Ivan Yakovina, a Russian foreign correspondent, sat across from me in a Cupid-themed bar not far from Kiev’s Independence Square, downing mugs of beer and complaining about the evils of Putin’s propaganda — in other words, expressing the views that recently cost him his job.
“Reporting the truth in a time of lying is a crime in itself,” Yakovina said in perfectly fluent English, one of several languages he speaks. He lives in Lviv, the only city in Ukraine that is remotely tolerable, he insists. Despite his general dislike for the country, he and several of his colleagues at the popular Russian news site Lenta.ru wrote truthfully about recent events there, which didn’t go over well in Moscow, Yakovina says.
“[Galina Timchenko], our editor-in-chief, was there [in Moscow], and she was told, ‘Keep [your reporters] calm or take them away from Ukraine. . . . [The demonstrations in Kiev] should look like a complete mess: dirt, blood, destruction, mud,’” Yakovina says, adding that the publication was instructed to rely mostly on the stories from Russia’s state-run media instead of original reporting. “She was a very heroic woman, resisting against this for months.”
Propaganda has played a central role as the situation has escalated in Ukraine. Disseminated by Russia and, until recently, the Yanukovych regime, misinformation has undermined the efforts of the Maidan reformers and also contributed significantly to the destabilization of Ukraine’s eastern regions.
The control of information is part of Putin’s strategy to rebuild post-Soviet Russia through aggression, writes Roman Zvarcyh, a legal adviser and deputy campaign manager to Ukrainian presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko, in an e-mail. “The annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the subsequent military subterfuge that we are now witnessing in the eastern provinces of Ukraine is the culmination of an information war that Moscow has been aggressively promoting since the events of the Orange Revolution in 2004,” Zvarcyh says. “The general thrust of this propaganda campaign is to undermine any sense of Ukrainian national identity, particularly in those regions that were historically victimized by successive waves of Russification.”
Yakovina tells me that during the demonstrations in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Russia promoted the idea that many of the protesters were extremists, fascists, and Nazi sympathizers. “I’ve never seen an ultra-nationalist or a fascist [in the Maidan protests],” Yakovina says. “It’s BS. . . . It simply wasn’t true. They don’t want to be a part of some corrupt, evil system, which was the Yanukovich [regime].”
My interviews with Ukrainians who participated in the Maidan protests suggest the same; all of those I’ve spoken with say they demonstrated for rule of law and an end to dictatorship and corruption, and that they resorted to violence only as a means of self-defense, after Yanukovych’s troops began brutalizing and murdering protesters.
Nevertheless, under Putin, the Russian media have used topics that resonate, carrying special political, moral, or emotional meaning, to manipulate public opinion. For example, his repression of gays resonates with many who oppose homosexuality. In Russia, he appeals to nationalism; in East Ukraine, he makes sure the message is widely disseminated that the protesters at the Maidan were fascist or anti-Semitic, which plays on the East’s painful history. At both borders, he claims that the Ukrainian government is discriminating against those who speak Russian — an absurd claim, given its prevalent usage in even Kiev.
“They’re using the darkest sides of simple people’s souls, and they’ve been very successful,” Yakovina says. “People [in Russia and eastern Ukraine] are eating whatever they give them. Any [country] with a good propaganda machine can make their people believe any f***ing thing.”
That sentiment is echoed by Vadym Hudyma, a popular Ukrainian social-media activist who supported the Maidan protests. He says that people in eastern Ukraine, which is more industrial and poorer, get their news from TV and print publications, which are mostly Russian-dominated.
“It’s been three months of huge propaganda from [Russia], and so of course when the supposed ‘right-wingers’ come to power, [Eastern Ukrainians] were really, truly scared,” Hudyma says. “For months, they had heard these are bad guys, they are fascists, they are going to kill us.” Even so, as I wrote yesterday, credible Ukrainian sociologists have recently reported that the majority of citizens in the south and east oppose Russian military intervention and annexation.
Recently, the information wars have centered around the extent to which Russian troops are behind the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. An April 2014 statement from the Russian government claimed that “these are speculations that rest on imprecise information, according to President Putin.”
That stretches credibility to the breaking point, as attentive observers know. In the past few days, both general secretary of NATO Anders Rassmussen and American U.N. ambassador Samantha Powers have spoken to the press about the strong evidence of Russian backing behind the violent separatists in eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, guns popping up in the conflicted eastern regions are the same types used by the Russian army, Ukraine’s acting foreign minister has said. And reports abound of plainclothes Russian troops (“little green men,” as the Ukrainians have taken to calling them) in the cities that are experiencing turmoil.
Yakovina says Putin tried the same strategy of outright falsehood during the crises in Syria and Libya, tailoring a message to fit the international press. “They call it ‘our point of view,’ so if you don’t like these blatant lies, you are against freedom of speech, or they say you are being paid by someone,” he explains.
But drawing international attention to the real situation in Ukraine is difficult, says Kateryna Venzhyk, editor-in-chief of Delo.ua, an online business magazine. Venzhyk recently managed to garner some attention through a carefully orchestrated publicity campaign that involved racy T-shirts urging Ukrainian women to withhold sex from Russian men.
“On one side, it’s Russian propaganda, and on the other side, it’s [recently been] media owned by Yanukovych and his ‘family,’” Venzhyk says. “You can have Russian propaganda, and you can have [corrupt] Ukrainian propaganda, but you can’t have the truth.”
The repressive Yanukovych administration tried to control the media over the past three years using the government, Venzhyk explains. She says officials threatened to revoke news licenses, impose higher taxes, or evict publications from their offices whenever they wrote journalism critical of the regime. “You can’t go to court with this,” she says, “because that’s ‘family,’ too.”
Hanna Hrabarska, a young journalist and social-media activist who works with the Hudyma on a pro-Ukrainian social-media campaign, says that during the Yanukovych days she had a minder who followed her everywhere. One day, he contacted her and started telling her creepy details: He not only knew where she lived, he had noticed her new glasses, she said. “It’s not special,” she tells me casually. “Every journalist had someone following them [then].”
Freedom of the press in Ukraine has significantly improved since Yanukovych was defenestrated, but the years of restrictions weren’t without consequence. Many Ukrainians don’t know which media they can trust. Meanwhile, the news reports supplied directly by Russia’s state-owned media are pervasive.
Yakovina, the Russian journalist, says that, although Russia has engaged in propaganda campaigns for decades, in the past ten years, “it became an absolutely arrogant lie. They don’t even care about it looking like truth. They just want to make people . . . absolutely mis-oriented, so they don’t know anything truthful. It’s scary — it’s like 1984. They just lie, not because they want to achieve anything – that’s just been how it works. . . . The final idea, I think, is just to build this imaginary world that would have history, myth, ideology, religion — all based in lies. An absolutely imaginary political life. Anything that is real is considered dangerous, un-Russian, disturbing, prevented. . . . It’s dangerous and suspicious, and they want to eliminate it.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.