Fireworks, concerts, uplifting speeches and patriotic euphoria: The Kremlin is celebrating the annexation of Crimea as though Russia had won the Second World War, again, rather than grabbing a piece of land from a smaller and weaker neighbour. The public seems intoxicated by victory in a war that was begun, conducted and won largely through propaganda.
Russians have been subjected to an intense, aggressive and blunt disinformation campaign in which they were bombarded by images of violence, chaos and fascism in Ukraine, tales of sinister plotting by the West and evidence of Russia's strength and nobility in response. The Russian media always have shaped reality as much as they have reflected it. In the seizure of Crimea, however, television played as much of a leading role as the army. Russian television, widely watched in Crimea, bolstered the loyalty of the local population while justifying the Kremlin's actions at home.
The propaganda campaign has seen several stages since the protests on Kyiv's Maidan began, says Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Center, an independent pollster. It portrayed Maidan as a conspiracy by the West. It showed the protesters as nationalists, fascists and anti-Semites who had staged a putsch, posing great danger to Russian-speakers. It faked stories of Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Russia, using footage of a border crossing between Ukraine and Poland.
The case for taking Crimea, to defend the Russian population from an imagined threat, morphed into Russia's reclaiming historic lands. Addressing a crowd in Red Square, President Vladimir Putin boomed: "After a long, hard and exhausting voyage, Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to their harbour, to their native shores, to their home port, to Russia!"
Nobody knows how long Putin has been working on the idea of this homecoming -- some say since the 2008 war in Georgia -- but the appointment of Dmitry Kiselev as the face of Russian propaganda in December 2013 marks the moment when he began to execute it. Kiselev's anti-western and homophobic rhetoric made him a marginal figure only a few years ago, but, as the new head of RIA-Novosti, the state news agency, and as an anchor on the state news channel, he has become one of Putin's key weapons and is now subject to European Union sanctions as a result.
Russia's disinformation offensive differs from those of its Soviet forebear in both style and intensity. Soviet propagandists had none of Kiselev's exaltation, sarcasm and theatricality. They spoke in grave, deliberate tones, drawing on the party's lifelong wisdom and experience. The new propaganda, exemplified by Kiselev, seeks to agitate and mobilize the audience, to stir hatred and fear. Wearing a tight suit, he paces up and down, gesticulating and accentuating his words, then drilling them home with a sadistic smile. It is close in style to Orwell's two minutes hate, stretched to more than 30.
The propaganda machine is fuelled by a "cocktail of chauvinism, patriotism and imperialism," one journalist says. It plays on deep feelings among the Russian public: post-imperial nostalgia for the Soviet Union, an inferiority complex toward the West and a longing for self-justification.
The coverage relies on the scale of lies and the elimination of other sources of information, one senior editor says. When Ukraine suspended the broadcasts of Russian state television, substituting the liberal Dozhd channel that had been cut off by cable providers in Russia, it was accused by the Kremlin of suppressing free speech. In Russia, the state-controlled media creates an illusion of uniformity of thought. Many are scared to voice their opinions, not because they may be punished, but because they may be isolated. Any dissenter is described by Putin as a "fifth columnist" and a "national traitor."
On March 24, the Kremlin made an example of Russian historian Andrei Zubov, who was among the first to draw parallels between Russia's occupation of Crimea and the annexation of Austria and Sudetenland territories by Germany in 1938-39. He was fired from his teaching position at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, patronized by the foreign ministry. Zubov's articles and interviews, the institute said, "contradict Russia's foreign policy and inflict careless, irresponsible criticism on the actions of the state, thus causing damage to the teaching and educational process."
In an article in Vedomosti on March 1, Zubov had cited a speech by Hitler that was strikingly similar to the rhetoric used by Putin when he addressed the nation about the annexation of Crimea. As Vedomosti commented in an editorial, the sacking merely confirms the accuracy of Zubov's parallels.
Russia's annexation of Crimea has lifted Putin's approval rating to 80 per cent, up from 65 per cent in January. The number of people wishing to see him re-elected has risen from 32 per cent to 46 per cent, according to Levada, the highest figure since the 2008 Georgian war.
The question is how long such ratings will last. Trumpeting Russia's moral superiority, the Kremlin is preparing ordinary Russians for an economic downturn it no doubt will blame on America. Gudkov argues that, although most Russians support Putin's actions, they are not prepared to take responsibility or bear significant costs in lives or money.
"Television-watching does not imply participation," Gudkov says.
That gives some hope Russia may not go farther into eastern Ukraine. Patriotic hysteria and jingoism, however, may have reached such levels any de-escalation by Putin would seem like a defeat. The danger is he may start to believe his own propaganda and pursue its logic toward renewed confrontation.
Ominously, the Kremlin appears to believe the mild western sanctions imposed so far leave it room for further adventurism.