Annexation of Crimea: A masterclass in political manipulation

Ukraine’s revolution had the potential to dig Putin’s political grave, but he managed to turn the situation on its head.

Crimea annexation REuters
A man holds a portrait of Vladimir Putin during celebrations of the fifth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea in Simferopol, Crimea March 15, 2019 [Alexey Pavlishak/Reuters]

The annexation of Crimea was a triumph of political manipulation over national interests and common sense. This is why old-school geopolitics alone cannot explain what really happened between Russia and Ukraine in March 2014.

What usually debilitates the analysis of this episode, at least in the West, is the tale of an inherently violent alien Russian race intent on conquering the world. An identical twin of Kremlin’s myth about the West plotting to destroy Russia, it is peddled by hawks who live in symbiosis with their Russian counterparts and grow in strength by pushing polarising agendas. Of course, the image they are trying to sell can’t be more different from the complicated reality of the relatively modernised post-Soviet mafia state with its mild authoritarianism, deep integration into the Western cultural and financial realm, and – critically for the Crimean story – extreme psychological dependence on feedback in the form of opinion polls and approval ratings. The latter serves as a substitute for electoral democracy, which has been squashed by Putin’s majoritarianism in Russia. 

To make sure the all-important feedback remains positive, Kremlin’s highly professional and media savvy spin doctors play on people’s emotions – their dignity, their sense of injustice, their fear of strife and war – while controlling the flows of information delivered via what remains the most important medium, television. In the spring of 2014, stars aligned in such a way that Crimea became an ideal object for such manipulations. 

Selling the annexation as an act of salvation

The political cycle that led to Russia’s invasion of Crimea began in the fall of 2011, when Vladimir Putin announced his decision to run in presidential elections instead of allowing his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, to stay in the role for another term.

Their swap, followed by a rigged Duma election, sparked the Bolotnaya protests in Moscow, which caught Russian leadership off guard. These anti-government protests, which continued intermittently months, sent the Kremlin in a state of panic, triggering its deep-rooted fears of a coloured revolution. The Russian president eventually got his act together and unleashed a campaign of repression against the opposition, bringing an end to the protest movement. However, Putin’s anxieties about alleged revolution plots by Russia’s opposition were soon replaced with a more urgent sense of fear as a real revolution broke out in neighbouring Ukraine

What came to be known as the “Revolution of Dignity” had every chance to dig Putin’s political grave. A country connected to Russia by a myriad of not just cultural and economic, but also family links (a 2011 poll showed that 49 percent of Ukrainians have relatives in Russia), Ukraine could have become a successful role model for Russians unhappy with the status-quo and eventually pull both countries towards freer society and greater integration with the EU. But Putin succeeded in turning the situation on its head.

The Kremlin immediately launched a political manipulation campaign, making sure negative news about Ukraine’s revolution dominated Russian-language media at all times. In no time, news items on Ukraine became such a prominent feature of Russian television that it felt as if what was going on there was more important for Russian audiences than what was going on in Russia itself. News bulletins would sometimes have five items on Ukraine, with all events depicted in the most pessimistic and alarmist way possible, and only one light-hearted report about Putin meeting with milkmaids or cosmonauts. The latter would provide the desired contrast between Ukraine’s “hell” and Russia’s “normality”.

The whole purpose of it was to show Russians how precious the relative stability in their own country is and what will happen to them, if – like the Ukrainians – they chose a revolutionary path.

Putin also used Ukraine’s Russian and Russian-speaking population’s negative perception of the country’s revolution, based on an historic sense of injustice and contemporary fears, to his advantage.

Transferred by the Soviet leadership from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, Crimea is a region populated by Russian-speakers who were genuinely frightened by the prospect of finding themselves living under the rule of extreme nationalists. They have been lukewarm about Ukraine’s independence since the very beginning, and perhaps more importantly, had long been consuming the same Kremlin propaganda as Russians on their TV screens. Moreover, Ukraine’s revolution may have been a genuine popular uprising against a corrupt government that rejected greater integration with the EU, but it also had an ultra-nationalist component which was displayed in full view for all Russians and Crimeans to see – Right Sector ultra-nationalists occupied a whole floor in the revolutionary HQ and flags and symbols associated with Ukrainian Nazi collaborators in the World War II were ubiquitous in Maidan square. This was naturally perceived as an existential threat by Crimeans and helped them turn their back to Ukraine and its revolution and embrace Putin as their saviour.

Not a role model but a cautionary tale

Kremlin’s gamble on Ukraine’s inability to become a beacon of progress in the post-Soviet space has paid off. Today’s Ukraine – dogged by war, still largely unreformed and ruled by essentially the same corrupt elite as before the revolution – is not a role model, but a cautionary tale for Russians who might have otherwise been eyeing the possibility of joining mass protests against Putin’s regime. In the end, Putin succeeded in using a revolution that could have spelt the end of his regime to his advantage by forcing Russia’s entire population into binge watching daily episodes of an endless series about Ukraine burning in hellfire.

Much of that could have been avoided if instead of turning Ukraine’s uprising into a farcical version of a grand Cold War-style confrontation with Russia, the West focused on steering Maidan revolutionaries away from polarising and self-defeating ethnonationalism while applying pressure on the post-revolution government to dismantle the cabal of corrupt judges, prosecutors, detectives and rich lobbyists that guaranteed Ukraine remains a mafia state. 

Putin framed the invasion and eventual annexation of Crimea as an act of salvation rather than a clear violation of international law and turned a revolution which could have marked the end of his rule into a much-needed popularity booster – the wave of chauvinism triggered by the annexation of Crimea sent Putin’s approval ratings to an unbelievable 89 percent, while sidelining the opposition and giving him another five years of relatively trouble-free time at home.

But today, on the fifth anniversary of the hastily organised “referendum” on the status of Crimea, which hasn’t been recognised as a legitimate vote even by Russia’s ex-Soviet allies, not to mention the rest of the world, the Russian leader’s winning streak seems to be over. His approval ratings are back at where they were before the annexation and continuing to fall, while the opposition, led by a charismatic leader, Alexei Navalny, is slowly maturing and enlarging its support base.

Putin’s trouble is, this time around there is no flawed revolution or ripe propaganda opportunity like Crimea that can help him solve his popularity problem. His supporters are still expecting him to pull off another trick, but it appears, at least for now, that there is nothing left up his sleeve. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.