Nation & World

Ukraine’s information war looks very different in its east and west

At Radio Respublika, the voice of the armed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine’s biggest city, the staff consists of disk jockeys and technicians _ and a lone reporter, whose name is kept secret.

Running an all-news radio station 24/7 with such a small staff would be a challenge almost anywhere, but not in the self-styled “Donetsk People’s Republic.” Nearly all the content, aside from local headlines, is piped in from Russian state radio.

To visit the radio staff _ it’s up 10 flights of stairs at the regional administration building commandeered in April by the DPR _ is to step into a surreal world, where nearly everything is upside down.

Ukraine’s professional journalists “all are liars, working under the influence of oligarchs,” Georgy Barhanov, a 39-year-old former DJ, said in an interview. “We send our journalist to get the news. He’s the witness,” he added. But the reporter is anonymous. “I worry for his safety,” Barhanov said.

“We don’t need professional journalists,” added a colleague, Vladimir, who wouldn’t give his last name. “We just tell the truth.”

The “truth” on the morning a McClatchy reporter visited was a tale of how a right-wing militia, using a stolen armored car, had shot up an army roadblock at Volnavahka, south of Donetsk, and killed at least 16 government soldiers. Each of the radio employees had some of the details _ based on a script available in the office of the DPR press secretary, whose offices are on the 11th floor.

With no evidence to back up their account, it came across as an attempt to deflect blame from insurgent forces for the massacre of young soldiers.

Still, there are candid moments. “We just broadcast the news. They call us and tell us,” Barhanov said, without specifying who was on the other end. Then he added, “We are all afraid, because we can go to jail. Our radio station is illegal.”

Barhanov turned down McClatchy’s request to tour the town’s television and radio center. “No, it is a strategic object,” he said. “Come back here when the war is over.”

The big irony: After four days of attempted listening, it can be reported that the radio, even with two locations on the FM dial, cannot be heard outside Donetsk.

‘We said no to everybody’

In Kiev, the capital that Donetsk separatists and Russian President Vladimir Putin disdain as led by fascists, private-sector businesspeople have organized a reporter-friendly, highly professional Crisis Media Center. It’s a big contrast to blatant propaganda coming from the east.

On the third floor of the centrally located Hotel Ukraina _ it can be reached by elevator _ foreign and Ukrainian journalists are invited to nearly daily briefings by government officials, think tanks and visiting statesmen. The sessions are translated simultaneously, and there’s a robust give-and-take. Not every statement is a fact, and everything is subject to checking, as in any Western capital.

“We set it up in 48 hours. We got together in the office of one think tank at midnight,” said Vasyl Miroshnychenko, a partner in CFC Consulting, a strategic communications firm. At the time, Russia hadn’t yet annexed Crimea but had launched an information war seeking to justify it. The center opened March 5, and it now has a staff of 30 full-time employees, working for modest salaries, and 40 volunteers.

The government isn’t funding the effort _ “They have no money,” Miroshnychenko said _ nor are Ukraine’s super-rich industrialists. “All the oligarchs lined up,” he said. “We said no to everybody. We didn’t want to depend on them.” Instead, the money has been donated by Ukrainians living outside the country, international financier and philanthropist George Soros’ International Renaissance Foundation and the employers of some of the staffers, whose salaries have been kept going while they work at the center.

The goal of the public relations and strategic communications executives who set up the center was objective information about Ukraine, targeted to the international media, Miroshnychenko said. The executives get together daily to decide whom to invite the next day and what message they want to put out, often focusing on an event that day that needs to be put in context.

“They brought together the best public relations managers in Ukraine and they hired the best of the best as staff,” said Mykhailyna Skoryk, who runs a service that provides local journalists to translate, guide and assist foreign reporters who come to Ukraine.

‘We never had our czar’

On one recent afternoon, Ihor Smeshko, a former top military officer who’s advising the new government on military reform, opened his discussion of the military situation with a human-scale portrait of Ukraine today.

“Our national idea is different from that of our neighbor’s,” said at the media center, referring to Russia. “We never had our czar. Our czar is freedom and . . . dignity, the happiness of our family. We are different, like a Ukrainian house is from a Russian house.”

He proceeded to describe the crisis in eastern Ukraine in human terms that indicated there was little support for the government in Kiev.

“Eighty percent of the population in Donetsk and Luhansk are extremely tired of the disaster brought from outside the border and initiated there,” he said. The other 20 percent, which he didn’t elaborate on, is pro-Russian.

He focused on two major problems for the Ukrainian military: intelligence and an effective general staff to coordinate all areas of counterinsurgency. “Proper intelligence requires the support of the local population. Our aim should be not to destroy terrorists, but separate them from the local population,” he said, quoting from the U.S. counterterrorism manual.

A related goal, he said must be to inform the population better of the government’s aims. “All this is supposed to be led by a general staff,” he said, noting that the military’s current lineup of staff officers is completely ineffective.

‘75 percent support peace and quiet’

Smeshko’s assessment that support for Kiev is low in eastern Ukraine is widely shared. Anton Garashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, told McClatchy that about one-quarter of the population in the east backs the insurgents and supports Russia. “And 75 percent support peace and quiet,” which isn’t the same as backing Kiev.

“In Ukraine there are citizens who believe Soviet times were good, democracy is bad and democracy equals the mob,” he said. “Lots of people say they don’t want democracy” in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Garashchenko estimated there were 5,000 to 10,000 armed pro-Russian fighters, 70 percent Ukrainians, the rest “mercenaries.” A great many in both groups went through a monthlong training course given by Russians in the FSB spy agency in camps in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed in March, and near Rostov in southern Russia, he said.

Based on the interrogation of captured combatants, the pro-Russian fighters appear to be paid $3,000 per month, with much of the funding coming from the deposed president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, who last surfaced in Rostov. Garashchenko estimated that Yanukovych and his family stole $3 billion from the country during his four years in office and could support the rebellion indefinitely. “One thousand terrorists costs $3 million a month. He could support them for 1,000 months,” he said.

‘Criminals do not want unity’

Just how many of the fighters have Russian passports isn’t known, and more are crossing in almost daily. Garashchenko said Russia’s GRU military spy agency had sent in retired Russian soldiers and Ukrainians from Crimea earlier this year, when it thought eastern Ukraine would follow the course of Crimea. He asserted that Moscow has since given up on an annexation and now intends to cause long-term instability in Ukraine.

With that in mind, he said, Russian leaders have staged a rotation of irregular forces, sending in Chechens and other fighters from the Caucasus to replace retired soldiers. “Russian military veterans are more valuable to them than Chechens.” One reason, he said, is that in order to destabilize a region, “you need a minimal control and a maximum number of fighters.”

But they’ll be more difficult to control. “Criminals do not want unity. They want to rob,” he said.

Dmitry Timchuk, another frequent speaker at the Kiev media center, identified the units rotated out as the 45th Air Force Brigade and the 2nd Brigade of the GRU military intelligence, but Garaschchenko couldn’t confirm the specific units.

‘How long will it last?’

Interviews with Donetsk residents last week showed that most of all, people want to be left alone.

“How long will it last?” said Maria Semenova, 65. “I’m afraid of everything. When there is thunder I lie on the floor, because I think it is a bomb. I want to appeal to both sides: Stop the shooting. Stop the bombing. Stop threatening us. We do not want war. We want peace. And we want to die a natural death.”

McClatchy special correspondents Kira Zheleznyak in Donetsk and Kateryna Dereguzova in Kiev contributed to this report.