Kyiv′s lost war for ′hearts and minds′ in east | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 20.02.2015

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Kyiv's lost war for 'hearts and minds' in east

One year ago, Ukraine saw a transition of power in the wake of rioting in the streets. At the time, Russian media instilled fear and contributed to laying the groundwork for the current war in eastern Ukraine.

"The situation in Ukraine is such that we could just as well talk about the end of statehood there." Anchor Dmitry Kiselyov lowered the thumb of his right hand, and the gesture was intended to show that Ukraine was doomed. That was the beginning of the "Vesti nedeli" (News of the Week) broadcast on Sunday evening, February 23, 2014, shown on Russian state broadcaster Rossija-1. "If a state can't guarantee the safety of its citizens, this state does in fact not exist," said Kiselyov, with what came across as a ghoulish smile.

Ukraine had quite likely crossed the border to civil war, the prominent Russian journalist added. More blood was going to flow. From today's point of view, Kiselyov was right in this respect. The war between pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian areas of Donetsk and Luhansk and the Ukrainian army has already claimed the lives of thousands of people. However, this war fought with guns and tanks did not begin in the eastern Ukrainian steppes but on a different battlefield. It was a "war for the hearts and minds" of the people - and how they would interpret and construe what was unfolding.

Events through the eyes of Russian TV

Demonstration und Proteste in Kiew 29.12.2013

Ukrainian opposition supporters hold Ukrainian flags as they gather for a mass rally on Independence Square in Kiev on December 29, 2013

One year ago, at the end of February 2014, the pro-Western Maidan movement - named after Kyiv's independence square - celebrated a victory. The fate of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych would be decided in four days. Following months of protests, violence escalated in Kyiv on February 18.

Dozens of activists were killed in the wake of a police crackdown, under circumstances which remain unclear to this day. On February 21, foreign ministers from three EU countries, including Germany, managed to negotiate a deal between the opposition and the president. In the evening, Yanukovych made an unexpected escape, surfacing in Russia later on.

In February 2014, Russian TV broadcasts could be viewed throughout the whole of Ukraine. According to opinion polls, they were even the most important source of information for those residing in the east of the country. "Russian media started to report on Ukraine's division long before the Maidan and eastern Ukraine incidents," Diana Duzyk, managing director of the Kyiv-based non-governmental organization "Telekrytyka" (Television Criticism), told DW. Ukraine had ignored this for a long time.

Ukraine Maidan Protest Symbolbild

Pro-Western demonstrators involved in fighting with police forces

The February revolution in Kyiv was seen by many eastern Ukrainians through the eyes of Russian TV: It was a coup orchestrated by the West and executed by Ukrainian ultra-nationalists. "There was a poisoning influence by both pro-Russian media in Ukraine and media from Russia in Ukraine," Andreas Umland, Senior Research Fellow at the Kyiv-based Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, told DW. "Among other things, this rhetoric helped build the foundations for support of separatism in Crimea and in the Donetsk region," he added.

This is confirmed by Volodymyr Kipen, a sociologist from Donetsk, who lives in Kyiv today. The influence of Russian media in eastern Ukraine had "over a long period of time" laid "the groundwork for acceptance" of the current Russian intervention in the region, Kipen told DW.

Blending facts and fiction

Yet in their Ukraine coverage, Russian journalists often confound facts and fiction. Kiselyov, for instance, said in his programs that the new rulers in Kyiv intended to treat the use of the Russian language as a criminal offense. This, however, was a lie and a hoax.

In addition, it was claimed that Ukrainian right-wing extremists posed a deadly threat to eastern Ukrainians. But it remains a fact that there were no "retaliation campaigns" carried out by Ukrainian right-wing extremists, as announced by Russian media.

Andreas Umland accused Russian media of distorting reality: While extreme right-wing groups such as the "Right-wing Sector" were present at the Maidan protests, their importance had been "blown out of proportion." At any rate, in early presidential and parliamentary elections Ukrainian nationalists merely achieved low single-digit results.

Kyiv's dilemma

Obviously, the seeds of suspicion fell on fertile ground in eastern Ukraine. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) on behalf of "Dzerkalo Tyzhnia" weekly, in April 2014 around 70 percent of the population in the Donetsk area saw the transition of power in Kyiv as a coup instigated by the West. In the Luhansk region the corresponding figure was 61 percent. Almost one in five residents was prepared to embrace Russian soldiers.

Kiew Trauer um Opfer der Proteste

A woman places flowers at a makeshift shrine for the anti-government demonstrators killed in clashes with police

The new Ukrainian government acknowledged the danger. At the end of March 2014, a court in Kyiv outlawed broadcasts of four Russian TV stations in Ukraine, including Kiselyov's Rossija-1. Many others remained. Not until September - six months after the beginning of the conflict in eastern Ukraine - did a media surveillance authority ban a total of 15 Russian stations. Duzyk points to a dilemma: "We try to be democratic, and we are facing a very difficult decision - between freedom of expression and information security." She believes switching off the Russian channels was the right thing to do: "They are no mass media - they are a means of propaganda."

But Kyiv responded too late, Duzyk adds. Pro-Russian separatists quickly disconnected Ukrainian stations and activated Russian ones. "When the separatists assumed control of the remaining television towers, it dawned on me that Ukraine's informational influence in the region was approaching zero," sociologist Kipen says. By early summer of 2014 at the latest, it was clear to him that Ukraine had probably lost the "fight for the hearts and minds" of many eastern Ukrainians.