From Russia with Love? Russian perspective on the conflict in Ukraine

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ANITA SĘK

DSC_1330The worldviews which we accept, the images which we construct in our heads, they are all shaped by ‚the fourth power’ – media. Fortunately we live in times when we have access to more than just one source of knowledge, and the Internet and social portals allow us to see something that the mainstream media would prefer to keep us unaware of. Nonetheless, these are still marketing and public relations – the victory over hearts and souls – that win the wars, more than just armoury and justice. But as an old socio-political saying goes: „one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, the truth has always several faces. Nowadays it is particularly pertinent in the Russian media reporting on the conflict in Ukraine. Diversity of facts and their presentations might make one feel schizophrenic. But this is the reality of today’s Russia.

In the last two days I read, watched and listened to all the main Russian media: newspapers, TV channels and radio stations, both state-owned, pro-opposition and independent ones, in order to present the closest possible Russian perspective on what is happening in Ukraine. Naturally, the results have been easily predicted, but what surprised me the most was firstly the number, variety and openness of independent and/or opposition media, and secondly, the incredibly different languages used by the governmental and the other channels of communication.

Independent and pro-opposition media

„TV Dozhd” (TV Rain, www.tvrain.ru) is a new private TV channel and Internet portal, quickly gaining on popularity and currently reaching to about 18 million homes of mainly young, creative and educated people, who were protesting against the Kremlin in December 2011. „The Economist” was recently reporting on TV’s problems with Kremlin’s hate-campaign („Putin and the media. Dreams about Russia”, The Economist, 15 February 2014). Thanks to the cooperation with the BBC Russia, the Dozhd’s portal is full of rather objective news from and about Ukraine. There are footages on EU’s Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Brussels; reactions from the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Germany and Poland who arrived to Kiev on a special mission; a remark by Barack Obama; as well as a statement by Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, who said: „it is important that the authorities which rule Ukraine are legitimate and effective”. „Dozhd” underlined that „the situation on Maidan is chaotic and nobody controls it”. It also presented a reportage about developments in other cities, in Western Ukraine, where the army and police united with citizens in the protest against the Ukrainian government. Similarly on the events writes „Novaya Gazeta” (The New Neswpaper, www.novayagazeta.ru), known for its investigative journalism.

It seems that the most critical vis-a-vis both Ukrainian authorities, the West as well as the opposition leadersis the privately own pro-opposition daily „Nezavisimaya Gazeta” (The Independent Newspaper, www.ng.ru). The newspaper underlined that the „president’s [Yanukovych] team was ready to hand over its position, but it was the West and the Ukrainian opposition leaders who made concessions in his favour. (…) [In answer], people in Maidan warned the opposition about signing any deals with Yanukovych, for whom there is no other way but to resign”.

News- and business-oriented „Kommersant” (The Businessman, www.kommersant.ru) is more nuanced. In its rich in photos, videos and twits chronicle, the newspaper wrote about „the street-battles in Kiev” and observed that the infamous snipers do operate on both fighting sides. It added that the opposition leader Vitaliy Klitschko denounced that the opposition has allegedly signed any deal with Yanukovych. It also cited the Putin-Merkel phone conversation (February 20).

Government sources

For February 21st, the comment on the call is one of the two pieces of information available on the official website of the Russian President (www.kremlin.ru) which regard the latest developments in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that „it is crucial for the Western countries to restrain from acting against the Ukrainian authorities”; he also mentioned „the importance of definitive condemnation of opposition forces, which are guilty of organization of illegal extremist and terrorist actions”. Another article refers to the Putin’s decision on sending to Kiev „on clear request by President of Ukraine” the Russian Ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, as a ‚peace broker’.

Most popular daily

One of the most popular among newspapers „Izvestia” (The News, www.izvestia.ru) cites the Speaker of the Russian Federation Council Valentina Matvienko, who after a meeting with the Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea [inhabited mainly by Russians and of Russian-origins] Vladimir Konstantinov, called „to keep the integrity of Ukraine” and compared the situation in Ukraine with the ‚Arab Spring’ and the ‚orange revolution’. In another article titled „Kremlin assess events in Ukraine as an attempt of a coup”, Russian President’s spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said that „according to Vladimir Putin, for this situation are responsible the extremists”. He confirmed the phone call Putin-Yanukovych (February 20), but did not disclose any details. The spokesperson underlined that „Russian President never did and does not give any advice to his Ukrainian colleague on what should be done, and does not intend to give any in the future”. He stated also that „the way to resolve the political crisis in Ukraine and the selection of possible mediators is the prerogative of the legitimate authorities of Ukraine”.

State-owned media

On home site of the national state-run  TV “Pierviy Kanal” (The First Channel, named for the duration of the Winter Olympics in Sochi „The First Olympic Channel”, www.1tv.ru) the first piece of news is a video reportage on Berkut and police, testifying against armed and unpredictable „extremists” and their snipers. The TV emphasises the negative opinion of Russian authorities on EU’s sanctions, a lack of coherence of Ukrainian ‚opposition’ and division of Ukraine into Ukrainian- and Russian-speakers. The last point is proved by a footage of young people from Eastern Ukraine willing to go to Kiev in order to support the government in “protecting their families, their people and their country”.

Basing on the same arguments and using the same language, the directed at external audiences radio service „Golos Rossii” (The Voice of Russia, www.rus.ruvr.ru, available in various languages) prepared a photo-reportage titled “Berkut: on the guard of law and statehood”, presenting a tough life of a riot policemen who need to act in defence, in order to protect themselves from “rebels”. Though privately owned, the left-leaning „Komsomolskaya Pravda” (www.kp.ru) reported in a similar manner: “in the morning of 20 February Ukrainian radicals refused to participate in a ‘fake’ truce and declared war on the authorities. Leader of the radical nationalist association „The Right Sector” Dmitry Yarosh assured that a popular uprising would continue. (…) [In the meantime] unknown shooter injured more than 20 police officers.”

Russia Today (www.rt.com, in English), a TV channel created in order to present in a more subtle way the Russian perspective, explained that „violence escalated on Tuesday after a group of radicals taking part in a “peaceful march” [emphasis by the RT] of the opposition attempted  to storm  the building of the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) (…). The move came despite the  agreement on amnesty finally reached between the government and the opposition. (…) The clashes soon grew bloody, with footage showing masked rioters  firing rifles and pistols at the police in central Kiev and  reports describing dead protesters with gunshot wounds.” Perhaps in order to sound more reliable, the RT has gathered „the twelve most horrifying videos that show Kiev’s descent into turmoil”. The videos present mainly the equipped in everything that is only possible, from cobble stones to guns, ‚radicals’ beating riot policemen, and the latters’ eventual defence. Even if there is a footage presenting the moods on the other side, the commentary makes it sure who is ‚good’ and who is ‚evil’ in this fight.  Moreover, a journalist and a cameraman of RT were allegedly captured and detained by the ‚rebels’.

What is interesting, the topic of Ukraine does not deserve the first page of the government-owned daily „Rossiyskaya Gazeta” (www.rgru). Commenting on the statement of Yanukovych that was published today (21 February) on president’s website, the newspaper asks: „but will it solve the civil conflict?”. It also notices bitterly: „when the US Ambassador to Ukraine via emails and social networks gathers opposition deputies of the Verkhovna Rada on extra night session – it does not surprise anyone anymore. But is the American diplomat able with such an easiness to smell the blood of extremists? Is he aware that handling with today’s liberal opposition means persuading them to shoot at police in the centre of Kiev, in the name of militants?”. The daily makes a worth of further exploring hypotheses that „Ukraine will not be left in peace neither by Brussels nor by Washington”, because Ukrainian conflict will not end on the day of new elections: „in the Ukrainian regions supporting Maidan live 35-40% of Ukrainian population, which means that the opposition leaders cannot win anyway, and taking into consideration the current climate, the elections will be assessed as ‚undemocratic’ by these ‚international observers’.” In these circumstances, continues „Rossiyskaya Gazeta”, „experts say that the decision on early elections taken by Yanukovych is nothing more than a temporary reprieve, which can suspend the bloodshed only for a moment.”

Conclusion?

In Russia, depending on to which face of the truth we feel more attached, we can find extremely different positions, represented by extremely different media according to their extremely different political and ideological connotations. But let’s not be naïve: what we find among pro-governmentat Russian materials is as one-sided as what we see sometimes in some European media. It resembles a kind of a bad mirror, in which we see symmetric but extremely different faces of the truth.


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CII's Founding Member. Graduated from the Department of EU International Relations and Diplomacy, College of Europe in Bruges (Belgium) and in International Relations from the Jagiellonian University in Cracow (Poland). LLP ERASMUS stipend on the University of Vienna. In years 2012-2013 Marie Curie Researcher on EU External Action in a think tank Trans European Policy Studies Association based in Brussels. Trainee i.a. in the European Commission (Cabinet of Š. Füle, Commissioner for ENP and Enlargement), Polish MFA, European Parliament and Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Moscow. Honourable member of the International Relations Students’ Association of the Jagiellonian University.

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