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The view from Russia: Russia faces off with the West over Crimea

‘The View from Russia’ examines news coverage from four major Russian sources: RT is a television network and news website funded by the Russian government; Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Novaya Gazeta are privately owned newspapers that are generally regarded as pro-opposition; the Moscow Times is an English-language newspaper that provides a foreign perspective.

The recent escalation of the crisis in Ukraine, along with the very real possibility that Crimea, the autonomous republic within Ukraine where ethnic Russians make up the majority of the population, may soon become part of Russia, has stirred up a steady stream of defensive news coverage from RT, which is well known for being a mouthpiece of the Russian government. Following international condemnation of Russia’s involvement in Crimea, RT was quick to strike back at the West, and especially the United States, for its ‘barefaced cynicism and double standards’ over Ukraine. RT quoted a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson who deflected US accusations of Russian involvement in Crimea by accusing the West of being behind the opposition-led coup in Kiev, saying that ‘Washington cannot admit that they were nurturing Maidan [protests], encouraging the violent overthrow of the legitimate government’.

RT defended the influx of Russian troops to the region by citing a 1997 agreement between Russia and Ukraine that allows Moscow to keep up to 25,000 of its troops in Crimea. However, this can be viewed as an intentionally disingenuous interpretation of the agreement, since Russia maintains a naval base in Crimea and a certain number of its troops are stationed there year-round for drills and military exercises. Unidentified troops that have recently appeared in Crimea, who are wearing masks and not bearing any insignia but are widely believed to be Russian, have not been confined only to the Russian naval base but have been occupying the region’s airports and other key facilities, which is not what the 1997 agreement had intended.

RT’s reporting during most of the Ukrainian crisis has taken the position that, even if Russia is directly involved in Crimea, the West and the United States had been directly involved in helping to orchestrate the Maidan protests, quoting experts calling the current interim government in Ukraine a ‘puppet of the American government’. In reaction to the United States’ announcement that it intended to implement sanctions against Russia for its involvement in Crimea, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted by RT as saying that such announcements were being taken as ‘threats’ and accused the United States of ‘pressurizing the atmosphere’ of the Ukraine crisis’. The announcement by G7 members that they would boycott the planned G8 summit in Sochi in June 2014 was downplayed by RT: instead of referring explicitly to the possible boycott, it simply quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin saying that Russia was preparing for the summit and will be ready to welcome its counterparts, but ‘if they don’t want to come, they don’t have to’.

Meanwhile, the more independent Russian news sources Novaya Gazeta and Nezavisimaya Gazeta provided more complex coverage of the negative international reaction to Russia’s involvement in Crimea, and quoted more sources that did not necessarily toe the official Kremlin line. In response to Russia’s claim that it would send troops to Crimea to protect ethnic Russians there, Nezavisimaya Gazeta quoted Andrei Yurov, a member of the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, who said that ‘the real situation in Crimea is different from what Russian channels are portraying to viewers’ and added that ‘if there are minorities in Crimea that are being discriminated against, they are certainly not the Russians’. Novaya Gazeta published an investigative report comparing photos of Russian military vehicles with the vehicles being used by the unidentified forces occupying Crimea in an attempt to prove that they are most likely Russian.

The Moscow Times reported that the Crimean assembly’s vote on 6 March to join Russia was ‘coordinated with the two houses of Russian parliament’ according to a Ukrainian foreign ministry official, who claimed that ‘the decision by the Crimean Supreme Council and statements by the Federation Council and State Duma [two houses of Russian parliament] are evidence that this is coordinated action’.

A referendum is set for 16 March when Crimean voters will have their say. However, the Moscow Times was the only source examined that pointed out whichever of the two options voters choose, the two choices leave them ‘no option for leaving Russian control’. The first option on the ballot will ask ‘Are you in favour of the reunification of Crimea with Russia as a part of the Russian Federation?’, while the second asks ‘Are you in favour of restoring the 1992 Constitution and the status of Crimea as a part of Ukraine?’ The newspaper explains that ‘at first glance, the second option seems to offer the prospect of the peninsula remaining within Ukraine. But the 1992 national blueprint – which was adopted soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union and then quickly abolished by the young post-Soviet Ukrainian state – is far from doing that. This foresees giving Crimea all the qualities of an independent entity within Ukraine – but with the broad right to determine its own path and choose relations with whom it wants – including Russia…The option of asking people if they wish to stick with the status quo – in which Crimea enjoys autonomy but remains part of Ukraine – is not on offer’. Keir Giles of Chatham House explained to the Moscow Times that ‘the restoration of this [1992] constitution would be a step toward notional independence under Russian control…Those citizens who were content with Crimea remaining part of Ukraine on the same basis as it has been for the last 20 years do not have a voice in this referendum. There is no third option available’.