For the past two years, Ukraine has been on the receiving end of an innovative Russian information offensive that has redefined our entire understanding of modern warfare. Information attacks have played a key part in the broader hybrid war waged by the Kremlin. Deliberate disinformation, fake news reports and industrial scale trolling have helped Russia to bolster domestic support, demoralize Ukrainians, and disorientate international audiences.
Ukraine has struggled to cope with the novel challenges posed by this information war. Factors such as poor global reach, a low international profile, and extremely limited resources have left the country hopelessly outgunned and unable to confront the colossal Kremlin media machine directly. Instead, Ukraine has had to rely upon asymmetric information warfare, with bloggers, hackers and open source investigators taking on the role of information insurgents. We can now add pop divas to this list, thanks to the headline-grabbing performance of Ukraine’s Crimean Tatar singer Jamala at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.
Ukrainian singer steals the Eurovision limelight
Jamala enters the 14 May Eurovision final in Stockholm as one of the leading contenders. Even if she fails to take first place in the contest, Jamala has already secured a considerable infowar victory for Ukraine. The singer has garnered the lion’s share of international press coverage in the buildup to the final, making her arguably the standout personality of Eurovision 2016. This media attention has focused on the political poignancy of her haunting ballad ‘1944’, which pays tribute to the victims of the WWII mass deportation of the Crimean Tatars by the Soviet authorities.
The Ukrainian singer denies any political message behind her song and says it reflects her deeply personal relationship to the deportation (Jamala was born into a deportee family during the Central Asian exile of the Crimean Tatars). Eurovision organizers agreed with this interpretation. Following an official assessment of the song’s lyrics, they decided it did not breach strict competition guidelines banning political content. Nevertheless, few have missed the contemporary geopolitical implications of the entry at a time when Russian occupation forces in Crimea stand accused of a major crackdown targeting Crimea’s Tatar minority. A number of international bodies including the European Parliament have already condemned the Kremlin’s treatment of the Crimean Tatars. Jamala's song will doubtless serve to focus further attention on this crackdown, while also raising awareness of continued Crimean opposition to the Russian occupation.
Poster girl for the new Ukraine
There are various additional reasons why Moscow will not enjoy Jamala’s performance. Her song’s focus on one of Stalin’s many WWII-era crimes against humanity will be particularly unwelcome given the Putin regime’s efforts to play up the Red Army victory over Nazi Germany and whitewash Soviet atrocities. It may also undermine Kremlin attempts to portray Crimea as historically Russian by introducing international audiences to the ethnic cleansing behind the peninsula’s Russian majority population.
As Ukraine’s representative at Eurovision, Jamala contradicts Kremlin efforts to portray the country as a ‘fascist junta’ where European values of tolerance and equality are under grave threat. A practicing Muslim and a member of an ethnic minority, Jamala won the right to represent Ukraine via a nationwide TV vote and has since enjoyed massive popular support from the Ukrainian public. She is in many ways the ideal poster girl for the new and inclusive sense of Ukrainian national identity taking shape in response to the Euromaidan Revolution and Putin’s hybrid war, and the perfect antidote to lurid Kremlin tales of ‘Ukrainian Nazis’.
Russia reacts angrily
The Russian response to Jamala’s song has been predictably hostile. Russian politicians initially called for her to be banned from Eurovision. There have since been complaints over the ‘politicization’ of the song contest and accusations of ‘Russophobia’. Unable to block her from competing at Eurovision, some Russian TV anchors have resorted to deliberating misrepresenting Jamala’s song. During the 12 May semi-final of the competition, a Rossia 1 channel presenter claimed her deportation tribute song was actually an ode to the challenges of international migration. “The composition is perceived as a prayer for the fate of people who voluntarily or involuntarily leave their home in search of a better life,” the TV commentator explained.
Ukraine’s infowar triumph will be complete if Jamala is crowned Eurovision queen in Sweden, but Russia has a secret weapon of its own who is more than capable of snatching victory away from the Crimean Tatar. Russian singer Sergei Lazarev is the bookmakers’ favorite to win Eurovision 2016 and the Moscow-based star has all the makings of a soft power success story. Lazarev’s catchy and slick bubblegum pop song ‘You Are the Only One’ is the apolitical opposite of Jamala’s historically loaded offering. With Russia facing accusations of homophobic intolerance at home and military aggression in Ukraine, he has spoken out in defence of sexual minorities and publicly stated he regards Crimea as part of Ukraine.
Whoever emerges victorious on Saturday night in Stockholm, it is likely this edition of Eurovision will go down in history as an extension of the hybrid war first launched by Vladimir Putin in Ukraine back in 2014. The conflict has already spread far beyond the borders of Ukraine, but as Eurovision 2016 has demonstrated, Ukraine is gradually learning to fight back.