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How Putin used propaganda to deftly turn Russians against Ukrainians

A flag with a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin waves over the Moscow crowd during the Vesna (Spring) festival in March commemorating the Crimean annexation. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

How Putin used propaganda to deftly turn Russians against Ukrainians

A flag with a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin waves over the Moscow crowd during the Vesna (Spring) festival in March commemorating the Crimean annexation. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

Vladimir Putin’s decade-long media campaign turned Russians against Ukrainians and Ukraine itself before he annexed Crimea in 2014.

In my book Putin’s War Against Ukraine: Revolution, Nationalism, and Crime, I explore how Putin successfully fanned the flames of ethnic Russian nationalism, turning Russians against both the Ukrainian state and people.

Putin’s repeated claim that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” left no room for a Ukrainian identity other than that of “little Russians” in his Eurasian Union.

What’s more, his total control of the Russian media mobilized anti-Ukrainian hysteria among Russians in the decade leading up to the Kremlin’s 2014 aggression.

In contrast, Ukraine’s three presidents since the 2004 Orange Revolution failed to organize anti-Russian media campaigns. The divorce between Russia and Ukraine began with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, gaining momentum following the Orange Revolution, yet Ukrainians throughout this period didn’t hold negative views of Russians.

Only since Putin’s aggression in Crimea have Ukrainian attitudes turned against the Russian state and its leaders. And Ukrainian citizens — unlike Russians — distinguish between Russian leaders and state institutions (which the majority of them abhor, according to polls) and the Russian people, whom a majority of Ukrainians continue to view positively.

Divergent attitudes of Russians and Ukrainians towards each other are clearly visible in other opinion polls. During the last three years of President Viktor Yushchenko’s term, from 2008 to 2010, relations were tense following Russia’s invasion of Georgia.

‘Ukrainophobia’

Nonetheless, Ukraine’s foiled attempts to get into NATO, and an ongoing Russia-Ukraine gas crisis, did not result in a significant worsening of Ukrainian views of Russia in public opinion polls. In fact, between 88 and 93 per cent of Ukrainians held positive views of Russians, with only six to nine per cent espousing negative opinions.

In contrast, during the same period, the percentage of Russians holding positive views of Ukrainians plummeted from 55 to 34 per cent. Ukrainophobia in the Russian media peaked during the second half of 2009, when Ukraine expelled Russian diplomats for promoting separatism and Russian nationalist extremism. President Dmitri Medvedev responded with a threatening open letter to Yushchenko.

In 2010, with the election of the Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych, Russian attitudes toward Ukraine dramatically improved, doubling to a 70 per cent approval rating. Before he was ousted and fled to Russia, Yanukovych signed the Kharkiv Accords extending the Black Sea Fleet basing agreement to 2042, Ukraine adopted a ‘non-bloc’ foreign policy (since overturned) and changed its approach to national identity questions such as the Holodomor.

Ukrainian attitudes toward Russia were stable until 2013, with positive attitudes ranging from 65 per cent in the western portion of the country compared to 93 per cent in the east, closer to the Russian border. These figures belied allegations of a Russophobic western Ukraine — only 20 per cent of the public there held negative views of Russians.

Not surprisingly, attitudes changed after 2014. The annexation of Crimea was supported by 87 per cent of Russians and opposed by 69 per cent of Ukrainians. In Russia, both pro-Putin supporters and anti-Putin oppositionists, like Alexei Navalny and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, backed the annexation of Crimea. Seventy-nine per cent of Russians linked that action to the revival of Russia as a great power and a return to Russia’s rightful dominance of the former Soviet Union.

A protester holds a mock figure of President Vladimir Putin during a demonstration last September in front of the Russian Embassy, as Ukrainian servicemen and policemen stand guard, in Kiev, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Positive Russian attitudes toward Ukraine once again dramatically collapsed during the Euromaidan, a series of protests demanding closer ties to Europe. In Russia, those demonstrations were portrayed in massive state-sponsored information campaigns as a Western-backed coup bringing Russophobes and fascists to power. A recently released poll by Russia’s Levada Center shows that Russians think the most hostile countries are the United States, followed by Ukraine, Germany, Latvia and Lithuania.

Russians believe the official propaganda that there was a “democratic referendum” in Crimea, that Ukrainians shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, that there is a civil war in Ukraine and that there are no Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. Two-thirds of Ukrainians, but only a quarter of Russians, understand the conflict as a Russian-Ukrainian war.

Beginning in the spring of 2014, Ukrainian attitudes toward Russia begin to massively change — not because of any state-directed propaganda campaigns, but in response to Putin’s military aggression. By mid-2014, positive views of Russia had fallen to 52 per cent.

Iryna Bekeshkina of Democratic Initiatives has written that “for the majority of [Ukrainian] citizens, Russia has turned into an enemy.”

Putin’s aggression has even brought together Ukrainian and Russian speakers in Ukraine, uniting the views of eastern and southern Ukrainians closer to those of central Ukrainians.

Or as Beheskina put it: “In getting Crimea, Putin has lost Ukraine.”