Why wasn’t Crimea on the mental map of Ukraine until 2014? Under what conditions will he return to its native Ukrainian harbor? What should be the communication with the inhabitants of the occupied peninsula now? Where do we find guidelines to fight disinformation?
Find out this and more in an exclusive interview of famous Ukrainian publicist, a former resident of Crimea who moved to Kyiv in 2014 after the peninsula’s occupation, winner of the 2020 Georgiy Gongadze prize – Pavlo Kazarin for the Center for Strategic Communication.
- We often hear something like “What would our foreign partners say?” And before, the popular question was “What will Russia say?” How long are we going to check in with someone?
- We actually don’t need to think about whether Ukraine’s domestic policies make the lives of Russian propagandists easier or harder. The experience of the last 8 years proves that Russia loves inventing stories about Ukraine. I remember how in 2016, if I'm not mistaken, the head of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev gave an interview to "Kommersant" and said, among other things, that we supposedly all remember how Madeleine Albright (former US Secretary of State) urged to take Siberia and the Far East away from Russia. We started checking it, and it turned out to be a fake which appeared back in 2006 when Rossiyskaya Gazeta (a print outlet of the Russian State Duma) published an interview with the former Federal Security Service General, Boris Ratnikov. Among other things, he said at the time that there were allegedly special units of psychics in the KGB, whose task was to connect to the subconscious of Western politicians. And in Madeleine Albright's subconscious, they learned about her plans to take Siberia and the Far East from Russia. And 10 years later, this absolutely tabloid-quality fake somehow emerged in the mind of an entire general, a person involved in decision-making on the use of nuclear weapons.
In this context, the experience of recent years proves that if Russia does not get the stories it needs, it readily comes up with stories. And every time we are urged not to do something that makes life easier for Russian propaganda, we must understand that it will always be able to use anything, even stories that are completely made up.
- There was recently a lively discussion in our media space about how a famous Ukrainian journalist shooting a cannon is different from an infamous Russian actor who fires a machine gun while sporting a Press vest, in terms of propaganda. À la guerre comme à la guerre? Even when it’s a hybrid war?
- It would be incorrect to compare the video involving Yurii Butusov with that showing Mikhail Porechenkov because the latter violated the border and arrived in the territories occupied by his country’s troops. And there, he took up a weapon and fired at the positions of the Ukrainian Army. This is one case. From Butusov’s video, it is unclear where he is, at the frontline or at a military training site. Still, I believe he did a very reckless thing.
We know that in 2015-2017, when journalists and volunteers would come to the positions of the Ukrainian military, they were sometimes allowed to try their hand at weapons, because it was the only way the military could thank them. There is something else that scares me – the fact that in Ukraine, the “Butusov case” may be used to restrict access of volunteers to the front line or journalists – to frontline positions.
I just wish that this case doesn’t harm the synergy of the Ukrainian military with Ukrainian volunteers and journalists. Therefore, if I were Butusov, I wouldn’t have posted such a video.
- At its peak, the so-called Crimea consensus reached 86%. When Crimea returns to its native Ukrainian harbor, what is going to happen to this “consensus”? Will Russians just let this go, as they did with the “reset” of the presidential term?
- I think Ukrainian flags will only return to the territory of the peninsula in the event of tectonic shifts. It’s like in the 1980s, when to the question of “what should happen for Lithuania to restore its independence?” the only answer was “a collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Similarly, in order for Russia to renounce its encroachments on the Ukrainian peninsula, tectonic changes are needed in Russia itself, in the circumstances of its daily life, including very significant rotations in its political elites. We can hardly imagine the scope of these shifts and changes. Or it’s when the window of opportunity for Ukrainian flags to return to the Crimea will open. The scale of these shifts will be so large that at that time, any talks about the "Crimea consensus," about the attitudes on the peninsula, the attitudes of the people who elect the president in Russia, and their priorities will be completely irrelevant. This may be a situation like another 1991, when centrifugal tendencies will dominate over centralizing ones in Russia.
- So it’s basically, when, say, Yakutia will claim they can live a better life off its diamonds rather than they do now, with Moscow at the helm, and Russians will no longer care about Crimea?
- The thing is, to open up a window of opportunity for Ukrainian flags to come back to Crimea, we need such large transformations and turbulence to occur in Russia itself that all our current observations will be irrelevant at that moment.
Imagine that the year is 1984, and we are discussing whether there will be a window of opportunity for Ukraine to become an independent state. At that time, there were no grounds for such predictions, nor any basis on which we could rely. This basis only emerged in five to six years, in 1989–1991.
The situation is the same with Crimea. When the window of opportunity opens, Russian citizens, and possibly residents of the Crimean Peninsula, will have entirely different attitudes and priorities. Perhaps, they will be focusing too much on the lower tier of the Maslow pyramid, something connected with survival, security, food, and these things will be such a priority at that moment that they will accept any institutional player who will be able to satisfy their needs. If it is Ukraine, perhaps they will applaud the return of our flags.
- So, we are talking about the fridge winning over?
- Not necessarily the fridge, but perhaps warmth, safety, heating, electricity, etc. In the current conditions, when nothing is happening in Russia that calls into question its institutional stability, there will be no window of opportunity for the return of Ukrainian flags to the territory of Crimea. And when it appears, it will be a thoroughly different Russia, a completely different world, different conditions. And it is difficult to say whether we will even mention the same "Crimean consensus" at that moment. In any case, if we want the Ukrainian flags to ever return to the territory of the peninsula, we just need to grow muscles, ensure our agency, develop our own strategy, and work out scenarios. In that case, we will be proactively involved rather than leave it to somebody else to have agency.
- By the way, how do you feel about the phrase of the famous Russian opposition politician that “Crimea is not a sandwich to be handed over back and forth”? Apparently, Navalny is apparently no harbinger of that tectonic shift we were talking about, but such an attitude is out there...
- After the annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin put the Russian opposition between a rock and a hard place: if you say that Crimea is Russian, you will most likely be, to put it mildly, misunderstood in the West.
And if you say that Crimea should be returned to Ukraine, you will never be able to claim any votes in Russia. So, every politician made their own choice. Some focused on values, saying that Crimea is occupied, but that meant consciously giving up on any electoral prospects in Russia.
At that time, Alexei Navalny probably hoped he had some opportunities to compete for the people's love in Russia. So, he made a different choice to make sure this political plane remains available to him. But now, his political career in Russia is over. As long as Vladimir Putin, not even the very person but rather Putin as an idea, continues to lead Russia, there is no place for Navalny in this political solitaire. His only opportunity would come in the same conditions that would create a window of opportunity for returning Crimea to Ukraine. That means global tectonic shifts, turbulence, and perhaps even chaos.
- The problem is that the idea of Putin will remain, and there is no “idea of Navalny” in Russia yet...
- Perhaps, Navalny does want to take the same journey as some high-profile dissidents, who had long been main enemies of the regime. And then, in the end, under certain circumstances, they were able to make it to the top of politics. But whether this forecast will be justified for Russia, we'll see later.
- Until 2014, wasn’t Crimea for the rest of Ukraine indeed a distant peninsula that was only remembered during summer seasons?
- There are political maps, and then there are mental maps. There are various cities and regions on the Ukrainian mental map: Kyiv as capital, ancient Chernihiv, Lviv as a political assembly site, Poltava as the Motherland of the Ukrainian literary language... The list can go on, but I believe that Crimea was barely reflected on the Ukrainian mental map. It was only there as a vague sketch.
How did “mainland” Ukrainians see Crimea? A Russian-speaking region where you could travel for a few weeks in summer. At the same time, Crimea was included in the Russian mental map as part of Russia’s grand imperial myth, as a summer residence of Russian tzars, poets, and writers, as a region with two hero cities, Kerch and Sevastopol, with their “heroic defense” stories. And when your mental map is smaller than the political one, it means you stop paying attention to a region – in particular, political attention.
This was actually the case before 2014, when Kyiv was ready to accept that Crimea is a sort of a Soviet electoral reserve, so it was left out for pro-Russian forces such as the Party of Regions and the Communist Party to use it as they pleased.
- This is also a kind of a Crimea consensus…
- Unfortunately, it is. There have even been no attempts to fight for Crimea. And when the mental map is larger than the political one, as it is in Russia with its imperial phantom pains, it provokes a demand for seizing new territories, a political presence in regions belonging to other countries. That is why Russia's presence on the peninsula was very significant and tangible.
They invested not only in their political projects, but also in some humanitarian ones: in Sevastopol, Russian money paid for new homes built in the city, while scientific conferences were held based on the values of the "Russian World" concept. This is an important lesson that we need to remember and never allow to happen again: for a region to feel isolated and discarded. That’s what just mustn’t happen again. The experience of Crimea has taught us what this may lead to.
Thirty years into the return of Crimean Tatars from regions they’d been deported to, they took a long journey to assert their place in the peninsula only to see it being captured by the aggressor power. Don't you think that another political nation is being forged now (given the large number of political prisoners, living symbols of resistance, such as Mustafa Dzhemilev)? And neither Ukraine nor Russia can predict what this may result in...
There are several issues we can bring up in this context. When Crimean Tatars returned at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s, they had to seize land plots as they saw no interest on behalf of local authorities to address their urgent needs. In particular, they were not provided land so they were forced to build their homes on unregistered plots as the authorities never accommodated them. In addition, the authorities were often very Tatar-phobic, which is a separate case.
And yes, this is a separate nation, one of the indigenous peoples of Ukraine. They have their own tragic experience in the 20th century, which doomed them in particular to creating their own national movement and becoming the most anti-Soviet group in the most pro-Soviet region of Ukraine. Crimean Tatars have always been a separate nation with their own cultural and religious features and experience of horizontal cohesion. This experience allowed them to survive despite the indifference of Kyiv authorities and the hostility of local officials in Simferopol – from 1991 to 2014. And now, the experience of developed horizontal ties makes them the only entity in the occupied Crimea that Russia is trying to oppress. They are a separate nation, and it is clear that they have been valid political actors, long before 2014.
- Recently, Turkish President Erdoğan said he was ready to mediate in the talks between Russia and Ukraine. Why would he need this? Can a Turkey card be played in these tectonic shifts?
- Turkey undoubtedly sees itself as a powerful regional force with serious ambitions. And Ankara probably also has its own idea of the "Turkish world," its borders, and how it wants to influence this world. And the fact that this player seeks, in particular, to play an increasing role in the region, namely to offer their services within diplomatic platforms, makes a lot of sense. And the fact that Russia has turned down the offer makes sense as well. See, if Moscow agreed to diplomatic moderation on the part of Ankara, Russia would recognize itself as party to the conflict, something they’ve repeatedly denied since 2014. That is why they refuse any mediation offers.
- What is your idea of communication with the residents of the occupied Crimea now? We even speak different languages...
- First, communication with Crimea residents should definitely be in Russian. No matter what anyone says, it's a matter of efficiency. Secondly, it should be understood that in both the occupied Donbas and the occupied peninsula, Russia has created its own information monopoly, banning all other resources, alternative views, and even those Russian media outlets that at least tried to play by the rules of their profession. Now, we can supply the bare minimum of necessary information to the peninsula, but we need to formulate the strategy and objectives we seek to achieve. If we don’t know to which port we are sailing, no wind is favorable.
I sometimes get the feeling that Ukraine has no state strategy of its own, and that is why information holes are patched up, for example, by Radio Svoboda projects such as Krym. Realii or Donbas. Realii...
- There was this comment under one of your recent posts about a trip to Kharkiv: “Your associative lines of Kharkiv – a post in Russian – a book in Russian – is just savage! By doing so, you are only emphasizing your position on ‘bilingual Ukraine.’ Shame on you” You answered with humor – “Seriously?” But speaking seriously, what is your position on bilingual Ukraine? Based on that comment, we are still looking at this issue that way.
- I think this is no longer an issue. There is already a consensus in Ukraine that there can be only one state language, Ukrainian, and that civil servants should speak in this language. There are certain rules for broadcasters, TV channels, and all media regarding the presence of state and other languages on the air. This comment seemed very strange because I am not a civil servant, and my Facebook page is not an official communication channel. It's just an attempt to see a black cat in a dark room when it's not there.
Yet, we need to understand that there’s a certain number of people in our country who do understand Ukrainian but consume content in Russian. Actually, it became very noticeable during the pandemic. Vaccination propaganda of our Ministry of Health was, of course, in Ukrainian, and these people do not perceive content in Ukrainian all too well. It may be a matter of habit, political loyalty or disloyalty, but that’s just the way it is. If we want to reach out to them, we might need to make some content on vaccination in Russian.
Is Ukraine ready to promote Russian-language vaccination content paid for by government? We need to make this decision. But it is this category of people who are most vulnerable to Russian propaganda because it produces content targeting them, in Russian — the same language they use to consume news and other content about the realities around them.
- Once Ilmi Umerov had this apt phrase to describe his not so much political but rather personal shock of that time: “I started to grieve my father in Ukraine and finished in Russia.” What shocked you the most during the so-called "Crimean Spring"? The theatrical nature of what was happening? “The polite people”? Our security officers? Attitudes of the local population? Anything personal?
- For me, 2014 was a year of very significant transformations, destruction of illusions. Before the so-called "Crimean Spring," I was a person with a purely regional identity. When asked who I was, my first answer was that I was a Crimean, and it was only then followed by “a citizen of Ukraine.” And after all these events, my civic identity came first, and regional, on the contrary, ceased to be significant.
In 2014, I was also struck by the fact that I happened to live inside history, when at one point I realized that its wheels began to spin around me with a crunch. And I began to realize that I had not seen anything like this in all the previous 20 years, that a political nation was being born before my eyes, the contours and outlines of the modern world were changing. That I was living in a period and close to people whose names will be given to streets, will be printed, perhaps once on Ukrainian money, and who will stand on Ukrainian pedestals. And that was the moment when you realized that you were living, perhaps, in the period of the highest agency of your own state. At the same time, it was a very dramatic period, and sometimes it seems to me that our children will even envy us.
- Fighting against fake news and disinformation, domestic, Russian, and COVID-related... Where is Ukraine winning, and where is it losing? How do we make Ukrainians less vulnerable to this “infodemic”?
- This is a complicated story because it is actually a combination of several factors. In the last 15 years, the media have been in crisis because the Internet and social networks have deprived them of their role as a sole intermediary between those who produce content and those who consume it. Previously, if you wanted to convey something to someone, you had no choice but to reach out to a media outlet and prove that your opinion has a right to exist. And now, social networks have greatly facilitated access to the audience. This also applies to countries abusing propaganda, such as Russia.
I am not very confident that we can defeat Russia in a linear information confrontation because they spend more than a billion dollars a year on propaganda and content. This is an amount we cannot afford. And the entire civilized world is now facing the problem of countering fake news and propaganda, particularly the one being circulated across social media. And no country can say it has found the solution: like, take our playbook and follow these steps. The playbooks are available in specific narrow sectors: building an effective economy, effective justice, effective law enforcement... That's where we can listen to the advice because there are achievements in those spheres. On the contrary, no country has a success story in countering fake news.
And that is why Ukraine is at the forefront. And perhaps, one day, someone will publish a handbook on building a system of countering propaganda based on our experience. But now, Ukraine is in the middle of this process, and neither we nor our partners know an unequivocal answer as to what it should look like. We learn as we go.
Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security
Photos by Ukrinform, UA:PBC, K