Since early 2014, Germany has been a key battleground in the international information war waged over Russia’s armed intervention in Ukraine. Berlin has led the EU’s united response to the crisis and has been instrumental in maintaining sanctions, but Germany has also witnessed the rise of the so-called “Putin Versteher” or “Putin Understander” community that has sought to explain or excuse Russian aggression in Ukraine. Business Ukraine magazine invited German correspondents Benjamin Bidder of Der Spiegel and Alice Bota of Die Zeit to share their impressions of the German media’s response to the headline-grabbing events in Ukraine.
Prior to the start of the Euromaidan protests in 2013, Ukraine suffered from a very low international profile. What impact has this previously low profile had on German media coverage throughout the Ukraine crisis, and how has this coverage evolved over the past three years?
Benjamin Bidder: Ukraine had previously been a closed book for the West in general, both in terms of politics and media. German business generally wants more coverage of interesting investment markets like Russia. Ukraine was never particularly appealing for German investors because it was viewed as high risk with high corruption, with rather lower returns from the domestic market due to low incomes. Reporting on Ukraine since the beginning of the Euromaidan protests has suffered from a lack of understanding about Ukraine, leading to some extremely superficial coverage. Initially, almost every German news outlet ran feature articles about “Klitschko’s hardest fight”. While I do sympathize with him, it was already pretty clear in 2013 that there were figures with much more influence on the situation than Vitaliy Klitschko himself.
Another example of this superficial coverage was the characterization of “pro-Russian President Yanukovych”. While he clearly enjoyed closer ties with Russia than the West, Yanukovych was primarily a pro-Yanukovych politician. In reality, his relationship with the Kremlin had always been a very difficult one. Nevertheless, many in the German media began coverage of the Euromaidan protests by painting a black-and-white picture. The Russian guy was the problem, whereas the Western guy (Klitschko) would fix it. We now understand that ‘fixing Ukraine’ is a very complex task, but in the early days of Euromaidan, there was a huge deficit of reporters with knowledge of Ukraine. Things have naturally improved since then, largely because so many German journalists have spent time in Ukraine.
Alice Bota: The majority of the German media was unprepared for the events that have taken place in Ukraine since November 2013. There was a lot of Ukraine coverage after the Orange Revolution and some more during EURO 2012, but then it died down. Very few German media outlets had correspondents covering Ukraine on a regular basis. There were hardly any correspondents permanently based there. There was a lack of deeper knowledge and understanding of the history of Ukraine. Since then, the situation has improved. German journalists were on the ground during Euromaidan. They covered the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in east Ukraine. However, it is too early to say how significant these changes will prove in the long term. Some media outlets have opened offices in Kyiv, but most have not done so due to economic constraints. I try to cover Ukraine by paying regular visits, by spending a lot of time reading up and talking with Ukrainians. One of the other problems with Ukraine coverage has been the publication of outspoken opinions by people who lack the necessary local knowledge and simply reproduce clichés. This is more of a general journalistic problem than a German problem.
As the crisis stretches on and becomes less of an immediate threat to European stability, is it becoming more difficult to interest German editors and media managers in Ukraine-related content?
Benjamin Bidder: On the one hand, there is certainly less breaking news related to Ukraine. As cynical it may sound, even the periodic eruptions of fighting in the east of Ukraine are no longer considered particularly newsworthy. Nevertheless, audiences and editors alike are – for the first time for years – highly interested in background information. They want Ukraine explained, maybe because of the lack of explanation we experienced until Euromaidan happened. The challenge for German media correspondents is to find interesting stories that help to explain Ukraine. For example, we recently produced a feature article about Ukraine’s young reformers, while my colleague Christian Neef ran a four-page portrait on Nadia Savchenko.
Alice Bota: It is true to say there has been a noticeable decrease in the attention paid by the German media to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the reforms taking place in the country. The attention span of the German public and the German media appears to have been exhausted: there is neither a full-scale war nor peace in eastern Ukraine. From a macro perspective, not much has changed over the last two years. The public is getting used to the concept of ‘unrest somewhere over there in the East.’ This is unfortunately part of the Russian strategy. Eventually, people will get used to situation that would normally be regarded as unacceptable. This strategy is proving successful. It is our responsibility as journalists to keep covering the issues regularly.
Much has been said about the prominence in Germany of “Putin Versteher” or “Putin Understander” sentiment promoting compromise solutions and attempting to rationalize the Kremlin’s conduct. What kind of impact has this had on German media coverage of events in Ukraine?
Benjamin Bidder: I see myself as a Russia understander. But I’m also a Ukraine understander. Unfortunately, people tend to confuse “Verstehen” (understanding) with agreement. For the last seven years as a correspondent in Moscow, I have tried to understand and explain a lot that I personally did not agree with. Understanding the true situation is the basis for any good analysis, and for adopting the right policies. There is indeed a rather large and influential group of self-styled “Putin-Versteher” in Germany. Many of them see Germany’s and Europe’s relationship with Russia as a battlefield within a much larger conflict. Many dream of a reorientation of Germany and the EU, meaning a drift away from the United States. Interestingly, they usually have no understanding on what is actually going on in Russia or Ukraine. They simply believe Putin is right, because they want to believe it.
Alice Bota: I don’t find this term very helpful. It is ambiguous and is often misused in debates. Typically, it is a way to accuse someone falsely, or it serves to trivialize a bigger issue. The real question should be whether we are reverting to the “Realpolitik” of the Cold War era, or whether our understanding of international relations has shifted since 1989. Should Germany be focusing intensively on bilateral relations with Russia, or should the focus also be on Russia’s neighbours and the need to strengthen EU policy? The term “Putin Versteher” implies that those who are critical of Putin’s policies somehow lack understanding, when in fact it is quite possible to understand him and his motives without accommodating him and his goals.
There is indeed a strong pro-Russian lobby in Germany for both economic and cultural reasons, and their impact is huge. However, if you label somebody a “Putin Versteher”, you effectively end the discourse at the very beginning of the argument. I prefer to put all labels to one side. Let’s discuss specific things over and over again, like Russia´s role in eastern Ukraine and the Kremlin’s attempts to destabilize Ukraine. Sometimes it is tiresome, sometimes it is upsetting, sometimes it seems like a waste of time. But in the end, it is absolutely essential.
The fake ‘Our Lisa’ sexual assault story promoted by Kremlin media in early 2016 was likened by many to the kind of information attacks frequently used against Ukraine in recent years. Was this incident perceived as a wakeup call by German media regarding the dangers posed by Russian information warfare, and has it led to any changes in attitudes towards narratives originating in Russia?
Benjamin Bidder: Yes and no. It definitely was a wakeup call for the broader German public and for our government. On the other hand, the Lisa incident also showed that our society is pretty strong. Yes, there were some protests in Germany across dozens of cities. However, no more than 10,000 people joined these protests in total. So on the one side, this event showed how vulnerable Germany’s Russian-speaking community is. On the other side, 10,000 out of a mass of more than three million Russian-speakers is not actually so bad.
Alice Bota: Yes, the Lisa case shook many Germans, especially politicians, to the core. It laid bare some complex issues of mistrust and, in some cases, highlighted the failed integration issues within Germany’s Russian-speaking community. Largely for these reasons, many people interpreted the Lisa incident as part of Russia´s hybrid war against the West. In this particular case, I do not find such terminology very helpful because it trivializes events in Ukraine. Russia is waging a hybrid war against Ukraine, not against Germany. There have clearly been numerous attempts to influence the German public, to misinform, and to confuse audiences by offering multiple alternative versions of events, but this is not a new phenomenon. The Central and Eastern European countries have been facing this Russian strategy for years. However, very few politicians in the Western countries paid attention to these developments prior to 2014. Now that Russia has increased its information efforts and Germany has faced disinformation aimed at the top level of diplomacy, Europe is trying to cope with the problem by debunking myths. However, these Western attempts have not had much success so far. The effect of all this debunking is limited. To put it in Churchill’s words: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Crucially, we cannot react to propaganda by using counter-propaganda. As members of open, democratic and pluralistic societies, we cannot defend our values by using the same methods we condemn. Of course, we find ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place because Russian propaganda deliberately exploits this pluralism, but we must remain true to our principles.
The Ukraine conflict has exposed the vulnerability of the entire Western world to information attacks, leading some to declare a crisis of confidence in the mainstream media. Does the relative success of Russian information warfare signal a decline in the credibility of traditional international media?
Benjamin Bidder: I would disagree that Russian informational warfare is a real success. If you look at the German-language spin-off version of RT, it is real trash TV! If you already believed in the big “CIA-Bilderberger-Nato-conspiracy”, you would probably like it. But Russian propaganda has so far failed to reach a broader, saner public. Even the English-language service of RT, which runs some clever propaganda, has proved to be pretty limited in influence. If you check the worldwide reach of their webpage with similarweb or other services, you can see their audience is not as big as you might expect given the budgets involved and the hype surrounding the channel. Nevertheless, Russia has had some success where they have tried to amplify the self-doubts existing in Western societies. That is why they cover things like the NSA/Snowden story all of the time, as well as the EU migrant crisis. They do exploit the West’s weaknesses. The easiest way (and perhaps the only effective way) to fight against this is to solve our own problems.
Alice Bota: The so-called crisis of confidence in the Western media is a much broader issue than the supposed success of the propaganda produced by Russian state-owned media. Nevertheless, the impact of this propaganda is indeed visible. Traditional international media is facing many problems as the media landscape changes and audiences evolve all over the world. As a result of these changes, we find ourselves in what many people are calling the “Post-Fact Age”. Russia has seized this opportunity and mastered the art of disinformation. The Russian reaction to the international investigation into the MH17 crash demonstrates this process quite vividly, with the facts established by the independent probe simply ignored by numerous prominent Russian state media outlets. This changing environment creates enormous challenges for journalists but blaming Russia will not help to deal with the “Post-Fact” phenomenon. We have to keep on investigating, researching and reporting. Ultimately, it is a matter of keeping calm and carrying on.
At present, international coverage of Ukraine is understandably dominated by the hybrid war with Russia and the post-Maidan fight against endemic domestic corruption. Nevertheless, there is much more to the country than these two key themes. Which other aspects of contemporary Ukraine do you think are worthy of greater international attention?
Benjamin Bidder: Ha! I could offer pages of advice here! In terms of business coverage, the big story is the revival of agriculture in Ukraine. Socially, things like the peaceful multiculturalism of Odesa would make great stories for international audiences. I encountered over one hundred different nationalities in a single Odesa school!
Alice Bota: Reducing any country to the context of revolution and war is tragic and wrong. There is so much more to write about. I would definitely mention the outstanding authors Ukraine has to offer, many of whom are becoming more and more popular among German readers. There is a vivid art scene and an impressive amount of festivals such as the annual international film festival in Odesa. However, for now the war and the post-Euromaidan are the most attention-grabbing events for Ukraine. As such, we cannot neglect them. We have to closely follow the developments in eastern Ukraine and monitor the process of reforms. Even Ukrainian writers like Serhiy Zhadan, Andriy Kurkov, and Kateryna Mishchenko deal with the topic of war in some of their recent publications. The upcoming years will be crucial for Ukraine. The outcome of the war in the Donbas and the anti-corruption fight will determine the future of Ukraine, so for the time being, these subjects should rightly remain the primary focuses for journalists covering Ukraine.
About the interviewees: Alice Bota is Head of the Moscow office of Die Zeit. She has been reporting on Ukraine since 2013 and has travelled extensively in the country covering Eurommaidan, the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas. Benjamin Bidder was the Moscow correspondent for Der Spiegel from 2009 until September 2016. He recently joined the publication’s economics and business team and will continue to cover Russia and Ukraine from an economic perspective.