Russia walks fine line on truth in Ukraine
Moscow has painted a picture of chaos and danger in eastern Ukraine, although it is pro-Russia forces themselves who created it by seizing public buildings and setting up roadblocks.
The New York Times
MOSCOW — The Facebook post Tuesday morning by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of Russia was bleak and full of dread.
“Blood has been spilled in Ukraine again,” wrote Medvedev, once favored in the West for playing good cop to the hard-boiled president, Vladimir Putin. “The threat of civil war looms.”
He pleaded with Ukrainians to decide their own future “without usurpers, nationalists and bandits, without tanks or armored vehicles — and without secret visits by the CIA director.”
And so began another day of bluster and hyperbole, of misinformation, exaggerations, conspiracy theories, overheated rhetoric and, occasionally, outright lies about the political crisis in Ukraine that have emanated from the highest echelons of the Kremlin and reverberated on state-controlled Russian television, hour after hour, day after day, week after week.
It is an extraordinary propaganda campaign that political analysts say reflects a new brazenness on the part of Russian officials.
And in recent days, it has largely succeeded — at least for Russia’s domestic audience — in painting a picture of chaos and danger in eastern Ukraine, although it was pro-Russia forces themselves who created it by seizing public buildings and setting up roadblocks.
In essence, Moscow’s state-controlled news-media outlets are loudly and incessantly calling on Ukraine and the international community to calm a situation that Ukraine, the United States and the European Union say the Kremlin is doing its best to destabilize.
Even the United Nations weighed in. In a report released Tuesday, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said that threats to ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, cited repeatedly by Russian officials and in the Russian news media as a potential rationale for Russian military action, were exaggerated and that some participants in the protests in the region had come from Russia.
“Although there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian community, these were neither systematic nor widespread,” said the report, which was based on two U.N. missions to Ukraine between March 15 and April 2.
There is no question that the new Ukrainian government and its Western allies, including the United States, have engaged in their own misinformation efforts at times, with officials in Kiev making bold pronouncements in recent days of enforcement efforts that never materialized.
On Tuesday, some U.S. officials were spreading unverified photographs allegedly showing Russian rocket launchers carried by pro-Russian demonstrators in eastern Ukraine.
“It’s all lies,” said Lilia Shevtsova, an expert on Russian politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The Russia leadership doesn’t care about how it’s being perceived in the outside world, in the world of communication, in the world where we have plurality of information and where information can be confirmed and checked. This is a radical change in attitude toward the West.”
Shevtsova added: “We can’t trust anything. Even with the Soviet propaganda, when they were talking with the Soviet people, there were some rules. Now, there are no rules at all. You can invent anything.”
To watch the television news in Russia is to be pulled into a swirling, 24-hour vortex of alarmist proclamations of Western aggression, sinister claims of rising fascism and breathless accounts of imminent hostilities by the “illegal” Ukrainian government in Kiev, which has proved itself in recent days to be largely powerless.
The Rossiya 24 news channel, for instance, has been broadcasting virtually nonstop with a small graphic at the bottom corner of the screen that says, “Ukrainian Crisis,” above the image of masked fighter, set against the backdrop of the red-and-black flag of the nationalist, World War II-era Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which inflicted tens of thousands of casualties on Soviet forces.
Russia has flatly denied any role in the unrest in eastern Ukraine, and the Russian Foreign Ministry, which normally champions the authority of the United Nations, dismissed the new humans-rights report as biased.
In a statement, Aleksandr Lukashevich, a foreign-ministry spokesman, called it “one-sided, politicized and unobjective.”
Lukashevich said the report ignored “the unchecked rise of aggressive nationalism and neo-Nazism” in Ukraine, adding, “the document abounds in flagrant selectiveness.”
Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University who is teaching in Moscow this semester, said that some of the lies were blatant. “You can have the sight of the Russian state honoring the ‘heroes of Crimea’ without finding any need to reconcile that with the official line that there were no Russian soldiers there,” Galeotti said.
Still, he said the propaganda was strikingly effective in Crimea, throwing the West off-balance and buying Russian forces just enough time to solidify their control over the peninsula.
“It was on one level transparent, embarrassingly transparent,” Galeotti said. “But I know from my conversations with various people in government, it did create that sort of paralysis, or uncertainty.”
Putin said in a phone call Tuesday with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, that Ukraine was on the brink of civil war, a point Medvedev also made at a news conference later in Moscow, adding that the government in Kiev was to blame.
“The only way to preserve Ukraine and calm the situation,” Medvedev said, requires “recognizing that Russian citizens are the same as Ukrainians, and therefore, can use their own language in everyday life.”