By Kiel Pechko
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a war between Orthodox Slavic countries with common ancestry in Kievan Rus, Orthodox Christianity, and similar languages. The Kremlin has described the war as a battle between brothers, yet Ukrainians reject this brotherhood. Russian President Vladimir Putin states that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, yet they are opposites regarding governance. Ukraine is transitioning towards democracy over dictatorship, a fact ignored by Russian propagandists who attempt to leverage the similarities between Ukrainian and Russian culture and identity. Putin’s assertion that Ukraine identifies with, and wants to be part of, Russia provides the Kremlin propagandists with a unification justification for the invasion. Russia desires to obscure its motives and is threatened by its cultural proximity to Ukraine. Russian propagandist twist Russian-Ukrainian similarities to their advantage. But this cultural proximity frightens Russian politicians. Driving the invasion of Ukraine is the fact that Putin and his party understand that if Ukrainians can embrace democracy and the West, culturally similar Russians may follow suit.
The 2014 annexation of Crimea provides a sense of Russia’s paternalistic view of Ukraine; Russia also views Ukraine as its wayward son. The Russian propagandists exploited cultural similarities in a Putin speech concerning the annexation and continue to do so in its current war against Ukraine. In 2014, Putin claimed 96% of Crimeans voted for annexation, thus supporting his position that Crimea’s hearts were with Russia for generations. Superficially, this would appear accurate. Still, the validity and “facts” are highly questionable. Putin’s own Human Rights Council released contradictory data suggesting that only 22.5 percent of the Crimean population voted for annexation. Legal scholar Ilya Somin opined that opponents of annexation simply stayed home, knowing the vote was a sham. In the largest city in Crimea, Sevastopol, 123% of registered voters voted. These results were only possible because Russian soldiers, reporters, and other Russians were allowed to vote. Is it any wonder that the Russians would not allow international monitoring of the vote? Putin’s assertion that there has been a generational desire to unify Crimea and Russia is discredited by the fact that, in 1991, a majority of Crimeans voted in favor of an independent Ukraine without external support. The desire for Ukrainian independence was and still is, organic. Clearly, before 2014, only a minority supported the annexation of Crimea, according to Kyiv International Institute of Sociology polling data.
In attempting to propagandize the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Putin portrayed Crimea as a peaceful melting pot of ethnicities who retained their own distinct yet similar cultures. He gave the impression that, until Ukraine exerted it exerted its culture on minorities, Russia and Ukraine had a fraternal relationship. In his 2014 speech, Putin cites Ukraine’s attempt to oppress Russians by making Russia a “regional” language and draws a comparison to Nazi policies. However, the language law included 18 languages, few of which met the threshold required for “regional” status. Moreover, the law aimed to integrate ethnic Russians, not to oppress them. Russia has accused Ukraine of threatening ethnic Russians, yet there are no credible reports.
Conversely, the Russians have historically been the oppressors. In 1944, they deported Crimean Tatars, indigenous ethnic Turks, who were then not permitted to return until 1967. Tatar leader Refat Chubarov has said the 2014 referendum was illegitimate and forced under the “guns of soldiers.” Putin’s 2014 spin on Crimean harmony fails to recognize the history and residual animosity. The annexation of Crimea was only for the good of Russia. Crimea no more wanted to be part of Russia than Ukraine does now.
Putin continues to ignore that Ukrainians have, since 1991, supported independence. A 2013 International Republican Institute poll found only 23% of Crimeans wanted to join Russia. Putin calls the Ukrainian government a farce and maintains it is a puppet of the West. He asserted that a Western-influenced Color Revolution forced an unlawful third round in the 2004 presidential election but omitted that Russian fraud was the cause of annulment of previous results. Viktor Yanukovych, the Russian-back winner of the fraudulent round, should have been ruined. Still, after a Russian makeover, he was elected in 2010. Yanukovych was swiftly overthrown for refusing to develop Western relationships and embracing the Russian-backed Eurasian Economic Union. During his term, Yanukovych’s family and friends amassed fortunes through corrupt businesses. Russian propaganda blames Yanukovych’s downfall on the United States (US); it also spins it as an unwillingness of Ukrainians to elect a pro-Russian leader because of external influences rather than blaming Yanukovych.
As noted above, the democratization of nations similar to Russia, such as Ukraine, alarms Russian politicians. The invasion of Ukraine has little, if anything, to do with unifying cultures; it is a fight against democracy and the West. Russia and Ukraine are two culturally similar nations that are ideologically different. When considering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we must wade through the Kremlin propaganda and assess motivation by looking through the lens of history. The US and its allies must take action to minimize Russian propaganda’s impact.
The US has many means to counteract Russian propaganda and lessen its worldwide influence. The US funds foreign media literacy training to distinguish fiction from fact. The Global Engagement Center publishes reports debunking Russian misinformation. The ability of the world’s population to fact-check can mitigate misinformation, falsehoods, and propaganda. Social media platforms are responsible for actively labeling known misleading and/or incorrect content; some have taken steps toward this end. For example, Twitter has a fact-checking algorithm that marks posts as misleading. In contrast, Telegram has no similar algorithm and is, for that reason, utilized by Russian propagandists. To dispel Russian influence and disinformation, Ukraine repurposed a COVID-19 messaging app into UkraineNow, which presently has 300,000 active volunteers. Expanding these types of efforts to combat Russian propaganda is gaining traction worldwide.
Kiel Pechko is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations. Kiel is a first-year M.A. candidate at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations specializing in International Security and Europe. He is interested in Eastern European international relations and hopes to contribute to issues related to health security and Eastern Europe. Kiel earned his bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science from the University of Scranton and a graduate certificate in Homeland Security from Penn State.