Novorossiya (New Russia) is an old term created in the middle of the 18th century. It was the name given to the Russian-speaking territory north of the Black Sea, which Tsarina Catherine II the Great conquered in the 1770s in a bitter struggle against the Ottoman Empire. The territory that included a third of the territory of present-day Ukraine, with the Crimean peninsula and Donbass at the head.
A few years ago, namely in 2014, Vladimir Putin polished this term and put it back on the shelf. Kremlin propaganda strategists had the support of rebels from the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Everyone was ready to use this idea as a justification for the Russian invasion.
“Putin greatly underestimated the strength of Ukrainian national identity”
But Putin’s project has not penetrated the consciousness of the inhabitants of the east and south of Ukraine. The Cambridge University study even points out that the Russian propaganda that has been flooding the Donbass has failed when it comes to building a pro-Russian identity in the region.
“Putin not only failed to convince Russian-speaking Ukrainians that they were victims of “genocide” and that “fascists” controlled power in Kyiv, he also completely forgot to give a convincing alternative answer to the question of nationality. John Ruzenbeck, lead author of the study.
Roosenbeck used a language processor that algorithmically analyzed over 85,000 print and digital articles from 30 local and regional media outlets in Luhansk and Donetsk, articles by local officials, and legislative documents between 2014 and 2017, after the first Russian invasion.
“The Kremlin’s disinformation campaign has long ignored any coherent or persuasive messages encouraging Russian support in this war-torn region that makes up much of the Donbass,” the specialist said.
John Ruzenbeck argues that when the Putin-backed rebels “took over the media by force,” attempts to instill a pro-Russian “identity” were “weak and mediocre” and petered out in just a few months.
“These limited efforts probably had little effect on the minds of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the Donbass,” he adds. And that the propaganda coming from Moscow was trying to demonize the Ukrainian government. However, Novorossiya was barely mentioned, “and the disinformation campaign lacked a real history of confrontation, ‘us’ confronting ‘them’, which is essential in any attempt to create a lasting split,” he adds.
Instead of creating a pro-Russian identity, almost all ideological efforts were based on demonizing the Kyiv leadership and branding it as fascist. This served as the basis, according to the researcher, for launching a campaign aimed at the “denazification” of Ukraine and thereby the creation of what psychologists classify as an “outgroup” on which to focus hostility.
“Eight years of Russian propaganda have failed to offer a credible alternative to Ukrainian citizenship in eastern Ukraine,” Rozenbek says. “Encouraging outgroup hostility instead of building an internal identity was a key reason why the invasion was a strategic and logistical disaster,” he adds.
“Eight years of propaganda have not offered an alternative to Ukrainian citizenship”
Half of the Donetsk and Lugansk print media remained “normal” (sports, entertainment…) between 2014 and 2017, but about 36% of the content was dedicated to pro-Russian “identity building” through propaganda. Basically, this was done using parallels with the Second World War: the conflict in the Donbass as an attack by Ukrainian “neo-Nazis”.
The only newspaper paid attention to the concept of Novorossiya and ignored historical events, which, according to the Cambridge expert, would help in building the group’s identity. The Soviet Union was never mentioned, nor was it forgotten that part of the Donbass declared itself a Soviet republic in 1918.
“The portrayal of the group identity that placed the Donbass within the ‘Russian world’ was almost completely absent from the regional print media,” Rosenbeck says. The scheme was largely reproduced in the digital media, which may have been more vehement in their attempts to demonize Kyiv authorities.
The strategy, which was leaked to German newspapers in 2016, must be the work of Vladislav Surkov, the former head of Kremlin propaganda often referred to as “Putin’s puppeteer.” Surkov, 57, of Chechen origin, was the representative of the President of Russia in Ukraine, but in early April 2022 he was placed under house arrest on suspicion of embezzlement in the Donbass since 2014.
However, some media indicated that the arrest of this high-ranking official (arrested along with the head of Russian intelligence, Colonel-General Sergei Beseda and 150 other agents) was part of a purge initiated by Vladimir Putin against his closest officials. for the bad results obtained during the war in Ukraine.
In the days of his active work, Surkov considered it necessary to build and promote the ideology of “cultural sovereignty” in the Russian-occupied Donbas, which could become a springboard to statehood. “Ukraine does not exist. There is Ukrainianness. That is, a specific mental disorder, an amazing passion for ethnography, taken to the extreme … But there is no nation,” continued Vladislav Surkov.
In 2008, according to the Russian and American press, Putin, during a meeting with George W. Bush, assured that Ukraine “is not a state.” Three years later, he added that “Russians and Ukrainians are a single people” belonging to “the same historical and spiritual space.” The campaign started earlier than previously thought.
“But the (pro-Russian) identity-building propaganda I could find after 2014 (in Donetsk and Luhansk) was vague, ill-conceived and quickly forgotten. Political attempts to refer to Novorossiya were stopped in the summer of 2015, but such weak propaganda suggests that they still did not have much chance, ”notes Jan Ruzenbek.
“Putin greatly underestimated,” the researcher points out, “the strength of Ukrainian national identity even in the Donbass and overestimated the power of his propaganda machine in the occupied territories of Ukraine.”
The problem, he concludes, is that if “Novorossiysk nonsense or other ideological narratives start to circulate in the West, they could end up being used to pressure Ukraine to give up large swaths of its territory as the protracted war in Donbass puts hair to a standstill.” to the international community.”
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