On June 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Austria, marking his first trip to a Western European country since his reelection in May. He met with Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s current chancellor, whom TASS quoted as saying:
“As a superpower, Russia not only plays a big role in trouble spots - in Syria, in the east of Ukraine and in other ones, but it also has a big responsibility. And we hope and expect that Russia will make its contribution so that the people there could live the way they would like to, that is in peace."
It is the brevity of the article and the TASS headline, that “stresses its (Russia’s) role for peace” that evokes our “misleading” verdict – an article that was so stark in its inaccuracy that we originally set out to fact check the chancellor.
Chancellor Kurz is correct to state that Russia plays a big role in the two trouble spots he named. Putin’s government instigated the trouble in Ukraine when Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula and then facilitated a war in the country’s eastern Donbas region. It was a Russian citizen, Igor Girkin (aka “Strelkov”), the ex-commander of pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, who publicly said he “pulled the trigger of this war” – hardly the peaceful role that TASS proclaims.
In the Syrian civil war that began in 2011, Russia backed the regime of Bashar al-Assad but did not militarily intervene until October 2015, when the Russian air force was deployed to support pro-government forces on the ground. With Russian air support, those pro-government forces have managed to retake territory lost in 2011-2015, including major population centers like Aleppo.
While Russia is participating in peace negotiations for Syria, many analysts contend it prolonged the Syrian civil war by providing support to Assad and allowing him to launch major counter-offensives.
“The intervention of Russia in the Syrian Civil War decisively tipped the balance of the conflict in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” Christopher Kozak, a senior researcher at the Institute for the Study of War told Polygraph.info via email.
The full context of Kurz’s remarks can be seen on the Kremlin Web site, which published a transcript of the on-camera press conference.
“Observance of human rights is very important for us,” Kurz is quoted on the Kremlin website just before the comments used by TASS.
Kurz also said: “In addition, we hope that progress will also be achieved in eastern Ukraine and that the Minsk agreements will be implemented. This is the scenario we want for our continent. We are deeply convinced that solely through cooperation and joint actions we can make further progress in relations between the two sides.”
The article also leaves out Kurz’s comments about Austria’s intention to continue upholding the EU sanctions against Russia, which were put in place largely due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, part of Ukraine in 2014.
Interestingly, TASS covered this angle in a separate article about the meeting.
"We will continue our efforts to uphold communication channels with Russia, despite the necessary response to its actions, and take steps toward each other," TASS quoted Kurz as saying.
According to Alexey Kovalev, an ex-RIA Novosti editor who now runs his own blog debunking Russian state media propaganda, the unusually short article on Sebastian Kurz’s comment may have been due to an “overcautious editor” trying to cover themselves.
While the longer TASS article notes Kurz’s positive words about Russia, it also includes his country’s position on “anti-Russian sanctions.” A reader who encounters the shorter article would be left with a different impression of the Austrian Chancellor’s words.