Why Did Russian State Media Suddenly Start Paying Attention to Kiev?

Riddle me this, America: Why is RT, the cable network run as an extension of the Kremlin's propaganda machine, currently live streaming the protests in Kiev?

Around the world, the media reaction toward the protests in Kiev and elsewhere in Ukraine -- which dramatically escalated and descended into intense violence overnight -- has generally been one of sympathy, toward the protest movement, its goal of greater integration with the West, and an end to Russian influence in the country. But not so in Russian media, which has denounced the protests as a Western scheme for influence in Russia's backyard.

That the Western media would turn a sympathetic ear toward a movement espousing closer ties with the West and seeking to end Russian meddling should come as no surprise. Live streams of the scene at the Maidan -- the shorthand name for Independence Square, where protests are centered -- have proliferated widely and popped up on a slew of websites. Even Gawker, that fire hose purveyor of Internet snark, got in on the action, posting a live stream and quite earnestly bemoaning the violence.

So why is RT now joining the bandwagon and live streaming from the Maidan? Because the chaos in Kiev plays right into the hands of the Kremlin.

While it is all but certain Russian President Vladimir Putin would have preferred that Ukrainian authorities not stage a bloody crackdown in the middle of the Sochi Olympics, the escalation of violence will be touted from now until the crisis' end as evidence of the protests radical nature. This line has been emphasized again and again by Moscow, and despite the fact that most of the violence in Kiev appears to have been carried out at the hands of the police, the notion that "terrorists" are behind the protests will be parroted by Kremlin apparatchiks until the end of the crisis.

So far, 25 people -- nine of them police officers -- have died in what has become the deadliest spate of violence since the protest's start. "Negotiations will only take place when the violent methods stop, when the opposition gets its armed people off the street and when calm comes back to the country," Hanna Herman, a spokeswoman for Ukrainian President Viktork Yanukovych, told Radio Liberty's Ukraine service. "Then it will be necessary to sit at the negotiating table."

The message from authorities in Kiev and Moscow is clear: Whatever the protests began as, they have now been hijacked by violent elements at the Maidan. Consider, for example, these headlines from Interfax, which provide a flavor of how the Russian media is spinning the protests. They are all from Tuesday afternoon and into the evening, when police moved to clear the square.

  • 2:37 p.m.: Radical protesters burst into Party of Regions' [the party of Yanukovych] Kyiv office
  • 4:01 p.m.: Policemen, protestors sustain injuries in Kyiv clashes
  • 4:59 p.m.: Protesters try to enter Ukrainian Health Ministry
  • 4:26 p.m.: Five interior troops were wounded in clashes with protesters in Kyiv - Ukrainian Interior Ministry
  • 4:44 p.m.: Russia blames Western politicians for new wave of tensions in Ukraine
  • 6:10 p.m.: Three people killed in Kyiv clashes - opposition
  • 6:15 p.m.: Ten interior troops sustain gunshot wounds in Kyiv
  • 6:21 p.m.: Ukraine law enforcement services give opposition two hours to stop unrest
  • 7:01 p.m.: Ukrainian justice minister urges opposition to stop escalating conflict, start talks
  • 7:47 p.m.: Kyiv locals shield windows with plastic to avoid damage
  • 9:20 p.m.: Ukrainian opposition leaders must persuade rioters to end violence - Kravchuk

As if that wasn't enough, RT posted a video taken from a drone above the Kiev "battlefield."

This is the old authoritarian's bargain: Give me power, and I'll give you stability. And as Julia Ioffe explains over at the New Republic, Putin views the Kiev protests with great fear. And so his media outlets dutifully portray the Kiev protest movement as a prime example of the kind of instability Putin has so far managed to avoid -- or, perhaps more accurately, brutally stamped out. So far, it appears most Russians agree with him. According to a January poll, a full 84 percent of Russians view the Kiev protests as a coup attempt.

Yanukovych has now agreed to a truce with the protesters and has even sacked the head of the armed forces, apparently as a result of the clumsy crackdown. But for those seeking to portray the protests as out-of-control and the workings of a terror group, the images of Kiev on fire remain.



No, the Syrian Refugee Marwan Did Not Cross the Desert Alone

In the photograph above, a 4-year-old Syrian refugee named Marwan can be seen crossing the desert, apparently alone, near the Jordanian border. It's a heartbreaking image that went viral after it was posted on Twitter by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

But here's the problem: Little Marwan was not crossing into Jordan on his own and was in fact accompanied by a group of refugees just outside the frame of the original photo. On Tuesday, Andrew Harper, UNHCR's representative to Jordan, clarified that Marwan's case, which seemed to encapsulate Syria's terrible refugee crisis, was not quite as it had appeared at first blush. "He is separated -- he is not alone," Harper, who posted the original photo, tweeted. According to a press officer on the scene, his family was a mere twenty steps away.

The debacle is just the latest in an ongoing march of misleading Syria coverage -- intentional or otherwise -- that have often muddied any kind of rational discussion of the consequences of Syria's brutal civil war.

In a later tweet, Harper posted a photo indicating that Marwan was indeed accompanied by a group of refugees, contrary to what had been suggested earlier:

Harper made sure to note on Twitter that it was primarily news agencies that pushed the narrative about the four-year-old being alone in the desert. Push the narrative they did. In one tweet, CNN Anchor Hala Gorani said "little Marwan was found in Jordan desert w possessions in plastic bag; was later separated from his family." A New York Daily News headline relished the story: "Refugee named Marwan, 4, found wandering the desert alone while fleeing civil war in Syria."

But UNHCR wasn't exactly helping their own case either. The British Mirror reported that Andrej Mahecic, a UNHCR spokesperson, said, "We think Marwan may have got lost during the night." Whether the UNHCR wanted to or not, their photo became just one of many misleading and highly publicized images and videos to have emerged from the Syrian civil war.

A month ago, a photograph of what was supposedly a Syrian boy sleeping in between his parents' graves exploded on social media after Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba tweeted it. The problem? The photo was actually repurposed from an art project by Saudi photographer Abdul Aziz Al-Otaibi, who used his nephew for the shots. "Look, it's not true at all that my picture has anything to do with Syria," Al-Otaibi told the journalist Harald Doornbos. "I am really shocked how people have twisted my picture." 

With an ever-dwindling number of reporters on the ground in Syria and an opposition movement desperate to gain support among the international community, doctored or inaccurate photos and videos have become a standard element in Syria's protracted civil war. In May 2012, the BBC ran a story about a massacre in the Syrian town of Houla accompanied by a photo of a young boy jumping over dozens of body bags. The only problem? The photo was taken in 2003 in Iraq and showed bags containing skeletons found in a desert south of Baghdad. The BBC ran the image after a Syrian activist circulated it online.

Syrian opposition activists have extensively relied on YouTube to broadcast videos of the violence in their country. But videos can be easily doctored -- and even more easily misrepresented. Videos purporting to show the atrocities of the Assad regime have actually depicted scenes from Lebanon, Russia, and even Mexico. Here is one from Lebanon filmed in 2008 and aired in 2012 by Reuters as footage from Syria:

The problem with inaccurate photos and videos isn't just that they're wrong; they also undermine the cause they're supposed to promote. In January, a report based on photos from a Syrian defector accused the Assad regime of torturing and killing thousands of detainees in government custody. Though there is little evidence to doubt the report's veracity, the Syrian government quickly fired back that that the photos were fakes. Given the conflict's history of forged images, and the fact that the report was partly sponsored by the government of Qatar, which has chanelled funding to rebel groups in the country, the Syrian government's argument isn't easily dismissed.

And as the fakes continue to stack up, it's a defense that only gets easier to use.