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Is Ukraine next?

With Georgia in pieces, Ukraine could be the next to fall to Russia's territorial ambition, separati

Ukraine's political summer season was cool and quiet, despite air temperatures in the high thirties (centigrade) and the war in Georgia, which the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, tried hard to make a matter of personal significance for each Ukrainian.

The president's speeches in defence of Georgia's territorial integrity and against Russian aggression were published regularly in the papers. Television covered the Stop Russia Now! meeting of four presidents in Tbilisi, while the idea that Russia's next target would be the Crimea sparked discussion among Ukrainian politicians and political scientists. Yushchenko put on combat gear that made him look like Fidel Castro and it was announced that Ukraine would be the first to join any international "anti-Russian" alliance - although it remains unclear how such an alliance would act, and the idea now seems to have been put on the back burner.

The political battle cries over the conflict have gradually died down. Despite protests by many politicians, Ukraine's Independence Day on 24 August was celebrated in Soviet style with a military parade down Kiev's main street. Two days later, near the country's second-largest city, Kharkiv, a huge arsenal of ammunition caught fire and, for several days, bombs and mines were exploding, firework-style, over a five-kilometre radius. The minister of defence, Yuriy Yekhanurov, was forced to admit that the ammunition was to have been sold to the government of Chad. At the same time Yushchenko, in his combat suit, was bestowing the rank of general on 117 officers and government administrators.

Thus, Ukraine begins the autumn season of 2008. The start of parliament's first sitting will be dominated by a motion, tabled by the opposition, to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Parliament will not recognise them, just as Kosovan independence is not rec ognised or even discussed. But this only underlines how stable is Ukrainians' "many-sidedness" and how split the political sympathies of the country's eastern and western territories.

For many Ukrainians, the recent military conflict was yet another phase in the ongoing personal war between the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, and the Georgian president, Mikhail Saak ashvili. The first phases of this war were purely economic. There was the ban on imports to Russia of Georgian wine (the wine war) and mineral water (the Borzhomi war, after a famous Georgian water). Then came the ban on imports of Georgian oranges and tangerines (the citrus war). After that began the countrywide campaign against Georgians residing - legally and illegally - in Russia, involving the deportation of illegal "guest workers" and the harassment of others, some of whom were very well known. One of Russia's best-known authors, Boris Akunin, whose real name is Grigory Chkhartishvili, suddenly found himself terrorised by the Russian tax authorities.

However, in response to the most recent Russo-Georgian conflict, Georgians living in Russia have banded togeth er against President Saakashvili. It is not a question of who did what and who is to blame. Georgian Russians simply want to get on with their lives in peace.

People in Ukraine also want a peaceful life, but Ukrainians have been more disturbed by the recent events in Georgia than western Europeans. Russia repeatedly declared that the Georgian army was using Ukrainian arms and that Ukrainian mercenaries were fighting on the side of Georgia in South Ossetia. Although neither charge has been proven, these repeated accusations serve to illustrate Russia's political antagonism towards Ukraine.

Moscow's politicians have repeatedly responded aggressively to Ukraine's demand that Russia prepare to remove her Black Sea fleet from Crimea in 2017, the year the contract under which Russia leases the Crimean naval base expires. The mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, once called Sebastopol "a region of Moscow", and Moscow has been financing the construction of apartment buildings in the city. Luzhkov has also demanded the return of the Crimean peninsula to the Russian Federation. (Crimea was "gifted" to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Ukraine's voluntary integration into the Russian empire.) There are many in Russia who share Luzhkov's views, and few Ukrainians believe Putin's statement, made in an interview on CNN, that Russia has no territorial quarrel with Ukraine.

The perils of Russophobia

Ukrainians note that Russia seemed to have no territorial quarrel with Georgia until the beginning of last month. The suddenness of the Georgian crisis, and that Ukraine has approximately equal numbers of pro-Russian and pro-European politicians and regions, only underlines the complexity of the situation in which Ukraine finds itself. A referendum held in 2006 showed that a majority of South Ossetians did not wish their country to remain as part of Georgia; similarly, if a referendum were held in Crimea today, it would show that most people there do not want to live as part of Ukraine.

In an attempt to transform the south and east of the country, Yushchenko has tried to "Ukrainianise" secondary and tertiary education in the Russian-speaking regions. This has drawn protests from the local popu lation and politicians, and the policy has only increased pro-Russian sentiment in these regions. Yush chenko, called a "Russophobe" in the Russian press, has never been so unpopular. Ukrainian polls give him only 5 to 6 per cent support, the same as the Ukrainian Communists. His chances of winning a second term in office in the 2009 presidential elections are practically nil.

The presidential race is expected to be between Yulia Tymoshen ko and Viktor Yanukov ych. Both would be acceptable to Moscow. Both would be prepared to negotiate an extension of lease for the Crimean naval base and to postpone the question of Ukraine's Nato membership - unless Nato acts swiftly to make Ukraine a member while Yushchenko is still in power.

With regard to the European Union, most Ukrainians understand that they won't get in for at least another 20 years, leaving Ukraine economically dependent on Russia for the foreseeable future. Each anti-Russian move by the Ukrainian president has resulted in the sort of economic sanctions employed by Russia against Georgia, except that now it's Ukrainian meat and dairy products that Russia has banned. Thus, American chicken and Ukrainian dried milk have been the first victims of the current stand-off between the west and Russia.

Ukraine, an industrially developed country, could be seriously harmed by Russian sanctions. Most thinking Ukrainians appreciate that the country requires super-competent politicians if it is to maintain its political independence while being economically dependent on Russia - about which Ukraine has no choice. Unfortunately, the present level of political corruption puts Ukraine a long way from seeing the necessary calibre of politician in its corridors of power. Sadly, Yush chenko has not fulfilled his central election promise to overcome corruption.

But Saakashvili, his good friend and the godfather of one of his children, seems fully to intend to carry out his own election promises. Having been re-elected in January this year, Saakashvili sought to strengthen his position by reinforcing the territorial integrity of Georgia, a task made urgent by the obligation on all countries aspiring to join Nato not to have any unsettled territorial disputes. It is my belief that, in rekindling the South Ossetian conflict, Saakashvili planned to speed up the process of his country's entry into Nato. Perhaps he hoped Nato would join in the conflict on Georgia's side. Surely he could not have imagined that Russia would not respond to artillery fire over a town where a battalion of Russian peacekeepers was stationed, or that the Georgian army could win the ensuing battle on its own. Nato remained outside this conflict, as I believe it would in the case of any military confrontation with Russia, because doing otherwise could take the world to the brink of disaster.

A Pandora's box

The Ukrainian president, like the Georgian leader, wants Ukraine to join Nato as soon as possible, and though Ukrainians themselves are less enthusiastic, right-wing politicians maintain that if Georgia had been a member of Nato, Russia would not have dared to protect South Ossetia or march into Georgian cities and ports.

However, most Ukrainians doubt that the west will put any significant pressure on Russia, and expect that any protests will be confined to hard-hitting rhetoric, along the lines of David Miliband's recent speech in Kiev. On returning to London, he admitted that Europe needs Russian gas and also noted that Gazprom needs European clients and investors.

Meanwhile, untouched by western opinion, Russia has boosted its image as a country prepared for brutal confrontation with neighbours. As Putin put it on 29 August, the west started the business of redrawing the map of Europe when it recognised the independence of Kosovo, thus "opening a Pandora's box". South Ossetia and Abkhazia are only the second and third "evils" to have flown out of that box since Kosovo. Might there be others?

For 17 years, the "independent" state of Transdnestria has existed on the boarder of Ukraine and Moldova. It is populated by Russians, Ukrainians and now well-rooted settlers from the 14th army of the USSR, which was stationed there when the Soviet Union broke up. There are other unrecognised "independent" territories, the leaders of which are now looking hopefully towards Moscow, which is ready to expand its political territory under the banner of the CIS (Confederation of Independent States), a friendly enough sounding union.

All that will be required, from Moscow's point of view, will be the recognition of these states by each other and by Russia - and, in the end, eastern Europe, the Caucasus and central Asia will be firmly within the Russian sphere of influence. The western border of this sphere could very well be drawn through the middle of Ukraine, slicing the country in two.

Andrey Kurkov is the author of "The President's Last Love" (Harvill Secker, £12.99)

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.