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2 June, 2011  ▪  Oleksandr Mykhelson

Anatomy of Propaganda

Ukraine is still subjected to information campaigns against it. Effective resistance is possible but has yet not been put in place


A television news features the Ukrainian rock band Plach Yeremiyi singing a well-known song of UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Arm) partisans from the 1940s. Snowy scenes alternate with a video archive where a dozen old men wearing UPA uniforms repeat the lyrics. The host translates the lyric into Russian “Belt after belt, I’ll take the bullets,” what was originally sung in Ukrainian. It is obvious that he has not bothered to investigate what the lyrics really mean. At the end of the music clip, he says that when Viktor Yushchenko was running for presidency he “preferred to not irritate Russian-speaking voters,” so he proscribed the performance of this song on stage.  

The news feature aired on a national Russian TV channel on 26 November 2004. It never mentioned the crowded Maidan (Square), while at the same time presenting an outright nonsense including a claim that Taras Chubai, the leader of the band, was banned from going on to the stage, and many more absurd allegations. These struck a chord with both the Russian audience and some Ukrainians who happily believed any news items that attacked the Orange Revolution.

Custom made truth

This episode was a typical example of a media campaign where propaganda grows so big and aggressive that it starts believing itself after a while. This creates a vicious circle: the media broadcasts ideological clichés to shape stereotypes in the collective consciousness of viewers which later generates identical ideological clichés of its own accord based on the imposed stereotypes. This is how viruses work in cells.

Any propaganda is aimed at shaping the mindset of the targeted audience so that it would later create the required image of the world of its own accord based on the information it has received. This practice is also used in international politics to influence the audience of a targeted country.  Needless to say, the strategy is made all the more easier to accomplish when the propaganda within the media outlet has wide coverage in the targeted country and local mass media eagerly replay these imported messages.

The governments of countries which intensely promote their interests abroad undertake many efforts to succeed. According to reliable data, Russian state gas monopolist Gazprom spends up to US $140mn each year on media campaigns. No wonder the Kremlin succeeded in its media war both in Ukraine, and Western Europe, during the 2008-2009 Ukrainian-Russian gas conflict.  Later, Ukrainian journalists found out that an English-language website which covered the conflict (from the “appropriate” perspective, of course) was created by a Western PR company after being pre-ordered by Moscow a month before the conflict had even begun.  

The audience is shaped by the highlighting of certain issues rather than by outright lies. For instance, Kyiv’s continuous late payments for Russian gas in the 1990s made Ukraine look like a gas thief, as Vladimir Putin said when he was president. This reputation was once again raised in January 2009.

In reality, this was a product of the very poor contract between Kyiv and Moscow concluded by Presidents Yushchenko and Putin during the 2006 gas crisis. The Ukrainian state gas company Naftohaz was supposed to guarantee the pumping of gas from Russia to Europe regardless of whether Russians covered the cost of technical gas(a certain amount of gas used by compressor stations to transport the fuel) or not. When Moscow refused to extend the contract on 1 January 2009, Naftohaz was forced to burn some of the transported gas in its compressor facilities. Putin admitted this was the case at a special press-conference for international reporters at his residence in Novo-Ogariovo on 8 January admitting that transportation requires 21mn t of gas each day. This is not a lot of gas and yet nobody paid attention to these details: Russian officials, backed by the media, began to complain in a loud manner that Ukraine was again stealing gas leading to the suspension of gas supplies to Europe. However, in fact, the situation was quite the opposite: Gazprom had first suspended supplies which had resulted in Ukraine’s unauthorised use of technical gas.

The same thing happened during the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war. Russian television viewers brainwashed by state  propaganda and some of the television audience in Ukraine failed to develop a critical understanding of Ossetian and Russian propaganda about alleged “Ukrainian contract troops” supposedly fighting on the Georgian side in the war - even though no evidence was ever presented to prove the claims.  

Obviously, these statements had the same origins as rumours of 2,000 Ossetian civilians supposedly killed by Georgian “fascists”. Repeated continually, these allegations were accepted by the audience which had no alternative sources of information. In contrast, the death of only 162 citizens, not 2,000, reported by the Russian Prosecutor’s Investigative Committee was hardly mentioned while the number of Ossetians killed by Georgians and Russians remains a secret until the present day.   

Informed means armed

Propaganda-distorted mindset also twists the surrounding reality. These visible distortions often include controversies of the image of the world imposed by propaganda. For instance, the media used to refer to Ukrainians who fought in the Georgian war as “contract fighters”, while Russian troops were praised by the Russian patriotic press as “volunteers”.

In 2008, Russian propaganda was working to create an image of a hostile Ukraine screaming about the sale of Ukrainian air defence systems to Georgia after the latter shot down three Russian planes during the war. Meanwhile, the Russian media never mentioned that this arms trade was perfectly legal, both under Ukrainian and international legislation. Also, in September 2009, a year after the war, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev spoke in an interview to CNN about an identical situation where Russia was intending to sell C-300 air defence systems to Iran. “Selling… weapons for protection cannot increase tension. It should reduce it,” the Kremlin leader explained. I have no comment.  

Being attacked through a media war is always dangerous: it is quite a challenge trying to prove that you are not an elephant when others are deliberately saying that you are. However, with sufficient efforts, rebuking all myths imposed from outside is not impossible. It makes sense to just point at the puzzles controversies that have been provided through the propaganda.

The biggest problem here is the incomparable resources available for media campaigns in Ukraine and Russia. Clearly, lies told through a loudspeaker can silence even the purest truths. Countries which have insufficient resources to communicate their own viewpoint try to at least shut off the flow of information that they believe is a threat to them. Russian television and radio transmissions are heavily jammed both in “hostile” Georgia and by “brotherly” Belarus.

These methods are far from always being effective. Moreover, they raise the sharp question of freedom of speech. Ukraine for obvious reasons does not seem concerned enough to begin resisting the media expansion of its neighbour. This leaves the task of telling black from white to independent media and a few enthusiasts. As well as people who should be extremely cautious in what they write these days.



Russian spin doctors (political technologists) have been working forover 13 years in Ukraine preparing customised political technology for local politicians:

Igor Shuvalov (in the picture) supervises Inter TV channel and government-sponsored TV projects. He is close to Serhiy Livochkin, head of the Presidential Administration. In 2002-2004, Shuvalov prepared temnyky (censorship instructions sent to television channels) for the Presidential Administration

Iskander Valitov, Dmitri Kulikov and Timofei Sergeitsev drafted “sector reforms” under the framework of the April 2000 Referendum intended to introduce a presidential constitution. In the 2004 elections, they came up with Ukrainophobic posters –such as the well-known “Ukraine is composed of three groups” showing how then candidate Yushchenko was dividing Ukrainians into three. In 2009-2010, Arseniy Yatseniuk, a young opposition candidate, lost half of his popularity as oligarch Viktor Pinchuk had imposed these Russian spin doctors on his election campaign.

Kremlin spin doctors used by Prime Minister Yanukovych in the 2004 elections included Gleb Pavlovsky, Marat Gelman, and others. In 2004, they were noticed in Yanukovych’s underground (dirty tricks) campaign headquarters headed by Andriy Kluyev. Shortly after his election defeat Gelman moved into the art gallery business while Pavlovsky left his position in the Kremlin for unknown reasons.  

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