Russia invaded Ukraine over the weekend, justifying its incursion by claming it needed to protect Crimea’s ethnic Russian population from supposed neo-Nazi extremists. This was pure propaganda, of course—Vladmir Putin has been keen to annex land that used to be part of Russia, as he did in Georgia in 2008, and seems to think that the Ukrainian army will and should immediately surrender to the Russian one.
Still, Putin needed a story to spin, no matter how full of holes, and thus the neo-Nazi claims. But as it turns out, Crimea’s streets are not exactly paved with extremists—a fact that has proven troublesome for Russian state TV channels looking to find token far-right bogeymen. They’ve had to resort to tricks to get the right characters for Russian audiences—making much, for instance, of Sachko Bilyi, a buffoon who visited a local parliament with his AK-47 machine gun. No one in Ukraine thinks much of Bilyi, other than that he’s a clown, but Russian TV is now claiming that squads made up of thousands of Bilyis are terrorizing Ukraine’s civilians and intimidating MPs.
The Russian media also reported on “skirmishes” on the streets of Crimea and showed a video about “extremists in Crimea attacking Russian soldiers.” As it turns out, the video was actually made on February 20, when close to 100 protesters, aid workers and journalists were shot by snipers in Kiev. That day, several cameramen filmed the terror on location—one of them standing nearby for a very long time. When his video surfaced on Russian TV, purporting to be from Crimea, it made many suspect that the cameraman was from Russia and that Russian journalists may have had an arrangement with the snipers so that they wouldn’t draw fire.
For additional help manufacturing scenes of outrage, Russian provocateurs in Simferopol organized a nice mise-en-scene for Putin’s propaganda machine. A bus filled with people dressed like paramiliatry fighters, toting machine guns and grenade launchers, were filmed by Russian journliasts. It appeared instantly on the Internet and Russian TV channels, labeled as “The Right Sector from the Western Ukraine attacking peaceful Russian citizens and killing soldiers in Crimea.” But if one looks closely, it is possible to make out several important details: the bus from ‘the Western Ukraine’ in fact has a Crimean license plate number, and the fighters are armed with GM-94 grenade launchers and AK-100 machine guns, which are only used by Russian soldiers. Another question: how did Right Sector extremists manage to get to Simferopol on a big bus after all the roads to Crimea were blocked three days ago by armed police and Russian soldiers? Several jounralists tried to pass through the cordons, but in vain. Apparently only armed fighters and extremists can get permission to go to Crimea. Later, Russian consul general Vyacheslav Svetlichnyi dismissed reports of casulaties amongst Russian citizens and soldiers in Crimea as mere rumor.
Then there was the story about how a local state administration in Kharkiv hoisted a Russian flag instead of a Ukrainian one on the local parliamentary building. The rumor went viral thanks to a 25-year-old blogger in Moscow, nicknamed Mika Ronkainen. “Right now! Kharkiv administration was set free and the Russian flag was hoisted. Guess by whom?” he wrote on his social network account. Later, journalists established that Ronkainen likes to be photographed in Nazi uniforms and takes part in the Putin-supported Russian xenophobic movement “Locals”. Apparently the real story was that several buses of Russian “tourists” were taken to Kharkiv to imitate local populations showing enthusiastic support for Russia. They not only hoisted Russian flags, but reportedly beat Ukrainians who expressed indignation at Russian aggression in Crimea.
Among the other potent, but false, myths of the Putin propaganda machine: that panicked Ukrainians are fleeing en masse to Russia to escape the new government in Kiev, and that the Ukrainian army is unfit for combat and soldiers are defecting to the Russian side.
As for the former, lines and crowds at border checkpoints are very hard to fake, so Russian TV instead filmed the line next to the border checkpoint with Poland, labeling it as “thousands of Ukrainains running away to Russia from the far right.” (Ukrainian journalists figured out the real location by noticing that a plate on the checkpoint listed the name of the city of Shegyni, which is on the Polish border.)
And as for the Moscow propagandist rumor that Ukrainian soldiers are clamoring to become Russian citizens, the only ones who seem eager to join Russia’s side are the Berkut riot policement, the ones allegedly involved in the mass murder of protesters in Kiev. Russian citizenship for them is the only hope for salvation from criminal prosecution and prison. Meanwhile, even as the Russian media is reporting that “Ukrainian soldiers went over to the Crimean authorities’ side peacefully and without any shots fired…the majority of them will swear allegiance to local authorities,” in the Ukrainian media, one in fact discovers that several Crimean regiments were approached by the Russian army and that they refused to lay down arms.
No one in Ukraine or in the West doubts that the Russian invasion was provoked by anything other than Putin’s desire to reestablish the USSR 2.0. But every invader wants to look like a liberator, and in order to do so, Putin needs his scary extremists, his scared Ukrainians and his Crimean soldiers welcoming him with open arms. Meanwhile, the question now is: what will Putin do with his army in Ukraine? We can only hope the Russians shoot down their own myths and delusions, and not the local population.