By Yevheniia Dubrova, VI Form
The Portrayal of Russian Military Intervention in Ukraine (2014-current) in Russian Media Outlets
Editor’s Note: This paper was completed as a part of the History Research Fellowship, a one-semester course available to sixth form students.
On April 13, 2014, following the Russian occupation of Crimea, pro-Russian activists seized the City Council building in Makiivka, located in the Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine. They proclaimed the area part of a newly formed proto-state, the Donetsk People’s Republic. Almost immediately, the Republic’s government restricted public access to all Ukrainian and international TV channels and print media. As Dmytro Tkachenko, an adviser at Ukraine’s Ministry of Information Policy, noted, “Russia [was] doing everything it [could] to cut those people off.” Controlling TV towers in the two regions allowed the separatists to broadcast their propaganda, exaggerating Ukraine’s failures and glorifying their self-declared government. From that day forward, the population of occupied Donbas, including Makiivka, received all of their news solely from local Republican or state-owned Russian media outlets.
I remember that day clearly because it marked the beginning of the aggressive attitudes of pro-Russian supporters, who constituted the vast majority of people in my hometown of Makiivka, towards those supporting Ukraine and its reunification with the region. Never before had I witnessed the propaganda machine working so effectively and disinformation campaigns executed so brilliantly. Russia’s state-controlled media outlets unanimously denied the presence of Russian troops in the region and stated that it was ultra-nationalist Ukrainian government financed by Western politicians who started the war in Donbas for its own benefit. Branding the Ukrainian government a “fascist junta,” the Kremlin portrayed it and the Ukrainian state as “purveyors of fascism, xenophobia,” and violent racism. The horrifying tales of the violence of Ukrainian soldiers that appeared in the news, such as the infamous story about the public crucifixion of a three-year-old boy in Slovyansk, removed any traces of sympathy from the local population towards Ukraine, its government, and its army.
Since April 2014, the war between Russian-backed separatist forces and the Ukrainian military has killed more than 10,300 people and injured nearly 24,000. Although the Kremlin has repeatedly denied its involvement in the conflict, “Ukraine and NATO have reported the buildup of Russian troops and military equipment near Donetsk and Russian cross-border shelling.” International research groups continue to collect new evidence of the presence of Russian troops and weaponry in the region. In the summer of 2019, Forensic Architecture, a London-based research group, presented new evidence of Russian military involvement in the battle of Ilovaisk (August 2014) that resulted in the death of at least 1,000 soldiers and 80 civilians on both sides. It was the decisive victory for Russian-backed forces. The evidence includes “satellite images of Russian armed convoys inside Ukraine and multiple sightings of the T-72B3 tank, a new model which at the time of the battle was operated only by the Russian armed forces.” However, state-owned Russian and local Republican media outlets assured the residents of Donbas that the Kremlin was not in any way responsible for the occupation of Crimea or the war in Eastern Ukraine.
According to the survey conducted by the Ministry of Social Affairs of Donetsk People’s Republic in December, 2016, 26% of the local population of Donbas supported the independence of the Republic, and 50% wanted the Republic to become a part of Russia. Less than 3% of people expressed a wish to rejoin Ukraine. While there is no proof that these numbers are accurate as the government of the Republic financed and conducted the survey, it certainly represents the general attitudes of the population. Regardless of the numerous pieces of evidence of Russian involvement in the war in Donbas, the residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions view the Kremlin as a liberator and not an occupant, which shows the scale of propaganda’s influence in the region.
This paper argues that Russia implements media propaganda and disinformation campaigns as a part of its information warfare strategy in the ongoing military conflict with Ukraine. The next chapter will examine the history of Russia’s information warfare strategy rooted in Soviet disinformation campaigns. A summary of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and military intervention in Donbas (chapter III) will be followed by the analysis of the representation of these events in Russian state-owned media outlets (chapter IV).
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Yevheniia Dubrova is a VI Form boarding student from Ukraine. She is passionate about creative writing and history. In her free time, she enjoys writing, reading, and overseeing several social initiatives she started back in Ukraine.