Militarization of Russia’s society continues unabated
CIUS weekly report on North American media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 29 April–5 May 2023
Three publications (The Economist, Foreign Affairs, and Atlantic Council) were selected to prepare this report on how the situation in Ukraine was portrayed in the North American press during the past week (29 April–5 May 2023). The sample was compiled based on their impact on public opinion as well as on their professional reputation, popularity among the readership, and topical relevance. These three publications represent centrist and liberal viewpoints on the political spectrum.
This report covers only the most-read and relevant articles about Ukraine, as ranked by the respective North American publications themselves in the past week. Its scope covers promoted articles on home pages and articles from special sections on Ukraine, with the hashtag #Ukraine, from the paper editions of the publications, and about Ukraine from opinion columns and editorials.
Topics featured in the selected articles:
- Ukraine’s current affairs: Ukrainian legal system requires considerable upgrading to handle the prosecution of Russian war criminals; Ukraine should follow Finland’s example in fighting Russia and joining NATO;
- The world and Ukraine: Germany’s contribution crucial to Ukraine’s victory and reconstruction; the West must keep war fatigue at bay and never doubt the importance of Ukraine’s victory;
- Russia at war: Russia’s military successes at Bakhmut will never pay off; Russian children are being trained for the army and taught anti-Western values in school; ordinary Russians genuinely support the invasion.
Ukraine’s and international legal systems lack the capacity to handle cases from the ongoing war. The Economist writes that the investigation of Russian war crimes in Ukraine and prosecution of the perpetrators will take a long time: “Russia has bombed and shelled civilian targets in Ukrainian cities, killing thousands. Its troops have tortured, sexually abused, and murdered non-combatants in towns they have occupied, such as Bucha. Russia has systematically abducted Ukrainian children.” Ukrainian prosecutors have opened more than 80,000 cases against the invaders since 24 February 2022. Prosecution of criminals is complicated in particular due to the absence of mechanisms to charge state leaders (unlike foot soldiers, who are being tried under Ukraine’s national law), the reluctance of Ukraine’s allies to deploy their investigators (on the other hand, they are quite open to providing databases and training), the fraught necessity of exchanging Russia’s war criminals for Ukraine’s prisoners of war, and overreliance (in the absence of more directly relevant and effective legislation) of the prosecution on Ukraine’s criminal code. The Criminal Code of Ukraine lacks the concept of command responsibility that could be used to charge senior commanders, and it does not permit national courts to accept evidence directly from external parties. In a word, Ukraine’s pre-invasion legal system constitutes the major framework for investigation, but it is poorly suited to properly deal with thousands of war crimes and atrocities. Meanwhile, effective international mechanisms of prosecution are hardly in place, either. The Economist presents the story of Oleksandr Marusik, a person who was tortured as a POW by the Russians and is today seeking justice, to illustrate these and other problems. Marusik’s offender was sentenced to 12 years in prison for violating the laws and customs of war; however, he was not present at the trial and the court had no information on his or his superiors’ whereabouts. In this light, the Economist notes that “at tribunals such as those for the wars in Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia, prosecutors learned how to slowly build cases against the senior leaders who organised the violence. In Ukraine that has yet to happen.”
The experience of Finland demonstrates how Ukraine can be successful in curtailing Russian aggression. Andriy Yermak, head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, writes in Atlantic Council that Ukraine is following Finland’s example in its heroic resistance against Russian invasion in the past, and it hopes to similarly become a NATO member. Yermak believes that Finland’s accession to NATO marked “a milestone for broader European security and for [Ukraine’s] own continuing battle against Russian imperial aggression.” Speaking of history, Yermak draws parallels between Stalin’s invasion of Finland in the 1930s to conquer strategically important territories and Putin’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Both Stalin and Putin expected fast and easy victories of their superior armies but ended up slipping into exhausting conflicts. Both then-Soviet and today’s Russian commands cheated in their planning, and the soldiers who brought dress uniforms and musical instruments with them in order to parade in the streets of the fallen capital cities themselves fell prey to the defending armies. Yermak highlights that Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine and keep NATO away from Russia’s borders had the opposite effect: Finland became the Alliance’s member in less than a year and Ukraine grew to be the best advertisement of why states should join the Alliance. Yermak concludes, “As spring turns into summer and new military campaigns loom larger, Ukraine will take comfort and inspiration from the determination of our allies to welcome Ukraine into NATO and, before full membership, to provide Ukraine with security guarantees.”
Germany’s role is instrumental for Ukraine’s wartime successes and postwar reconstruction. Alyona Getmanchuk (Atlantic Council) notes that Ukraine is expecting more support from Germany in order to withstand Russia’s invasion and speed up its EU accession. For decades, the politics of Berlin toward Central and East European states was reactive and Russia-centred. Kyiv has remained critical and wary of these politics—epitomized in Angela Merkel’s decision to put a hold on Ukraine’s NATO action plan in 2008 and authorization of Nord Stream II gas pipeline construction in 2011, as well as her apparent desire to accommodate the Kremlin’s demands during the peace talks in Minsk in 2014. Getmanchuk argues that “for many Ukrainians, Germany’s position highlighted the inadequacy of the wider European response to Russian aggression,” which set the stage for the full-scale invasion in 2022. In the past year Kyiv has tempered its criticism of Berlin, which seems to have acknowledged its strategic flaws and emerged as a key partner for Ukraine: “The early 2023 decision to provide Leopard tanks was a watershed moment in this process that reflected Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s talk of an historic ‘turning point’ in relations with Russia almost one year earlier in the first days of the invasion.” Germany has also helped Ukraine a lot to mitigate the humanitarian crisis and rebuild destroyed infrastructure. That being said, Kyiv hopes that Berlin will adopt a more supportive stance on Ukraine’s EU membership, speed up Ukraine’s accession to NATO (or develop security guarantees equivalent to NATO membership), push the Kremlin for legal and financial accountability for its crimes, and help rebuild the country after the fighting is over. Getmanchuk concludes that “despite the disappointments and frustrations of the past fifteen years, Germany remains a key partner for Ukraine with a critical role to play in the twin tasks of winning the war and achieving a sustainable peace.”
Western governments should be wary of war fatigue spreading across their societies. Nina Jankowicz and Tom Southern (Foreign Affairs) discuss a strategy which Western governments might use to keep their citizens committed to Ukraine’s cause. Jankowicz and Southern emphasize that by forcing an investigation into how US aid was managed in Ukraine, part of the Republican Party is helping Moscow to spread fatigue across the US and demotivate support for providing aid to Ukrainian defenders. The authors also write that Russia is purposely reinforcing fatigue-generating narratives in the West, such as “[it is] sanctions on the Russian economy—not Putin’s decision to invade a sovereign country—[that] will cause a global food and energy crisis”; or that Western governments do too much to support Ukraine; or that Ukrainians are neo-Nazis who should be prosecuted not supported; or that NATO “expansion” provoked the war. While the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts have not brought feasible results yet, sympathy towards Ukraine is starting to waver in several Western countries: “Populations tire of digesting heart-wrenching photos. They get weary of being overloaded with grim information. They begin to break under the weight of accepting refugees, and they fear that they can no longer afford to help suffering strangers or accommodate the increased costs that come with crises.” These social moods increase pressure on Western governments every time a new aid package is designed. Jankowicz and Southern conclude that in order to maintain commitment to Ukraine’s cause, “the Biden administration and members of Congress who support Kyiv must continue to emphasize what Americans and Ukrainians have in common—bravery, ingenuity, resilience, and a fierce love of country… Ukraine’s supporters must draw the connection between the effects of the war on inflation and the actions of one man—Putin.” Finally, Western governments and societies should always remember that Russia expends extraordinary efforts to win on the communications battlefield, which is no less important to it than the kinetic one.
If Russia conquers Bakhmut, it will be the very essence of a Pyrrhic victory. The Economist writes that Russia deployed many of its best units to Bakhmut, a town of strategically minor importance that it has been attacking to no avail since August 2022. The reason for the deployment has been Putin’s fixation on finally conquering the town and achieving a symbolic victory before 9 May—Victory Day, one of the central holidays in contemporary Russia. Unlike last year, this time the Russian leadership has progressed very little on the battlefield; quite the opposite—the invader’s army has suffered unprecedented damage. According to the White House, since December 2022 Russia lost over 20,000 of its troops in Ukraine, the lion’s share of which perished at Bakhmut. Ukrainian losses are also believed to be significant, due to Russia’s superiority in artillery. However, the defenders have not withdrawn from Bakhmut to better-fortified positions, because they want to “deny Russia a morale-boosting victory and to wear the enemy down in the process.” On top of that, Moscow seems to have started suffering from ammunition deficits and exhaustion of its soldiers, many of whom understand that they are being used as cannon fodder. The Economist concludes that even if Bakhmut falls, “bigging up the capture of a provincial town of dubious strategic value may focus attention on how little Russia has achieved in ten months of fighting. In the process it has frittered away its offensive potential, making itself more vulnerable to a counter-strike.”
Russia’s school curriculum encourages Soviet-style militarization and ingrains anti-Western sentiment. The Economist opens this article with an observation that “last year Russia’s parliament enacted plans to create a youth movement emulating the Pioneers, a communist-era organisation that used to promote Soviet ideology. The Kremlin also introduced lessons in ‘Russian values’ into the school curriculum, to fend off Western decadence. In September basic military training, including tips on how to handle a Kalashnikov, will become mandatory for students from 16 onwards.” The rationale behind such changes resides in Moscow’s need to train youngsters for potential recruitment in future, as well as to portray the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a defensive war against the West. However, as noted by the Economist, the promotion of militaristic and patriotic values through the school curriculum may not bear the expected fruits. In the past, there existed at least two Pioneer-type organizations in Russia, yet their success was “patchy.” That happened not least because, according to surveys, “young Russians doubted the state’s ability to transform their lives for the better, thanks to stagnant politics and endemic corruption.”
Ordinary Russians really do support the invasion of Ukraine. Sviatoslav Hnizdovskyi (Atlantic Council) argues that while the Kremlin’s official propaganda draws a picture of overwhelming support of Russians for the war in Ukraine, the reality may be more complex. Polling data that is used as a major point of reference for measuring war support “must be treated with a high degree of skepticism due to the obvious risks inherent in expressing anti-regime opinions in an authoritarian state such as modern Russia.” According to the polls, since February 2022, 55 to 75 percent of respondents have spoken in favour of Moscow’s military actions. While Hnizdovskyi believes that these percentages may be inflated, reality demonstrates that a considerable number of Russians do indeed support the invasion. The evidence for this is eloquent: there have been no major anti-war protests since the invasion outbreak; ordinary citizens launch fundraising initiatives to help supply Russian soldiers on the battlefield; tens of thousands of people have reported acquaintances to the authorities for voicing anti-war opinions; and social media teem with military-themed messages and pro-war accounts, continuing to attract followers. Hnizdovskyi concludes that a combination of factors is encouraging Russians to support the aggression of their state against Ukraine: “Many Russians appear to be driven by feelings of faith and obedience vis-à-vis the authorities. Other factors include notions of national identity that are rooted in Russia’s imperial past and a strong desire to belong. Many Russians may be choosing to adopt pro-war positions in order to associate with like-minded people and demonstrate their own patriotism. Others may be motivated primarily by a desire to avoid accusations of disloyalty.”