Point of View
The latest escalation in the Sea of Azov provides a case study of how Russia’s vast state disinformation apparatus is employed to muddy the waters and curb Western attempts to halt Russian aggression.
What we know: Three Ukrainian ships were fired upon and then captured by Russian vessels as the Ukrainians were preparing to transit through the Kerch Strait in the Sea of Azov on Sunday, November 25. Earlier that day, a Ukrainian tugboat was rammed by a Russian coast guard ship.
Some are calling it the third front in Russia’s previously clandestine war in Ukraine, which erupted in 2014 with the seizure of the Crimean Peninsula and a Moscow-fueled military campaign in the country’s east.
In Europe, the response to what Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called an act of Russian aggression inevitably led to talk of more sanctions against Russia.
Faced with a backlash from this most recent military escalation, Moscow found itself in need of a new narrative.
Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Alexey Gromov, the alleged maestro behind Russia’s media machine, appears to have gotten state TV and news agencies all singing the same tune.
Turn on Rossiya-1 state television’s “Evening With Vladimir Solovyov” and the canticle of “Poroshenko’s political provocation” is being delivered at a rapid-fire clip.
“Martial law wasn’t introduced [in Ukraine] in 2014 in connection with the Crimean situation,” political scientist Sergey Mikheyev told the program. “It wasn’t introduced during the battles of Debaltseve and Ilovaisk. It wasn’t introduced during what in reality were a series of harsher incidents. And then nationalists had been demanding that [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko introduce martial law. And he gave a list of 15 reasons why martial law couldn’t be introduced. And now suddenly, meaning three to four months before the [March 31, 2019 presidential] election and two months before the election campaign, this incident serves as a reason to introduce martial law.”
Western media and civil society organizations also expressed concern over Poroshenko’s motives. Foreign Policy Magazine quoted a Polish government-funded think tank, the Centre for Eastern Studies, positing that “that the decision to introduce martial law is an attempt to exploit the situation and increase his public support.”
Some ordinary Ukrainians can be seen in Western news reports also worrying over the Ukrainian president’s political goals.
“Our beloved president wants to delay elections kind of unintentionally,” said one young man in a Bloomberg collection of street interviews. “Our president will be here forever,” says another man in Kyiv in a BBC video seen on the Kyiv Post. Yet on both videos, the opinions are varied, sprinkled with a few who are concerned about a possible invasion.
A Human Rights Watch Report raises concern over martial law powers, that Ukraine government “authorities do not have a carte blanche to restrict rights;” warning about election manipulation and that “international partners should ensure that doesn’t happen.”
Yet the Foreign Policy report concludes the Rada put a check on Poroshenko, halving the length of time under martial law which would end --well before elections and putting it into effect in only 10 of Ukraine’s 27 regions.
“A full-blown assault on Ukraine’s democracy, however, isn’t in the offing,” FP concludes.
While the policy concerns appear similar, the balance in the Western media reporting seems to make the point. Russian state media’s consistent messaging is that martial law was adopted to provide a pretext for canceling the elections.
Go online, and the same refrain is sounding across the Russian information echo chamber.
An RT headline reads: “Election ploy? Poroshenko declares martial law in Ukraine after Kerch standoff.”
“Attempt to Avoid Election? Why Poroshenko Wants Martial Law Over Kerch Incident,” declares another, on Sputnik.
Still another: “Ukrainian Provocations in Kerch Strait Executed on Direct Orders from Kiev – FSB.”
The RT article comes to this unattributed conclusion: “The standoff between the Ukrainian and Russian ships could have been a planned provocation – a domestic ploy aimed at swinging a potentially unwinnable election.”
And the same messages emerge from Russian government leaders.
First, Russian Senator Franz Klintsevich repeated the claim that martial law could be extended in order to cancel the Ukrainian election, scheduled for March 31, 2019. Deputy Director of the Institute of the CIS Vladimir Zharikhin concurred, saying: “Poroshenko is clearly looking for a reason to cancel or postpone the elections, given his low ratings."
But the claims go farther, accusing Poroshenko not just of taking advantage of a crisis but manufacturing it in the first place.
"Regarding the introduction of martial law in Ukraine, it is obvious that this is not a consequence, but a cause. It was with this possibility in mind that the whole provocation in the Sea of Azov was actually planned,” said Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Foreign affairs committee of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament. “For this, all the provocations in the Sea of Azov were started.”
Or, as Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook: "Literally the whole basis of the politics of Poroshenko and his regime is a provocation.
That message is promulgated by Russian embassies around the world.
And eventually higher up the ladder.
"It is obvious that incumbent President Poroshenko has no chances to win in the elections as things stand at the moment, and maybe even no chances to continue to the second round," TASS news agency quoted Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as telling reporters.
According to Tass, Medvedev believes the Kerch Strait “provocation” was undertaken "to achieve certain decisions politically advantageous for the incumbent president".
Russian Security Council Secretary and former FSB head Nikolai Patrushev joined the chorus, claiming that Poroshenko and his associates are “ready to commit any crime trying to improve their chances to remain in power.”
"After declaring martial law and partially restricting human rights and freedoms, he may call off the presidential election citing the need to protect the people of Ukraine," Patrushev said.
And finally, on Wednesday, November 28, the message came from the very top.
"As for the Black Sea incident, certainly, this was a provocation,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said. “The provocation carried out by the current authorities, and I think by the incumbent president ahead of the presidential election in Ukraine in March next year,”
Putin added: “The incumbent president’s rating is somewhere at the fifth place, and he is running the risk of not making in into the second round, that’s why something needs to be done to exacerbate this situation and create invincible obstacles for his rivals, namely from the opposition.
Poroshenko does, indeed, face steep odds in his quest to retain the presidency. A presidential election poll released nine days before the maritime incident showed fully half the voters say they would not vote for the incumbent, numbers the Russian state media seizes upon to make a repetitive point.
Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews, researchers and social scientists at the Rand Corporation, identify in their study, “The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model," that Russia seeks to bolster the veracity of its message by being prolific (It should be noted the Rand Corporation has a wide-ranging mandate but many of its national security-related studies are paid for by U.S. government agencies).
Even if the Russian media reports are shallow by Western standards, the authors argue their high-channel, multi-channel nature psychologically provides a believability boost: “Quantity does indeed have a quality all its own.”
And if there is a playbook for a Kremlin disinformation campaign, it was provided by Ben Nimmo, of the Atlantic Council in “Anatomy of an Info War” (Note: The Atlantic Council is a non-profit, U.S.-based think tank which receives funding from a variety of U..S and foreign government agencies, companies, and individuals).
Nimmo lays out a “4D” approach to massaging the narrative and shifting blame to the victim: dismiss, distort, distract, dismay.
Take, for example, a quote from Zakharova.
“Russia has warned Ukraine against efforts to revise the status of the Sea of Azov in violation of international law, urging Kiev to refrain from attempts to unilaterally establish new state borders,” Zakharova said.
"After tearing Ukraine apart, Poroshenko and the entire Maidan gang will then travel around the world giving lectures on the benefits of democracy, just like [former Georgian President Mikhail] Saakashvili does now. [They] have already reached peace in Donbass. Now they are onto Kerch Strait.
"[They are] highwaymen. And they use bandits' methods, too: first, a provocation; then, exertion of force; and finally, accusing others of aggression," she said.
As Polygraph.info previously reported, “the status” of the Azov Sea was established in a bilateral treaty between Russia and Ukraine signed in 2003 and ratified by Russia in 2004. It governs the use of the Kerch strait and the Sea of Azov, which in the words of the treaty is considered to be the “internal waters” of both Russia and Ukraine. Article 2 of the agreement guarantees freedom of movement through the straits and in the Sea of Azov to all Russian and Ukrainian commercial and military vessels.
However, after the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia in 2014, which violated several bilateral agreements between the two countries in addition to international law, Western nations have protested increasing Russian control, which some media call “creeping annexation.”
The “creeping hybrid blockade” of the Sea Azov has also been called a Russian efforts to turn it into a “Russian lake.”
And what do you do when, through annexation and invasion, you have put a smaller neighbor on the brink of disaster? What do you do in the midst of a campaign of so-called "creeping annexation"?
As for tearing Ukraine apart, both the annexation of Crimea and the Donbas war were initiated at the Kremlin’s behest.
And after the most recent events, the facts would dictate that the “provocation,” “exertion of force” and “accusing others of ‘aggression’” did not originate on the Ukrainian side.
But when Poroshenko reacts, he is accused of crying “bloody murder.”
But all of this culminates in Kremlin-friendly pundits warning of “all-out war” if the West supports the “unhinged Kyiv regime,” or of escalations that are “getting close to World War Three.”
As for Ukraine’s future? “Terrorist Dictatorship or Disintegration of the Country.”
So what is the point of these “messages of apocryphal doom”, which follow a “black-and-white narrative” based on the four Ds?
According to Nimo: “To intimidate opponents and force a change of course.”
The real question: will that course respect the legitimate rights of both parties in the Azov Sea?