2paragraphs: How effective is Russia’s propaganda machine?
Steven Pifer: Much that has transpired in Ukraine over the past six months needs to be seen in shades of gray rather than black and white. Polls show, for example, that while many in eastern Ukraine are not comfortable with the acting government in Kyiv, a majority (70 percent) wish to remain a part of Ukraine. Russian media, however, has conducted an information war designed to depict events in Ukraine in the starkest terms, including regular portrayal of the acting Ukrainian government as a neo-fascist junta. Among the more outlandish assertions: that 650,000 Ukrainians fled to Russia to seek safety (the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said no evidence supported the claim); that the Ukrainian government was building a “concentration camp” for pro-Russia supporters (it was a European Union-funded project to build a holding center for illegal migrants); and that only six residents of Crimea wished to remain citizens of Ukraine after the peninsula was annexed by Russia (the Crimean Tatars, who comprise 12 percent of Crimea’s population of just under two million, have said they will not take Russian citizenship).
The information war appears to have had success within Russia, where 94 percent of the population receives their Ukraine news from television. The Kremlin directly or indirectly controls the major TV channels, and they present a consistently negative view of Ukraine. Opinion polls suggest that a large segment of the Russian population (70+ percent) accepts the Russian government’s line that the authorities in Kyiv are illegitimate. The acting Ukrainian government was overwhelmingly approved by the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) after President Yanukovych in essence abdicated his position and fled. Polls show that almost 90 percent of Russians approved the annexation of Crimea, with 84 percent considering Crimea’s March 16 referendum on joining Russia to have been free and fair. The Russian government is the only one that shares that view; other governments and most observers, including a member of President Putin’s human rights council, found the referendum riddled with flaws. But Russian media present a very one-sided picture—and the Russian public appears to be buying it.
—Steven Pifer is a former ambassador to Ukraine whose career as a foreign service officer centered on Europe, the former Soviet Union and arms control. He is director of the Brookings Institution Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative and a senior fellow with the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings Institute. He most recently wrote 2paragraphs about whether Russia would move beyond Crimea.