Re: Ukraine

Ukraine Research Group Blog

Crimea: mediatisations

By Roman Horbyk

Some time ago I wrote about the media aspect of Crimea annexation. I argued that its key developments were shaped by the overwhelming presence of the media on the ground and, even more so, by both sides’ awareness they were surrounded by millions of watching eyes. In other words, the conflict was shaped by the media. It was mediatised.

Yet Sonia Livingstone reminded us about another, more historical meaning of this term.

The so-called “German mediatisation” took place in the early 1800s without Twitter and Instagram. It was a juridical rather than informational process.

By 1803 the Holy Roman Empire, the German state at the time, comprised over 200 partly sovereign domains. Many princes, counts, electors and bishops who ruled over them were subordinated immediately to the emperor, enjoyed full authority in their internal affairs and even the right to external relations not contrary to the Empire’s alliances.

But the Empire lost some of its possessions during the war against the revolutionary French republic. In particular, Napoleon annexed the left bank of Rhine. In order to compensate the losses of those German noblemen who were deprived of their lands as well as under the pressure from French foreign minister Talleyrand, the Holy Roman Empire eliminated most of these nearly sovereign states for the benefit of larger entities and victims of the French annexation. Previous rulers lost their land but not their titles and formal standing. Those who gained lands had to guarantee their loyalty to France.

This was eventually called “media-tisation” so as to underline the loss of imperial im-media-cy by the formations that until then had been subjects only to supreme authority “im-media-tely”.

The recent Russian moves in Crimea and Donbas are both mediatisation and de-mediatisation. Especially ironic is the contrast between the revolutionary France that destroyed by then a rigid and lifeless form and gave way to a more effective one. Unlike that, Russia is a reactionary agent in the current situation; its task is precisely to undermine, dissolute and devaluate the progressive aspects of the Ukrainian revolution. Even the de-facto organisation of the Russian Federation is reminiscent of a feudal empire very much in the spirit of the Holy Roman.

Through the annexation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Russia diminished the real sovereignty it had within Ukraine (which is comparatively more limited now).

Crimea was mediatised.

What the Kremlin wants now is to de-mediatise Ukraine’s other regions, to incline them to a union with Russia after their sovereignty is thus extended, and then whether to re-mediatise them within Russia after the Crimean model (less likely outcome given the financial cost of supporting 6 mln citizens more in Donbas alone) or to enjoy their puppet-state status. The maximum long-standing objective is of course to strip the entire country of its sovereignty, carve it and realign all but perhaps the westernmost regions of Ukraine in a union with Moscow. As such, this might never happen or take relatively long time; but for Donbas, it’s a possible scenario.

Just as the meditised German aristocracy of the 19th century, the local elites will retain their formal statuses. And, unlike some Kurfürst in A.D. 1803, they will preserve even their access to the means of enrichment and some degree of administrative independence that the Kremlin and the newly acquired federative subjects / mediatised satellites would be permanently negotiating ad-hoc.

The condition of the citizens in the territories occupied in such way is also similar to that of a mediatised king without kingdom. All will retain their formal status but won’t be able to utilise it fully. Those who’ll keep the Ukrainian passport won’t be able to enjoy all the rights that ensue. Those who opt for the Russian passport won’t have all the rights entitled to it (such as travels abroad or exercising their citizen rights elsewhere in Russia; media reports confirm this is indeed happening).

Of course, this is not about the precise repetition of the 200-year-old events. Rather, the comparison of their similarities and differences allows understanding where we are now. Russia, the ardent defender of the legitimacy, sovereignty and political and legal forms of the past, is freely playing with one such form, constructing and deconstructing it on demand, and the fulfillment of the perceived egotist “stately” interests is the only rule of this game and the only content of this form.

The case of Donbas slightly differs from that of Crimea. It’s dubious if Russia really wants its full absorption. The logic remains the same however: the game with sovereignty that should lead to an outcome of a weaker / more controllable Ukraine and Russia having sovereignty on Ukrainian territory through the extended sovereignty of the local authority. A game of mediatisation.

And, surely, mediatisation in the more usual meaning is a factor in the game, even though slightly differently than in Crimea. The regular troops can’t be shown, visibility is only permitted for the local-looking paramilitaries, to keep the options open for Russia that otherwise would be unavailable to a state in a state of an open war.

The annexation of Crimea is a blueprint for mediatised warfare

By Roman Horbyk

Mediatisation is among the trendiest concepts in today’s media studies. By it, we usually mean the dependence of our societies on the media in virtually all spheres of life.

The press was once a key actor in all processes from politics to culture. But now the very politics and culture are happening in the media and have to adopt their requirements and logic.

The March annexation of Crimea and the on-going unrest in Eastern Ukraine will be in media studies handbooks as the first truly mediatised wars in history. The outcome of the conflict was determined by the value both sides attributed to their media-constructed images.

Unlike the participants of other recent media-saturated conflicts, Kyiv and Moscow based all their tactical actions on the awareness of being tweeted, posted on Facebook and live broadcast 24/7.

We can try to imagine how the situation would have developed in a less globalised and informationally dense world. Well, there’s even no need to imagine: this is how things unfolded in all armed conflicts between Ukraine and Russia in the past, most notably in 1917 – 1921, when Ukrainian People’s Republic fought for independence desperately against all Russian armies, “red” and “white”. It was all about war as continuation of politics by another means, direct and open use of force, and conventional warfare as we know it.

In 2014, unlike almost 100 years ago, the presence of local and international media created a surveillance effect very much in the style of Michel Foucault. How you are seen is what matters most in the global Panopticon. And both sides put all effort to avoid the story where they would be seen as the initiating side in an all-out war.

The question remains, of course, whether Ukraine could afford acting differently given the combat, material and moral weakness of its force in Crimea. But both states dashed aside from “the first shot” just because they were watched. That’s why the first shot was never fired. That’s why everything happened the way it did.

Actually, the most important thing was perhaps not only the presence of a watching eye, but also the message transmission speed and the time needed to make sense of it.

High transmission and reaction velocity makes events more fast-paced, but it also complicates the work of propagandists who always counted on the belated reaction to manipulation that wouldn’t matter anyway when the manipulation was revealed.

Yet it’s also important to perceive this condition critically. The increased visibility prevented hypothetical casualties and made conventional propaganda less effective. At the same time, Russia managed to utilise it to its own ends.

Russia fully exploited the disadvantaged position of the defending side which was almost forced to assume the role and responsibility of a military aggressor on its own ground. This has all the chances to become a blueprint for future conflicts as the world gets ever more mediatised.

The annexation of Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea is the most mediatised war to date itself. Previously this title was contested by both Gulf Wars and perhaps every other visible armed conflict. But their claims were rather based on the extended and thereto unseen presence of the media on the battlefield.

In Crimea, however, the media became the battlefield. Information warfare was the principal part of it, whereas the use of force by the warring sides was, in their own unwritten agreement, restricted to the forms of a mediatised social movement with its repertoire of spectacle techniques: blockings and takeovers, protest as well as military occupations at once – a sarcastic aftertaste of “Occupy Wall Street”.