News / Europe

Russia 'Wags The Dog' With Ukraine Disinformation Campaign

Uniformed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, march outside a Ukrainian military base in the village of Perevalnoye, outside Simferopol, March 5, 2014.
Uniformed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, march outside a Ukrainian military base in the village of Perevalnoye, outside Simferopol, March 5, 2014.
Robert Coalson, RFE/RL
Getting the real story of what is going on in Ukraine is hard enough. And the Russian media seems intent on making it even harder.

With Russian forces controlling Crimea and with Moscow contemplating further military action in Ukraine, Russian media and leading political figures have been shrill in their denunciations of "fascists" in Kyiv and their claims of anti-Semitic incidents, of attacks on ethnic Russians in the eastern reaches of Ukraine, and of floods of beleaguered refugees streaming across the border into Russia.

Much of this information is demonstrably false, however, emerging from unsourced media reports, then making its way into the statements of Russian politicians, and even into Western media reports. Events are echoing the 1997 U.S. film "Wag the Dog," in which spin-doctors use the media to whip up support for a nonexistent war.

"This is how wars get started. As they say, 'truth is the first casualty of war' and we are really seeing that with the way Russia is handling this," said Catherine Fitzpatrick, a writer and translator who has been live-blogging events in Ukraine for "I think they are really irresponsible. They are inciting a lot of hatred and whipping up a lot of panic. People in places like Kharkiv are watching Russian TV. They may be watching also local TV, but they are dependent on Russian TV and a lot it is not checking out."

Fitzpatrick added that everything from reasons cited by Russian lawmakers in authorizing President Vladimir Putin to use force to the justifications for it offered to the United Nations Security Council this week by Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin, have been based on falsehoods.

"The whole premise for the Federation Council's agreement to give its authorization for the use of force and the whole premise being put forth in the U.N. by Ambassador Churkin is that they have to intervene to save and protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, who they fear are in danger," she said. "But they have based this whole premise on false contentions about attacks."

'Creating provocations'

In his comments at the United Nations, Churkin also cited an alleged attack on the famous Monastery of the Caves in Kyiv that was widely reported in the Russian media. The monastery has said no such attack took place, and Fitzpatrick was "stunned" to hear Churkin citing the debunked report.

Russian media also widely reported that more than 650,000 Ukrainians have crossed out of southeastern Ukraine into Russia since the beginning of the year. However, the U.N.'s High Commissioner on Refugees says it has seen no evidence of unusual migration on the border.

Ukrainian bloggers uncovered the fact that Russian media illustrated their reports with an undated photograph that was actually taken at the Shehyni border crossing  between Ukraine and Poland.

Other stories have a basis in fact, but are unjustifiably spun by Russian media accounts. For instance, on the night of February 27-28, unknown vandals defaced a synagogue in Simferopol.

Russian media blankly reported this as an anti-Semitic attack by the ultranationalist Right Sector group, although Right Sector denied it and the local Jewish community leader Oleksandr Hendin told RFE/RL: "I don't think it was Right Sector. I think someone did this using their logo in order to destabilize Crimea."

Ukraine's chief rabbi, Yakov Dov Bleich, said on March 4 that the main threat to Ukrainian Jews was "provocations" staged by Russia, saying its "the same way the Nazis did when they wanted to go into Austria and [they] created provocations."

Fighting the spin machine

Ukrainian journalist Oleh Shynkarenko, who has written about the efforts of Russia's "propaganda machine" for, tells RFE/RL that the campaign has two main purposes: "to provoke hatred toward Ukrainians to make Russia go to war with us" and to produce "justification for aggression," such as that presented to the U.N. by Churkin.

Shynkarenko names Russian television journalist Dmitry Kiselyov, a rising star of Russian journalism who in December was named to head the Russian state media conglomerate Rossia Segodnya, as "the most lying" of Russian journalists. Ukraine's Commission on Journalism Ethics has filed a complaint with Moscow about Kiselyov's inflammatory reports.

Serhiy Balbeko is a 25-year-old journalist from Kharkiv who got fed up with the disinformation and created a website called Fake Control to fight back.

"I got the idea to run this project with a few of my friends because we realized the amount of disinformation that was coming from media, from social networks, from news and press and some others," he said.

Fake Control was one of the first sites to debunk the Ukrainian refugees story and has recently debunked Russian media claims that Kyiv intends to jail people with Russian passports and reports that a U.S. aircraft carrier is steaming to the Black Sea to attack Crimea.

Balbeko says his group doesn't use any special techniques to unmask the false reports. They merely examine photographs closely, use search engines to access publicly available information, and make phone calls. He sees what is going on as more than just unprofessional or jingoistic journalism.

"I really feel there is some sort of campaign to show what is going on in Ukraine is an absolutely different way," he said.

Blogger Fitzpatrick says that the Russian media-spin machine has met with considerable resistance from sites like Fake Control and

"We've gotten to the point where they can orchestrate these planted rumors, but citizen journalists have gotten pretty savvy, so there is a kind of counternarrative where people, they film the buses with the Russian license plates, they film the troops that have the Russian arms that only Russian units have, and the story begins to unravel," she said. "And, I don't know, maybe that's part of what is making the Kremlin propaganda mills work overtime and get even more bizarre. Because they are facing a pretty sturdy citizens' journalist corps."

Flood of disinformation

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in comments to Interfax on March 5, said that photographs of military vehicles in Crimea with Russian license plates were "complete crap" and a provocation. He repeated the official Russian position that Moscow does not know where the armed troops in Crimea have come from, even as Ukrainian journalists posted a video interview with a soldier who admitted he was in the Russian military and cited media reports as the reason for his presence in Ukraine.

Journalist: "Why don't you have any insignias? Where are you from?"
Soldier: "Because that's the kind of uniforms we have, without insignias."
Journalist: "Are you Ukrainian or Russian?"
Soldier: "I'm a Russian soldier."
Journalist: "A Russian soldier."
Soldier: "Yes."
Second journalist: "What are Russian soldiers doing on Ukrainian territory?"
Soldier: "Because ... don't you watch television?"

Some Ukrainians have countered the propaganda with humor, such as a widely circulated graphic showing a Russian-speaking woman who appeared in at least five different Russian media reports with various, differing identification tags and a humorous video in which activists unsuccessfully hunt for fascist ultranationalists on the streets of Odesa.

The Kyiv Post on March 5 published a list of the "Top 10 Kremlin myths and lies used to justify Russian invasion of Ukraine's Crimea."

But such efforts may not be enough to counter the effects of the Russian media reports, Fitzpatrick said. Once a story is out there, it is often impossible to reign back in. A pointed exchange on March 3 between CNN correspondents Wolf Blitzer and Christiane Amanpour illustrates this point. Amanpour took Blitzer to task for citing without qualification Ambassador Churkin's claims that "fascists and anti-Semites" were to blame for Ukraine's unrest.

Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov, director of the independent Levada Center, said is a fundamental purpose of propaganda.

"In propaganda it is very important to consider the effect of squeezing out alternative versions of events, all alternative information," Gudkov said. "As a result, even people who don't believe or who doubt the official information are not in a position to work with other points of view. And this is the foundation of propaganda."

RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Yelena Fanailova contributed to this report from Moscow and Tom Balmforth contributed from Simferopol.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: jacob stephen from: italy
March 06, 2014 7:43 AM
What voice of america is also doing the same thing by making ukrainian nationalists are saints and russians are bad through the lens of american propaganda.

by: Huang Jun from: China
March 06, 2014 3:13 AM
Hey VOA, do you think you are more trust worthy than Russia Today? Completely not! You are always hiding facts which you think are unfavourable for the US and its allies. We view your articles not because we believe in you but to learn the way you spead lies.
In Response

by: Anonymous
March 06, 2014 10:46 AM
How do you know we can get correct information in China? Arbitrary judge. No investigation, no right to say casually. My opinion is Politics is dirty. Nobody is clean.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: CHN
March 06, 2014 8:51 AM
In Response

by: Mattias from: Sweden
March 06, 2014 7:21 AM
Hi Huang! I understand that you are not satisfied with this site.
How do you get correct information? That must be difficult since you live in China.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs