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Kinder, Gentler Russian Propaganda Shifting to Disrupting Ukraine Election


Russia will almost surely keep up its psychological warfare and will probably try to spark some new local uprisings in the East immediately before election day.

Watching Russian state TV is a stomach-churning but useful exercise for those charting the trajectory of the Ukraine crisis.  For nearly two months after Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev on Feb. 22, Vladimir Putin & Co. seemed to be decisive and dynamic while the West dithered, debated, and did its best to glower rhetorically.  Moscow broadcast propaganda had only one gear and basically one voice throughout this period -- a hysterical shriek about the "fascist" government in Kiev and the West's trickery in bringing it to power, blended with manly assurances that Mother Russia would defend the rights of its ethnic brethren across the border.  The inferred assumption on the Kremlin's part was that the Ukrainian revolution would fall apart amid massive uprisings in the Russian-speaking East and dangerous anarchy elsewhere.

Lately this self-assurance has visibly begun to erode, and Moscow is fluttering about as indecisively as its adversaries. Russia signed the Geneva agreement of April 17 calling for the disarming of all "illegal" groups, then did nothing to implement it. On the other hand, it has stood by as Ukraine's military advanced (gingerly) on the militant stronghold of Slavyansk, blockaded the town, and killed a few rebels at a checkpoint. Putin himself declared the action "a grave crime" and warned of "consequences." But the only consequences so far have been Russian troops firing off a few more rockets on their own side of the border -- an empty threat worthy of President Barack Obama or UK Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Russian TV's round of Sunday current affairs shows sheds some light on where the Kremlin may be going with all this, in a murky, old-school Sovietologist kind of way. I took in one called Poyedinok, which roughly translates as "Face-Off," a broadcast that tends toward a Russian version of a Fox News reactionary even in ordinary times. Since Ukraine erupted, it has been predictably strident, each week's selected "experts" shouting themselves hoarse with predictions of imminent "Nuremberg trials" for the "fascist monster" to the south.

Yesterday's program changed the pace considerably. For one thing, some of the guests were actually from Ukraine. Face-Off did not face off with any Kiev government officials, but there was a most instructive interchange between a pro-Russian-barricades radical from the Eastern city of Lugansk, and two parliamentary deputies from the same area. The deputies were members of the Party of Regions, which Yanukovych captained until fleeing the scene, and which remains the largest party in the "anti-Russian" national legislature.

They and the radical were openly contemptuous of each other. The man from the barricades derided the lawmakers as corrupt placeholders who had done nothing for the people during their years in power.  The deputies dismissed the radicals as a tiny fringe group fomenting violence and representing no one but themselves. "You are living in some sort of world of your own," one of them declared.

Both sides make pretty valid points. But most interesting was how they divided on what they saw as the main practical questions -- whether to support or boycott the Ukrainian presidential election scheduled for May 25, and how hard to press for referenda on regional autonomy.  The Party of Regions guests said elections should go forward and referenda should occur at some later date, once conditions had calmed and a legal framework been laid. This naturally outraged the Lugansk radical, whose group has called for a plebiscite on regional independence May 11. All the Russian talking heads predictably piled in on the radical's side.

This made for a new kind of surreal moment in this long, surreal international incident: Loyalists from Ukraine's "pro-Russian" party begging the Kremlin to be left in peace, while Russian hatchet men sitting comfortably in Moscow insisted only they knew what was best for Ukraine.  Host Vladimir Solovyev added his own layer of weirdness by repeatedly telling the loyalists that the Russian guests "loved" Ukraine and "only want what's best for your country."

The implicitly shifting party line behind the broadcast offers insight into the conundrum that has left Putin, for the moment, indecisively stamping his foot on Ukraine's border.  The government in Kiev faces abundant problems but has not collapsed as Russia had hoped. There is no bloody anarchy in the streets, and the East has not risen up as a mass. On the contrary, the political establishment there is more or less making common cause with the Kiev revolutionaries to keep Russia out. That leaves Putin with no firm allies in the region save the masked Slavyansk thugs who are currently holding a dozen European peace monitors hostage. Not the ideal groundwork for an armed incursion.  

As a short-term backup, the Kremlin is plainly focusing on undermining the presidential election. Face-Off's Russian cast offered arguments blunt and arcane on why a poll could not possibly be legitimate under current circumstances.  First they demanded it be preceded by some vague constitutional process to "determine the future shape of the state."

As it happens, holding elections is one of the things Ukraine's new Western allies know a lot about, so Russia's new tack provides an opening. By all means, ratchet up the sanctions a little bit on Putin's friends, as Obama did today.  But more important at this point may be a "strategic offensive" to make sure polls are secure and procedures beyond reproach on May 25. Russia will almost surely keep up the psychological warfare until then and probably try to spark some new local uprisings in the East immediately before election day. This time Ukraine should be better prepared.  
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