The ITAR/TASS Russian news agency reported a statement last week by Volodymyr Konstantinov, a figure relatively obscure to world media, the Chairman of the Crimean Supreme Council. Thanking supporters of Crimean separatism among the states of the Russian Federation, Konstantinov looks ahead, inviting Russian citizens to come to Crimea on holiday. Russians, whatever their citizenship, should “send their children, their friends and family to Crimea, to support our health resorts, to buy package tours and to go on holiday here.” A photo accompanying the story on the ITAR/TASS website shows sun shining on a peaceful shore with blue water, a picturesque headland, and a motor yacht at anchor.
Trying to understand Russia in this constantly reconfigured media landscape warrants discussion, given the mixture of conventional and social media, both biased and less biased. Reading reports from Russian state media, together with Western sources, creates a complex synthetic image.
Reading Russian media takes one through the rabbit hole, but there is lots to learn there. One may not see the game pieces on the Stratego board accurately, but one gets a peak behind the curtain and a snippet of understanding about how all media works: by plugging in new tubes from which information flows, often under pressure.
The bald propaganda rhetoric and its extension to visual rhetoric— pleasure yacht at anchor off the picturesque coast– appear tremendously strange to the US media market. Konstantinov deflects attention away from seized airfields, road blocks, troop concentrations, and warships. Russians are on the move. There is a dash of cynical wit, as Konstantinov seems to say that everything will be all right, and the Crimean leader invites Russians and loyalists– never mind the disastrous economic tribulations that will come– to come visit Crimea on holiday.
Americans have multiple frameworks to process the bizarre and incongruous, and thus respond to propaganda. Konstantinov’s statement does seem like it could be the product of John Stewart’s satire on the Daily Show or The New Yorker’s “Borowitz Report.” Stewart would be grimacing at the photo and making faces of incredulity about vacation package tours for Russians in the Crimea.
The reality of the moment is grim, however. Consider the real boat pictures, enlargements of satellite photos in the New York Times of blockaded Sevastopol harbor. While luxury yachts are far away, the aerial images show, among other Russian combat vessels, the Samum, one of the Black Sea fleet’s pair of missile-bearing hovercraft, and two guided missile ships, the destroyer, Smetlivy, and the cruiser, Kerch.
Konstantinov is not well known on the world stage, and is unlikely to become American talk show fodder. We know his type though from countless comic and condescending portrayals of Russian oligarchs and corrupt, dangerous politicians. Konstantinov was central to a set of meetings– as the Sochi Olympics wound down in mid-February – that laid out plans for subsequent Crimean collusion with Russian aggression.
A leading Putin adviser, Vladislav Surkov, the Grey Cardinal of the Kremlin, a master at pulling strings and the architect of the current Russian government system known as “sovereign democracy,” came south to meet with Konstantinov, the chair of the Crimean Council of Ministers, Anatoliy Mohylov, and Volodymyr Yatsuba, state administrator of the Sevastopol city state. Presumably they were not discussing Russian skating medal counts.
February 20, Konstantinov traveled to Moscow, meeting with Sergey Naryshkin, the speaker of the Russian Duma. Seven days later the invasion of the parliament building in Simferopol replaced Mohylov and placed Konstantinov’s co-conspirator Serhiy Akhsionov, head of the Russian Unity Party of Crimea, in power as Chair of the Council of Ministers. On March 5, Konstantinov and Akhsionov were both indicted by the district court of Kyiv for their anti-constitutional activities in the overthrow of the Crimean government.
Coverage of Konstantinov on the Ukraine Crisis Media Center website from Kyiv asserts with dramatic graphics the personal economic basis for his public advocacy of Crimean separatism. The company Console, LTD, with which he is associated, has outstanding debt of $130 million to Ukrainian banks including JSC Ukreximbank, PSC Promintvest and PJSC Kyivska Rusbank. The Ukraine Crisis Media Center is a start-up, staffed by a small group of volunteers, and began operation on March 5 providing press briefings from Ukrainian officials and Western diplomatic and UN personnel, and it has feeds on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Google Plus.
More than ever, new media tools allow better visualization of the networks of flow: of information, of natural gas, of capital, and of military assets. As Russia acts, faucets will turn at key junctions, and life will start to get difficult for Russian tourists and capitalists everywhere, to say nothing of the situation of ordinary Russians who will experience scarcities first. In a protracted Cold War, and a highly directed information and market war, the West can afford to be supremely adaptive and innovative. With media, big capital, and defense coordinated and determined “to make it hurt” for Russia, targets will be banks, borders, and boardrooms. So despite Konstantinov optimistically inviting Russians to come to Crimea on holiday, the reality is that Crimea will not actually be a vacation for Russia.
Opinion by Lawrence Shapiro