Russia wins "hearts and minds" as information war rages over Crimea

By bne IntelliNews March 6, 2014

Graham Stack in Sevastopol -

Citizens of Sevastopol and Crimea believe the West and Ukraine are conspiring against them - and only Russia can help.

"We are peaceful demonstrators," says pensioner Aleksandr Ivanov, 60, "we're not throwing Molotov cocktails or stones, this is not Maidan," he says, referring to the square in Kyiv that was the epicentre of the recent pro-EU protests. "Why do western journalists not give a true picture of how things are here? We want peace, we don't want Banderovtsy [catch-all term for West Ukrainian nationalist activists with alleged fascist ideology] here. We don't want the USA here. We want Russia."

45-year-old hotel owner Mariana Savina is equally upset. "What gives the Banderovtsy the right to seize power - with foreign backing, mark my words - but for us not to do the same here?"

"It is good that the Russians have come, who else is going to keep order here?" asks Aleksei Bulatov, 52, a former aviation engineer. "This has been a long time coming and is long overdue."

And 24-year-old lawyer Ivan Gorshkov: "I would consider it only natural if Sevastopol, and the entire Crimea, would now return to Russia. Ukraine has failed as a state in its current borders. The new government is illegitimate, no one knows where they came from, but everyone knows who put them there. It's time for Crimea reloaded."

Clash of ideologies

Inhabitants of the peninsula of Crimea and in particular its largest city Sevastopol, home to Russia's Black Sea fleet, may have reason to be aggrieved with Ukraine's restrictive language policy, which foresees official communication and state education in the only state language, Ukrainian: the peninsula as whole is predominantly Russian speaking, In Sevastopol, just under 75% of the population identify themselves as ethnic Russian.

Unfortunately, one of the very first acts of the new parliamentary majority in Kyiv on February 28 was to repeal a 2012 language law that had strengthened Russian language rights. "This repeal was the last drop," said Aleksandr Mantyuk, 30, unemployed. Ukrainian acting President Oleksandr Turchinov has since vetoed the repeal of the law, but that cuts no ice here.

More fundamentally, behind the language clash there is a clash of ideologies. Patriotic Ukrainians revere the memory of nationalist organisations of the 1930-1950s, and their leader Stepan Bandera and his 'Banderovtsy' followers. But Bandera remains anathema across most of Crimea, where he is regarded as a henchman of the Nazis. Many shudder on hearing Kyiv protestors acclaim him with shouts of "Glory to the heroes". In Sevastopol, on every street corner there are memorials to the naval port's role in the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany. Residents readily tell of their grandparents who fought and often fell in the war, and parents who grew up during it.

During the 22 years of Ukraine's independence, Crimean discontent at "waking up in a foreign country" after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 never grew into support for open revolt. However, the Euromaidan protests, sparked when ousted president Viktor Yanukovych welshed on a deal to bring Ukraine closer to the EU, have flipped a switch in the minds of ethnic Russian, changing discontent into a strongly structured ideology.

From a western perspective it may seem bizarre, but in the pro-Russian discourse memories of the Nazi occupation blend effortlessly into resentment of perceived Nato designs on the strategically important Black Sea peninsula. With the West now seen as backing a "fascist putsch" in Kyiv, for many here the difference between NATO and the Nazis is splitting hairs.

Hearts and minds

The crucial ingredient equating the Euromaidan protests with fascism, and by extension the West with the Nazis, has been Russian domination of public discourse in the city, say media specialists. In particular, leading Russian news anchorman Dmitry Kiselev has become notorious for his distorted reporting on the protests in Kyiv.

"The information war in Crimea has already been lost. While we were busy campaigning in Kyiv, others were taking care of the 'right' propaganda on the peninsula," Sevgil Musaeva, a prominent Kyiv-based journalist from Crimea, tells bne. "The leading Ukrainian TV channel Inter has for the last six weeks been reporting on radicals, and RTR Planeta [the leading Russian international channel] has led the way with the Kiselev-madness. And now imagine that all this time in Crimean public transport they showed recurrent clips of 'Banderovtsy' and fascists in Kyiv."

Tatiana Rikhtun, head of local western-supported journalism NGO IRS Media Centre, explains the anti-western world view has come here from Russia. "It did not use to be like this here... The media sphere is very controlled," says Rikhtun. "Local television is almost entirely in the hands of the current Russian-backed authorities. Most of the population watch the Russian state-controlled TV channels."

"The propaganda coming from Russia - epitomised by Dmitry Kiselev - is very well done technically, it looks good and is exciting to watch. It plays on all the traditional sore spots - from the Great Fatherland War, to the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine by Kruschev in 1954, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the expansion of Nato. People buy it."

A tapped phone call, leaked onto the internet on March 5, in which EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and the Estonian foreign affairs minister discuss allegations that the snipers who shot and killed protesters and police in Kyiv in February were hired by elements within the Maidan protests will no doubt get a huge amount of airplay on the pro-Russian propaganda machine.

A leaf out of the West's book

It's not just media, though. Russia has taken a leaf out of the West's books and poured money into funding pro-Russian NGOs in Sevastopol, which far outnumber their Western counterparts here. "Russia has been supporting a large number of NGOs in Sevastopol, which together create a powerful pro-Russian movement," Rikhtun says. "My organisation receives western grants, but we submit international and Ukrainian audits for all the funds we receive. In contrast, the pro-Russia NGOs receive bundles of cash in large quantities."

These NGOs now appear to be a driving force behind large city-centre demos and round-the-clock pickets of Ukrainian military bases. Activists from Russian-sponsored NGOs are not the same as the sullen and silent bussed-in attendees of pro-Yanukovych demonstrations in Kyiv. At pro-Russia demos in Crimea, activists actively, and sometimes even eloquently, propagate pro-Russian views and confront western journalists. At the same time, they operate hand-in-hand with incognito Russian troops, whom they call their "self-defence units".

The internet doesn't compensate for the double whammy of slanted TV coverage and Russian NGO activity: Russian social networks such as Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki are far more popular in Crimea than Facebook, one of the main platforms for the Euromaidan movement. As a result, there has been segregation of pro-western from pro-Russian users, and the Russian networks have acted as multiplicators of support for Russia.

Rumour does the rest, says Musaeva. "In the cities 'word of mouth' is at work. People tell how they travelled in the train with people from Lviv, who in the morning gave Nazi salutes," says Musaeva. "People are genuinely scared of the 'Banderovtsy' - and I quote verbatim - that they will arrive and occupy their homes. It's difficult to believe all of this in the 21st century but this is the reality."

According to Musaeva, only the Crimean Tatars, who constitute around 12% of the Crimean populations, have proved immune to Russian propaganda, due to historical experience of deportation by Soviet dictator Stalin in 1944.

All this makes the pro-Russian discourse strong and compelling locally - so that even those who do not buy it keep their voices down. "There is no good arguing with them," says Eva Khilmanova, a video journalist from Moscow, based in Sevastopol. "They have an answer to everything. The internet doesn't help either, since they only use resources that support their views. They can tell you in the same breath that they are against fascism, and that the Euromaidan is an anti-Russian Gay-Jewish conspiracy. There's a siege mentality."

Dark side of Crimea

There is also a growing dark side to the information war in Sevastopol and Crimea. When Rikhtun filmed a pro-Russian demonstration at the gates of the Ukraine naval headquarters in the evening of March 3, she was struck over the head by pro-Russian activists, and her camera was taken from her. One hour earlier a bne reporter was also attacked and had a camera phone taken and broken, after recording how activists accosted and beat a man who disagreed with them.

Exemplifying the news control in the city, a leading Sevastopol online news portal almost immediately posted a different version of events. Under the title, "The information war continues," the site reported: "We are already used to provocations from western journalists, which is why they are chased from our meetings. But like rats they crawl out of cracks to prove 'military aggression by Russia'." The site also insinuated that Rikhtun's beating was staged.

Colourful Kyiv liberal and former MP Gennady Balashov expressed alternative opinions to a small pro-Russian meeting on a central square in Sevastopol on March 4. Self-appointed vigilantes quickly hustled him away, and later hit him and knocked a camera off one of his assistants, according to online videos and eyewitness accounts. According to posts by acquaintances on his Facebook timeline, Balashov was detained by police in the Crimean capital Simferopol on March 5, beaten and a bag placed over his head, before being released.

These events do not bode well for the future governance of Crimea, should power remain with the current Russia-allied authorities. And perhaps a majority of Sevastopol residents believe that precisely this will be the case. "There is no going back," says lawyer Ivan Gorshkov , "Sevastopol will never again come under Ukrainian control."

Russia wins

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