Russians get warped view of Ukraine

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MOSCOW -- The Facebook post Tuesday morning by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry A. Medvedev was bleak and full of dread. "Blood has been spilled in Ukraine again," wrote Mr. Medvedev, once favored in the West for playing good cop to hard-boiled President Vladimir Putin's bad. "The threat of civil war looms."

He pleaded with Ukrainians to decide their own future "without usurpers, nationalists and bandits, without tanks or armored vehicles -- and without secret visits by the CIA director."

And so began another day of bluster and hyperbole, of misinformation, exaggerations, conspiracy theories, overheated rhetoric and, occasionally, outright lies about the Ukraine political crisis that have emanated from the Kremlin's highest echelons and reverberated on state-controlled Russian television, hour after hour, day after day, week after week.

It is an extraordinary propaganda campaign that political analysts say reflects a new brazenness on the part of Russian officials. And in recent days, it has largely succeeded -- at least for Russia's domestic audience -- in painting a picture of chaos and danger in eastern Ukraine, although it was pro-Russian forces themselves who created it by seizing public buildings and setting up roadblocks.

In essence, Moscow's state-controlled news media outlets are loudly and incessantly calling upon Ukraine and the international community to calm a situation that Ukraine, the United States and the European Union say the Kremlin is doing its best to destabilize.

Even the United Nations weighed in. In a report released Tuesday, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said threats to ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine -- cited repeatedly by Russian officials and in the Russian news media as a potential rationale for Russian military action -- were exaggerated, and that some participants in the region's protests had come from Russia. "Although there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian community, these were neither systematic nor widespread," said the report, based on two U.N. missions to Ukraine between March 15 and April 2.

There is no question that the new Ukrainian government and its Western allies, including the United States, have engaged in their own misinformation efforts at times, with Kiev officials making bold pronouncements in recent days of enforcement efforts that never materialized. On Tuesday, some U.S. officials were spreading unverified photographs allegedly showing Russian rocket launchers carried by pro-Russian demonstrators in eastern Ukraine.

"It's all lies," said Lilia Shevtsova, an expert on Russian politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "The Russia leadership doesn't care about how it's being perceived in the outside world, in the world of communication, in the world where we have plurality of information and where information can be confirmed and checked. This is a radical change in attitude toward the West."

Ms. Shevtsova added: "We can't trust anything. Even with the Soviet propaganda, when they were talking with the Soviet people, there were some rules. Now, there are no rules at all. You can invent anything."

To watch Russian TV news is to be pulled into a swirling, 24-hour vortex of alarmist proclamations of Western aggression, sinister claims of rising fascism and breathless accounts of imminent hostilities by the "illegal" Ukrainian government in Kiev, which has proved itself in recent days to be largely powerless.

The Rossiya 24 news channel, for instance, has been broadcasting virtually nonstop with a small graphic at the screen's bottom corner that says, "Ukrainian Crisis," above the image of a masked fighter, set against the backdrop of the red-and-black flag of the nationalist, World War II-era Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which inflicted tens of thousands of casualties on Soviet forces.

Russia has flatly denied any role in the unrest in eastern Ukraine, and the Russian Foreign Ministry, which normally champions U.N. authority, dismissed the new humans rights report as biased. In a statement, Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich called it "one-sided, politicized and unobjective." Mr. Lukashevich said the report ignored "the unchecked rise of aggressive nationalism and neo-Nazism" in Ukraine, adding, "The document abounds in flagrant selectiveness."

New York University global affairs professor Mark Galeotti, who is teaching in Moscow this semester, said some of the lies were blatant. Still, Mr. Galeotti said the propaganda was strikingly effective in Crimea, throwing the West off balance and buying Russian forces just enough time to solidify their control over the peninsula.

"It was on one level transparent, embarrassingly transparent," he said. "But I know from my conversations with various people in government, it did create that sort of paralysis, or uncertainty."


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