On Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), now forcibly cleared of protesters, row after row of soldiers, artillery and rocket launchers passed by under special presidential inspection for Ukraine’s Independence Day on Aug. 24. It was the first military parade in five years and an intentional showcase of the latest weapon systems purchased by Ukraine before they were sent to fighters at the front, who have consistently said they were outgunned. President Petro Poroshenko made a speech and closed his remarks by shouting, “Glory to the Ukrainian armed forces, glory to the Ukrainian people, glory to the heroes, glory to Ukraine!”
After months of being outfoxed and outmuscled by Russia, Ukraine’s leaders and many ordinary Ukrainians are eager to project a more powerful Ukrainian state. This military parade not only reflected the growing militarism in Ukrainian society but also spoke to the growing trend of copying Russia — whether its grand military parades on Red Square or its use of media as propaganda tools.
Military style over substance
The irony, of course, is that Ukraine’s current government came to power on the shoulders of a pro-Western protest movement that demanded greater respect for human rights and a more transparent and democratic society. But as the West has proved unable or unwilling to halt Russia as it annexed Crimea and provided armed support to separatists in Ukraine’s east, Ukrainians have increasingly looked to Russia for strategies to combat its influence.
The military parade was a spectacle lifted directly from the Kremlin’s repertoire of military showcases. Every year Russia re-enacts the 1941 march to the front, which saw soldiers marching directly from Red Square to the front lines to fight the Germans. By contrast, Ukraine’s Independence Day festivities on the Maidan in recent years were more family festival than arms showcase.
Though Poroshenko has supported the wobbly cease-fire and negotiations in the east, he has taken a page from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s book, increasingly trying to depict himself as a strongman. Though Ukrainians have thus far been spared shirtless action shots of the chocolate oligarch, Poroshenko has a growing wardrobe of camouflage and military uniforms he now wears for photo opportunities.
And as Ukraine has sought to confront the Kremlin on its own turf, one of the largest areas has been the media. Ukrainian Independence Day saw the launch of Ukraine Today, a 24-hour English-language news channel focusing on Ukraine. The name alone signals that it was meant to be the counterweight to the Kremlin’s international propaganda channel Russia Today, which refers to itself simply as RT.
With war still raging in the east, there has been far more emphasis on fighting that war and strengthening Ukraine’s image than on reform, democracy and the rule of law.
That intent to battle RT became crystal clear after Ukraine Today’s executive producer, Tetyana Pushnova, appeared briefly on RT on Sept. 2 and said, “You are responsible for thousands, thousands of deaths in my country” before going off air. Ukraine Today’s response to RT has been to fight propaganda with more propaganda. Though its broadcasts present a Ukrainian position absent from Russian airwaves, it presents a uniformly flattering image of Ukraine, in which bias is clear and nuance is nonexistent.
Ukraine has trouble getting its message out, but as a country now perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy and fighting a war, funding an English-language news channel was out of the question. So, as for much of the Ukrainian fighters’ gear and supplies, the funding is private. In this case, it is the pet project of Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, who since March has been the appointed governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region and has worked against the separatist movement there.
The media war is about not just what you send out but also what you let in. On Aug. 19, Ukrainian authorities banned 14 Russian television stations for “broadcasting propaganda of war and violence”; one of those stations was RT. Though Russian media was widely blamed for stirring baseless fears of Kiev being run by Nazis intent on banning the Russian language, the original law did not plan on stopping there.
The original draft of the law allowed Ukraine’s Security Council to ban any media outlet and block any website without court order if it was deemed in “security and national interests.” That provision was clearly modeled on Russia’s Internet blacklist law, which, while originally passed allegedly to protect minors from pornography and drugs, has since been regularly used to block and intimidate media outlets critical of the government. In Ukraine the provision was dropped, but only after international outrage at a time when Ukraine is dependent on (often insufficient) foreign support.
Attacks on the media have continued beyond this piece of legislation. After publishing an article saying that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had not kept her pledge to take the most seriously wounded soldiers to Germany for treatment, The Kiev Post, where I work, was attacked on social media by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, which labeled the newspaper a Russian agent. That accusation came from the Russian school of thought that created Russia’s foreign agent law, which allows the Russian government to brand organizations critical of Moscow agents of foreign governments to discredit them.
None of these developments make Ukraine identical to Russia, but they raise questions about what kind of a country Ukraine will have grown into once the revolutionary dust has settled. In his speech to the a joint session of Congress on Sept. 18, Poroshenko said Ukraine had chosen “freedom, democracy and the rule of law” and was on the “forefront of the global fight for democracy,” but with a war still raging in the east, there has been far more emphasis on fighting that war and strengthening Ukraine’s image than on reform, democracy and the rule of law.
Over the past few months, Ukraine has been abused by Russia continuously, and under that pressure it is tempting to copy Russia’s language of strength to prove Ukraine is not weak. But if that trend is allowed to develop as the conflict continues, Ukraine risks becoming the same sort of second-rate copycat Russia that it was before the revolution. Without substantive change in both the law and the way politics is played, Ukraine risks becoming a Western democracy on the pages of speeches and guest lists of conferences, while in reality it will start to resemble the authoritarian Russia it sought to break with in the first place.