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19 March, 2020  ▪  Maksym Vikhrov

Grace of the empire

What is Ukraine’s place in the rhetoric of Russian media and how to decipher their hidden messages?

Since 2014, Ukraine has not been out of focus of Russian media. However, their rhetoric is not static: after the change of government in Kyiv, new, long forgotten tones appeared in it. Both the Kremlin and the leading Russian media have once again talked about the possibility of dialogue, which has alarmed many in Ukraine. For the last time, the Kremlin showed its sympathies to Viktor Yanukovych, who was almost a vassal of Vladimir Putin. It is no wonder, then, that praising Zelenskiy gave rise to a great deal of suspicion of him. But in reality, this praise means less than is generally believed. Because the Russian media rhetoric about Zelenskiy and Ukraine in general is intended to serve imperial politics. Therefore, it should not be interpreted literally.

In the context of Ukrainian topics, the main character of the Russian media is undoubtedly Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The tone of their materials changed as the idea of ​​a new Ukrainian president was shaped by the Kremlin. If Zelenskiy-showman fits well into the landscape of pop culture there, then Zelenskiy-politician was taken with caution in Moscow. Putin abstained from official greetings and launched issuing Russian passports before the second round. But as you know, over time Moscow still contacted Zelenskiy. Depending on the fluctuations of the “general line” their rhetoric also changed, formed by leading Russian media. The reason for this coordination is an open secret, since Russia’s main media resources belong to Putin’s entourage. For example, the First Channel, REN TV, Izvestia newspaper, and a number of other media assets are members of the National Media Group Holding. The structure is owned by Yuriy Kovalchuk, a close friend of Putin and co-founder of the legendary cooperative “Ozero” (“Lake”), and the board of directors is headed by ex-athlete Alina Kabaeva, who is considered to be Putin’s longtime favorite. Gazprom-Media Holding (a state-owned subsidiary of Gazprom) includes networks of popular NTV and TNT channels, including dozens of other assets (including, allegedly, opposition radio Echo of Moscow). By the way, the CEO of the holding Dmitry Chernyshenko has recently been appointed Vice Prime Minister of the Russian Federation. In short, the Russian mainstream media, at least in key issues, is a reliable repeater of the Kremlin’s official position.

The results of the presidential (and then parliamentary) elections in Ukraine were reported by the Russian media as the collapse of the “Russophobic” and “militaristic” policies of Petro Poroshenko and the so-called party of war. “The citizens of Ukraine voted in favor of the changes,” curtly outlined the Russian Foreign Ministry, and a real celebration began in the Russian media space. “The ideology of hatred and warlike Russophobia has flopped. The president, who built his entire campaign on anti-Russian hysteria, has gone down in flames,” Izvestia promoted the official thesis. NTV, REN TV and other media covered the results of elections in the same way. But as for person of Zelenskiy media were cautious. The Kremlin, out of Dmitry Peskov’s mouth, declared that they will judge the new president of Ukraine by his particular deeds. “Zelenskiy's victory has raised more questions than answers yet,”the government’s Rossiyskaya Gazeta stressed, referring to Konstantin Kosachov, chairman of the Committee on International Affairs in the Federation Council. According to Kosachev, during Poroshenko Ukraine ceased to be a sovereign state, and therefore Zelenskiy’s ability to pursue an independent policy remains doubtful. “The main question is how ready he (Zelenskiy. – Ed.) is to get out of the influence of the West,” Izvestia reasoned. “But is Zelenskiy ready to go this far? Or will a bright start turn into a blank talk?” NTV echoed. By the way, in May 2019, the NTV management promised to broadcast the entertaining show “Magic” with Zelenskiy as a host, recorded in 2011. However, it has never hit Russian screens.

RELATED ARTICLE: Will the Russian sea swallow Ukraine?

Ukrainian repentant


Still, in early summer, Moscow was preparing to launch a campaign to demolish Zelenskiy. “Zelenskiy brought to Paris and Berlin the echo of Poroshenko’s foreign policy doctrine,” the Rossiyskaya Gazeta wrote in June. However, the main focus quickly shifted to Zelenskiy's alleged inability to rule the country: the fact that his orders were ignored by the army, he felt pressure on the side of “nationalists” (with, of course, the “old elite” behind them) and so on. “No one can say for sure whether Zelenskiy has any relation to the shelling of Donetsk and, in principle, to the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” Rossiyskaya Gazeta reasoned. “The virtuality of Commander Zelenskiy, on the one hand, does not remove the blame for the shelling and new casualties and on the other, makes any negotiations for peace unpromising.” Doubts about Zelenskiy’s ability remain one of the leading leitmotifs of Kremlin propaganda. In general, this is a typical Russian approach to Ukrainian realities. In the minds of the Russians, the myth of the “common people” of Ukraine, which is not against renewing ties with the metropolis, sits deep. But this seems to be constantly hampered by marginalized local forces: aggressive nationalists, elites, bribed by the West, and so on. They also impose on the “common people” Ukrainization, an alternative version of history, “non-canonical” Orthodoxy, and other Russophobic projects. Therefore, in the Russian mass consciousness there are two Ukraine at the same time: the “fraternal” and the “Bandera-like”. In October, this formula was voiced by Putin: “Mr Zelenskiy himself does not look like a Ukrainian nationalist, of course. But if he can handle them, it's hard for me to say now.” Therefore, Zelenskiy's confrontation with the “nationalists” will become one of the main subjects of the Kremlin media.

In view of the troops’ separation in the Donbass, the exchange of prisoners and the meeting of the “Normandy Four”, the Russian officialdom became more supportive of Zelenskiy, and the press shifted its focus from skepticism to approval. Our President was praised for his “constructive approach”, for his determination and loyalty to the promises given to the Ukrainian people. The July exchange of prisoners in Izvestia will be called “a significant step towards each other, which has not been made for five years” (i.e. during Poroshenko’s time. – Ed.) and “a step towards the transition from confrontation to dialogue.” Moreover, the Russian press carefully emphasized that “constructive” initiatives came from Zelenskiy. But the accents are set so that the President of Ukraine is seen not as a peacemaker, but above all a seeker, who is graciously listened to by Moscow. “Putin has repeatedly said that he does not refuse dialogue, but he will not take the initiative himself. I think this is the position of the Russian leader that was heard in Ukraine,” Izvestia told the words of an anonymous “source in Russian diplomatic circles”. At the end of the year, this thesis was repeated almost literally by the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: “Everything is not up to us. If the Ukrainian side is interested in restoring bilateral relations, I think, one good turn deserves another.” In other words, in the Russian media Zelenskiy embodies Ukraine as repentant, to which Moscow graciously gives an opportunity to correct the fatal mistakes of the previous five years.

But the Kremlin cannot allow admiring the “rebooted” Ukraine. In addition to the history of “repentance” (and mostly made up by Russian media), it can also demonstrate a success story. Despite the war, Ukraine’s average salary this year has exceeded the average Russian salary, and in Ukraine there is variability of government and real democratic freedoms. Today, when the Kremlin continues to actively prepare for the so-called transit (that is, the preservation of Putin’s power after 2024), this example does not quite suit them. Not to mention that within the imperial paradigm, Ukrainian statehood cannot be considered as a successful project a priori. Therefore, along with the praises of Zelenskiy, Russian media also broadcast standard Ukrainian-phobic scary stories. “Despite the change of government, the process of fascistization of the country continues,” communist Petro Symonenko claims on NTV. “A sentimental lie, aimed at idiots,” Anatoliy Wasserman analyzes Zelenskiy’s New Year’s address to Ukrainians on REN TV. “Beauty, gloss and tears on the screen. And in real life, it's a broken, divided country and Nazis with Bandera portraits and torches.”


Antipopular power


Similarly, the designers of the Russian rhetoric meticulously watch Zelenskiy inadvertently not to become popular with the Russians. Yes, the TV series Servant of the People, which was broadcast on TNT in December 2019, was taken off the air after the third episode without clear explanation. Obviously, the film aimed at the post-Soviet audience might be a too good advertisement for the Ukrainian president. In addition, Russian media have been promoting the topic of the “antipopular” nature of the new Ukrainian government, its dependence on the oligarchs. “The country will return to the state of the neo-oligarchy of the 21st century,” was predicted on the air of REN TV after the second round of the presidential elections. “After short recoil, the country will once again return to its usual self-replicating oligarchic system under the conventional name of CJSC Ukraine,” Izvestia wrote. This topic is special for the Russian audience, since the Russian Federation is officially considered the country of the conquered oligarchy. Moreover, the leading role in this belongs personally to Putin, who stopped the “lawlessness” of the Yeltsin era, clamping down rowdy “nouveau riches”. This is an important part of Russian internal mythology that influences Ukraine’s perception. That is why the local media from this spring began to pay increased attention to Ihor Kolomoiskiy. And if NTV referred to him as “bloody oligarch” in 2014, in April 2019, the channel's employees already exclusively interviewed him. In September, Rossiyskaya Gazeta published an expressive leading article “Oligarch and His President.” “The President and the government with Kolomoyskiy intend to discuss the business dealing in Ukraine at shirt-sleeve meetings,” it wrote.

The Russian media paid no less attention to the Ukrainian land reform. If in Ukraine Zelenskiy”s initiative had caused at least some discussion, then the Kremlin media covered this topic exclusively in the style of apocalyptic prophecies. “To the last hectare,” “No land, no will,” “Savchenko predicted the disappearance of Ukraine in 2023,” wrote Rossiyskaya Gazeta. “Ukraine for sale”, “Tymoshenko predicted a famine in Ukraine”, Izvestia echoed it. And although in the Russian Federation the agricultural land market has long existed (though it is not fully operational), the Ukrainian reform was presented as evidence of Zelenskiy's dependence on local oligarchs, as well as on the West, which eventually transforms Ukraine into a failed state. The result of “anti-popular” policy is the total poverty of the population. “Ukrainians lack money for lard,” NTV mocks. “The Ukrainian budget for 2020 will move the country from the era of poverty to the era of impoverishment,” Izvestia writes, referring to Viktor Medvedchuk. To describe the tragic situation of the Ukrainians Russian media do not spare the colors: at the risk of falling victim to the slave traders (!) at home, they are forced to go to work in Europe, becoming “second class people” there. In short, however constructive Zelenskiy is in the Donbas issue, the Russian media is stubbornly portraying Ukraine as being on the brink of political, economic and social collapse.

RELATED ARTICLE: The battle of the narratives

As we can see, the circumstances and names of the Ukrainian presidents are changing, but the Russian rhetoric remains the same. The main message is easily read between the lines: the Ukrainian disasters are a consequence of the independence that pushed the once-blooming “South Russian region” to the suicide path. And the further the country goes out of Moscow’s orbit, the darker its prospects become. The history of Ukraine’s failure, reproduced by the Russian officialdom since the 1990s, is cementing the imperial discourse that cracked after the collapse of the USSR. Therefore, the stingy praise of Zelenskiy is not yet recognition. In this mise en scene, he acts as an object for Putin to demonstrate his greatness and generosity. Poroshenko was in the Russian rhetoric an odious, but also a minor character, designed to set off Putin's power. In this sense, both Zelenskiy and Poroshenko in the Kremlin rhetoric, despite all the differences, have one role to play: to be proof of Ukraine’s state failure, its historical doom. If there is a “fascist” sitting on Bankova, then in the eyes of the Russians, he must be pathetic, and if a “friend”, then the Russian official narrative will portray him weak and unreliable. Therefore, their fate is the same: to be swept away by the wind of history together with Ukrainian statehood. The fraternal Ukrainian people, about which they have been claiming in the Kremlin for decades, is only possible as a population of a small Russian province. That is why the praises emanating from Moscow to Zelenskiy are, in fact, imperial superiority and the non-recognition of the Ukraine’s right to exist. The only question is whether the Ukrainian authorities and their electorate understand this, and whether they are not being lulled to sleep by soothing tone of Moscow.

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