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 Interpretermag.com. "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 TheDailyBeast.com, 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 StopFake.org.

    "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

    In Britain, The Sun Still Doesn’t Shine

    Invoking Spitfires and Merlin, Leave voters insist country can be great again, following surprising 'Brexit' vote last week

    Double Wave of Suicide Bombings Puts Lebanon, Refugees on Edge

    Following suicide bombings in Christian town of Al-Qaa, on Lebanon's northeast border with Syria, fears of further bombings have risen

    US Senators Warned on Zika After Failing to Pass Funding

    Zika threats and challenges, as well as issues of contraception and vaccines, spelled out as lawmakers point fingers

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    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
    I JUST DON‘T AGREE WITH YOU .I'M FROM CHN TOO, AND LOTS OF PEOPLE IN CHN DON’T BELIEVE THEIR OFFICIAL MEDIA,SUCH AS CCTV.THERE IS NO NEWS FREEDOM,WHICH IS DIFFERENT FROM THE US.BELIEVE OR NOT BELIEVE,YOU HAVE OTHER CHOICES.RT IS CONTROLED BY PUTIN , EVERYONE KNOWS IT.
    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.
    Slow Rebuilding Amid Boko Haram Destruction in Nigeria’s Northeasti
    X
    June 29, 2016 6:15 PM
    Military operations have chased Boko Haram out of towns and cities in Nigeria’s northeast since early last year. But it is only recently that people have begun returning to their homes in Adamawa state, near the border with Cameroon, to try to rebuild their lives. For VOA, Chris Stein traveled to the area and has this report.
    Video

    Video Slow Rebuilding Amid Boko Haram Destruction in Nigeria’s Northeast

    Military operations have chased Boko Haram out of towns and cities in Nigeria’s northeast since early last year. But it is only recently that people have begun returning to their homes in Adamawa state, near the border with Cameroon, to try to rebuild their lives. For VOA, Chris Stein traveled to the area and has this report.
    Video

    Video Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Either

    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video New US Ambassador to Somalia Faces Heavy Challenges

    The new U.S. envoy to Somalia, who was sworn into office Monday, will be the first American ambassador to that nation in 25 years. He will take up his post as Somalia faces a number of crucial issues, including insecurity, an upcoming election, and the potential closure of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. VOA’s Jill Craig asked Somalis living in Kenya’s capital city Nairobi how they feel about the U.S. finally installing a new ambassador.
    Video

    Video At National Zoo, Captivating Animal Sculptures Illustrate Tragedy of Ocean Pollution

    The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is home to about 1,800 animals, representing 300 species. But throughout the summer, visitors can also see other kinds of creatures there. They are larger-than-life animal sculptures that speak volumes about a global issue — the massive plastic pollution in our oceans. VOA's June Soh takes us to the zoo's special exhibit, called Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea.
    Video

    Video Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roar

    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Melting Pot of Immigrants Working to Restore US Capitol Dome

    The American Iron Works company is one of the firms working to renovate the iconic U.S. Capitol Dome. The company employs immigrants of many different cultural and national backgrounds. VOA’s Arman Tarjimanyan has more.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora