MOSCOW – The New York Times is – improbably – the latest darling of the Russian propaganda machine.
The paper this weekend published one of the most detailed articles to date on a group of separatists in eastern Ukraine. The report found no evidence of Russians within the unit’s ranks or Russian influence or arms, although it was careful to note that its findings are far from definitive.
Russian media, however, quickly seized on the report, eager to cash in on the Times’ credibility to back Moscow’s claims that it has nothing to do with the unrest there.
“No Russians among Slavyansk self-defense forces – NYT reporters,” RT, the Kremlin’s foreign language mouthpiece, tweeted more than once. Other state-run outlets trumpeted the article as well.
The Russian Foreign Ministry posted the article on its Facebook page. The Russian Mission to the United Nations touted it on its Twitter account. (Of course, they did not do this when the same reporter wrote a lengthy story proving the fighters in Crimea were Russian troops.)
Chalk it up to another volley in what has so far been a strikingly successfully Russian propaganda campaign in Ukraine.
Russian propaganda has been in overdrive since the unrest in Ukraine began. Soon after ousted President Viktor Yanukovich fled, Kremlin-backed media began screaming about threats to the Russian-speaking population. (Ukraine’s parliament added fuel to the fire by trying to remove Russian as an official language.)
Russian TV showed cars lining up to flee to Russia, although the footage was immediately debunked as being of a Ukrainian border with Poland.
The Kremlin has taken pains to marginalize media outlets that could challenge such claim.
There is virtually no independent media in Russia. What little was left has been threatened and bullied in recent months. Rain TV is essentially being forced to shut down, online newspaper Lenta.ru had its editor forced out, even Echo of Moscow, long a liberal bastion of the radio airwaves, has been pressured.
Bloggers are facing new legislation right out of “1984″ that will make it nearly impossible for them to report. (Interestingly, a recent independent poll found a majority of Russians believe their country’s media is independent, even as a separate poll found most had no problem with the media’s distorting facts when in the national interest.)
But the rest of the Russian media are being rewarded for their loyalty.
The newspaper Vedomosti reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin is awarding around 300 journalists from Kremlin-owned or aligned stations for their “objective” reporting in Crimea. Yes, the same outlets that faithfully reported that the armed “green men” were only locals, even though Putin later confirmed they were Russian troops, are being honored for their “professionalism.”
Which raises the question of who is meddling in Ukraine today.
Russia continues to insist it is not influencing events across the border. U.S. officials vehemently disagree.
“There’s nothing that I heard and saw while I was in [Odessa] which would explain what transpired on Friday night,” the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, Geoff Pyatt, told CNN Sunday, describing a recent visit to the city. “I think it suggests that somebody wanted this violence to explode the way that it did.”
Privately, U.S. officials say they have evidence to suggest the violence in Odessa was not spontaneous and they point fingers at Russia. Western reporters in Odessa, however, tracked down the parents of some of the pro-Russians fighters killed in the fire and found them to be locals. The differing accounts may be both true, a sign of how the situation in Ukraine is not black and white.
But it is also perhaps another example of how the Russian tactic of “maskirovka,” or masking the identity of their operations to make them look native, has been so successful in Ukraine. Actually proving anything is very difficult.
Are those armed men Russian or locals? Where did those weapons come from? How come their actions were so well coordinated? Who is bankrolling them?
Russian propaganda, one element of the tactic, has successfully muddied the waters so much that honest reporters are having trouble sifting through the muck. The Russians have sowed just enough doubt that debunking the myths distracts enough from what’s happening.
It doesn’t help either that Ukrainian authorities have pushed their own dubious claims, including a set of photographs that they claim prove Russian special forces and intelligence officers are operating in the east.
Russian propaganda has also succeeded in creating the reality the Kremlin wants. It stirred up fears that the Russian-speaking population was under attack so that locals in the east were inspired to take up arms to defend themselves. When Ukraine tried to take back occupied buildings, their worst fears that Kiev was coming to get them were realized. In that sense, given the latest fighting, reality may now have finally caught up with Russia’s rhetoric.
By taking the public relations offensive, the Russians have time and again been two steps ahead. U.S. and Western officials, not to mention the Kiev government, are left scrambling to debunk the rumors and fear-mongering. As a result they are frequently playing catchup for hearts and minds in the east.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has twice suggested foreign mercenaries are fighting in east Ukraine. The accusation may be starting to stick. The British newspaper The Independent wrote today how residents in the east believe Western countries are fighting alongside Ukraine’s military, pointing to British flak jackets and U.S. military meals (which the Pentagon has openly said it donated as part of its non-lethal assistance in recent months).
The real danger, however, is that Russian officials may start drinking their own twisted brew. Foreign journalists, including ABC News, received a breathless message from the Foreign Ministry this weekend, urging them to “open your eyes” and stop blaming Russia for everything.
Statements from President Putin and other top Russian officials in recent weeks have become increasingly strident about the situation in Ukraine. The question is: what is more dangerous, that they deliberately mislead the public to get what they want, or that they may start to believe what they hear in the echo chamber of the Russian media?