On 22 March 2017, Ukraine’s authorities barred Russia’s entrant to the Eurovision Song Contest from entering Ukraine. The three-year ban effectively prevents Yulia Samoilova from performing at the contest, which takes place in Kyiv from 9 to 13 May. Ukraine’s state Security Service (SBU) imposed the ban because, in 2015, Samoilova performed in Crimea. Since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, Ukrainian law requires artists wishing to visit the peninsula to first apply for special permission from the Ukrainian authorities. Without it, they are subject to a ban, while their songs – where those artists are singers – cannot be played on Ukrainian radio or TV. In line with these regulations, Ukraine has already barred dozens of Russian and other foreign artists, including Gérard Depardieu and Steven Seagal, from entering the country.
Official Moscow, quite expectedly, appeared to be furious. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin called Ukraine’s move “yet another outrageous, cynical and inhumane act by the Kiev authorities”. Maria Zakharova, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, wrote on Facebook that “the current Ukrainian authorities have once again shown they are a regime infected with Russophobe paranoia and nationalist complexes”, adding that “evidently Kiev is really scared of a fragile girl”. Zakharova’s remark about Samoilova’s “fragility” is apparently a reference to her disability: Samoilova has used a wheelchair since childhood. The singer echoed Zakharova’s comments by expressing her surprise that Kyiv allegedly saw a threat “in such a little girl” as herself.
Despite the legality of Ukraine’s decision, the ban does not do Ukraine’s international image any favours. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which produces the Eurovision Song Contest, released a dubious statement saying that “we have to respect the local laws of the host country”, but adding that the EBU was “deeply disappointed” in Ukraine’s decision to ban Samoilova. They “feel it goes against both the spirit of the Contest, and the notion of inclusivity that lies at the heart of its values”. Some international media also seemed to sympathize with Samoilova and emphasize her disability. For example, the BBC reported: “adding to the howls of outrage here is the fact that the singer being banned has used a wheelchair from childhood and this year the slogan for Eurovision is celebrating diversity”. Other major media outlets used the words “wheelchair” and “ban” in the same sentence, subtly implying that Ukraine’s decision was questionable on ethical grounds.
However, such reactions from the major international media were apparently exactly what Moscow expected, while the Kremlin’s fury seems to be a choreographed act of the information war that Putin’s regime is waging against Ukraine as part of its wider strategy of hybrid warfare. Official Moscow knew that Samoilova had performed in Crimea and that Ukraine banned Russian artists who had performed there. It chose a disabled person as Russia’s Eurovision entrant in the full knowledge that Ukraine would be compelled to ban her and, thus, sully its own international reputation. Because in the fullness of time, the international audience will look back and remember the fact that Ukraine banned a disabled person, rather than Ukraine’s legitimate reason for doing so.
Official Moscow’s actions conform with a Soviet info-war trick called “reflexive control”. Military analyst Timothy L. Thomas defines reflexive control “as a means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action”. The Kremlin presented Ukraine with two options, both of which were mousetraps. Were Ukraine to allow Samoilova to enter the country, it would violate its own law and tacitly recognize the “Russian status” of Crimea. Were Ukraine to stick to the rule of law and ban her – and this is what happened – it would indirectly tarnish its image as a country that adheres to European values. If Ukraine yielded to international pressure and lifted the ban, that would be even better for the Kremlin, which could then argue that Ukraine was a western stooge.
That the Kremlin would try to politicize its nomination for the Eurovision Song Contest in Kyiv had long been expected. After all, Moscow simply could not miss an opportunity to deliver a riposte to Ukraine winning the contest in 2016. Last year, the Ukrainian singer of Crimean Tatar origin Jamala won the competition with a song called “1944”, which was widely seen as politically charged: in 1944, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered the deportation of Crimean Tatars from Crimea. Reference to Russia’s annexation of Crimea was all too evident. (Some Russian politicians and officials even suggested boycotting this year’s contest in Kyiv).
Countering reflexive control
Putting the Kremlin’s ill-will aside, the current situation points to failure on the part of Ukraine on two counts. For it comes as a result of both the SBU’s unsatisfactory work and a lack of creativity in dealing with the insidious opponent.
Firstly, it was the SBU’s job to trace all non-Ukrainian artists who performed in Russian-annexed Crimea in violation of Ukrainian law and ban them from entering Ukraine straight away. Had Ukraine already banned Samoilova from entering Ukraine in 2015, when she performed in Crimea, Moscow would not have chosen her for the Eurovision Song Contest and Ukraine would not have found itself in such an inconvenient situation. (There is little doubt that Moscow would have attempted to do something else to damage Ukraine, but that would have been a different story). At the very least, the SBU could have identified potential candidates during the selection process, checked if they violated any Ukrainian laws and banned Samoilova before she became Russia’s Eurovision nominee.
Secondly, the very acceptance of the idea that there were only two ways to respond to Moscow’s nomination was already an indication of the success of the Kremlin’s reflexive control operation. By accepting Moscow’s rules of the game, Ukraine could not win, but it could have minimized the damage resulting from the Kremlin’s info-war operation or even turned the tables. As Sergej Sumlenny, head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Kyiv, wrote on Facebook, Ukrainians could have outsmarted the Kremlin: “If for example Jamala met the Russian singer at the airport and told her: dear kid, you obviously do not know at all what happened [in] Crimea before. Let me invite you to my house and tell you the story of my people. And there would be pictures in the media [showing] how Jamala [tells] Yulia the real history, and tell[s] her what [the] Kremlin does not want to be told”. Or, as another commentator wrote, Ukraine could have arranged for the Russian singer to meet with Ukrainian servicemen who were disabled as a result of injuries sustained while defending Ukraine against Russian aggression. Ukraine could have come up with other ideas too. It is undeniable that all of them would have been very political, but – given the circumstances – there is no apolitical way of responding to the Kremlin’s reflexive control operation.
Today, there seems to be no solution to the problem of Russia’s Eurovision contestant. Following the Ukrainian travel ban, the EBU made an unprecedented move and offered Russia the opportunity to have Samoilova participate in the contest via satellite. As the EBU argued, this would be “in the spirit of Eurovision’s values of inclusivity” and this year’s theme of celebrating diversity. Moscow rejected the EBU’s offer. To a certain degree, this improves the otherwise inconvenient situation for Ukraine, since it is now Russia rather than Ukraine that is throwing sand in the Eurovision machine. Nevertheless, the overall situation is far from having been resolved, and Moscow will likely continue using it to damage Ukraine’s international image.