“The first casualty, when war comes, is the truth,” U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson is reported to have said as America entered into World War I.
In Ukraine and in Russia the information war is already in full swing. Since protesters ousted former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in late February and parliament voted in an interim government in Kyiv, Russia has fought hard to delegitimize the new authorities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called the overthrow a coup and Russian media has relentlessly hammered home the notion that those now in power are nationalists and “fascists.”
Russian media and officials also say the ethnic Russian minority, which makes up roughly 17 percent of Ukraine’s population, is under threat. And Moscow has used this claim as a basis for sending troops into the country (although it denies their presence).
This blog will attempt to unravel the daily spin coming from all sides. First, let’s briefly address some of the major claims that have already been propagated and discussed ad nauseam.
Q: Are there Russian troops in Crimea?
Putin says the 15,000 gun-wielding men wearing uniforms without insignia are homegrown self-defense forces who bought their outfits at local shops. They aren’t. Journalists have photographed columns of Russian military trucks with Russian plates. Also, at least one soldier has inadvertently admitted to being Russian.
Q: Are violent “nationalist thugs” now in power and roaming Kyiv streets?
A: No, but…
Russian media and political leaders have wildly exaggerated claims of far-right extremists controlling events in Kyiv. And reports from the ground say things are generally peaceful in Ukraine’s capital.
That said, Right Sector, the far-right collective of nationalist militants to which Moscow has directed much of its scorn, was instrumental in the street fighting that eventually led to Yanukovych’s overthrow. And the nationalist Svoboda party, whose leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, has made anti-Semitic statements in the past, has some positions in the new government.
But Right Sector has no Cabinet positions. And Svoboda’s leaders have toned down their rhetoric since winning seats in parliament two years ago.
The leaders of the new government are also mainstream politicians and relatively well-known entities. Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is something of a Euro-technocrat and leader of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party. Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov is also a leading member of Batkivshchyna whose political career has been closely intertwined with Tymoshenko’s.
Q: Are Russian-speaking citizens under attack?
Putin has said any intervention in Ukraine would be to protect the ethnic Russian minority.
There have been isolated reports, largely by Russian media, of attacks on Russian protesters and one claim of censorship of Russian journalists. This blog will investigate these claims in a follow-up post but thus far there is no evidence of any real or coordinated attack on Russian-speakers.
The new Ukrainian parliament did pass a law that would annul the right of regions to recognize Russian as an official language, but this was vetoed by interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov.
Finally, if you see something you’d like unspun, or disagree with this blog’s unspinning of events, let us know on Twitter using the hashtag #UkraineUnspun. Also, feel free to comment at firstname.lastname@example.org