significant.  Those who took part are unlikely to have suddenly decided that Putin’s Russia is nirvana after all.  The Russia-NATO narrative serves Putin’s interests because it is an argument about the international system: the rising power of Russia gives it a say over what happens.  The problem question here is that – and this is a crucial point for evaluation of the narrative – is Russia truly a rising power?

Finally, supporting armed seizures of power in Ukraine’s regions risks sending a message to the Russian population: that this is an appropriate means to attain power.  The distinction between central state power (in Kyiv or Moscow) and regional power centres must be emphasised.  Regional power seizures would be far harder for any state to protect itself against than a coup at state level, not least one the size of Russia which has several quasi-autonomous regions.  For the moment most of Russia’s regions are loyal to Putin, but that could quickly change.

The Russian “propaganda” at heart frames the disagreements between Russia and the West as a “who” question – who makes the rules in global politics?  This argument holds attraction for other non-Western state powers and if they were to offer Putin overt support this really could imperil the global order.  For this reason the West’s “propaganda” may well benefit from re-focusing the debate on the “what” question – what will govern societies in the 21st century?  In this way the West’s leaders will show the extent to which they are or are not open to the very same accusations they level against Russia.

This harks back to an old debate about the moral justification of “crusading” for democracy.  This, I submit, is a debate that needs re-visiting because it has been the core of the EU’s policy in the eastern neighbourhood.  The answer to the implicit question in that debate should help us consumers evaluate our propaganda with a little more discrimination, and it may compel us to put the Ukrainian people’s wishes back to the core of the debate.

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