One of the defining characteristics of the conflict in Ukraine is that the two sides can’t agree on a set of common facts, much less an optimal outcome. The divide between the versions of reality that Russians and Ukrainians are living in is evident in a series of dueling videos released by students over the past few weeks.
In late January, students from several Kiev universities released the video below, asking their Russian counterparts not to believe Kremlin propaganda:
The video disputes the Russian line that the overthrow of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was a U.S.-backed coup, says it’s a myth that Ukraine’s new government is dominated by neo-Nazis and fascists, and argues that Crimea was forced at gunpoint to join Russia. “Of course, this information must be different from what was circulated on your mass media and social networks,” one student says. “You don’t have to believe every word we say. The only thing we ask of you is to question and verify.”
Student Yevheniy Melnik, the creator of the video, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the project was student funded and not backed by the Ukrainian government. Last week, a response featuring Russian students from the exclave of Kaliningrad hit the web:
The young people in this video carry a banner for “Set,” a successor to the now-defunct Kremlin-backed youth group Nashi, and according to RFE/RL, there’s some dispute in local media as to whether they are actually university students. But whoever they are, the speakers in the video, which mimics the format and dramatic music of the first, give a pretty good representation of the Russian version of events: Yanukovych was a “legitimate president” overthrown in an “anti-constitutional coup,” the Crimean referendum was a democratic election held under the protection of “polite people,” the bloodthirsty thieves in Kiev are attacking civilians in Eastern Ukraine, and the U.S. and EU are sanctioning Russia because it is the “only country which really fights for democracy.”
A group of Crimean students has also recorded a video, saying that it was their “common, voluntary and conscious choice” to become citizens of Russia:
This one is even more aggressive, telling the Ukrainian students that they have “succumbed to propaganda” and have become “weak-willed instruments” of those who want to divide Slavic nations.
“You spit at your history. You betrayed your ancestors who gave their lives on the front lines of the Great Patriotic War,” says one student, using the Russian name for World War II.
As President Obama and German chancellor Angela Merkel meet today to discuss the ongoing conflict, the videos are a good reminder of why it could be hard for Vladimir Putin to de-escalate even if he wants to. How do you make a deal with people your citizens believe are foreign-backed, genocidal, neo-Nazi thugs and sell it as a victory?