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How Russia Conquered Eastern Ukraine Without Firing a Shot

The Russian media, which has become little more than Vladimir Putin's propaganda machine, is Russia's most powerful weapon in Ukraine.
Photo by khrawlings

Ever since it became clear that Russian forces were operating in Crimea, it's been a pretty safe assumption that almost any information flowing out of Moscow has been BS used to justify Russia's Ukrainian land grab.

But Russia had been slowly choking off dissent and independent media long before its takeover of Crimea — it's just that the Kremlin accelerated the process once the crisis began. And that was no accident, as the dissemination of propaganda is a crucial part of Moscow's strategy to gain control of eastern (and perhaps the rest of) Ukraine.


On the surface, it appears that Vladimir Putin is poised to use the same strategy he employed in Crimea. Soon after then-president Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine, spetsnaz (Russian Special Forces) airborne units joined with personnel from the Black Sea fleet who were already stationed on the Crimean peninsula, then proceeded to capture government buildings, erect checkpoints, and eventually gain control of the entire region. With the peninsula under Russia's military control, Moscow installed allies in the Crimean government, held a referendum, and used the result — an unconstitutional sham in which even children voted — to justify the official annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation.

A close look at what's been happening in eastern Ukraine reveals key differences, however. For starters, eastern Ukraine didn't already have Russian military installations and troops stationed there. In addition, eastern Ukraine is much larger, with a far bigger population. Traditional thinking holds that in order to control a region that large, Russia would need a full-scale military invasion — and with tens of thousands of troops and armored vehicles stacked up just a few miles from Ukraine's border, many observers are waiting for those forces to inevitably pour in.

But that may never need to happen, because Russia has a weapon at its disposal in eastern Ukraine that has arguably proved more effective than all of its military hardware could have ever been. This weapon has already defeated anything the interim government in Kiev — or the entirety of the international community, for that matter — has wielded against it.


That weapon is the Kremlin's propaganda machine.

Russian state-media has been spewing vitriolic lies in a shameless disinformation campaign, but what's even more disturbing is the Kremlim's bid to shut down or take over media organizations that question Putin's actions. In March, the editor-in-chief of, a privately owned independent news website, was fired after the government issued the station with a "warning" because she'd interviewed a controversial Ukrainian political figure and ultra-nationalist. The editor was then replaced with a Kremlin ally.

Thanks to the Kremlin's propaganda machine, some people believe Ukraine is being overrun by Nazis who are building concentration camps for ethnic Russians and regularly lynching Russian sympathizers.

TV Rain, Russia's only independent television station, was openly criticized by Putin's office for publishing a controversial poll about World War II. Some cable operators then dropped the channel and TV Rain abruptly lost its lease; it's in the process of being evicted from its headquarters.

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In February, the general director of Echo of Moscow, the only independent radio station in all of Russia, was replaced by Yekaterina Pavlova, the former head of the Kremlin-operated Voice of Russia. Pavlova's husband, Alexei Pavlov, is the Deputy Chief of the Presidential Press and Information Office. The station had also had its website blocked inside Russia; it was only unblocked when Echo of Moscow agreed to ban opposition leaders like Boris Nemtsov and Alexey Navalny from blogging. Both men have also had their personal blogs blocked by government censors.


And so, in less than three months, the Kremlin effectively destroyed or hijacked much of Russia's last remaining independent media. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has reorganized some key Russian state-owned outlets to exert greater control over messaging, meaning Russian-language programming (TV, radio, internet, and print) is now dominated by Kremlin-controlled outlets.

Why does this matter outside of Russia? Because those outlets are broadcasting the Kremlin's propaganda across much of Eastern Europe, where many Russian speakers rely heavily on Russian media. Those broadcasters are on the front lines of a propaganda war.

Meanwhile, journalists inside Ukraine (including VICE News's Simon Ostrovsky) have been kidnapped by pro-Russia militias, and Ukrainian broadcast media buildings across Crimea and eastern Ukraine have been stormed by armed gunmen who replace their broadcasts with ones beamed in from Moscow, amplifying the Kremlin's voice on the ground.

Evidence is mounting that Russian special forces are leading the takeover of government buildings and checkpoints across eastern Ukraine. Elite teams of well-equipped soldiers strike in coordinated attacks. Barricades are quickly erected with tires, barbed wire, sandbags, and portable fencing. Sometimes construction equipment and a public address system arrive on the scene in short order. The well-armed gunmen sometimes raid police arsenals, then distribute the weapons to local separatists. Unarmed civilians are often rallied to the front of the building, wittingly or unwittingly serving as human shields.


Evidence suggests only the best-armed gunmen are spetsnaz. The bulk of these pro-Russia rebels are actually local Russian speakers who believe, thanks to the Kremlin's propaganda, that Ukraine is being overrun by ultranationalist Nazis who are building concentration camps for ethnic Russians and regularly lynching Russian sympathizers.

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Ukrainian authorities are seemingly incapable of stopping the spread of propaganda. Interior Ministry troops and police forces have defected to the separatists. Ukrainian forces have surrendered to large groups of civilians when faced with either defending themselves by shooting fellow Ukrainians, or being killed by small groups of pro-Russia gunmen. Thanks to the civilians who have been rallied by Russia's propaganda, any large-scale effort to take territory back from pro-Russia separatists could result in large numbers of civilian casualties. And if that happens, Russia has already said that it will be forced to invade in order to protect the ethnic Russian populace.

When Ukrainian forces were fed up with the status quo last Thursday, they mobilized a massive "anti-terror operation" to regain control, but the minute that Ukraine's troops began to mobilize, Russia's troops (and tanks) sped toward the border. Fearing an invasion, authorities in Kiev stopped the operation. As long as civilians are posted in front of positions held by spetsnaz forces, Kiev can't stop pro-Russia forces from gaining more ground. As long as Russian tanks are staged for an invasion, Kiev can't retake territory it has already lost. On Wednesday, Ukraine's interim president admitted that his forces were "helpless" against separatists who are capturing more territory.

Russia may eventually invade Ukraine — it will be difficult to assert total control without a significant number of Russian troops on the ground there. But Ukraine has already lost part of the east to Moscow without Russia having to fire a shot, because the Kremlin's disinformation war has proven to be as effective as a traditional invasion, and far less risky. And thanks to the speed of 21st century information, nothing is stopping Russia from continuing to take its propaganda-offensive to the rest of Eastern Europe.

James Miller is managing editor of The Interpreter.

Photo via Flickr