Mila Bogach really wants me to understand what’s been happening in her country.
She has a friend, she says – well, a friend of a friend – who went to Kiev to take part in the protests that brought down Viktor Yanukovych last month. Her friend’s friend stood on the Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square, for two months and was paid 27,000 hryvnia (about $3,000) for her time.
“We don’t know who paid them,” Ms. Bogach, a middle-aged mother of one, whispers fiercely when we meet in this Russian-speaking city that is deeply divided about what’s happening in the country. “Maybe it was [protest leader Vitali] Klitschko, maybe it was [interim prime minister Arseniy] Yatsenyuk. I think it was NATO.”
But there’s more. When Ms. Bogach’s friend’s friend got back to Odessa, she felt ill. She went to see a doctor, who found narcotics in her bloodstream. Mood-altering substances. Something to make her go crazy and believe that Ukraine should turn its back on Russia and entrust its future to the European Union and NATO.
I ask Ms. Bogach, who works in the fitness centre of a business hotel, if she can help connect me with her friend. She gets frustrated. I don’t need to find this specific woman, after all. There are plenty of stories like hers. All I need to do is watch the right television channels. The Ukrainian channels Inter and STB, which portrayed Mr. Yanukovych in a positive light right up until the end, were her favourites, alongside the Russian channels that also broadcast here.
After years of watching the version of reality offered on Inter, STB and Russian television, Ms. Bogach has a very angry understanding of events in Ukraine. “The European Union is after Ukraine’s soil,” she tells me. “And NATO. But if NATO comes here, we will fight them. I will fight them. I’m with Russia. We don’t want fascism.”
It’s not just Ms. Bogach and her friends in Odessa who feel this way, it’s nearly all of Crimea – the southern peninsula that has already declared its independence and on Sunday will hold a referendum on whether to seek a union with Russia – as well as much of the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine. The term “pro-Russian” or “Russian-speaking region” is often used to describe the people and parts of Ukraine that are resistant to the new government in Kiev. But you could just as easily define them as people who watch Russian television.
The world many in Crimea and eastern Ukraine believe they live in is one shaped by Kremlin-controlled media. Tune in to Russia 24, or its English-language sister Russia Today, and you’re bombarded with the message that the uprising in Kiev was at once a Western-sponsored coup and a victory for Ukrainian neo-fascists.
These aren’t things to be debated – they are incontrovertible facts. Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority is living under the threat of imminent violence. Moscow has little choice but to intervene and defend its fellow Russians.
If not for Russian intervention in Crimea, the peninsula would have fallen into the hands of fascists and bandits.
“We see that in the rest of Ukraine, the police are demoralized. We see that army warehouses were looted and guns were stolen from them. I’m asking, as a Crimean living here: If the Russian troops or self-defence forces didn’t block these [Ukrainian] army bases, would the guns be in the hands of criminals?” says Oleg Gabriyelyan, rector of the Crimean University of Culture, Arts and Tourism, and a regular commentator on Crimean television stations.
“There is no journalism in Ukraine,” Prof. Gabriyelyan acknowledges. “Only propaganda.”
But this media war is far from one-sided. For three months, the Ukrainian-language Fifth Channel was the chief bugle of the anti-Yanukovych uprising. The channel – like many Western media – portrayed the protests in a glorious light, even as they illegally blocked the centre of Kiev for three-plus months and resulted in increasingly violent clashes with police. Any act was justified, so long as it contributed to the toppling of Mr. Yanukovych’s “regime” (which was rarely referred to on Fifth Channel as an elected government).
Fifth Channel, which played a similar role during the 2004 Orange Revolution, is owned by billionaire Petro Poroshenko, who opinion polls suggest is an early favourite to become Ukraine’s president following a May 25 election.
It’s not hard to see a connection between his political ambitions and the way the journalists he employs covered the revolution.
Many observers blame the media war for exacerbating the divisions that already existed in Ukraine – east versus west, Ukrainian-speaking versus Russian-speaking, Catholic versus Orthodox. Those splits have now widened into chasms that will likely take a generation to bridge.
“It’s the incompetence of the Ukrainian elites that did this,” said Sergei Gradirovskiy, a Crimea native who lectures at the Skolkovo business school near Moscow. “They have always built their electoral campaigns on [exploiting] these contradictions. No one wanted to sacrifice their electoral base for a different, united Ukraine.”
We have, sadly, been here before. In his recounting of how Western powers and Russia came to blows in the Crimean War of the 1850s, historian Orlando Figes put a good dollop of the blame on the media, which (particularly in Britain) caricatured and vilified the other (Russian) side in the runup to the war.
“This was the war – the first war in history – to be brought about by the pressure of the press,” Mr. Figes wrote. “Anyone who tried to halt the drift to war was likely to be vilified.”
Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon