On a cold morning in February, a couple of hours' drive out of rebel-held Donetsk, the undercover journalist's phone buzzed with an 'Unknown' number. Was this to conceal the caller's identity, or location? Whatever the reason, it felt ominous.
There was, however, a minor hitch. The mystery apparatchik on the end of the line was not sure if he had actually succeeded in hiding his number.
"Firstly, I was asked if the number was displayed on the screen," recalled Larisa Lisnyak, a pro-Ukraine reporter who had covered local politics in Donetsk for 10 years before the separatists claimed it as their stronghold, forcing her to go underground. "I said, 'No'. Then I was asked if I was in Donetsk. I confirmed that I was. I was then asked if I understood why the authorities were calling me. Of course I guessed right away. Then the questions stopped and a direct order was issued: Pack your bags and get out of our city."
The threat was stark, its delivery amateurish. If it were not for the chilling note which ended the exchange, Lisnyak could have disregarded the anonymous call as an absurd and hopeless attempt at playing tough.
The official hung up and Lisnyak continued with that morning's work, distributing humanitarian aid to villagers. Then came another call with a fresh warning. This second man claimed that Lisnyak's name had come up during a meeting in the headquarters of the MGB, the acronym of the rebels' security service — the same as Stalin's secret police. "I was told that if I did not go away," she said, "then nobody could possibly predict what would happen to me."
Disappearances are all too common in this restive corner of eastern Ukraine; Lisnyak could not take any chances. She asked her trusted contacts in the rebel regime if the threat was real — they confirmed that it was. The journalist packed her bags and the following morning, on February 4, she left Donetsk for good.
* * *
I first met Lisnyak at the end of last summer in a bar in central Donetsk while she was still operating undercover in rebel-held territory, around half a year before her true identity was rumbled. An oppressively hot August was drawing to a close. The nights were increasingly marked by an autumnal chill and by the depressing sense that any lasting ceasefire remained a remote prospect. That afternoon, the guns were silent but the artillery bombardments along the city outskirts would inevitably resume, once night fell.
Lisnyak had always felt an affinity with her fellow Slavs in Russia but her patriotic allegiance lay firmly with Ukraine. So when Moscow-backed militias took over Donetsk in April 2014, silencing any opposition in the local media in the process, she soon had to start working undercover.
Despite the risks, she refused to relocate to the safety of government-controlled territory and, instead, continued to file on-the-ground dispatches under numerous pseudonyms to the press in Kiev. She was well aware of the separatist regime's aversion to any form of dissent. If she were caught, the repercussions could be severe.
'I have ink for blood — I couldn't give up the job'
Lisnyak agreed to meet with me to describe her life as an undercover journalist and explain the ruinous series of events that had led eastern Ukraine down the path of ethnic division and violent turmoil. Surprisingly, she had turned down my suggestion of doing a more discreet interview in one of the Khrushchev-era apartments in the battle-scarred suburbs. Having myself already been interrogated in the rebels' 'Ministry of Truth', I felt paranoid. It seemed that the eyes of the regime were everywhere.
But she opted to hide in plain sight — perhaps out of a stubborn and reckless refusal to hand the rebels full control of her city, perhaps simply because she knew that we both needed a drink.
On the surface, she was not what you would expect: a mousy, softly-spoken woman in her late 30s, whose colorful, patchwork woolen jumper jarred with the stark, Soviet-era architecture around us. But she was clearly no ordinary person. This was a courageous journalist who was risking her safety, even her life, to work undercover from the dark core of Ukraine's rebel heartlands. Against the backdrop of a crackdown on press freedom and a divisive, Nineteen Eighty-Four-style campaign of distortion, misinformation, and propaganda, Lisnyak told me of her mission to expose the truth, as she saw it, from within the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic (DNR).
"I have never set out to write propaganda — only the truth," she explained. "That is my only agenda. I stopped writing when they [the separatists] took away my accreditation. But I have ink for blood — I couldn't give up the job. I had to return to it."
That moment came after the Ukrainian army advanced on Russian-separatist forces in the spring of 2014 and Donetsk began bearing the brunt of intense artillery attacks. "The city was getting struck by very strong shelling. I live near the airport and it was awful there. It was then that I started writing for the Ukrainian mass media from inside the city — newspapers and national news websites.
"In the run up to writing a story, I usually have intense thoughts and emotions and then the words just pour out. I gather the views and experiences of everyone in the city — supporters of the rebels, the opposition, normal civilians — and ask how they survive and endure this. It may be a taxi driver one day, someone standing in a queue the next. I try just to show the facts and keep opinions out of it. But I can't bring myself to describe rebels as 'defenders' as they do themselves. At some point, you give away your true allegiance with language."
'The media has suffered here beyond recognition. It's a state of war.'
I asked what drove her to do this — surely the stakes were too high? "I have a lot of adrenaline in my blood," she replied. "I love danger. I enjoy the buzz you get from investigating the criminal underworld. I guess I'm a bit crazy in some respects — I always wanted to be a war reporter but I ended up having a family. That changed everything so I had to find a different way. I loved, love, and will always love Donetsk, where I was born and raised. But I cannot accept the ideology of the DNR."
Electronic surveillance is always a concern when reporting from rebel-held territory, though the true reach of the separatists snooping capabilities is often unclear. What kind of precautions did she take? "I always delete messages after I've sent them," she replied. "I also write under more than 15 pseudonyms for the Ukrainian papers. Typically I use men's names for business articles and women's names for life stories and more 'feminine' issues."
Lisnyak's safeguards seemed somewhat shaky but she was in no doubt about the risks. "I've been interrogated by soldiers at the rebels' defense ministry before. People here can disappear without a trace, without any warning. But if you understand what could happen, you learn how to adjust your behavior.
"The media has suffered here beyond recognition. It's a state of war. I'm not afraid to die, I'm not afraid for myself, only for my loved ones. It would be much easier for my family if I just quit this job. But I am in no doubt — I have to do this."
* * *
Press freedom was among the first casualties of the conflagration in eastern Ukraine and has remained under attack ever since. The information war has been fought just as keenly as clashes on the battlefield and has proved itself a central tool of Russia's "hybrid" or "non-linear" warfare. This destabilizing doctrine of 21st century conflict aims to daunt, disorientate, and divide opponents through an ever-shifting fusion of cyber, economic, media, military, and psychological operations.
The media has suffered in both rebel- and government-held areas since fighting erupted almost two years ago, warped further by the levels of flagrant propaganda relentlessly pumped out of Russia. The latest rankings by Reporters Without Borders puts Ukraine at 129 out of 180 globally — two places down from 2014 — making it the third worst country for press freedom in Europe, beating only Lukashenko's Belarus and Putin's Russia.
The Maidan street protests and ongoing war in the east, which has now claimed more than 9,000 lives, made the country one of the world's most dangerous and difficult places for journalists to work, according to a report by Freedom House. The NGO says that Ukraine's status improved from "Not Free" to "Partly Free" following the fall of President Viktor Yanukovych's authoritarian government in February 2014, a hostile regime which squeezed the independent media with every kind of legal and political pressure.
But problems persist in government-controlled Ukraine. For one, it has become increasingly dangerous to voice pro-Russian views. A report by Amnesty International points to two key cases: 1. the murder of Oles Buzina, a pro-Russian journalist shot dead by two masked gunmen in front of his house last April, and 2. the detention of Ruslan Kotsaba, a journalist who was arrested for calling on Ukrainian men to resist conscription, leading Amnesty International to declare him a prisoner of conscience. While Kiev struggled to mobilize a war-weary society last winter, Kotsaba was remanded in custody on charges of treason and obstructing the military.
As combat operations escalated in tandem with intensifying information warfare, state-sponsored censorship remained an ever-present specter. Media outlets, perceived as not fully toeing the pro-Ukraine/anti-Russia line, faced harassment. Broadcasters 112 Ukraine and Inter TV were chastised for airing interviews with locals in the east who expressed support for the separatists.
The slew of propaganda on Russian, state-owned news outlets has not only hailed Crimea's annexation, stoked separatism, and vilified Kiev's new government. It has prompted a wave of counter-propaganda, half-truths and rumor in Ukraine that range from the jingoistic to the farcical. A recent report on the country's English-language television channel, Ukraine Today, suggested that separatist fighters had resorted to eating dogs in the war-ravaged, frontline village of Shyrokyne.
Ukraine's security services (the SBU) have raided the offices of Russian-language newspaper Vesti following unwelcome coverage of the conflict, while dozens of Russian journalists were denied entry to the country. According to Reporters Without Borders, Ukraine expelled a total of 88 Russian media workers from April 2014 to February 2015 and withdrew accreditation from nearly 110 outlets on grounds ranging from "inciting hatred" to "threatening national security." Alexandra Cherepnina, a journalist for Russia's largest, state-owned TV network, Channel One, was arrested last July and deported the same day for "destructive anti-Ukrainian activities."
'They cannot censor the information space, but can trash it with conspiracy theories and rumors'
Although troubling, this sustained crackdown was hardly a surprise, given Russia's ongoing, clandestine military campaign in Ukraine's industrial east. The worst abuses by far have taken place in regions seized by Russian-separatist forces. Amnesty International has described the Donbas region as "far from stable and, like Crimea, a black hole for unmonitored human rights abuses." It has warned that journalists with pro-Ukraine views or reporting for Ukrainian media outlets, as well as any critical media and activists, have been "unable to operate openly in separatist-controlled areas."
Gone are the Ukrainian government broadcasters. From the start, militias took over these facilities and replaced transmissions of Ukrainian channels with a ubiquity of pro-Kremlin fare from Russia. (This process would be reversed whenever transmission sites changed hands between the warring parties).
Rebels raided newsrooms and issued ultimatums, demanding changes to editorial policies. In April 2014, eight masked men, carrying baseball bats and wearing military fatigues, stormed the office of Roman Lazorenko, who ran the news website, 62.ua. They ordered him to change his editorial line, banned him from using the word "separatists" (they preferred the phrase, "supporters of federalization"), and insisted that all articles be vetted before publication.
Another, Oleksiy Matsuka, chief editor of the regional website, News of Donbass, received numerous death threats before a mystery assailant torched his car outside his Donetsk apartment block, prompting him to flee to Kiev. Last June, Pavel Kanygin, a correspondent for the independent Moscow-based newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, was beaten and detained by DNR soldiers. After his release, Kanygin said he was held at gunpoint and asked if he was with or against them. "When I told him that I was for peace," said Kanygin at the time, "he hit me in the eye with his fist."
Online, the Kremlin's troll army remains in full combat mode. These bloggers are allegedly paid by the state to flood the web with comments praising the leadership in Moscow and criticizing Ukraine and the West. Nato's Supreme Allied Commander has described it as the greatest information warfare blitzkrieg in history.
"The activists behind their laptops seemed as big as ministries," wrote Peter Pomerantsev, the journalist and Russia expert, in his illuminating dispatch from eastern Ukraine, Propagandalands. "Mythological fiends from Twitter as real as tanks." But the Kremlin's cyber efforts aim not to convince the audience, Pomerantsev claims, but rather to confuse. "What Russians are trying to go for is kind of a reverse censorship," he said. "They cannot censor the information space, but can trash it with conspiracy theories and rumors."
Ukraine's separatists, however, do not indulge merely in reactive propaganda. From the outset, they have energetically engaged in the information war through their own lively, libelous and, at times, ludicrous media channels.
As the regime wrenched itself from Kiev's control and consolidated its grip on power, it constructed an entirely new media scene with pro-rebel radio stations, television shows, news agencies, a "state-run" newspaper and an official media center, used to host press conferences and scrutinize journalists for accreditation.
'Our Sister Republic Of Luhansk Air Defense Force Shoots Down A Kiev Junta UAV Drone!'
One such outlet is Novorossia Today, which employs around 50 staff and publishes local and international stories in five languages — English, French, German, Polish and Russian. Headlines of recent stories include "Crimea marks the second anniversary of liberation and return to Mother Russia!" and "Our Sister Republic Of Luhansk Air Defense Force Shoots Down A Kiev Junta UAV Drone!" Exclamation marks make regular appearances, less so a balanced range of voices.
In an interview last summer, Georgy Morozov, its head of television output, admitted that he had never worked in journalism and was formerly employed as an analyst in pre-war Donetsk. Such inexperience is common. Zak Novak, a goateed New Yorker who claims to have fought alongside the Serbs during the Bosnian war, is a regular host on the Novorossia Rocks radio station. A couple of weeks before my encounter with Lisnyak, I met him at the inaugural "separatist derby" between the football teams of the respective Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics.
Clad in camouflage and rebel insignia, Novak was striding around the city's Metallurg Stadium, excitedly waving a Russian flag. He was flanked by his entourage of pro-rebel foreigners — a middle-aged Frenchman, an Italian neo-communist and a Polish right-wing skinhead. Their politics may not have been on the same page but they all seemed happy enough to leave their sharp differences aside to help spread the gospel online from Donetsk's propaganda nerve center.
One of Novak's projects includes 'Crisis News', a breathless run of hyperbole and conspiracy theories, backed by a foreboding soundtrack, about what he dubs "the Nazi Ukrainian forces." The latest broadcast includes news of the "constant assassination attempts on journalists by the Poroshenko regime" and "the massive ceasefire violations, war crimes, atrocities committed by the Ukraine junta". It airs on local radio but its online reach is limited compared with other local, Russian-language channels. His latest transmission clocked up just 74 listens on YouTube within a week of going live.
'People have no opportunity to see alternative information or to hear alternative points of view'
The Ministry of Information in the neighboring Luhansk People's Republics (LNR) is comprised of three departments: press and mass communications; television and radio; analytics and monitoring. Its chief, Vyacheslav Stolyarenko, was just a middle-ranking official with limited media experience before the tumultuous events of 2014 swept him into a position of power. While not regarded as among the most zealous senior separatists, he nonetheless views Kiev's government as a "dictatorial regime immersed with Nazi ideology" and presides over a daily flow of pro-rebel, pro-Putin puff.
His goal, he says, is to break "Ukraine's blockade of information." "We are not terrorists, not separatists, but ordinary people who simply don't want to live under the new political regime that has emerged in Ukraine," he said in an interview last year. "People have no opportunity to see alternative information or to hear alternative points of view."
Vladimir Inogorodskiy, a gruff bruiser in his 50s, is one of the LNR's censors and tasked with keeping the separatists' print output in check. He claimed to have worked in a factory in western Ukraine before the war and now operates out of a cramped office in central Luhansk's imposing, former Soviet HQ. (Strangely, his colleagues challenged the claim, insisting that he had worked in Luhansk's local press for years).
'The outside world experiences this war like a computer game… It is our responsibility for them to feel it.'
There is, occasionally, subversion in the ranks of the propagandists. One senior official in the LNR's information ministry, who had become increasingly disillusioned by the separatist cause, is understood to have concocted and aired anti-rebel news reports online while simultaneously overseeing pro-rebel broadcasts.
Hanging around for my accreditation one afternoon, I noticed the next day's draft of newspapers spread out on a desk in preparation for Inogorodskiy's marker pen. A portrait of Putin hung on the wall next to a spring chest-expander; a lime-green gecko waited unblinking in a perspex cage next to the censor's desk.
I asked Inogorodskiy what importance he attributed to his role. "Here in Luhansk lies the fate of the whole world," he replied. "We have experienced terrible things over the last two years. I work in here in the ministry and supervise what gets published in our newspapers and on the internet. The outside world experiences this war like a computer game — they see it on their screens and cannot know what it feels like. It is our responsibility for them to feel it."
* * *
Regardless of the lofty ideals that these men profess, the fact is that the rebel leadership has now abandoned any desire to court the international media, blacklisting any journalist who publishes information which does not suit its agenda.
On my return into rebel-held territory following a frontline assignment among pro-Kiev forces, I was held by a group of armed rebels at a DNR checkpoint — a grey, cheerless outpost adorned with a statue of Lenin coated in gold paint. After a few hours of chain-smoking, tedious small talk and attempts at cajoling the men to release me, a woman from Donetsk's media center called. "There is a problem," she said coldly. "We need you to come here and speak with us at the earliest opportunity."
Perhaps I should have picked up my gear and left the city for good, immediately. But I was intrigued, and suspected that the interrogation would cast a rare light on the apparatchiks of Putin's propaganda machine.
Such individuals are so often concealed by the intimidating and monolithic façade that masks the hidden reality of authoritarian regimes. Dictatorships thrive off their own vastness, their nightmarish mysteries, their apparent permanence. But the components which propel these dark juggernauts forward are merely men and women who operate out of fear, ideology or both — as fallible as any normal person. As with Lisnyak's case, they call up dissidents to issue sinister ultimatums but then panic that they forgot to hide their phone number.
I arrived promptly the following morning and was surprised that my interrogator was neither Ukrainian nor Russian, but a Finn in his early 40s called Janus Putkonen. He divided his time between running a radical online newspaper and directing the DNR's propaganda channels, including the English-language Donbass International News Agency. Putkonen first visited the region early last year while working as chief editor of Verkkomedia, a conspiracy website offering "alternative news." He was subsequently appointed advisor to a committee in Donetsk's Ministry of Information that screens foreign journalists and, in recent months, regularly blacklists them.
'Your latest article is full of distortion'
The grilling lasted around an hour and underscored the absurdity of the separatists' information war. Putkonen spoke impeccable English in an intelligent and measured manner yet his capacity for doublethink and conspiratorial machinations was astonishing. As Putkonen began, I reached into my pocket, switched on my dictaphone and secretly recorded the interrogation:
Janus Putkonen: There are concerns among the DNR government about your work. Serious concerns. What are you doing? What is your purpose of going to these border regions?
VICE News: Well, to understand the war, I have to go to both sides to get an objective view.
I don't see that in any of your work. What our concern here, of course, is the Western war of information. Your work is not helping. I'm sorry to say that. Your latest article is full of distortion. You say the Maidan revolution is "regarded by many in the east as a fascist coup." What happened in Maidan? Do you know? How can you possibly suggest the possibility of any kind of democratic process in Ukraine in 2014?
Well, there are two sides to the story…
Why are there two sides to the story?
Well, there are two sides…
People in the West believe…
They believe what?
…that it was a revolution…
…of the people.
Is this the truth? Is this what you believe? [pause] That's why we have this information defense, that's why we have these discussions. It's nothing personal.
No offense taken.
And next: what proof do you have to say Russia "annexed" Crimea? The aim of the information defense is to keep the facts straight. The word "annexation" is the blame game against Russia. How can you use the word without anything to back it up? All this talk of 'little green men' without any proof… None of it is true. The fascists in Kiev pose the real threat to all Russian population areas.
I'm going to be heading back to Kiev soon and imagine this: if I only wrote with pro-Russian and DNR voices then I'll probably soon be having a similar conversation with the SBU.
Well, what about this? You describe "marijuana-smoking, vodka-drinking rebels." Now you're telling the whole world that the army of Novorossiya are drug users!
But it's true — I saw them.
But do you have any proof? Any photos?
Of course not. Why would they let me do that? Anyway, they were on holiday.
What kind of impression does this give the world? It plays specifically into the hands of the enemy. Why do you even use the word "separatist"? Do you even understand the meaning of the word "separatist"? If we were really separatists, or if there were separatists somewhere in this region, would they not be fighting the Donetsk government instead?
These are not separatists — they have already voted to be independent and Kiev is not their government. The democratic process has created the Donetsk People's Republic. A separatist is a soldier who does not recognize his government but all the Novorossiyan army recognizes the governments of DNR and LNR. This is the reality, this is the truth. Separatists are an illusion.
The grilling — perhaps lecture is a better word — went on for some time. After much placid nodding in earnest agreement, I was allowed to leave. Putkonen walked me to the door and shook my hand. "I am sorry for the inconvenience," he said without a grain of irony. "But what can I say? This is war. And war is hell."
As I turned to leave, he put a hand on my shoulder then tapped his forefinger between his eyes. "I hope you find the true nature of this conflict and report the truth," he added finally. "We'll be watching."
* * *
In retrospect, the experience made for a good yarn. At the time, however, it was a stressful and unpleasant window onto the tribulations that so many endure in repressive states around the world. Regimes harass, muzzle, and incarcerate individuals every day. The fleeting experience enrolled me into a club of millions of ordinary people.
Later that week, listening to Lisnyak, she made it clear that she loved her country as much as she loved her hometown, even as the rebels would eventually brand this undercover journalist a traitor. "I don't want to betray Ukraine," she said. "Most people think that everyone here is a separatist. This is my way of helping my country — I've always been a very active citizen. Perhaps it's my Slavic mentality, all or nothing. Above all, I'm honest with myself. This is the decision of my soul."
'I'm honest with myself. This is the decision of my soul'
We spoke in hushed tones. A group of rebel soldiers at an adjacent table was knocking back beers, their assault rifles propped next to them. Three stony-faced men in suits pulled up some seats close to us.
"I speak Russian, this is a Russian-speaking country," Lisnyak continued. "But you cannot just divide a nation by force. We can live in peace — it's far harder to live at war."
The sun had long set and night was falling. The military curfew was imminent, the rumble of artillery already echoing across the city. Donetsk's inhabitants sat cocooned in their Soviet-era apartments, plugged into another night of news beamed from across the border.
Lisnyak and I wished each other good luck beneath a lone street light as our respective taxis arrived to take us home, our breath freezing under a black, empty sky.
"I worry that this land will become a very dark place," she admitted. "This is why I write. It is important that Ukraine and the rest of the world do not forget about us."
Follow Jack Losh on Twitter: @jacklosh