Tensions are high in eastern Ukraine, where the first bullets are flying in what could become a major armed conflict. The violence might be only starting, but an information war between Russia and the West has raged for months now. Clearly frustrated with Moscow’s actions in eastern Ukraine, the US State Department openly denounced Russian propaganda yesterday, April 13, 2014, listing ten “false claims about Ukraine” by the Kremlin. The American government published a similar list last month, on March 4, criticizing Russian claims about Crimea.
The biggest audience for “the Russian propaganda machine,” as the State Department calls it, is undoubtedly Russia's own population. US officials showed little interest in appealing to Russian speakers, however, publishing both lists in English only. There appears to be no official Russian translation of the press release, though several media outlets have summarized the text in Russian and Ukrainian. The US Russian embassy’s official Twitter account, which has over 21 thousand followers, did post a link to the “ten false claims,” though just 15 people retweeted it.
Unsurprisingly, given the document’s unavailability in Russian, the State Department’s myth-busting announcement got little reaction from Russians. While Russian newspapers’ summaries about the US press release have attracted some reposts on Twitter and other online networks, most original feedback from Russian bloggers is decidedly negative. Many objections focus on the State Department’s implication that “Russian agents” are active in Ukraine. In what has become a familiar practice in the dispute about combatants’ origins, bloggers endlessly dissect photographs of the armed men in Ukrainian cities, debating whether someone’s rifle, vest, helmet, or who-knows-what-else reveals his true identity.
Of the Russian Internet users who reject the State Department’s comments, most seem content not to engage the report’s content at all, instead hurling abuse at the US government in general terms. “The enemy has an amazing talent [for lying],” wrote someone on LiveJournal. “How’s the State Department’s head so full of shit?” asked a Facebook user. “They lie with every breath,” another person wrote, adding, “At least our guys [in the Russian government] just keep quiet, but these people [the Americans] lie.” One blogger on LiveJournal commented on the State Department’s press release by arguing that the evidence of Russian involvement in Ukraine is minimal, compared to the (supposed) mountains of data that show the United States’ responsibility for a spike in Afghan opium production. For that reason, he claims, “sanctions against the USA make far more sense than another round of penalizing Russia.”
The US government’s recent outreach to Russian speakers about the events in Ukraine has been clumsy, to say the least. On April 8, 2014, the US embassy in Russia tweeted a link to a news story on Echo of Moscow’s website about separatists in Kharkov confusing an opera house for the mayor’s building. (The mistake, the report claims, reveals that the men were not locals, which implies outside intervention.) The embassy added to its tweet a hashtag that was supposed to say “the isolation of Russia,” but it misspelled the word “Russia.” Astonishingly, no one has deleted the tweet. (It is still online and available today). Within hours, Russia’s Foreign Ministry posted on Facebook a photograph of the misspelling, mocking the error and offering language assistance with any future “propaganda materials.”
Up to the present, votes in international institutions about the annexation of Crimea suggest that countries are likelier to sympathize with Ukraine and the United States than with Russia. As far as ordinary Russians are concerned, however, the Americans are waging a lousy information war.