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Amid crackdown on free press in Russia, Kremlin-backed disinformation poses global threat

President of Russia Vladimir Putin.  (Gevorg Ghazaryan/Shutterstock)
President of Russia Vladimir Putin. (Gevorg Ghazaryan/Shutterstock)
By Orion Donovan-Smith and Colin Tiernan The Spokesman-Review

Before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion that has killed thousands and forced millions to flee their homes in Ukraine, he launched an assault on another front – a disinformation campaign aimed at challenging the very reality of the Kremlin’s actions.

As Putin has cracked down in recent weeks on what remained of the free press in his country, advocates of press freedom say pro-Moscow disinformation poses an even more vexing challenge than outright censorship. A flood of false news reports in Russian-language media – along with the distrust and ambivalence they breed – have spilled over Russia’s borders and spread around the world, even reaching the Slavic community in Spokane.

Anatoliy Mazhan, one of tens of thousands of Slavs in the Spokane area, said many Ukrainian, Russian and other Slavic people in the Inland Northwest – especially older generations – still rely on Russian state-run media for their news.

“Because they’ve been listening to Russian propaganda so long, they kind of stick to those views,” said Mazhan, who immigrated to the United States from the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk in 1998.

Even if those people don’t believe everything they hear from Kremlin-backed news sources, Mazhan said, the nonstop stream of false claims – that a pregnant woman who died after Russia attacked a maternity hospital was an actor, or that Ukraine and the U.S. are plotting to use birds to spread biological weapons – muddies the waters enough to erode trust in all reports about the crisis.

“Unfortunately, it kind of distorts their belief in any media at all,” he said. “Instead of looking for alternative Russian media or alternative Russian views, they throw their hands up and say, ‘That’s probably all propaganda.’ ”

Clayton Weimers, deputy director of the D.C. office of Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based nonprofit that works to protect press freedom around the world, said it’s a playbook the Russian government has honed over many years.

“You just flood the zone with so much disinformation, and it doesn’t even matter if it’s believed, but you can change the perception of all information out there, people can no longer trust what they’re reading online,” Weimers said. “It leads them to distrust the legitimate information that’s out there. It leads to an overall erosion of the trust in journalism, and that’s a really tricky thing that I think democracies need to reckon with.”

That disinformation “has divided families, friends and churches” in the Spokane area, said Petr Gaydarzhi, pastor at God’s Embassy Church in Newman Lake.

“People that feed on Russian news,” Gayzarzhi said, “actually think NATO and America have placed chemical and nuclear weapons in Ukraine with the purpose of attacking Russia,” forcing Russia to conduct what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation” to protect itself and liberate Russian-speaking Ukrainians from a government Putin insists is run by “Nazis.”

Journalists who stray from the Kremlin’s narrative, including by simply calling the assault on Ukraine an “invasion” or “war,” is punishable by up to 15 years in prison under a law passed by Russia’s parliament March 4.

Gaydarzhi, who came to the U.S. in 1997 after growing up in Izmail in southwestern Ukraine, called the idea that Russia was forced to attack Ukraine “nonsense” but said the steady stream of false claims has left people without even the same set of facts.

“Obviously there’s plenty to argue about once people get their news from opposite ends of the spectrum,” he said.

Within Russia, the March 4 law made it virtually impossible for independent journalists to report the reality. But Alexey Kovalev, investigative editor at the independent Russian news website Meduza, said the Kremlin’s press crackdown “didn’t really happen overnight.”

“In hindsight, we know that everything that led us to this point began in 2014, or probably even earlier in 2012, when Putin assumed his third term as president,” said Kovalev, who fled Russia just before the media law passed and is now reporting from neighboring Latvia. “We’ve seen a gradual dissolution of the entire civic fabric. They started tightening, but it didn’t happen all at the same time.”

In 2014, after Ukrainians protested their government reneging on a trade deal with the European Union under pressure from Putin, Russian troops seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and backed separatists in the country’s east. That began a war that killed roughly 14,000 people over eight years and served as Putin’s main pretext for the full-scale invasion that began Feb. 24.

“The state of the free press has always been a bit precarious in Russia,” Weimers said, with journalists subjected to harassment, arrests and even murder if they don’t toe the Kremlin’s line. “Since the invasion of Ukraine, it’s just gotten much more aggressive and the Kremlin has taken a more direct approach to censorship, and they have not been shy about it.”

A large majority of Russians, Kovalev estimated, get their news exclusively from TV channels, all of which are controlled by the government.

“It has a real effect, but it’s not really because this propaganda that Russian state television is blasting day and night is deviously effective,” he said. “It’s such a mess of contradictory and obviously fantastical allegations that don’t really make any sense if you put them all in one sentence.”

Kovalev said Meduza anticipated the crackdown and instructed its readers how to use virtual private network apps and other tools to access its reporting, and Reporters Without Borders helped the Latvia-based outlet set up “mirror” sites after Russia blocked the Meduza website. The nonprofit, known by the French acronym RSF, recently opened a “press freedom center” in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv to provide journalists with helmets, body armor, first aid supplies and more.

While censorship has made it harder for Russians to access independent news sources, Kovalev said the tougher challenge is cutting through the deluge of disinformation.

“This is what makes our jobs so difficult,” he said. “It’s not simply enough to get the facts and report the facts, and it’s not enough to confront people with these facts, but you’ve got to have them admit that what we are reporting is actually happening.”

The fog of war makes the truth hard to discern in any conflict – and pro-Ukraine propagandists have further muddied the waters with false or inflated reports of an ace fighter pilot, a defiant last stand by Ukrainian troops on an island outpost and more – but Weimers said the tactics Russia has employed are distinct and something the United States needs to treat as an important front on the battle for global influence.

“This is one of the battlefields, if you see this as an overall conflict between liberal democracy and authoritarianism in countries like Russia and China. Information access is one of the key battlefields here, and those countries take it very seriously.”

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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