Seattle views on Crimea, Ukraine and Russia

Crimean coastline. (Photo by Argenberg via Flickr)
Crimean coastline. (Photo by Argenberg via Flickr)

Events in Ukraine have been developing so quickly in recent weeks that this article will likely be outdated by the time I hit “send” to email it to the Seattle Globalist, let alone by the time you read it. As Julia Ioffe describes in her recent New Republic piece, as soon as you start writing about Ukraine – and Russia’s reaction to the situation there – you learn about something else that’s happened, a new twist in the continually escalating spiral.

Within the span of just the past three weeks, Ukrainian president Yanukovych fled the country and a new, Western-leaning government was formed; the Kremlin declared that the rights of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine were being violated; and barely disguised Russian troops appeared in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, followed by an ex post facto authorization of the use of military force by the Russian parliament.

Last-ditch efforts at diplomacy were undertaken and failed, as the United States and the European Union threatened Russia with sanctions while Russian President Vladimir V. Putin remained adamant that his intervention in Ukraine was necessary and legitimate. Now Putin has declared that Crimea is officially part of Russia despite the sanctions.

Given the breakneck speed of these developments, keeping track of the news – and sorting out fact from fiction – can be challenging. This is particularly true for those living in Russia. Most Russians get their news from television, primarily from government-sponsored channels such as Channel 1 or Russia-24, which not only claim that the current Ukrainian government is illegitimate, but label its supporters as Russia-haters and Nazis.

Alarmingly, dissenting voices, which are mostly found online or in print publications with very limited runs and distribution, are being silenced in Russia. Over the past week, the Kremlin closed off access to several major alternative news websites, ostensibly over prohibited extremist content.

The government has also effectively taken over Lenta.ru, Russia’s most popular online news source, by replacing its independent-minded editor-in-chief with a Kremlin loyalist. The prohibited websites, as well as Lenta.ru, have long been critical of Putin’s policies, and most recently have published materials that vocally opposed Russia’s intervention in Crimea and expressed support of the uprising in Kyiv that overthrew the Yanukovych regime.

Russian society is deeply divided over the situation in Ukraine. Social networking websites and user comments on online news articles are full of heated exchanges on the subject, and demonstrations both for and against the annexation of Crimea have been staged in cities across Russia. In this whirlwind of conflicting information and strong opinions, how do local Seattle residents who care about the events in Ukraine stay up to date on the situation, and what do they think about it?

Alexey Belyayev in Balaklava, Crimea, 2012. (Photo by Dmitriy Zaitsev)
Alexey Belyayev in Balaklava, Crimea, 2012. (Photo by Dmitriy Zaitsev)

Alexey Belyayev, a graduate student in economics at the University of Washington, grew up in Omsk, a city of over a million people in southwestern Siberia, Russia, and moved to the U.S. with his family in 2004. Belyayev cited NPR and The New York Times as his main sources of news about the latest developments in Ukraine and Russia. He believes that, with the exception of opinion pieces, these sources present a fairly accurate and objective picture of current events. When asked whether he accesses any Russian news sources, Belyayev said that he typically does not, joking that he was probably too “Americanized.”

Belyayev did admit to looking up Vesti.ru, the website of Russia’s state-sponsored Russia-24 TV channel, “a couple of times, just out of curiosity.” Belyayev says that he views the situation in Ukraine through a “realist lens,” and understands both what drove the protesters to take to the streets in Kyiv starting late last year (economic challenges, corruption, lack of meaningful change, Yanukovych’s abrupt reversal on the EU association agreement) and what is now driving Moscow’s actions (increasing power on the world stage, reluctance to let Ukraine slip out of its sphere of influence, strategic considerations tied to the Black Sea Fleet, which is a part of Russia’s navy but is located in Ukraine’s Crimea).

Belyayev was expecting Crimea to become a part of Russia after the March 16 referendum. He sees it as a positive development for Crimea’s economy. An already popular destination for Russian tourists, Crimea will draw even more Russian visitors if it becomes a part of Russia, he explains. Another economic boon, according to Belyayev, would be discounted gas prices for Crimea as Russian territory – while Ukraine would be subjected to an increase in the price gas that Russia’s gas giant, Gazprom, which supplies Ukraine with natural gas, plans to institute next month.

Corinna Welzenbach in Katmai National Park, Alaska. (Photo by National Park Service)
Corinna Welzenbach in Katmai National Park, Alaska. (Photo by National Park Service)

Corinna Welzenbach, an American who has traveled and lived in Russia and currently resides in Redmond, admits being confused by the flood of contradictory news about Ukraine and Russia in recent weeks. Welzenbach names NPR and friends – including a Ukrainian friend living in Seattle – as her main news sources. She does watch the news on various U.S. television channels sometimes, but “does not necessarily believe them.”

While Welzenbach does not consider herself a supporter of Putin, she has expressed frustration over what she perceives as consistently negative coverage of Russia in the U.S. media. For as long as she has followed current events – going back at least two decades – Welzenbach has felt that the Russian government routinely gets criticized for actions that plenty of other governments engage in but do not get called out for to the same extent.

She is not alone in feeling this way: Jack Matlock, the former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, just wrote a piece for the Washington Post arguing that the U.S. government’s tendency to single out Russia for shortcomings that other countries get away with has played a role in raising U.S.-Russia tensions nearly to Cold War levels.

As a result, she is more likely to trust the opinion of her friends with firsthand knowledge of the situation on the ground, particularly the friend whose family lives in Ukraine, than any media, be they liberal or conservative, Russian or American, government-sponsored or independent.

As for me, I’ll stay glued to some of the same sources as mentioned by my informants – The New York Times and NPR – as well as Russian news sources that I believe to be trustworthy, such as News.ru and Echo of Moscow, to get my fix of Russia and Ukraine related news.

(And, psst, if you are curious about those prohibited websites, you can still access them from outside of Russia – and those in Russia are apparently finding workarounds to the ban, driven by the desire to dig beyond the government version of current events.)

I’d better hurry up and click on those links as they may very well be next on the Kremlin’s blacklist…

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