'Just like the West.' Russia defends its propaganda war over Ukraine

In the tug-of-war over the fate of Ukraine, Russian media have been instrumental in painting a portrait of the conflict that suits the Kremlin's purposes. Western media, Russia contends, are doing exactly the same

Vladimir Putin's government has also been cracking down on independent media, online outlets

The victory pose. Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov celebrates as the preliminary results of Sunday's referendum were announced at Lenin Square in the Crimean capital of Simferopol. (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

In the lead-up to Sunday's referendum in Crimea, a number of state-owned Russian media outlets reported that hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians from Ukraine had fled to the Motherland.

But the video evidence they showed did not buttress these claims.

Their footage of a lineup of cars at the alleged Russian border was actually taken on a busy day at the Polish-Ukrainian border, an attempt to trick the Russian audience into believing that their compatriots in Ukraine are facing an acute humanitarian crisis.

Allegations of voter fraud and ballot stuffing reported on the ground in Sunday's referendum also did not make it to Russian prime time.

In the tug-of-war between Russia and the West over the fate of Ukraine, Russian media have been instrumental in painting a portrait of the conflict that suits the Kremlin's purposes.

Western media, Russia contends, are doing exactly the same.

Russia justified sending troops to Crimea by evoking a humanitarian crisis, one in which those it called ultranationalist neo-fascists seized power in Kyiv and threatened the Russian population living in the Crimean peninsula and other parts of Ukraine.

And this message has clearly been getting through to the average Russian.

A poll by the Levada Centre, an independent Moscow-based research organization, found that 83 per cent of Russians think that Ukrainian radical nationalist or mafia organizations worsened tensions in Crimea.

As well, 43 per cent think that "nationalists and bandits" truly threaten Russians in Ukraine, and that the population can be protected only by Russian troops.

Given that the majority of Russians get their news from state-owned television, it is not surprising that most of the population agrees with the party-line version of the conflict.

Ukraine is not above its own media messaging as new recruits for a National Guard-style self-defence battalion are shown taking part in weapons training at a Ukrainian Interior Ministry base near Kyiev on Monday. (Reuters)

But the official version in the state-owned media can at times be filled with omissions and inaccuracies.

For example, Russia 24, a state-owned television channel, described clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protesters in the Crimean capital of Simferopol last week.

But it showed footage from more violent altercations from earlier protests in Kyiv.

It remains unclear whether this was a simple technical mistake or a deliberate attempt to mislead.

A Russia 24 anchor also warned earlier this month that "mercenaries are now going to Crimea" and that "their aims are clear enough: to provoke a new wave of the crisis and rob people on the sly."

'Cannot even begin to understand'

"The most shocking 'non-truth' I saw was a report on Russian state television in which the anchor was appalled that the West could possibly accuse Russia of having sent troops to Crimea," says Johann Bihr, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Bureau at the organization Reporters Without Borders.

"Independent media had reported that some of these 'non-identified' soldiers were actually Russian. Even some of the soldiers themselves contradicted Russian media reports."

While Bihr argues that most Western media have tried to show both sides of the story, Russian officials have accused them of neglecting the Russian perspective and have condemned their lack of understanding of the conflict.

So have some Russian journalists. Vladimir Solovyov, a popular TV and radio journalist known for his pro-Kremlin views, says that the West has engaged in its own propaganda.

"The people who say that Russian media are full of propaganda have never read or watched Russian news a single day in their lives," Solovyov said in an interview last week.

"Ukraine has blocked Russian television in parts of the country but strangely, this is not called being propaganda."

Resentful of what they perceive to be Western double standards, pro-Kremlin media — and the Russians who adhere to the state-version of the crisis — also think the West cannot possibly grasp the implications of the conflict.

"The situation is near hysteria," Solovyov said. "Having Banderovtsy [a Ukrainian nationalist organization] in eastern Ukraine would be like having a KKK demonstration in the heart of Washington.

"Ukraine is not part of an abstract history for us. Our people defeated fascism in World War II. This is family history. America and Europe cannot even begin to understand this."

Ongoing media crackdown

The information war being waged between Russia and the West over Ukraine took a back seat to a more insidious conflict recently: Russia's crackdown on the country's independent media.

Last week, Russian authorities sanctioned many independent media outlets because their reporting did not match the state's official narrative.

These recent attacks on independent media follow on the heels of the dismantling in December of RIA Novosti, a state-owned but historically independent news agency, and after cable providers dropped Dozhd, an independent television network, under Kremlin pressure.

Natalia Sindeyeva, general director of Russian television station Dozhd (TV Rain). Dozhd made its name covering massive street protests against President Vladimir Putin but was taken off the air by three television providers in February as the Crimea crisis heated up. (Tatyana Makeyeva / Reuters)

Russia's media watchdog invoked the country's vague anti-extremism law to reprimand, the country's first independent online news portal, for publishing an interview with a representative of the Right Sector, a far-right Ukrainian nationalist organization, in which there was a hyperlink to material published by the group.

The incident led to the dismissal of editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko, who was replaced by the former editor of a Kremlin-friendly online publication.

More than 35 staff members resigned in support of Timchenko and condemned the censorship of their news portal, Russia's 16th most read online resource with 12 million monthly visitors.

The Russian government also blocked opposition news websites —, and —because they contained "calls for participation in unauthorized rallies."

All three websites also contained material critical of the Kremlin.

The website of Ekho Moskvy, Russia's main liberal radio station, was also shut down Thursday because it contained a link to the blog of Alexei Navalny, the opposition figure who has led anti-Kremlin protest movements and who is currently under house arrest. Access to the website was restored once the link had been removed.

With troops standing by and Western sanctions in the offing, the Kremlin clearly realizes that dissenting voices within its national media news outlets undermine its narrative.

Authorities are also be mindful that the popular discontent that led to the ousting of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February could migrate across the border.


Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber

Moscow correspondent

Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber is a Canadian journalist who lives in Russia and writes for the English-language Moscow Times.


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