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30 July, 2019  ▪  Maksym Vikhrov

Art of prioritization

Why it is dangerous to neglect the topic of war and what the mission of the media community should be

One of the most notable achievements of the previous government is that the war in the Donbas has been made practically imperceptible for most Ukrainians. Of course, they have not forgotten about the war: more than 80% of our fellow citizens consider it an important issue (“Rating”, 2019). Yet, remembering the problem is quite different from being actually aware of its scale. And just with the latter, the situation is somewhat alarming. Thus, in February, among the urgent threats to Ukraine, the war with Russia took only the fifth place, giving way to labor migration, economic recession, impoverishment of the population and inflation (“Sociological Monitoring” Center and others, 2019). An even more eloquent example is the improvement of the attitude of Ukrainians towards Russia. If in May 2015 the number of its supporters collapsed to recording 30%, then at the beginning of 2019 it rose to 57% (KIIS). This means that war is becoming an increasingly less influential factor in Ukrainian life: it is remembered, but on the agenda it is slowly being relegated to the background. In many ways, this is an objective process: a prolonged absence of large-scale armed hostilities affects. However, the trend is threatening. This is not a moral issue, but of national security, because strong public support for opposing the enemy and awareness of high stakes are part of the country's defense (RAND, 2018). Given the current political situation, the marginalization of the war theme threatens with the fact that Ukraine will turn from a weak subject of a geopolitical game into its helpless object.

It is impossible to neglect public opinion, since under its influence not only the electoral result is formed, but so is also the current state policy. It is no secret that Ukrainian politicians have chronic problems with ratings, so they prefer to adapt to public sentiment, avoiding unpopular decisions. The blocking of Russian social networks, de-communization and a number of other decisions of the previous government were approved not so much because Bankova (Office of the President of Ukraine) understood their critical need, but because they felt just such a public inquiry. This can also work in the opposite direction: “calming down” the society about the war will contribute to the corresponding deformation of state policy. In theory, Volodymyr Zelenskiy could be the exception to the rule, because his rating allows to avoid trembling over every percentage of support. But frivolity in matters of national security is precisely one of the main Zelenskiy’s "shticks" - first as a candidate, and now as president. No need to explain that pushing the topic of war into the background will only condone the dangerous inclinations of the new government. Not to mention the fact that refocusing the attention of Ukrainians from defense to any other subject (corruption, poverty, reforms, etc.) is entirely in the interests of Russia and its Ukrainian satellites are working hard on this.

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Responsibility for the devaluation of the war theme lies partly with the previous government. Bankova appealed to the external threat very actively, but not once used it for their political purposes. The gravestone to this political technology work has become a meme “or Putin will attack,” generated in response. Thus, not only did official rhetoric devalue, but the feeling of a real threat from the East was also dulled. The current government is falling into levity as another extreme. However, the lion’s share of responsibility lies with the media community. No matter how low the credence to the Ukrainian media is, they still affect public opinion. And the vectors of this influence are formed in specific editorial offices and in the minds of specific media professionals. And the latter are also facing the temptation to adapt to public sentiment, omitting the theme of war, which has long since not been of such interest to the audience as in 2014-2015. One can avoid the topic of war both unconsciously and under various noble pretexts. For example, in order not to “militarize the public consciousness”, not to “play up to nationalism”, “not to impose your own agenda”, “not to become propagandists”, etc. It has recently been a popular trend not to sing along with government with its “Army, Language, Religion". You can debate about the correctness of certain arguments for a long time, but in the end, the media still added to reducing attention to the military theme in society. And now it has noticeably decreased on Bankova. In such circumstances, drawing attention to war is not just a professional duty of media people but their public mission. This should be done no matter how "tired of war," the target audience is; neither politicians nor their own readers should let their hair down.

So, what kind of tasks are we talking about? Pumping out a military-patriotic hysteria is a completely unproductive and even dangerous way. A society in a state of hysteria is much easier to manipulate. It is worth remembering the spread of fakes in 2014-2015 that the Ukrainian authorities deliberately destroyed the patriots in the encirclements, removed men from trains and enrolled in the National Guard, about thuggish actions of the refugees from the Donbas. In practice, mass hysteria can burn no less a hole in national security than can public indifference, since it is guaranteed that the external enemy will try to take advantage of it. Hysteria is also useful for internal destructive forces, ranging from supporters of anarchism and ending with the pro-Russian fifth column. Obviously, this is not about emotional arousal, but about understanding the challenges that Ukraine faces.

The indifference of society to the war became possible not because the dust of 2014–2015 had settled, but because in the mass consciousness there is still no stable idea about what has been happening in the country and how significant the events in the Donbas have been. One has only to think that the very fact of the war between Ukraine and Russia is realized only by 72% of our citizens (“Democratic Initiatives”, 2018). And some of them believe that it is possible to simply “sit down and talk” with Russia and return to good-neighborly relations. The fact that in the sixth year of the war such naive notions are still common in society is a consequence of the flaw not only of the authorities, but also of the media, most of which had been avoiding the “language of hatred” all this time, had not wanted to “incite Russophobia” and so on. The media should form an adequate agenda in which resistance to Russian aggression is Task № 1. It is not that defense is more important than the fight against corruption, reform implementation, European integration or economic development. On the contrary, it is the basic prerequisite for performing each of these tasks. It is equally important to form realistic ideas that the current state of Ukrainian-Russian relations is not a temporary misunderstanding, but a hot phase of a quiet war that had begun long before 2014 and will last until Russia is capable of imperial encroachment.

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Another task is to contribute to the understanding of the war experience by the Ukrainian society. It is no secret that social thought was practically not ready for Russian aggression. The previous war on the territory of Ukraine ended almost 70 years ago, and even that collective experience was not properly learned. Its whole layers were erased by the Soviet censorship or were buried under layers of propaganda slag. Inherited knowledge of the Second World War is of little use today, since it is largely fake and artificial. Moreover, they are politically toxic, since they were deliberately distorted in order to strengthen the totalitarian system. “Arise, you, vast motherland!” [1] contains the hidden refrain “women will give birth to more children”, and behind every assumed Maresyev [2] there is an invisible political officer. This experience turned out to be suitable for use in the Russian Federation, where it meets the needs of the Putin regime and is superimposed on Russian messianism. In 2014, Ukrainian society intuitively rejected the Soviet-Russian paradigm of war perception. For us, front-line casualties are not a hecatomb for the cult of victory, but personal sacrifices with the fates of real people behind them. Participation in the war is the fulfillment of the duty to the country and fellow citizens, and not self-sacrifice for the sake of great-power goals, the greatness of which only the tsar (General Secretary, the autocratic president) can comprehend. Anonymous cemeteries of “ there-are-no-of-them” and widows, who are trying to distance themselves from their dead husbands who died by the order of special services, are hard to imagine in Ukraine. Obviously, an intensive revision of the Soviet ideological heritage, which was conducted here during the years of independence, as well as the deep cultural differences between us and the Russians, are having an effect. It is impossible to reflect such things by transferring them from the plane of sad feelings to the form of ideological positions, without high-quality fiction, without social and cultural studies. But the same media should be the catalyst for this, since it is they who determine what Ukrainians think and argue about: some petty sensations, contrived problems or the war in which, according to the UN, more than 13 thousand military and civilians have already died. Thus, the role of the media of a country that is at war is also to keep public opinion alert, to prevent it from losing focus and going astray, even if it is prompted by all objective and subjective circumstances. To report on current events on the frontline and near it, to fight Russian fakes and not to distribute own ones are important and noble tasks. However, that does not go far enough.

 

[1] The first line of “Sacred War”, a popular Soviet patriotic song written in 1941 after German invasion of the USSR.

[2] Alexey Maresyev was a legendary Soviet fighter ace, who lost both legs but returned to war. Boris Polevoy wrote The Story of a Real Man having made him a Russian propaganda symbol.

 

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