Vladimir Putin ended his unexplained 10-day disappearance on Sunday night by beaming himself into the living rooms of his fellow citizens. The Russian president wasn’t any more or less alive than the day before, but political reality in Russia is determined by what’s on Kremlin TV. For almost 2½ hours, Putin starred as the hero of a faux documentary titled Crimea: The Way Home.
Broadcast on the state-run Rossiya channel, the docufiction was timed to the eve of the first anniversary of Crimea’s disputed independence referendum, held after thousands of Russian troops had seized the peninsula following the Maidan protest in Kiev. The film has little in common with journalism so, as a result, offers few new facts. Yet it provides insight into what makes Kremlin propaganda so effective—and how Putin is trying to rewrite history.
Russian propaganda has come a long way since the days of the Soviet Union. If in North Korea petrified announcers shout the day’s patriotic achievements in sing-song voices, in Russia, the news is presented no differently than in the West: by plastic anchors in sleek studios aided by fancy computer graphics. Sunday’s film was professionally made, with lots of aerial shots and a dramatic soundtrack. No expense was spared for the most comprehensive account to date of Putin’s great Crimean adventure.
The film intersperses snippets of an interview with Putin in a chronicle featuring Crimea’s leadership, Russia’s top brass, and members of the “people’s militia” who rose up against the pro-Western government in Kiev. Documentary footage is mixed with reenactments to create a collage of fact and fiction whose purpose isn’t to document what happened, but to hammer home the narrative that Russia’s lightning covert operation saved Crimea from Ukrainian “fascists,” if not direct NATO intervention.
I was in Crimea last year as the Russian takeover began, but even as an eyewitness who could see through the film’s many distortions, I found the Kremlin’s version of events vaguely alluring. For someone who had not been there—and bombarded with the same message for the past year—the effect would be overpowering. Insinuation, montage, and unprovable “facts” are washing millions of brains of their critical faculties.
In the film, the commander of Crimea’s “Berkut” riot police claims the United States provided Maidan protesters with information on Ukrainian crowd-control methods gleaned during a bilateral exchange program. Russian special forces stopped an attempt by activists from Pravy Sektor, a far-right Ukrainian group, to poison the water supply of the Crimean capital Simferopol. Commandos from the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, politely replaced a door they had broken down while storming a Ukrainian military base in Crimea.
The film’s creator, Rossiya news presenter Andrei Kondrashov, makes no effort to present the other side—not even to get a lazy “no comment” from the Ukrainian or U.S. embassies in Moscow. Kondrashov was reportedly one of more than 300 Russian journalists who received a medal from Putin for “objective coverage of events in Crimea” last year. The Ukrainian government responded by awarding him with the distinction of persona non grata.
Kondrashov distinguishes himself as a particularly sycophantic Putin interviewer. There are no tough questions and no attempts to challenge the Russian president’s past statements, for example Putin’s strenuous denials during the Crimea mission that Russian troops were in any way involved. Instead, Kondrashov lobs one softball after another to the Russian president. “Did you have any doubts you’d succeed?” Putin: “I didn’t have any doubts.”
Putin effectively becomes the second narrator, as the film is his attempt to justify the annexation of Crimea for posterity. “Our advantage was that I was personally dealing with it,” Putin tells Kondrashov. Unlike the dithering Ukrainian leadership and their failing state, Putin says he could give clear commands that went straight from top to bottom. It’s practically a defense of dictatorship: Without an opposition, checks and balances, or any other restraints, Putin was free to act as he saw fit.
On the night of Feb. 22, 2014, Putin says he called his top security officials to the Kremlin. Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president, had just fled Kiev after the protests against his pro-Russian policies ended in bloodshed with dozens shot dead on the Maidan. The first order of business was saving Yanukovych, who, against Putin’s advice, had withdrawn his security forces and left the capital. Putin says he ordered an airborne commando unit to locate Yanukovych’s motorcade south of Donetsk and fly him to safety.
“I told all my colleagues—there were four of them—that the situation in Ukraine had gone so far that we were forced to start working on returning Crimea to Russia,” Putin says. “We couldn’t simply leave that territory—and the people who live there—to their own fate.”
The longer he talks, the more Putin contradicts himself. “The end goal wasn’t the seizure or annexation of Crimea but to give people the opportunity to express their opinion on how they want to live,” he says at a later point. Putin claims that he immediately ordered his administration to conduct a secret opinion poll in Crimea, which found that 75 percent of the population wanted to join Russia. What came first, second, and last—and whether it happened at all—is wholly unimportant. In the end, Putin reverses cause and effect, arguing, “We had to act in order to prevent what’s happening in eastern Ukraine.”
The swift, bloodless annexation of Crimea raised hopes among many inhabitants of eastern Ukraine that by occupying a few government buildings and demanding a ramshackle referendum, they too could force a massive Russian intervention. What they got instead was a bloody insurrection led by a former Russian special forces colonel named Igor Girkin, who claims to have taken part in the Crimean operation and then “set the flywheel of war in motion” in the Donetsk region. Girkin was the military commander of the Donetsk rebels until August, when he was abruptly recalled to Russia.
In Kondrashov’s film, Putin doesn’t see the need to hide the role of Russian special forces in Crimea anymore. Putin takes perverse pride in revealing the details of the secret mission to bring Crimea “home”—from rescuing Yanukovych to buzzing a U.S. warship in the Black Sea. He gloats in the big lie that his soldiers weren’t involved and invites all Russians to join him. Last month he designated Feb. 27 “Special Forces Day,” the anniversary of the deployment.
It’s almost comical how Putin instructs Kondrashov that there was nothing illegal about the sneaky takeover of Crimea. Under an agreement with Ukraine on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet base, 20,000 Russian troops were allowed to be stationed on the peninsula. “Strictly speaking, we didn’t violate anything,” Putin explains. Less strictly speaking, that agreement certainly didn’t provide for those troops to wander off base en masse, seize airports, besiege Ukrainian military units, and cut off Crimea from the rest of Ukraine. As for the Kremlin’s puppet government that was voted into power after Russian special forces seized the Crimean parliament building? “Everything was observed according to Ukrainian law.”
The real lawbreakers, of course, are the meddling Americans. “Formally, the Europeans primarily supported the opposition,” Putin says, recalling the Maidan protests against Yanukovych. “But we knew perfectly well that the real puppet masters were our American partners and friends.” They were the ones who trained nationalist fighters in western Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland, and then helped carry out a coup in Kiev, according to Putin.
It’s always hard to tell how much of his own Kool-Aid Putin has imbibed. But Crimea: The Way Home presents a scary vision of where Russia is headed. Besides Putin, a whole rogues’ gallery of characters play their bit roles in the film: soldiers, rebels, bikers, an ex-gangster—exactly the same people Putin has surrounded himself with and considers the pillars of his regime. The students, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and civic activists who drive social change in healthy societies—and spearheaded the Maidan protest—are completely absent.
What most citizens in the West don’t realize is that Russia has been on a war footing for more than a year. Kondrashov’s film was made for a domestic audience. Putin’s order on Monday for drills putting troops in western Russia on full combat readiness was made for the rest of the world.