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The View from Russia: Protests in Kiev

‘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 is a privately owned newspaper that is generally regarded as pro-opposition; Kommersant is an independent daily newspaper; the Moscow Times is an English-language newspaper that provides a foreign perspective.

Violence in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, escalated sharply overnight on 18-19 February in the city’s Independence Square, or Maidan. The square has been occupied by fluctuating numbers of pro-European opposition protestors since November 2013, when Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych turned away from a trade deal with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia. The protests turned more violent when opposition leaders emerged from talks with Yanukovych in the early hours of 19 February, announcing that no progress had been made.

As the violence began to unfold, Kommersant reported that ‘never before has the country been so close to civil war’. While it is true that Ukraine is deeply divided between pro-Russian sentiment in its east and pro-Western European sentiment in the west, it may have been more accurate to describe the events as a revolution, since the violence on the Maidan was largely between protestors seeking the president’s resignation and the country’s Berkut special police force, not directly between Ukrainian citizens with opposing political loyalties. The publication may have wanted to avoid using such loaded terms as ‘revolution’ in order to downplay the government’s suppression of the opposition and the, as we now know, very real possibility of Yanukovych being forced to step down. At the same time, Kommersant reported that some of its sources were saying that police were using tear gas and rubber bullets, a fact that many other news sources did not mention explicitly. It also avoided placing blame on which side provoked the spillover into violence, saying that both the police and protestors were accusing the other side of instigating the latest violence.

Both Kommersant and the Moscow Times included photos and tweets from ordinary citizens at the scene (including from local Ukrainians as well as foreigners who were live tweeting the events), adding an unedited ‘word from the street’-type element to their coverage. Kommersant used the tweets to supplement its frequently updated timeline of events as they unfolded in real time during the night of 18-19 February.

The Moscow Times made mention more often than many other news sources of similar protests breaking out in other regions of Ukraine. They reported that protestors in the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil stormed an interior ministry building and that the interior ministry troops subsequently put down their weapons and refused to fight the protestors, declaring that the ‘police is with the people’.

RT reported sharp words from Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs, which placed the blame for the violent protests squarely on the West. It said that the ministry considered ‘the events to be the direct result of conniving politics on the part of Western politicians and European institutions which have, since the beginning of the crisis, closed their eyes to the aggressive actions of radical forces in Ukraine, thereby encouraging them to escalate and further provoke legitimate authorities.’ In the lead paragraph of the same article, RT writes: ‘Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs believes that the bloody clashes in Kiev are the direct result of the conniving politics on the part of Western politicians and European institutions. American expert David Speedie also shares this view.’ However, the actual quotes that follow from Speedie, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, simply state that he believes Ukraine should be allowed to determine its own fate without the outside interference of other countries: ‘Unfortunately, information is coming out that there have been instances of interference on the part of State Department representatives as well as about what role the EU played in the events in Ukraine. I think that interfering in this situation would be a mistake. Ukraine should figure this out for itself. It would be better if the US, Russia, and the US could, acting together, play an intermediary role and organize something like a round-table discussion, taking into account the internal division within the country. Ukraine should act according to its own interests, and not the interests of the US, EU or Russia.’  Based on Speedie’s actual statements quoted in the article, stating that he blames the West for instigating the violence in Kiev as the article’s lead paragraph did seems to be a deliberate misrepresentation of his actual views.

In a 21 February article, the Moscow Times gave further insight into the Kremlin’s views of the events when it reported that ‘Russia warned Ukraine’s president not to let opponents walk over him “like a doormat”’, which it interpreted as ‘a powerful image of how far the Kremlin feels Yanukovych may have dithered into losing control to crowds who have held their ground in central Kiev’. It also reported that ‘Moscow upped the ante by directly linking the delivery of $2 billion in loans to the end of protests, which Moscow portrays as led by dangerous extremists’. Unlike most other coverage, the newspaper emphasised what it saw as the purely political nature of Moscow’s moves, saying that ‘sources with close knowledge of arrangements to provide Ukraine with the second tranche of a $15 billion funding programme said the decision was now out of the Finance Ministry’s hands and had become a political one’; another of its unnamed sources was quoted as saying bluntly ‘it is a political decision’.

Unlike many other news sources, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that police forces in several other regions of Ukraine had expressed their refusal to fight protestors early on in the demonstrations, quoting police as saying that they would defend citizens and not fight against them. The newspaper also analysed the possibility of full-scale war breaking out: ‘A respected sociologist, who asked not to be named, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that no one would fight for Yanukovych and his team: “He got tangled up in a war with the people, although he has neither the resources, nor the forces, nor the popularity. It would be difficult to measure public opinion right now, but if this could be done, I’m certain we would see that Yanukovych’s popularity would be in the negative in all regions of the country. Miners can see as well as the Lviv intelligentsia that Yanukovych is not waging a war in their interests, but in his own. So who would give their life for him? Let him fight for himself, if he can.”’

The same 21 February Nezavisimaya Gazeta article also mentioned the possibility of the Crimea, a southern Ukrainian region where the majority of the population is ethnically Russian and where Russia has a naval base, seceding from the country. However, it only offered one line on the topic without additional analysis or explanation: ‘The situation in the Crimea has also become complicated: Parliament Speaker Vladimir Konstantinov announced that, if there is a replacement of the legitimate power, this may pose the question of the Crimea seceding from Ukraine.’ The Moscow Times also reported on the possibility of the Crimea region seceding, but examined the issue in more depth: ‘”If Ukraine breaks apart, it will trigger a war,” a senior [Russian] government official told the Financial Times on Thursday. “They will lose Crimea first [because] we will go in and protect [it], just as we did in Georgia.”’ The quotes that the Times article used portrayed Russia as much more belligerent than the Nezavisimaya Gazeta coverage did, with the Times explicitly stating that ‘Russia has warned the West that it is willing to fight a war over Crimea’ and quoted another Russian foreign policy official as saying ‘we will not allow Europe and the US to take Ukraine from us. The states of the former Soviet Union, we are one family. They think Russia is still as weak as in the early 1990s but we are not’.