Death and Lies

On the Front Lines in Ukraine’s Info War

As the propaganda war prepares the ground for a shooting war, the death toll already is rising.

Baz Ratner/Reuters

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — As the government in Kiev begins its move to reopen roads and recapture government buildings in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian militants in the town of Kramatorsk have been consolidating their hold. Over the weekend they seized the main municipal offices and earlier this week they took over the central police station, where bullet holes now mark the façade.

Thursday morning, anti-terrorist units from the interior ministry attacked a checkpoint on the outskirts of nearby Slovyansk, killing five militants. Ukrainian officials then announced the operation was being temporarily halted for “a reformat,” but the pause came shortly after Russia’s defense minister announced new military drills the other side of the border and Russian officials hinted darkly of intervention.

In the middle of the action, as each side tries to psych the other out, who’s who and what’s what is increasingly hard to pin down, and in this rust belt town 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Donetsk there’s little help to be had from the locals. Most of them are just trying to ignore the political unrest, preferring, in an echo of Soviet times, to keep their heads down, get on with their daily lives and above all avoid trouble.

When asked on Wednesday afternoon what had happened at the bullet-pocked police station, the owner of a convenience kiosk 10 meters away claimed complete ignorance. “I don’t know, I never go in that direction,” she said firmly.

As with much of this eastern Ukrainian region at the center of a superpower struggle that has reignited the animosities of the Cold War and threatens to dismember the country, truth and lies slither together, mixing and parting company. The results are vexing, and increasingly dangerous as Moscow builds threats on the foundation of its own propaganda.

"If the regime in Kiev has begun using the army against the population inside the country, then this is undoubtedly a very serious crime,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday. "Of course, this will have consequences for the people who take such decisions, and this also affects our inter-state relations."

There is a different logic at play here. Words are tools in an information war and facts are fungible. Rumors and counter-rumors fly with 21st-century speed thanks to Twitter and Facebook.

Some claims are the result of mistakes, such as a report this week that pro-Russian militants were vacating the top floors of the main municipal building in Donetsk. But others are pure disinformation, smoke and mirrors promoted by pro-Russian separatists and traceable to the script coming out of Moscow.

Separatist leaders and their supporters take their cues from the Kremlin-managed coverage of media outlets such as Russia Today and Life News. And then there are the “active measures” of Russian security agencies in what former U.S. National Security Agency counterintelligence officer John Schindler terms “special war,” a mixing of espionage, subversion, and disinformation with destabilization in mind and with the objective of “weakening Kiev’s already flagging grip on the region.”

In the neighboring town of Slovyansk the self-styled mayor and pro-Russian militant leader, the mercurial Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, excels in sowing confusion. He and his aides alternate between fact and unhinged fiction with unabashed ease—that is when they aren’t detaining Western journalists like Simon Ostrovsky of Vice News, who was grabbed at a checkpoint in the town on Tuesday afternoon.

After suggesting initially that the American journalist was a willing guest, Ponomaryov switched to arguing Ostrovsky is being held under “the laws of war” as a spy for Ukrainian ultranationalists, mainly Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), the far-right group that’s threatening to take matters its own hands and clear the east of Moscow-backed pro-Russian militants if the government in Kiev fails to do so. Finally, on Thursday, Ostrovsky was released, apparently in good health.

Kramatorsk may not have a central pro-Russian militant figure like the theatrical former Soviet army soldier Ponomaryov, but hard and fast facts are as rare here as in Slovyansk 12 kilometers up the road. Exhibit A: the central police station, where the lanky, ruddy-faced deputy police chief shifts nervously in his chair and says his boss is absent because he’s on sick leave and that the soldierly gunmen outside wearing fresh combat fatigues and equipped with new automatic weapons are “just simple local citizens”—or, he shrugs, maybe they are Russian soldiers.

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The government in Kiev—along with Obama administration officials—says that Russian intelligence agents and soldiers are fomenting trouble in east Ukraine and directing the unrest, in a play first used by the Kremlin in 1994 in Chechnya when it dispatched an armored column of Russian soldiers masquerading as pro-Moscow Chechens.

Likewise last month in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia has now annexed, so-called “little green men” (in fact they were not so little) deployed to exert control and direct operations. Moscow furiously denied that the armed, masked men were special force operatives, although this month Russia’s Vladimir Putin admitted they were.

Now the little green men are back in eastern Ukraine.

“It is hard to tell between Russians and Ukrainians sometimes,” Kramatorsk’s deputy police chief admitted with raised eyebrows and an ironic laugh. His face flushed. Despite the fact that the gunmen lounging at the front door decided who entered and who didn’t, displaying all the menace of ill-tempered nightclub bouncers, the deputy chief said they were not interfering with police work. “We are working as we did before, protecting the town,” he said. What orders has he received from Kiev? “I can’t comment on that,” he answered sheepishly.

According to the Donetsk regional police spokesman, armed men raided the Kramatorsk police station on Monday night and kidnapped Police Chief Vitaliy Kolupai, spiriting him away to nearby Slovyansk. “Current reports suggest that Kolupai is being held by these individuals against his will,” the spokesman added. So it is difficult to tell whether the deputy police chief is walking a tightrope and trying to keep, as best he can, on the right side of everyone in this conflict pitching Ukrainian against Ukrainians-who-now-want-to-be-Russians, or whether he has just gone over to the pro-Russian militancy.

A short drive from the police station in the town square (like so many in the region it still features a statue of Lenin) a pro-Russian militant leader who will only give his first name as Alexander denies that anything untoward has happened to the police chief, but says the army of the self-declared Donetsk Republic has taken over all government buildings in the town. Despite the gloom of an overcast afternoon he sports over-sized Armani sunglasses throughout the brief interview outside the town’s municipal building, just steps away from dozens of armed men wearing an assortment of combat fatigues.

Alexander parrots the line frequently heard from Kremlin media outlets: that the supporters of the Donetsk Republic are not separatists but are federalists and that Kiev’s intransigence is forcing them into the Moscow camp. “We have already announced our independence,” he says. “And the question in our planned referendum will be whether to become part of Russia or stay in Ukraine, if there are constitutional changes.”

The 35-year-old says, personally, he can’t see how they will be able to stay in Ukraine. “I would like to live in a country with more order and with rules that are followed, but now in Ukraine it is not so and you wouldn’t like to live here,” he says, blaming all the mayhem on Kiev and groups like Pravy Sektor.

Alexander says the town’s deputy mayor, who was thought to have opposed the pro-Russian militant takeover, is not languishing in a hospital after being beaten up by pro-Russian militants. Never mind press reports to the contrary, says Alexander. The mayor, meanwhile, continues to work in the main administration building, which is being turned into a fortress by the masked militants. And his deputy? I ask him. “No comment,” spits the mayor. “No comment.

Outside the municipal building a crowd of about 50 has congregated, most of them retirees who debate the pros and cons of breaking from Ukraine and whether it is best to form an independent republic or join with Russia. The few skeptics about breaking away from Ukraine are bullied into silence.

Masked men circulate among the crowd. Twenty meters away a group of students feed pigeons and take snapshots of their day out. Mothers push prams and as the wind picks up and raindrops fall they pick up their pace. “Mummy, why do those men have guns?” asks a little girl neatly turned out in a pink dress. “They are here to protect us,” her mom replies. The girl ponders for a few seconds and then skips off.

Alexander says locals are fearful that Ukrainian military forces will soon launch an attack on the town itself. “We are very worried what could happen here and especially about the recently formed National Guard, and that is why people are out here to defend themselves.”

The fear has been heightened by a declaration Wednesday by Pravy Sektor leader Dmitry Yarosh—the brash ultranationalist counterpoint to the pro-Russian militants’ Ponomaryov—who says he is moving his main headquarters from Kiev to Dnepropetrovsk in southeast Ukraine to better monitor developments in the east. “The purpose is to prevent the spread of the Kremlin infection,” he told a press conference in Dnepropetrovsk. He says he is forming a special squad of 800 fighters called “Donbas” to fight the separatists.

“That’s all we need,” groans an international human rights activist. “This will just feed the paranoia here.” And, of course, the separatists have quickly picked up on Yarosh’s threats, suggesting they are a harbinger of widespread fratricidal killings.

Last Sunday night, three local pro-Russian militants were slain in a mysterious attack at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Slovyansk that separatists claim was carried out by Pravy Sektor members. The locals were buried this week but, as with so much here, there are troubling disparities and contradictions between accounts of what happened.

One militant who was at the checkpoint during the assault says an intense hour-long firefight took place once reinforcements arrived, but the day after the attack there were no spent cartridge casings to be found at the scene and no damage to trees from the claimed exchange. And a video report about the clash by the Kremlin-controlled Life News TV station was uploaded to YouTube on April 19, although militants say the attack took place at 2:00 a.m. on April 20.

Not that Kiev and U.S. counter-propaganda goes through without a hiccup. A series of photographs released this week by the Ukrainian government, and vouched for by the White House, purportedly proving the little green men in eastern Ukraine are beyond doubt active service Russian military, now appear to be full of errors.

A mile or so from where last Sunday’s alleged Pravy Sektor attack took place pensioner Mikhail sits below a blossoming cherry tree. His weary comment on the crisis sums up the feelings of many of his compatriots. “What do we need all this circus for?” he asks.