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The Reality In Eastern Ukraine? Decoding Russian Propaganda

Dozens of Russian aid trucks seen approaching Ukraine on Thursday
Dozens of Russian aid trucks seen approaching Ukraine on Thursday
Julia Smirnova

MOSCOW — The war in eastern Ukraine is being fought on several fronts — with deathly weapons and munitions on the one hand, and with competing interpretations of reality on the other. As the conflict drags on, it's increasingly becoming a propaganda war.

From the beginning, the Russian media has taken an active part in the crisis. The pro-Russian separatists have their own way of seeing things and communicate via local broadcasters and social media. And depending on the situation, the Ukrainian army tries to present events in the light that reflects it best. It is therefore easy — in the face of so many attacks and defenses, information and disinformation — to lose perspective. Which is why we at Die Welt aim to explain what's actually happening.

On Friday evening came the news that the Ukrainian army had attacked a Russian convoy in eastern Ukraine. That was an extremely misleading way of announcing the news, as in days prior there had been heavy coverage of a Russian convoy of 280 white trucks supposedly carrying humanitarian supplies. So for many news consumers, the first impression was that the Ukrainian army had attacked that specific convoy.

In the West, the incident was characterized as an escalation — a possible reason for the Russians to march in, or the start of a real invasion. Stock markets reacted immediately to the news, and stock prices plummeted. People were apparently bracing for war.

Here's what really happened: On Thursday night, two British reporters for The Guardian and Telegraph newspapers observed that 23 armored vehicles crossed the border from Russia into Ukraine. The vehicles were not stopped because some 100 kilometers of the border are now controlled by eastern Ukrainian separatists.

It had already been reported that the separatists were using this stretch of border to get more fighters and weapons across, but this was the first time Western reporters witnessed it. Later on Friday, the Ukrainian army announced that it had destroyed some of the armored vehicles. National Security and Defense Council spokesman Andrey Lysenko explained that every military convoy that crosses into Ukraine is registered by Ukrainian forces. The convoys are only attacked if they move deeper into Ukrainian territory, as care is given to avoid possible skirmishes with Russian forces gathered at the border.

The incident was also a subject of discussion in a telephone conversation between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and British Prime Minister David Cameron. "The Ukrainian president announced that the information is reliable and confirmed, as most of the hardware was destroyed during the night by the Ukrainian artillery," according to the presidential home page.

Where's the proof?

Interestingly, there are no images of the destroyed military convoy. It still remains unclear whether the armored vehicles in question were the ones that had earlier been sighted by the British reporters. When the Ukrainian army has claimed to have destroyed separatist materials on other occasions, it provided proof.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was quoted on Friday as saying that there had been a Russian incursion into Ukraine, but no invasion. He said that it was the same convoy of armored vehicles that the British journalists had seen. Both the Ukraine and the West have long feared an open Russian invasion. Russia has once again amassed troops along the Ukrainian border, just as it did in the spring.

"It just confirms the fact that we see a continuous flow of weapons and fighters from Russia into eastern Ukraine, and it is a clear demonstration of continued Russian involvement in the destabilization of eastern Ukraine," Rasmussen said.

Russia has officially denied that its vehicles have crossed the Ukrainian border. But there has for months been a hidden Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, and proof of that is multiplying. So far no one has stopped Moscow from secretly arming the rebels. A German ARD-TV camera team filmed Russian tanks near the border that bore "peace signs." This could be an indication that Russia is preparing a "freedom operation" in Ukraine.

On its own, Russia sent 280 white trucks as part of a "humanitarian mission" to the Ukrainian border without having cleared this first with the Ukrainian government or the Red Cross. Kiev feared that the convoy might be carrying weapons for eastern Ukrainian rebels and demanded an inspection.

Pretext for "peace troops"

What is really in the trucks? The Red Cross inspected the trucks and found no weapons, only blankets and other humanitarian items. So Kiev gave the green light for the trucks to cross the border. But the Ukrainian government also fears that Russia will use the humanitarian convoy as a pretext for establishing "peace troops."

On Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry circulated the information that a Ukrainian "punishment commando" could mine the streets in the Luhansk area to destroy the Russian aid convoy and pin the responsibility on the rebels. Russia is using the convoy as propaganda to depict itself as a force of peace and to accuse Ukraine and the West of being warmongers uninterested in the plight of civilians.

On Saturday a separatist broadcaster showed a video in which rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko — the new "prime minister" of the self-declared "People’s Republic of Donetsk" — speaks to supporters. In it, Zakharchenko announced to audience applause the alleged destruction of 70 armored vehicles belonging to the Ukrainian army. Later he relays the other "good news" that the rebels have 1,200 new fighters that have been receiving training in Russia. What's more, he said in the video, the separatists now have 30 tanks and 120 armored personnel carriers.

What rebel claims are true? It is difficult to independently verify comments from the rebels. In an earlier interview, separatist leader Alexander Khodakovsky admitted that before the crash of passenger jet MH17 he knew of a Buk missile system that had been transported from Luhansk to Donetsk. He later retracted that statement. In July, Russian political scientist Sergei Kurginyan said that Russia was delivering "military and technical help" to the separatists, though Russia always stressed it wasn't delivering weapons. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov also denied the recent remarks by Zakharchenko.

On Sunday evening in Berlin, there was another attempt by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov at peaceful resolution of the crisis. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius acted as mediators. The situation is that much more complex because Russia is simultaneously talking peace and allegedly delivering weapons to the separatists.

There is considerable doubt as to whether Russia wants a peaceful resolution to the Ukrainian crisis. Its real objective is presumably federalizing Ukraine.

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