As Crimea prepares to vote on a referendum that will determine its territorial status, Russia Direct presents a round-up of Russian and Western coverage of the Crimea crisis.


Preparing for Crimea's referendum. Photo: RIA Novosti / Andrei Stenin 

As soon as Russia approved the deployment of troops in Crimea, both Russia and Western media began ratcheting up the rhetoric about Ukraine.

Crimea’s referendum scheduled for March 16 has only aggravated the problem. In fact, news of the referendum resulted in a great deal of heated criticism from Western media outlets as well as a lot of “whitewashing” of the Kremlin’s policy from the Russian media.   

All this seems to underpin a troubling trend in foreign affairs: Cold War-style propaganda is making a comeback. Nevertheless, a few media sources – both Russian and Western – have tried to maintain their balance while presenting both sides of the argument, regardless of the growing Cold War rhetoric.

Misquoted on purpose?

Steven Pifer, Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, points to the increasing role of propaganda in Russian media. At the same time, he criticizes the West’s media coverage.  

“I think the media coverage on both sides gets things wrong, but I do have an impression that in Russia it’s a very organized – I am hesitant to use the word – but it’s a propaganda campaign,” he said in a telephone interview with Russia Direct. “When I see Russian media describing Ukraine, it’s not the Ukraine that I see. There are mainstream parties in control in Kiev, not neo-Nazis. There is no threat to ethnic Russians or to the Russian military deployed in Crimea.”

Photo: RIA Novosti / Sergey KuznetsovLikewise, former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock warns against sticking to Cold War-era propaganda. In a blog post (“Russia’s Media Distortions Are Dangerous for Russia”), he expresses his indignation about some Russian media sources that, he claims, took his comments on the blog out of context.

He described Russia’s coverage as “outrageous,” going “beyond selective use of facts to include gross exaggeration and outright fabrication.” According to him, some Russian media presented his comments as if he were justifying current Russian policy toward Ukraine. 

“Then the impression given is the opposite of that intended,” he clarified in his blog. “Perhaps I have been too indirect in my wording. In fact, I believe that Russia’s recent actions in regard to Ukraine, especially the military seizure of the Crimea, have been not only unjustified but dangerous.”

Indeed, some Russian media outlets quoted Matlock. Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russia’s official newspaper and Russia Direct's proprietor, claims that Matlock “severely criticized the Obama administration for its inability to understand the political and psychological hidden motives of Ukraine’s current events. Unlike the majority of Washington’s ‘pundits’ andpoliticalexperts’ hysterically accusing Russia of the current problems in Ukraine, Mr. Matlock claims that threats to Moscow that come from the White House are fallacious and that the current unrest in Ukraine resulted not from Russia’s interference.” 

Likewise, the Russian-language version of RT, a state-sponsored TV channel targeting a foreign audience, quotes Matlock, claiming that he “writes that America doesn’t have the right to lecture [Russia] about sovereignty” and the territorial integrity of Ukraine given its previous interventions. At the end of the article, RT presents a list of the U.S.-led interventions since the 1980s. 

Russia’s liberal media outlet Kommersant takes a different approach in its coverage of the events in Ukraine. A series of reports from Ukraine and reasoned analysis dominate its headlines. The media outlet focuses on the events in the south and east of Ukraine: it covers not only pro-Kremlin protests in support of Crimea’s people, but also talks about those who appear hesitant about supporting pro-Russian rallies.

For example, Kommersant’s Ilya Barabanov’s reports from Crimea indicate that the situation is very complicated. There are Crimean Tatars “who won’t like the prospect of the accession” wrote Barabanov, quoting a Crimean businessmen, Alexander Ershov, who actually supports closer ties with Russia.  In addition, the journalist reports about the hesitancy of Ukraine’s military stationed in Crimea and their reluctance to swear allegiance to Crimea’s pro-Russian authorities.

Vedomosti, Russia’s liberal business outlet, is more straightforward about its assessment of the Crimea crisis. The newspaper’s columnist Kirill Rogov sees Crimea as “a Trojan gift (horse) to Russia’s average citizen intended to embroil Russia with the West” and preserve the country as a despotic state that relies on oil and gas.

He describes the conflict as an attempt to “freeze the country,” ignoring current economic and political realities. Rogov warns against long-term economic implications from “Crimea’s annexation” and their undermining effect on Russia’s stability. 

According to him, the Crimea crisis will be a catalyst for re-structuring the current global energy market. Rogov implies that, in that scenario, Europe would look for alternative sources of energy more vigorously in an attempt to diminish its dependence on Russia’s oil and gas.   

“Crimea is a cheese that lies in a distant corner of the oil mousetrap,” he wrote. “[Russia] has to distract the population and elite from the annoying sound from the mousetrap’s shutting.”

Meanwhile, a contributor to the Russian newspaper Izvestia, Alexander Prokhanov, makes no bones about his bombastic support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policy in Ukraine while slanting his opinion about the West. He seems to look forward to Crimea’s accession to Russia.

Prokhanov sees Crimea’s referendum as “Russia’s mysterious revival” and expresses fears that “furious gangs” from the West could attack Crimea and disrupt the referendum. “These fears have something religious, lofty and prayerful in them,” he wrote, expressing the feeling of “alarm, awe and shining eyes.”

A rally in support for Crimean people in Moscow, March 6, 2014. Photo: RIA Novosty / Maksim Blinov

Crimea: Kidnapped by Putin? 

Although both Pifer and Matlock criticize Russia’s “propaganda war,” they also point to the fact that Western media sources are also not ideal. 

“The Western press has not always been objective and has frequently ignored or misunderstood relevant historical facts,” said Matlock. Likewise, Pifer argues that the American media fail to understand the complexities of the East-West divide in Ukraine. 

For example, The Economist seems to understand Russia’s history pretty well, yet it doesn’t prevent the magazine from slanting the Kremlin’s policy in Ukraine, demonizing Putin and expressing anti-Russian opinions. The Economist regards Putin as a dangerous kidnapper who “trampled over norms that buttress the international order” and “established dangerous precedents that go far beyond Ukraine.”

“As you read this, 46 million people are being held hostage in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has pulled Russian troops back from the country’s eastern border,” The Economist’s editorial “Kidnapped by the Kremlin” reads.

In addition, the magazine argues that Crimea’s referendum “is being held at the point of a Kalashnikov” and, moreover, compares Putin’s claims “that the Kremlin has a duty to protect Russians and Russian-speakers” with the logic of Hitler when he seized parts of Europe in the 1930s.

“If the West implicitly accepts this line, Mr. Putin will have a pretext for intervening to protect Russians scattered across the former Soviet Union, from Central Asia to the Baltic,” the magazine warns, while proposing not only shunning G8 summit, but also imposing visa bans and asset freezes on regime-connected Russians, stopping arms sales and cutting Kremlin-friendly financial firms from the global financial system, and even preparing for an embargo on Russian oil and gas “in case Ukrainian troops are slaughtered in Crimea or Russia invades eastern Ukraine.”

Likewise, The Washington Post sounds more decisive in imposing sanctions on Russia while calling for more rigor and tenacity from the West.

“The price of failing to take robust steps now will, in the end, be higher,” its editorial reads. “If Mr. Putin is not stopped in Crimea, he will set his sights on other parts of Ukraine and maybe other former Soviet bloc states with Russian minorities. That could lead not just to economic disruption but also to war.”  

Meanwhile, the New York Times seems to be more well-balanced. In the March 12 print edition, it publishes a series of columns in its op-ed section presenting both pro-Western and pro-Russian opinions. While its editorial “Penalties for Mr. Putin” calls for both the U.S. and Europe to impose “serious penalties” to demonstrate that “Russia is not immune to pressure,” some contributors present more diverse opinions.

For example, Boris Kolonitskii, the first vice rector and professor of history at the European University at St. Petersburg, presents the Russian position via a detailed explanation of why many Russians support Putin’s policy in Ukraine. In fact, he accuses the West of sticking to the double standards policy while accounting for the support.

“While it is easy for Russians to access alternative views online, these sometimes serve only to highlight the double standards of Putin’s critics, legitimizing the Russian leader’s own double standards,” he wrote, conjuring up President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and warning in conclusion that “any attempt to resolve the Ukrainian crisis without taking Russian sentiments into account is also doomed.”

At the same time, the New York Times gives voice to Ukraine by publishing a column of  Oleksandr V. Turchynov, the acting president of Ukraine. He views Russia’s claims in Ukraine as “brazen and unjustified aggression,” thinly veiled as “protecting Russian speakers.”

According to him, “[Russia] pursues an obvious goal: to weaken and dismember Ukraine, to create another zone of instability in Europe and to arrest the process of European integration. Moscow’s purpose, in other words, is to prevent the final demise of the Soviet empire.” Turchynov warns against using force, otherwise it will backfire and lead to a new Cold War.