Western readers often have little idea of what is being said about Ukraine in the Russian media. They might suspect that the TV and press coverage is full of disinformation, and they would be right. But they would likely be shocked at the nature of this coverage. The blogosphere in particular carries propaganda that is crass and ugly. The material that fills the social media (facebook, twitter, blogs) is frequently negative, abusive, and replete with calls for mass violence.
This is not a grassroots phenomenon, but a top-down campaign, planned and financed. Already two years ago Western news sites noticed that they were being flooded with prepared propaganda. On 7 February 2012 The Guardian reported: “A pro-Kremlin group runs a network of internet trolls, seeks to buy flattering coverage of Vladimir Putin and hatches plans to discredit opposition activists and media.” Since then the disinformation campaign has infested comment threads on numerous Western sites. One reporter has complained that readers and reporters alike are concerned that the comments are made by individuals ‘paid to troll, and to denigrate in abusive terms anyone criticising Russia or President Vladimir Putin.’ Some comment sections now resemble ‘a sea of incredibly aggressive and hostile users,” with the most obvious having created accounts since February 2014, the date on which the Russian government began to flood the sites (Chris Elliott in The Guardian, 4 May 2014).
How abusive and violent is the coverage? The following postings from a military blogger are indicative. Sergey Grishin has over 1,800 followers (http://vk.com/preface28#/preface28). He supports the Russian intervention into Ukraine and continually reposts from a few preferred sites. These posts were made over a three-day period, 3 – 6 May 2014.
6 May, 8.10 pm. He reposts the following comment: ‘The hypocritical United States cries with foam on its lips that Russia is helping Ukrainians in the war against the American-Banderite occupation. Washington in the meantime, having occupied Ukraine, has for the last 23 hours continued to sponsor the Kyiv junta in a war with its own people.’ This comment precedes an item from the Russian news site RIA Novosti (ria.ru) dealing with US financial support for Ukraine.
6 May, 7.49 am. He reposts an item from a Russian website (tvzvezda.ru/news) informing that ‘inhabitants of Sloviansk’ have reported 150 killed and wounded in fights with Kyiv government forces. The ‘inhabitants’ are quoted as saying: ‘On Semenovka they executed people in a special institution, a hospital for the psychologically disturbed. According to an eyewitness, they began shooting the patients through the windows without entering, and did not allow any of the psychiatric patients to leave. There were ordinary patients and medical personnel inside.’ No sources or evidence is provided.
5 May, 6.55 pm. He reposts a report from the pro-Russian website named ‘For a United Rus’ (vk.com/preface28#/za_edrus_xepcon). It informs that North Korea has called the USA ‘hell on Earth.’ In response to a UN document detailing human rights abuses in their country, the North Koreans have accused the United States of being ‘the world’s main abuser of human rights’ and have presented the latest information on the enormous number of prisoners in US jails, on the growth of unemployment, poverty, and the rising cost of housing in the US.
Readers are told that the Korean response appeared shortly after the UN documented North Korea’s practice of public executions and imprisonment in concentration camps. They also learn that in February North Korea called the prime minister of Japan ‘an Asian Hitler’ for stating that he intended to strengthen his country’s armed forces.
No attempt is made by the ‘United Rus’ website to challenge these North Korean assertions. The point of the report seems to be to discredit the UN, and to tarnish the image of both the US and Japan. The following image of North Korean unity is attached.
5 May, 6.55 pm. He carries a report posted by a site specializing in disinformation, which is called ‘Russia, Ukraine, Belarus: Patriots of the Anti-Maidan.’ The article states that the Ukrainian army is conducting ‘punitive action against the homeguard [opolchentsev] in Sloviansk.’
5 May, 6.50 pm. He posts a comment from 5.14 pm by Alexander Dugin, a political scientist favoured by the Putin administration: ‘After the slaughter on 2 May 2014 in Odesa it is shameful to be Ukrainian. One has to become a Slav, a Novoross, a Maloross [Little Russian] … anything but a Ukrainian. Such a people no longer exists. It is a pseudo-people, a failed people. [Dugin gives the word ‘failed people’ in English. Obviously he has heard the term ‘failed nation.’] Dugin accompanies this comment with the following image.
May 5, 3.47 pm. Another comment by Dugin appears: ‘The situation in the Donetsk oblast is red hot. The lack of reaction from the Kremlin to the Russian holocaust in Odesa has been taken by the junta [he means the government in Kyiv] as an invitation to begin military operations. Armed forces have been sent to Sloviansk. Despite all the previous false starts, at a given moment the swine will begin a genuine advance, when they outnumber us by 30 to 1, as will soon be the case. I think it is time [to act]. There is no point in waiting any longer.
5 May, 3.45 pm. He posts a report that appeared at 2.53 pm on the site ‘Iugo-vostok! Ienoty!’ (South-East! Racoons!) In it Igor Strelkov, a Russian military man who is now the commander of anti-government forces in Sloviansk and Donetsk, reports an ambush in which 5 of his fighters were killed, supposedly at the hands of ‘Right Sector’ forces in civilian clothing. One ‘Russian’ is described as willingly coming over to the separatist side. Many of the other ‘amoeba’ fighting on the pro-government side are described as ‘readily admitting’ during negotiations that they are serving ‘mongrels and Nazis’ even though they ‘remain faithful to their oath.’
5 May, 3.42 pm. Grishin reports that according to the SBU (Ukrainian Secret Services) and MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) Kernes, the mayor of Kharkiv, shot himself in the back twice. Grishin provides no sources or evidence. This comment has since been removed, perhaps because it can easily be checked and is patently ridiculous.
5 May, at 3:42 pm. Grishin posts: “Those bitches executed civilians. They shot into people’s homes. Many peaceful citizens have been killed. I HATE THEM.’ This comment relates to a report claiming that women threw Molotov cocktails into the building in Odesa where pro-Russian activists burned. This comment, too, was later removed.
5 May, at 8:02 am. He reposts another unsourced piece of hate propaganda, also later removed, probably because it is self-discrediting:
‘According to received information, the popular liberation army of the South-East is ready for a full-scale confrontation with the Banderite junta. Insurgent companies are ready in other Ukrainian oblasts and in Kyiv itself. Yanukovych will any day now come to Kyiv and will be supported by practically the entire army. He will be supported by the MVS (Ministry of Internal Affairs) and even the SBU (Ukrainian Security Services). No Russian army will be involved! Everything will be done by the forces [raised] from the citizens of Ukraine themselves! And everything will be done with permission to act ruthlessly within the bounds of counter-revolutionary operations, under orders from the legitimate president Yanukovych. There will be no ‘polite little green men’! They will only be fierce Ukrainian muzhiks. Lists have been prepared for the liquidation of all who have sworn allegiance to the Banderite junta, and these lists have been passed on to the anti-terrorist special brigades.
The entire Kyiv junta (more than 800 people on the list) will be liquidated. Everyone who has come out against Yanukovych and supported the Banderites will be cleansed. The ‘Right Sector’ and ‘national guard’ will not take prisoners but will shoot people on the spot. Everyone who tries to shield the Banderites will be severely punished.
Things will not stop with the liberation of Kyiv. The people’s liberation army will move on to Galicia. No one from the Ukrainian Nazi plague will be left alive. The West has already given the okay for a mass removal of Banderite activists. Ukraine will be completely cleansed!
The question of Ukraine’s federalization has been decided. The Ukrainian Federation will consist of 8 territories; it will enter the Customs Union and the Eurasian Union; it will enter a military union with Russia […]
Banderite opposition is useless! The lives of everyone who lays down their arms and comes over to the side of the people and the legal president Yanukovych will be saved. None of the Kyiv junta will escape responsibility. They will all be liquidated. This will not be a peaceful occupation by a courteous Russian army but will be a fierce Ukrainian settling of affairs. It will be unsparing and merciless.
The West has given up on the junta. The USA has understood that it made a serious mistake [by dealing] with those morons and will in exchange for captured CIA agents (about 50) surrender all its lackeys for destruction. Putin has promised not to disgrace Obama too much.
There will be no need for tribunals. The entire junta will be burned in the same Kyiv crematorium in which the Banderites destroyed over three thousand people.
Revenge is inevitable! It is approaching inexorably! Citizens of Ukraine! The Banderite junta has the support of not more than 15% of the population, and most of these are in Western Ukraine. The liberation of Ukraine from Nazi obscurantists is beginning. You have a choice: either a shameful death as a Banderite helper or respect as a liberator of Ukraine. […] Read this and pass it on.’
5 May, at 12.29 am. He reposts the image below, which went up at 12.16 am on Antimanipuliator (http://vk.com/preface28#/antimanipulator). The words on the image read: ‘Do not pray, Banderite. God will not hear you.’
The Antimanipuliator site claims, among other things, that the EU and USA have taken control of Ukraine and that the current Ukrainian leader Arsenii Yatseniuk has signed an agreement making Ukraine a colony of Europe. (See ‘ABC of Genocide from the USA’ at http://vk.com/preface28#/antimanipulator.)
5 May, 12.15 am. He reposts a report from the site ‘Russia, Ukraine, Belarus: Patriots for the Anti-Maidan.’ It reads: ‘A pregnant woman was killed. For over two minutes she called and screamed for help!!! Then she went quiet and a Ukrainian flag appeared in the window.’ No sources or evidence are cited. There is only a clip showing a burning building with firefighters and rescue crews trying to save people. The captions, however, concludes, based on the screams, that the murder of a separatist has taken place.
5 May, 12:24 am. He reposts the following image from the Antimanipuliator site. It reads: ‘Ukraine has burned and executed in itself everything human in Odesa and Donbas. Ukraine no longer exists.’
4 May,11.54 pm. He reposts from the ‘Ukraine No Longer Exists ‘ (Ukrainy bolshe net) site:
‘It all began when provocateurs pulled people into the Trades Union Building, where they were able to do their work without punishment and out of public sight. There was no fire as such. It was only a pretext to blame things on. A gas of unknown origin appeared from somewhere.’ The fire in Odesa that took the lives of pro-Russian militants is here blamed on pro-Ukrainians, who, it is claimed, pulled the people into the building. All eyewitness reports contradict this version. The posting includes images of charred bodies and further claims of atrocities.
4 May, 6.17 am. A poster is reproduced from ‘Vezhlivye liudi’ (Polite People) site that supports the Russian military:
It purports to show Ukrainians giving fascist salutes and the text read: ‘We have brought the country to the edge just to serve our masters. Peasants for Europe! We sell our motherland.’
4 May, 4.51 am. Grishin reposts the picture below, which is taken from the Russian nationalist site ‘Participants in Liberation, Slavic Triangle.’
The caption reads: ‘Hey, Nige.., that is to say Dear President Obama. Why are you spending so many resources developing Ukrainian fascism? Be a patriot! Support your own!’
4 May, 3.42 am. He carries another poster from the Vezhlivye liudi (Polite People) site:
The words read: ‘Ukraine has ceased to exist!’
4 May, 3.42 am. He posts another image:
The words read: ‘I hate that flag. Under that flag they kill my brothers, comrades and fellow citizens …’
3 May, at 9.32 pm. He posts the following image from the same site:
The words read: ‘This is what the occupier’s flag looks like. First under this flag they killed Berkut fighters. Now under this flag they kill unarmed civilians.’
3 May, 2.41 pm. From the same site he posts:
This sampling from one individual indicates that most of the information comes from a few sites. The material can only be described as hate propaganda directed against Ukraine.
1. The content repeats several themes: atrocities are being committed by forces loyal to the Kyiv government; this government lacks broad support in the population; all who support the present government must be removed, even if they have to be slaughtered; Ukraine does not exist as a country; support for Ukraine is support for Nazism.
2. The language is calculated to dehumanize. The government and its supporters are called a junta, swine, amoeba, mongrels, Nazis, Banderites, morons, bitches.
3. An underpinning ideology is articulated by Alexander Dugin, the fascist political thinker who has Putin’s ear. Dugin insists that Ukraine does not exists, has never existed. Dugin calls upon Putin to invade Ukraine. His Eurasianism is a blend of fascism and Stalinism that calls for a revived Russia to extend its borders and to challenge the US and EU. This is now becoming Moscow’s bedrock ideology.
This propaganda is insolent and furious. and is meant to disorient.
It hardly needs to be said that any information in the above reports cannot be verified because no sources are provided. Only unspecified ‘reports,’ ‘inhabitants,’ and ‘witnesses’ are mentioned. In fact, the commentary can easily be disproved when juxtaposed with reports from reputable journalists. It is precisely for this reason that alternative news channels in Russia have being forced off the air or brought under control. A law has now been passed insisting that all bloggers register with the government.
In this kind of propaganda readers will find no attempt to discuss current socio-economic problems, corruption, or even what kind of political solution is envisaged (federalization, separation, annexation by Russia?). There is no mention of the fact that only 15.4% of people in the South-East want to join Russia, while 69.7% do not. The separatists have significant support in two oblasts: Luhansk (30.4%) and Donetsk (27.5%). However, this support has now been hijacked by violent extremists and pro-Russian ultranationalists. Anton Shekhovtsov has commented that the Kremlin supports the extremist ultranationalists rather than the ‘pro-federalization’ movement. It championed Pavel Gubarev, who proclaimed himself governor of Donetsk oblast. Formerly a member of the Russian National Unity, a neo-Nazi party founded in Moscow in 1990, he is now a member of the far-right Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, whose leader Natalya Vitrenko is an associate of American right-wing extremist and antisemite Lyndon LaRouche and of Aleksandr Dugin (Anton Shekhovtsov, opendemocracy.net, 7 May 2014).
There are many Ukrainian and Russian sites that provide balanced and informed coverage. One of the best known military bloggers is Dmytro Tymchuk. After retired from active service in the Ukrainian army, he helped to set up a Centre for Military and Political Research in Kyiv. His Ukraine Crisis site (http://uacrisis.org/dmytro-tymchuk-3) and his Information Resistance group site (http://sprotyv.info) were established to counter Russian disinformation. Other sites doing similar work include Inforesist (inforesist.org), Euromaidan (euromaidanpr.com), and CensorNet (censor.net.ua). Kyiv Post (http://www.kyivpost.com) and Moscow Times (www.themoscowtimes.com) also carry reliable coverage. The Russian television channel Dozhd (tvrain.ru) is a well-respected source, but as the only remaining independent television channel it is being harassed by the Putin régime and may soon be forced to shut down. The Russian EkhoMoskvy site (http://echomsk.ru) also carries good commentary by individual journalists. And, of course, good material does appear on youtube. For example, an insightful lecture by the Moscow professor Valerii Dmitrievich Solovei, a specialist in media manipulation, has been posed here. Solovei discusses the methods and the principles behind conducting an information war. The lecture (in Russian) is entitled ‘How to watch the news during a war’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUq7Sds_9bI). In his lecture to young people, the professor states that it is important to understand what is being said and how the media is being used to manipulate people.
Elliott, Chris. The Guardian, 4 May 2014
Shekhovtsov, Anton. ‘Extremism in South-Eastern Ukraine.” Open democracy, 7 May 2014 <http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/anton-shekhovtsov/dangers-of-extremism-in-southeastern-ukraine-far-right-eurasianism-slavic-unity>
Webb, Isaac. ‘Ukrainian military blogger takes on Kremlin propaganda.’ 7 May 2014 <http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/ukrainian-military-blogger-takes-onthe–