A popular Moscow-based, Russian-language website denies Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s assertion that Russia is militarily involved in eastern Ukraine and has illegally occupied Crimea.
Event: In an opinion piece published 7 July by the Wall Street Journal, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko offered to help teach NATO members how to fight Russia and stated that Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was a military occupation. The next day, the Moscow-based, Russian-language website Lenta.ru repeated Kremlin claims that there is no evidence of Russian involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine and rejecting Poroshenko’s statement on Crimea. The article was reprinted in Rus.delfi.ee, a Russian-language version of Estonia’s leading Internet portal.
The false fact or narrative: Russia claims that the armed conflict in Donbass began in spring 2014 after Ukrainian authorities attempted to use force to suppress popular anti-Kyiv uprisings in Donetsk and Luhansk. The Kremlin also denies the existence of evidence proving Russian involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and insists that the 2014 referendum on Crimea’s political status and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea were legal.
Reality on the ground: Many reliable sources confirm Russia’s military presence in eastern Ukraine, including studies by reputable organizations such as the Atlantic Council (Hiding in Plain Sight: Putin’s War in Ukraine); the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (Fog of Falsehood: Russian Strategy of Deception and the Conflict in Ukraine); and Bellingcat (MH17: The Open Source Investigation, Two Years Later). There also is considerable evidence that Russia has supplied military equipment to anti-Kyiv fighters; Bellingcat’s reports can be found here, here, here and here. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself admitted the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine at his annual press conference on 17 December 2015.
Internationally, the Crimea referendum is considered illegal because it was inconsistent with Article 73 of the Ukrainian constitution, which states that “issues of altering the territory of Ukraine are resolved exclusively by an all-Ukrainian referendum.” Voting took place under conditions of illegal armed occupation, with no freedom of expression or media access for the opposition, and without credible international monitoring.
Techniques: Since Western principles of journalism require articles to be balanced and present all points of view, the Kremlin can easily disseminate propaganda in Western media even if it is false. The Lenta.ru article also uses terms or metaphors that support the Kremlin’s narrative. By using expressions such as “Crimea’s reunification with Russia,” it creates the impression that Russian sovereignty over Crimea is a “natural” condition that was disrupted by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Audience: Rus.delfi.ee gets 170,000 visitors per week.
Analysis: Using Western media’s principles to spread disinformation is a noteworthy Russian disinformation techniques, an approach described by Michal Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev in their November 2014 report The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money. This study showed how Russia exploits the Western concept of a marketplace of ideas and the principles of journalistic balance to inject disinformation into society. The goal is not to persuade or earn credibility, but to sow confusion through conspiracy theories and the proliferation of lies. The West has difficulty devising a response because restricting the flow of information violates Western journalistic values.
In his analysis Identifying Disinformation: An ABC Approach, Ben Nimmo points out three key criteria to consider when looking for disinformation: accuracy of factual statements, balance in reporting and credibility of sources chosen. In this case, Delfi—a leading Estonian Internet portal—probably failed to look for or detect disinformation because the need for balance was fulfilled: the story presented both Ukrainian and Russian viewpoints. Here lies the paradox: Russian disinformation was spread not because of a lack of balance, but because of the effort to achieve it.
More importantly, how should Western media prevent itself from unintentionally spreading Kremlin disinformation? Should it give up its principles of good journalism and change its requirement for balance in articles? That would likely be the worst reaction possible—not only because, as Nimmo’s analysis shows, a lack of balance can be used to spread disinformation, but also because it would harm the core values of Western journalism. In short, Western media must continue to present both sides, but should also give readers all the background facts. And if the facts presented by one side have already been proven false, publications or websites should point that out.
Description of sources: Lenta.ru is one of the most popular Russian-language online resources, with more than 600,000 visitors daily. In 2014, its owner, Moscow oligarch Alexander Mamut, fired 39 of Lenta’s 84 employees, including the editor-in-chief, Galina Timchenko, and Director-General Yuliya Minder. All 84 employees signed a statement alleging that the purpose of the firings was to install a new editor-in-chief directly controlled by the Kremlin and turn the website into a propaganda tool.
Delfi is a major Internet portal that provides daily news to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It operates in the Baltic states under the domain names delfi.ee, delfi.lv and delfi.lt. Aside from versions in the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian languages, the company offers Russian-language versions of its portal in all three countries. Delfi is owned Estonia’s Ekspress Grupp.
Rus.delfi.ee is the Russian-language version of Estonia’s delfi.ee. Even if it cannot be labeled pro-Russian, it sometimes publishes articles originating in pro-Russian publications without sufficient criticism and fact-checking.