When Russian soldiers seized the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea last week, Moscow launched an aggressive propaganda campaign to justify its intervention. It claimed troops were dispatched to defend ethnic Russians and it accused neo-Nazis and extremists for the earlier ousting of its ally, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, whose downfall triggered Russia’s military intervention.
Coping with the aftermath of a revolution, Ukraine’s interim government does not have the media resources to counter what it says is Moscow’s skewed version of events – most new ministers do not have press officers. But ordinary Ukrainians are trying to counter the narrative offered by Kremlin-controlled media outlets.
Part of that resistance is taking place at Kyiv’s Ukraine Hotel, where a crisis press center has been set by a group of Ukrainian private-sector public relations experts, including Frolova Alina, the chief executive of a public relations agency.
“When the invasion of Russian troops started we all just were shocked and we understood that our government is just quite young. They have a huge number of problems, huge, and they don’t have a time even to pay attention to informational protection of Ukraine. And we started to call each other, saying that we need to do something to protect Ukraine and to give the more independent information, reliable information, our point of view,” said Frolova.
Frolova said the center is not government funded.
“This is absolutely voluntary all the people who are working here, and this is just professionals in PR, advertising, communications and international relations,” Frovola explained.
The crisis center does not offer its own informational narrative, but instead serves as a platform for Ukrainian politicians, activists, business people and visiting international officials to hold news conferences. What they say is then reported in news releases and on the center’s Facebook page and Twitter feed.
This week, the U.S. State Department blasted Moscow’s propaganda effort, arguing that “the world has not seen such startling Russian fiction since Dostoyevsky wrote, ‘The formula ‘two times two equals five’ is not without its attractions.’”
Sviatuslav Yurash, 18, agrees with the U.S. State Department’s claim. He is one of many Ukrainians seeking to use the Internet to launch initiatives to confront Russia’s state media.
His web site, EuroMaidanPR, was set up in January to document the protests against Yanukovych. Now, he and his friends focus on Crimea and the standoff with Russia.
“We are trying to provide more facts to highlight the truth behind what is actually happening in the East, and in the south and in Crimea,” said Yurash.
Yurash’s website was quick to debunk Moscow’s assertions earlier this week that tens of thousands of ethnic Russians were fleeing Ukraine. He pointed out that an anchorwoman on the Russian television station Russia Today quit the station this week.
“Russia has started a campaign of blatant lies. We had actually today the news of one of the anchors leaving their job because she couldn’t handle it any more because you can lie only so much,” said Yurash.
With tensions mounting over Crimea, the propaganda battle is likely to intensify.