It is the opinion of most patriotic voices in Russian alt-media (remember, hardcore Russian patriots are still not allowed on mainstream media in Russia) that while the special operation in Ukraine is all well and good, there is no good explanation for why Ukraine was lost in the first place. How could the Kremlin let a country split evenly between a pro-Russia and pro-West vote for multiple election cycles suddenly, almost overnight, be turned into a hostile, armed to the teeth Israel on the border of the greater Slavic world?
It may be hard to believe, but Russian used to be the unopposed majority language in Ukraine. Not only did most people speak Russian, but most city people didn’t know Ukrainian or thought it was simply a quaint provincial dialect of country bumpkins. The number of Ukrainian speakers declines even more when you factor in that many so-called Ukrainian-speakers were actually “surzhik” speakers — which is a Russian/Ukrainian mixed vernacular. Me, a Russian-speaker, I can easily understand surzhik without skipping a beat. But propa’ Western Ukrainian, well, I have to really concentrate and hold my breath while I listen to make any sense of it.
Multiple polls in Ukraine showed a majority favorable opinion of Russians and a shared sentiment of belonging to one civilization. Even now, the numbers aren’t bad, but we will have to see how many Ukrainians harden or drift towards more anti-Russian positions as a result of a protracted conflict on their territory.
So where are we now? Well, tens of thousands of Ukrainians, who by all rights ought to be pointing their rifles at NATO, are now hunkered down in Donbass instead, and about to be shelled repeatedly into surrender or oblivion by the Russian forces.
Even before the first shot was fired, the situation that had developed in Ukraine following the coup d’etat of 2014 can only be characterized as a complete, abject and miserable failure of Russian foreign policy. And it only got worse year after year following the seizure of power and the beginning of the anti-terrorist operation in the Donbass. Here, the failure is inexcusable, but easily explainable. The Kremlin, in its hard-boiled cynicism, thought that they could just bribe politicians and oligarchs in Ukraine to keep the situation from getting too out of control. They never switched strategies and they never really did anything to neutralize the West’s far more effective color revolution + mass propaganda strategy. Incompetent corrupt fools like Victor Medvechuk were tasked with keeping a Russian toehold in Ukraine.
You must have heard about Medvechuk, yes? He was paraded around in chains recently by the Ukrainian secret police and plastered all over social media:
He was no doubt captured days after the beginning of the operation and only recently brought out by the SBU as a propaganda piece and a bargaining chip in prisoner negotiations.
Now, Victor’s been around for awhile, serving under Leonid Kuchma, who everyone knows was an ardent supporter of Russia and then Victor Yanukovich, another ardent Russian nationalist and die-hard patriot. SARCASM ALERT — SARCASM DETECTED.
I should warn you, I can’t help but slather the sarcasm onto my commentary when it comes to the “pro-Russia” faction in Ukraine, so keep an eye out for it as we move along. But sarcasm aside for now, let me state things plainly: this guy was your typical sleazy Eastern European political apparatchik and a deal-fixer who may or may not have been close to Putin (his daughter was baptized by Putin, making her his goddaughter, but so what). Most importantly, he was paid millions to be of use to Russia in Ukraine. He used to be a part of Yanukovich’s operation and he eventually bankrolled and ran the post-Yanukovich “Opposition Party — For Life” bloc, which eventually put up Yuriy Boyko as their “pro-Russia” candidate in the latest elections that Zelensky handily won.
Now, this was well and truly a big-brain move. Medvechuk and friends chose a man who had been around the cesspit that was Ukrainian politics for almost two decades — a man with several corruption and embezzlement scandals under his belt from his time managing the quasi-state oil company Naftogaz and the Fuel and Energy Ministry of Ukraine and a physiognomy that just screams SLEAZY in all-caps to represent them and the pro-Russia position in Ukraine.
10/10 optics, what else can I say?
Back in the day, when tensions with Russia were not as high, I remember what a big scandal it was when then President Yanukovich stepped in and quashed the anti-corruption investigation of his minister and close ally Boyko. Most Ukrainians were somewhat united in their exasperation at the never-ending corruption surrounding literally all of the post-Soviet Ukrainian administrations and the nonstop looting that was going on at the time. The constant corruption was one of the driving forces of the Orange Revolution and the ascent of Viktor Yushenko and his pro-NATO, anti-Russia government and then again with Euromaidan and the calls for Yanukovich to step down. At the time, the main narrative that fueled these color revolutions was the anti-corruption platform. This was popular at the time. The pro-Western faction managed to conflate being “pro-Russia” (or at least not being explicitly anti-Russian) with being corrupt. Being pro-West and Liberal came to mean standing for a corruption-less Ukraine free of the control of Russian oligarchs and the communist-era leftover nomenklatura.
So, to reiterate and make my point clear: the “pro-Russian” politicians were not really pro-Russian, but were, at a minimum, willing to not rock the boat with Russia. The pro-Westerners successfully created the association of “pro-Russia = pro-corruption” and used this propaganda to rally Ukrainians at the polls and on the level of street politics. The “pro-Russians” were indeed corrupt. But we all know that the West is not any less corrupt and that the people in the pro-West camp looted the country as thoroughly if not more than the “pro-Russian” people.
By the way, to my eternal shame, in my youthful NPC naiveté, I even wore one of those orange hats that they handed out at the maidan to show my support for the good Victor against the bad one. Orange man good, I suppose.
But patriotic circles in Russia are not exactly heart-broken by the news that Medvechuk was taken captive by Zelensky. The general sentiment appears to be that Zelensky has done Russia a favor by getting rid of an incompetent oligarch that lost millions of Russian rubles and an entire country through his counter-productive efforts. But, the nonchalance of the Russian public notwithstanding, his arrest is sort of, kind of a big deal. After all, Medvechuk is a billionaire that ran several TV stations that criticized the Kiev government up until Zelensky banned them following his patron and master Igor Kholomoisky’s direct orders that he do so, effectively granting Kholomoisky a monopoly over all media in Ukraine. It is worth pointing out that despite this party supposedly being “pro-Russian” they condemned the Russian special operation in Ukraine in early March. Some pundits have argued that this was simply to outmaneuver the Kiev government and another example of the much-vaunted hyper-dimensional 5D chess that we’ve heard so much about in recent years on display yet again. But either way, it did literally nothing but score another propaganda blow against Russia before Zelensky’s regime dissolved and disbanded the party in the Rada anyway. One could argue that there was nothing that they could do. I would agree that doing literally nothing at all would have done more to help and promote Russia and Russians’ interest in Ukraine.
As an aside, the “pro-Russia” faction in Ukraine did in fact have many shady dealings with the West. The only difference was that they seemed to prefer making deals and rubbing shoulders with Republicans, not Democrats. At this point, everyone knows that prominent Democrat politicians have been looting the Ukraine with the help of their pro-West allies in the government. It is funny to think that the roles used to be reversed once upon a time.
Russia’s own, personal efforts in Ukraine, however, were just as poor, if not worse than the non-existent efforts of the so-called “pro-Russia” parties in Ukraine. This is quite clear when we look at, say, the virtually non-existent propaganda effort used to deal with the ever-deepening crisis that resulted from Euromaidan.
Question: what was the Russian message to the Ukrainian people over these difficult years? Does anyone know?
I suppose the most logical and easiest message to send would be “we’re one people of one blood and our future belongs together, one way or another.” But, apart from Putin’s occasional video-message appeals which state just that, this hasn’t been the position of the Russian government and her official spokespeople. They’ve instead insisted on constantly referring to Ukraine as a “buffer state” and opining about the sanctity of arbitrarily drawn squiggly lines on the map.
Even I, an ardent pro-Russia shill, just assumed that Russia had abandoned and written off Ukraine because of the messaging coming out from within the Presidential Administration. The intervention took me completely by surprise — and not just me. Dmitri Peskov, the official Kremlin spokesperson, was totally blindsided by the announcement. Literally two hours before the announcement by Putin, he was still talking about Minsk II i.e., saying the Kremlin would simply engage in more negotiations. Even the FSB chief was taken by surprise and had to be dressed down personally by Putin on stage and asked point blank if he supported the operation or not.
In between the stuttering and frantic gulping he manages to say that he more or less supports the recognition of the LNR and DNR. With administrators like these, Russia doesn’t even need enemies.
It’s worth pointing out that nobody in the patriot camp in Russia likes Peskov or understands why he still has his job — not even, apparently, Putin himself. In an interview with Megyn Kelly, Putin told said that he himself doesn’t understand why Peskov says some of the crap that he does.
But back to Ukraine.
Hell, I personally knew a few pro-Russia journalists in Kiev. I asked them if they had any help or support or even had any contact with anyone in the Russian government. Protection, money, support, a Christmas card? The answer was always a resounding, “sadly, no.” This was a conversation among friends, not an official interview, mind you. No 5D black ops chess here — they were no doubt telling the sad truth. Pro-Russian Ukrainians had very good reason to feel completely and totally abandoned by Russia for many years.
And even now, the Kremlin and its loathsome PR spokespeople claim that they are only in Ukraine temporarily, to conduct a de-nazification campaign. Not only is this claim bizarre, but what’s worse, people think they might actually mean it. So, after smashing the Ukrainian army and the volunteer battalions, they intend to do what — pull out?
Why then should anyone in Ukraine support the Russian army? So that they can receive a bullet to the head for being collaborators once they’re gone? No wonder Ukrainians are hunkering down and keeping quiet. Why support a military that won’t be there to protect you once they’ve won? After all, genius strategic feint or not, Kiev and the environs around it were abandoned. What will happen to the people there who came out waving Russian flags? A war is a great time for neighbors who envied (and stole) the roses from your garden to accuse you of being a collaborator. Don’t think that people aren’t reporting on each other right now — that’s what neighbors are best at the world over. Look at your own neighbors — can you honestly say that you can trust the Joneses to not rat you out if the secret police come knocking at some point in the near future? Were you paying attention during COVID and the hunt for the Trump Insurrectionists?
And on the Russian home-front?
Well, the patriotic block is sweating bullets that the Kremlin might actually go ahead and negotiate with Zelensky. They needn’t worry so much — Zelensky’s handlers want war down to the last Slav, so there’s no real prospects for a meaningful ceasefire. But still — it is hard to mobilize a society with such mixed messages coming from near the top. And a general mobilization might not only be desirable, but necessary in the coming months.
The point I’m driving at here is rather simple: Russia needs a new strategy and new people handling her interests in Ukraine and the near abroad. No more lazy half-measures, but smart, comprehensive propaganda and political efforts. Funding and support and protection for actual, genuine pro-Russians — it’s not hard to figure out. Most importantly, there needs to be a consistent and simple message presented to the Ukrainians. Putin himself said it well on several occasions: “we are brotherly peoples with a shared past and future.” I would add, “We will not abandon you,” for good measure.
Why Putin’s own government struggles to follow his lead is, frankly, infuriating to say the least.