By Dasha Litvinova | Associated Press
MOSCOW – While the West raised the alarm over the Kremlin ordering troops into eastern Ukraine and decried it as an invasion, Russian state media painted a completely different picture – of Moscow coming to the aid of war-torn areas plagued by Ukraine’s aggression and bringing them peace.
The fanfare came hours after Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s recognition of breakaway areas in eastern Ukraine as independent states and ordered his troops to ‘keep the peace’ in the territory where Russian-backed rebels have been fighting Kyiv forces since 2014 – a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people.
TV presenters hailed the “historic” day and professed an end to suffering for people in breakaway regions.
“You have paid with your blood for these eight years of torment and anticipation,” presenter Olga Skabeyeva told residents of the regions known as Donbass during a popular political talk show on Tuesday morning TV. State Russia 1. “Russia will now defend the Donbass.”
Television pundit Vladimir Solovyev echoed those sentiments during his morning show on state radio Vesti.FM. “We will ensure their safety,” he said. “It is now dangerous to fight with them…because now we will have to fight with the Russian army.”
Channel One, another popular state-funded television channel, adopted a more festive tone, with its correspondent in Donetsk saying local residents “say this is the best news of recent war years”.
“Now they have confidence in the future and that the war that has been going on for years will finally end,” she said.
Whether the Russians buy it is another question.
After his announcement on Monday evening, Putin said he was “positive about the support of the people”.
But critics have denounced these measures as harmful to both Ukraine and Russia.
Imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in a post behind bars posted on social media, said Putin “will not let Ukraine develop, drag it into a swamp, but Russia will also pay the same price”.
A Facebook campaign with the hashtag “I’m not staying silent”, launched by independent Russian news site Holod, urged people “to speak their minds about the war out loud – and also to remember that each of us has something that connects us to Ukraine”. He brought dozens of posts sharing memories about Ukraine and condemning the Kremlin’s actions.
Still, many voiced their wholehearted support for Putin’s decision.
“It should have been done a long time ago,” said Moscow resident Irina Nareyko. “These poor people who identify as Russian, who identify primarily as Orthodox, who can’t wait any longer and live expecting to be killed…we should have accepted them a long time ago.”
Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, Russia’s leading independent pollster, said that according to his poll data, more than half of Russians were ready to support Putin’s initiatives.
“The situation, as understood by the majority, is that the West is pressuring Ukraine ‘to act against rebel-held areas,’ and Russia has to help somehow. another,” Volkov told the AP. “This notion of aid in an extraordinary situation translates into support” for the recognition of separatist regions.
The narrative that Ukraine has aggressive designs on Donbass has been actively promoted by Russian authorities – alongside accusations that the West is pumping Ukraine with arms and warmongering.
The Kremlin has denied plans to invade Ukraine, which the West fears due to a massive buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders. Russian officials point the finger at Kiev instead, saying it has massed its own troops and may try to retake rebel-held areas by force, which the Ukrainian government denies.
Official rhetoric flared up last week when Putin accused “what is happening now in Donbass of being genocide”. Popular newscasts and political talk shows on state television stations began to use the term widely.
Prominent news anchor Dmitry Kiselev compared what was happening in Donbass to World War II atrocities committed by Nazi Germany and denounced German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for challenging Putin’s use of the word “genocide “.
“It’s, quite simply, solidarity with today’s genocide,” he charged on Russia 1’s flagship show.
Over the weekend, separatist officials added a sense of urgency to the picture, announcing mass evacuations of Donetsk and Luhansk residents to Russia and mobilizing troops in the face of an allegedly imminent attack by Ukrainian forces.
News reports showed emotional images of women and children queuing to board buses, followed by segments alleging heavy shelling of areas by Ukrainian forces. Some of these segments pointed out that the Kyiv army was deliberately targeting civilians.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech at a security conference in Munich on Saturday, in which he threatened to pull out of a deal to give up nuclear weapons left in Ukraine after the Soviet collapse in exchange for security guarantees, further fueled the fire.
Russian state TV channels aired several segments about Kiev’s ability to develop its own nuclear weapons, and news show hosts warned that the threat should not be taken lightly.
Finally, to make sense of Ukraine’s alleged aggression, Russian officials on Monday accused Ukrainian forces of an attempted incursion into Russia – an allegation Ukraine has dismissed as false “disinformation”.
“The invasion has begun,” proclaimed Yevgeny Popov, host of Russia 1. “But it was not Putin who invaded Ukraine. Instead, Ukraine went to war with Russia and the Donbass.”
A few hours later, Putin announced the recognition of the self-proclaimed republics of eastern Ukraine.
Political analyst Abbas Gallyamov says that while the majority of Russians will support the decision, the impact of such propaganda on domestic audiences is limited, compared to 2014, when the Kremlin managed to rally Russians around the idea of annexing Crimea.
The only popular demonstration in support of the movements in eastern Ukraine took place in St Petersburg on Wednesday – the day Russia celebrates Defender of the Fatherland Day, a holiday that commemorates the country’s war veterans.
Russian media reported several hundred pro-Kremlin activists gathered in the city center with Russian flags and banners saying, “We don’t abandon our people.” Reports said some of the protesters did not know what it was and said they had been promised a hot meal after it.
Meanwhile, rights groups in Moscow reported that six protesters had been arrested for picketing against a war with Ukraine.
State TV channels showed a senior member of the Kremlin’s United Russia party laying flowers outside a memorial for the “defenders of Donbass” in Donetsk, alongside the region’s separatist leader.
Putin will score some political points at home, but not too many, Gallyamov believes.
“People remember what (the annexation of Crimea) led to. People understand that there will be sanctions now, that the economy will decline even more and living conditions will continue to deteriorate.
“They remember there was a hangover after the party.”
Moscow resident Sergei, who only gave his first name, seemed like one of those skeptics. “It’s terrible, it’s very bad,” he said.
“As usual, no one asked anything of anyone,” he said. “The economic repercussions are economic repercussions for us, not for the ruling elite.”
Vladimir Kondrashov and Anatoly Kozlov in Moscow contributed to this report.