In Ukraine, will a propaganda war turn into civil war?

Gwen Ifill talks to Independent Television News correspondent Lindsey Hilsum, who reports from the ground in Eastern Ukraine on the special operation launched by military forces against pro-Russian separatists. They also discuss how Russian and Ukrainian media may be helping fuel the confrontation.

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    Lindsey Hilsum is in Izium in Eastern Ukraine. I spoke to her a short time ago.

    Lindsey, in watching your report, it seemed like things are terribly tense on the ground. How tense are they?


    Well, it's extremely tense today, because this is the day that the Ukrainian military has launched what it's calling its special operation against the pro-Russian separatists who are occupying buildings in up to 10 towns across Eastern Ukraine.

    Today, what they — that they brought their armor, armored personnel carriers and other equipment down south, and then they went into a place called Kramatorsk. They went in helicopters. They landed at the airfield, and they seized that airfield, which had been controlled by the pro-Russian separatists.

    Now, it's not clear at the moment if there were casualties and, if so, how many. The Russian media is reporting that their people were killed, but that is absolutely not confirmed. And this is very much a propaganda war at the moment, so one has to be very careful.

    But what we do know is some of the local people were unhappy about the Ukrainian troops retaking the airfield. They started protesting and confronting them. And the Ukrainian troops, according to eyewitnesses, fired into the air, possibly with automatic weapons.

    So this is definitely a very tense situation at the moment, and also extremely dangerous. President Putin and also William Hague, the British foreign secretary, they both talked about Ukraine being on the brink of war, a civil war. It's a very dangerous moment.


    It does sound like that. But is there a way to gauge how genuine pro-Russian sentiment is on the ground that you have seen?


    I think there is a very genuine pro-Russian sentiment on the ground here.

    I have talked to a lot of people over the last couple of days, and what they say is that the government in Kiev is illegitimate, as they put it, because it did take power after the previous president, Yanukovych, fled, and it has not been elected. There are supposed to be elections in May. Well, we will see if that's possible or not.

    And many of the people here, they watch Russian television and they believe pretty much everything that comes out of Moscow. And what the propaganda from there has been saying is that the government in Kiev is fascist, it's full of Nazis, and so on.

    Now, the propaganda is there on the other side as well from the government in Kiev and from — from Ukrainian sources, too. But I think that what you see here is a people who very much believe that they are put down, they are dismissed by the authorities in Kiev, that this part of the country has all the wealth. You see a lot of power stations and mines here. It provides — it really is a mainstay of the Ukrainian economy.

    They feel that they get no recognition for that and they are looked down on. And they absolutely don't trust the new government in Kiev. So there is a lot of pro-Russian sentiment here on the ground.


    I was struck by the Ukrainian soldier you spoke to in your piece who said that he makes a distinction between the Russian military and the Russian people. It sounds like there are a lot of divided loyalties.


    Well, I think there are because you have to remember that Ukraine and Russia were both part of the Soviet Union until 1991.

    And there are a lot of ties here, links which go back many, many years. And, also, World War II, I mean, we may think that it's many decades ago, but, for here, it is very real. Where I'm standing now, just north of Slavyansk, was a major battlefield during World War II. Many people fighting for the Soviet army were killed here.

    So all those memories are there, and those memories are shared between Ukraine and Russia. But in the west of the country, people identify far more with Europe and with Poland. So there's a lot of division within Ukraine. But I think that, for the Ukrainian soldiers, this is really a terrible thing. I mean, what they believe they're here to do is, like any army, protect the people of their country. To them, that means Ukrainians.

    But what they're finding as they come into this area is that many Ukrainian citizens no longer feel that loyalty to Kiev, are looking towards Moscow. So they are being forced into conflict with their own citizens, and that's an extremely difficult thing.


    You mentioned earlier that we are in the middle of a propaganda war, but to what degree does it feel that we may be on the brink of a civil war as well?


    The two things are linked, because one of the great dangers here is that rumor or misinformation can trigger events.

    People hear of something happening, and then they react. And that — wars have been started like that before, by misinformation, sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental. So there certainly is a sense of this area, this country being on the brink of civil war. But, of course, it's important to say that it is not too late. There are supposed to be talks on Thursday which would involve the Russian government, the Ukrainian government, the European Union, and I think the Americans as well.

    And I think a lot does depend on President Putin. There's no question that he has been pushing the situation here. I don't think we can say for sure that there are Russian troops here, but I think that we can say for sure that the Russians have been orchestrating this. They have made sure this happens, because they don't want the government in Kiev to have legitimacy and for those elections to be able to go ahead in May with no problem.

    They seized Crimea. Crimea was part of Ukraine. It's now annexed to Russia. That happened in February. So I think that they are showing what they can do here. What may be called for now is diplomacy and dialogue, because I think everybody knows now just how dangerous this situation is, and now is the most dangerous moment.


    ITN's Lindsey Hilsum on the ground in Izium, Ukraine, thank you so much.


    You're welcome, Gwen.

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