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Journalists, Putin's Other Kind of Army

Using rumors and references to the Soviet past, the Russian media propaganda bears a clear responsibility in the Ukraine crisis.

Poster boy, at the first Media Forum of Independent Regional and Local Media in St Petersburg, on April 2014.
Poster boy, at the first Media Forum of Independent Regional and Local Media in St Petersburg, on April 2014.
Julia Smirnova

MOSCOW — On April 22, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an executive order assigning 300 people involved in public life medals and other official distinctions. The exact content of the text remained a secret for nearly two weeks. On Monday, however, the Russian newspaper Wedomosti revealed who these 300 people were. All, without exception, were journalists.

Russian authorities chose to reward them for their "high level of professionalism and objectivity in their reporting about events in the Crimean Republic." A third of these reporters work for the Russian state television. The list also includes journalists at other major broadcasters and newspapers loyal to the Kremlin, such as Komsomolskaja Prawda.

Not a single person working for the country's few independent media was mentioned.

The fact that so many compliant editors and journalists are awarded distinctions for their work is a first in the country. For instance, only 11 reporters were honored after the Russian-Georgian War of 2008.

What's more significant, however, is the role Russian journalism played in the Crimea occupation. Kremlin's devoted media army created the decisive image, in Russia, of what played out there.

An efficient media strategy

Already at the start of the Maidan Square demonstrations in Kiev, Russian state television — a favorite in Crimea and eastern Ukraine — did everything it could in its coverage to discredit protesters in the eyes of viewers. Journalists claimed that the protests were being financed by Western countries, and that opponents to the regime were "extremists."

The propaganda was quite effective. The atmosphere in Crimea was tense following the change of government in Kiev, but there was no mass movement calling for independence or annexation to Russia. What happened in the province at the end of February and beginning of March led to overtones of mass psychosis.

All Ukrainian broadcasters, without exception, went off-air. Every day for weeks, Russian media reported in Kiev on what they called a government takeover by "fascists." As Crimeans repeatedly heard that the ultra-nationalist group Right Sector — and other Ukrainian nationalists — were threatening them, they started to feel threatened.

It goes without saying that Russian soldiers were, at the same time, portrayed as protectors.

The simple messages viewers received on a daily basis paid off. When Russian troops stormed a Simferopol base and a Ukrainian soldier was killed in March, local residents reported that the incident was probably caused by Right Sector provocateurs.

They wouldn't say whether they saw even one member of that group. At the same time we could often hear — not only in Simferopol but all over Crimea — that "Russian soldiers wouldn't harm us." Other views that circulated included that nobody wanted to have anything to do with "gay" Europe; that people were in favor of a return to Russia; and that those in power in Kiev were "fascists" trying to prevent eastern Ukrainians from speaking Russian.

Using the g-word

The campaign against Kiev continues in eastern Ukraine, taking even more dangerous dimensions. Since the Odessa tragedy last Friday, when more than 40 people died in a union building fire, Russian media keep talking about a "genocide". The Russian evening news is filled with reports from Odessa.

What is only a rumor — the fact that Ukraine's secret services are behind this "massacre" — is being reported as fact. A report on Monday by a compliant Russian broadcaster showed people with Russian flags and St. George ribbons — a pro-Russian symbol — firing at pro-Ukrainian protesters. These were, according to the film's narrator, Ukrainian provocateurs.

The pro-Kremlin media have overstepped all ethical bounds in their coverage of Ukraine. The newspaper Komsomolskaja Prawda showed pictures of Ukrainian officers, bruised and blood-smeared, sitting with separatists in Sloviansk. The "interview" was actually more of an interrogation. On Monday, Sergej Dorenko, editor-in-chief of the broadcaster Goworit Moskwa, published on Twitter the results of a survey showing that 89 percent of their Russian viewers wanted the "active participants in the Odessa massacre" to be "found and executed without trial."

The influence of the Soviet past

Russian news coverage of the Ukraine crisis has resulted in outrage, but also anxiety among many residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk areas. The most incredible rumors are making the rounds, but people's emotions — their fear and hatred — are genuine. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine also bears responsibility for the violence in Ukraine.

The power of Russian state media is considerable. How do you get millions of people to applaude something like the annexation of Crimea, while it will mostly bring economic and political problems, and negatively impact their quality of life? Russian media have one central means to achieve that: the use of myths and clichés from the Soviet past.

Parallels to World War II — that actually mean something for those who lived through the Soviet era — are constantly drawn. The new government in Kiev is compared to Nazi Germany. The words "fascism" and "fascists" are commonly used. The actual aggressor — Russia — manages to appear as the victim.

It draws on the Soviet myth that the Russian "nation of winners" actually wants peace but has to fight back hard when attacked. Another idea being used is the inferiority complex that grew after the fall of the Soviet Union. All of these themes influence Russia's public opinion.

At the same time, a dangerous, highly inflammatory mix of hate and hyper-patriotism is growing. These campaigns have tragic consequences in the real world. Last year, ahead of Moscow's mayoral elections, Russian media focused their reporting on illegal immigrants. A nationalist pogrom took place in a Moscow suburb as a result.

Russia is conducting a special kind of war in Ukraine. It claims not to be involved. The reality is that is it waging an indirect war — with the help of shady separatists and, of course, of the media.

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