The colour of Russian Money part 20: The Fourth Estate part 4; Through the Looking Glass: how western journalists stepped into Russia’s alternative reality in the Donbas

When Arseny Pavlov, a Russian born warlord in Ukraine’s occupied Donbas, was assassinated by a bomb on October 16 2016 he would have known who to blame. Ukraine’s InformNapalm site has published messages from his hacked phone which reveal that he was worried the FSB assassinate him. The two fake republics, the DNR and LNR, which Russia has established in the area of Donbas are completely controlled by Russian intelligence and sustained only by a substantial Russian military presence. FSB officers work under cover of being officials in their ranks and as Motorola’s phone reveals, are referred to as the “older brothers” by their puppets. The DNR and LNR armed forces are integrated with Russian command and consist of local and Russian mercenaries, and include many neo Nazis in their ranks. The fantasy that they are independent states is necessary both to sustain a Russian nationalist narrative that Ukrainians are really Russians, and to allow Russia to commit deniable war crimes. The phoney armed forces of the DNR and LNR fire at Ukrainian forces from residential areas using the civilian population as human shields. Putin openly admitted that this was part of the strategy in Crimea in a 2014 interview and the tactic has been transferred to the Donbas. Equally these proxy units often shell civilian areas out of joie de vivre or to incite hostility towards Ukraine. Civilians are often randomly murdered on the streets.

However, when you read the western press, a very different picture often emerges. These proxy units would fittingly be described as terrorists and, indeed, relatives of the MH17 victims, are suing internet firms for facilitating them using anti-terrorist legislation. Yet, despite this and the shooting down of MH17, a civilian flight which was passing over the Donbas on 17 July 2014, these units are never referred to as terrorists in the western press. Equally the de facto control of these entities by Russian intelligence is barely touched on. The majority of journalists who have gained accreditation to work in the occupied Donbas seem eerily uniform in their narratives. The DNR and LNR are spoken of as if they were genuine political entities. The vocabulary used is carefully neutral even when, perhaps, individuals such as Strelkov, a GRU colonel believed to be involved in massacres in both Bosnia and the Donbas, would merit being designated as a suspected war criminal. The cumulative effect of the coverage has been to establish a fantasy version of the conflict in the western media. In this alternative reality Ukraine is in the throes of a “civil war” and the issue of Russian responsibility for war crimes is evaded. Understanding how Russia implanted this narrative in the west is important in terms of foreign policy. The media coverage of Ukraine shapes public perception in the west which in turn translates into the willingness, or reluctance, of politicians to support Ukraine.

Fortunately a cache of hacked e mails published by the Distributed Denial of Secrets Initiative provides an insight into how the press team in the DNR pressured journalists: and how some journalists signalled that their coverage would suit the DNR‘s requirements. The DNR team would grade reporters according to a colour coded system based on their coverage of Donbas. If a reporter was graded as red their accreditation would be refused. The hacked messages show that journalists understood what kind of coverage would benefit the DNR and help acquire accreditation. While it cannot be absolutely guaranteed that all the messages are genuine it is certain that many of them are. One  prominent journalist who writes for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal among other outlets apparently wrote to the DNR press team on 7 July 2015. He sent several links to his WSJ articles and described his writing as ‘objective’ noting that he had never described the representatives of the DNR as terrorists. The framing of his vocabulary of course raises interesting questions given the actions of these Russian controlled entities, including the murder of four evangelical believers who had been in the captivity of the DNR in Slavyansk on 8 June 2014. Equally given the bogus nature of both the DNR and LNR it is quite misleading to describe them as having “territory.” In addition to the FSB agents pulling the strings there is, as Ukrainian OSINT specialists InformNapalm have shown, a continuous influx of Russian troops and armour into these areas. Although his request was approved he was added to a list for “monitoring” by the DNR’s team: in the event that journalists produced unsuitable copy it would place at risk their future accreditation.

The press team was quite overt in giving journalists a steer regarding what was desirable. Tatyana Yegorova of the DNR’s press team wrote to a French journalist  on 22/08/2015 querying aspects of his reporting. He had used “unacceptable vocabulary” regarding the DNR’s military and he had also referred to “Russian tanks.” Furthermore he had stated, correctly, that Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula had been annexed by Russia and an independence referendum had been “illegally held” after the annexation.

The reporter concerned gamely pointed out that the presence of Russian tanks had been reported elsewhere in the media including Reuters and the BBC (The DNR gave the BBC accreditation in spite of what it described as “propaganda” because it was “influential”) and noted that the UN had deemed the Crimean referendum illegal.

The team also monitored western publications and while not grading them systematically, sought to exploit those it regarded as pro-Russian. The French newspaper Le Figaro was viewed as “loyal to us” according to an August 2015 e mail from DNR press team official Tatiana Yegorova. Her colleague Marianna Broska, to whom she was replying, had recommended one journalist for accreditation because he was Spanish and the Spanish media were “loyal to Russia.” However Broska recommended that another journalist who worked at Le Tribune be rejected because that publication wrote, utterly accurately, that the Russian military were present in Ukraine. Another journalist was also rejected apparently because the site they worked for referred to the “terrorists” of the DNR.

The DNR’s press team are part of whole package of Russian measures to shape public opinion in the west. While Russia has not succeeded in preventing all the facts about its invasion of Ukraine being published it has ensured that its glove puppets, the DNR and LNR, are spoken of as if they were genuine entities. The inaccurate morally neutral picture the media have generated has assisted with the country’s reinstatement in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on 25 June, after its 2014 exclusion for the annexation of Crimea,  If the random murders and self-shelling of occupied areas by these Russian paramilitary formations had been properly reported in the French press perhaps it would have been harder for France to support the return of Putin’s terrorist regime to the Assembly. Equally he presence of Fascists and their central role in the DNR and LNR projects is rarely discussed while the extreme right in Ukraine, a marginal force which polls at fewer than two percent in elections, is often focused on unduly. 

Britain may soon see a major shift in its foreign policy partly as a result of Russian influence operations. Boris Johnson is a man without a moral compass whose party is increasingly penetrated by Russia’s oligarchic  energy lobby.  The leader of its main opposition party, Jeremy Corbyn, and his communications supremo, Seumas Milne, have repeated Russian narratives about Ukraine in articles in the Morning Star and The Guardian respectively. It is almost certain that one of these men will be walking through the doors of 10 Downing Street later this year: and possible that the token British military support to Ukraine is then withdrawn and, ultimately, the United Kingdom will pull out of NATO, or that Britain will place pressure on Ukraine to capitulate. The DNR’s press team may seem relatively innocuous but are part of a wider reality in which newspaper articles can precede alliances disintegrating, troops being withdrawn and countries being invaded.

Stephen Komarnyckyj is a PEN award winning literary translator and poet whose work is published by Kalyna Language Press and features on the PEN World Bookshelf. You can e mail him on stevekomoffice(at)