Inside Ukraine’s Propaganda War

James Jones is on the ground in Ukraine, covering the revolution for FRONTLINE. He previously produced Secret State of North Korea and Syria’s Second Front.

This Sunday, Crimeans are voting on whether they want to officially become part of Russia.

But with Russian troops and their sympathizers having effectively annexed the peninsula on the Black Sea, the results are widely considered a foregone conclusion. The ballot itself doesn’t even have a place for voting no as an option.

And the idea, still being pressed by Western diplomats, that Crimea will suddenly fold peacefully back into Ukraine is unthinkable.

While filming in Ukraine over the past several weeks, I was struck by how the revolution that began in February has become a full-scale propaganda war, a surreal throwback to Soviet times, with both sides digging in and stoking old, bitter biases and grievances.

In the battle for the future of Ukraine, control of the media could be just as important as the military bases and government buildings.

Everywhere you look in Crimea there are posters billing Sunday’s vote as a stark choice between the swastika of National Socialism and the red, white and blue flag of modern Russia.

The pro-Russian side has framed the moment as a replay of the Soviet Union’s fight against fascism in the Second World War, portraying the revolutionaries in Kiev as far-right nationalists and racists.

Vladimir Putin himself described the revolutionaries as reactionary “anti-Semitic forces” that have gone “on a rampage,” and are linked to the controversial Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera. In the 1930s and 1940s, Bandera formed a tactical alliance with the Nazis to fight the Soviet Union and further his goal of an independent Ukraine. Today, Bandera has become a lighting rod – an inspiration for armed and eager revolutionaries, and fuel for the pro-Russian side to claim that the revolution is a facist, racist movement.

I spent time speaking to members of the right-wing Ukrainian revolutionary group, Right Sector, who see themselves as Bandera’s descendants. We’ve probably yet to see Right Sector’s true colors – and some moderates in Kiev told me that they’d prefer to distance themselves from the group. But in an open letter to Putin, leading members of Ukraine’s Jewish community wrote that, “even the most marginal” forces involved in the revolution “do not dare show anti-Semitism or other xenophobic behavior.”

But as I travelled through the country, I saw how Putin’s narrative has taken hold, particularly in the east and in Crimea, which are predominately ethnic Russian, and rely on Russian-controlled media.

Ten days ago, Russia’s Channel 1 reported that 140,000 refugees were forced to flee to Russia. They illustrated the story with footage of cars crossing out of Ukraine — but they showed old images of cars crossing into Poland from Ukraine’s western borders. The story has been repeated across Russian media, but no one has produced images of the hordes of refugees.

Last week, after Crimea’s parliament voted in favor of joining Russia, Ukrainian TV channels were blocked and replaced with Russian stations. In retaliation, Ukrainian broadcasters have reportedly stopped broadcasting Russian channels, leaving this volatile chasm between the people of Ukraine to be filled by propaganda on both sides

To this day, Putin, backed by the Russian media, insist the masked commandoes now controlling most of the military bases in Crimea are not Russian – despite reports to the contrary.

At a roadblock in Crimea, I saw troops who were very much trying to conceal their identities, and keep me and my colleagues at a distance.

I visited a Ukrainian military base in the Crimean town of Bakhchysarai, where commandoes with machine guns patrolled, supplemented by locals who had formed their own paramilitary groups. Across the road, hundreds of women and children from the ethnic Tatar minority were chanting “Crimea is Ukraine”, asking the Russian soldiers to go home and allow the Ukrainian soldiers inside the base to go free.

Realizing the terrible PR impact of armed men in balaclavas facing off with women and children, pro-Russian volunteers got on their walkie-talkies. Within half an hour, a bus full of pro-Russian women arrived to counter the Tatar demonstration. One of these women told me, “There’s a lot of misinformation and a lot of lies being written. We have peace, thanks to the Russians who are protecting us against this fascism. In Ukraine, there is turmoil. We want peace, just like them. It’s a good thing that there IS a Russia. That is our defense, and they are protecting us and maintaining our order and protection against terrorists and radicals in Crimea. We are glad that we are being protected by the Russian soldiers.”

A particularly ebullient man with an enormous Russian flag told me, “Those people across the street, the protesters, they’re simply provocateurs who came here proclaiming glory to Ukraine…. to us, their chants are no better than them saying ‘Heil Hitler.’”

It is, in fact, the Crimean Tatars who have most to fear from the annexation of their region. The pro-Russia protesters spoke sinisterly of them as a “fifth column,” or traitors within Crimea. The letter ‘X’ has been daubed on some Tatar homes, and some families have already left the region. For a minority who were deported in the thousands by Stalin, this has been chilling.

And while Crimea is the flashpoint right now, tensions are running high throughout Ukraine. In the eastern town of Kharkiv, close to the Russian border, I met dozens of pro-Russians gathered around a statue of Lenin. One woman threw herself to the pavement, sobbing, “I want to say something – if Putin comes here, I will bow down to him and ask him to protect us from these fascists.” Another jumped in, “During the second world war, England and America were our compatriots against fascism … and now England and America are backing fascism where we live!”

Their feelings seemed genuine, but their fervor is clearly being fuelled by the propaganda. And, according to several reports on social media, some of these pro-Russian supporters are actually “actors” or provocatuers, showing up in different towns around the country, claiming to be locals.

As I filmed in Kharkiv, I was often met with cries, of “liar!” Both sides of the conflict are convinced the Western media is distorting their positions. At one point, after being identified as a Western journalist, the women I had been talking to were joined by younger, more menacing men, who demanded to see my documents. They claimed to be Kharkiv locals, but sported Russian flags. When I turned my camera on a nearby group, two of the brutes approached me, pushing my camera away and telling me “I can add your name to the list of one hundred martyrs in Kiev.”

The day before, near that very spot, a mob of Russia supporters had stormed a local government building and brutally beaten pro-Kiev demonstrators, leaving two dead. A 25-year-old Muscovite scaled the government building, lowered the Ukrainian flag and raised the Russian banner in its place. Reports suggested many of the mob had arrived that day on 20 buses from across the Russia border.

Just yesterday, Russian activists reportedly killed a pro-Kiev supporter in Donetsk, and there is increasing talk in the country about similar plans for provocations over the weekend.

On Sunday, the day of the referendum in Crimea, some people in Kharkiv are planning to hold their own unofficial referendum on declaring independence and aligning with Russia. With Russian tanks now only 30 km from the town this is all feeling quite ominous.

The world may be focusing on the vote in Crimea Sunday, but with the results essentially already in, the big question is what happens next?

If Russian soldiers move beyond Crimea and onto the Ukrainian mainland, or pro-Russian paramilitaries expand their operations, the thousands of pro-Kiev fighters who cut their teeth in the revolution could well react. And the simmering conflict could erupt into something much more violent.

It has been reported that Right Sector are arming themselves for such an eventuality. Many of the fighters I met, some only 16 or 17, tell me they wouldn’t think twice about going to oppose a Russian occupation.

The chances of Putin sending Russian troops into eastern Ukraine still seems unlikely, but the sight of 8,000 heavily armed Russian troops gathered on the border near Kharkiv means western governments must now be considering how to react if the worst happens.

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