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The Day the Kremlin’s Propaganda Machine Came to Washington

Under the terms of the sanctions the Obama administration imposed after Russia's annexation of Crimea, senior Russian lawmaker Sergyi Zheleznyak has been barred from traveling to the United States, but that didn't stop him from appearing Monday at Washington's National Press Club for a virtuoso performance of Kremlin agitprop.

Zheleznyak, the deputy speaker of the Russian Duma, treated the journalists gathered in Washington and Moscow, from which he appeared via video-link, to a two-hour display of deceit and deception. Using every trick in the big book of Russian propaganda, Zheleznyak shamelessly fearmongered, touted Russia's alleged moral superiority and military might, and proceeded to dismiss realities on the ground in Crimea, which was invaded and absorbed into Russia.

Zheleznyak appeared alongside Sergei Markov, a political analyst and a former member of parliament, and their remarks, laced with colorful Russian proverbs, were poorly translated into English by an interpreter. Zheleznyak is one of 11 Kremlin insiders sanctioned in response to Russia's actions in Crimea. The panel was co-hosted by Kremlin-backed news service RIA Novosti and moderated in Washington by Edward Lozansky, the president of the American University in Moscow.

What ensued was nearly two hours of unabashed, old-school propaganda.

Nuclear fear-mongering never did any harm

When Lozansky, the Washington moderator, asked about a proposal made by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham to provide lethal arms to the Ukrainian government, Zheleznyak responded with an incendiary threat about Ukrainian nuclear power plants. If U.S-provided weapons fall into the "wrong hands," these facilities could be attacked by rogue Ukrainian militants, Zheleznyak warned. "We don't know where the wind will blow," he said, offhandedly reminding his audience of the "Chernobyl tragedy."

You think you're so smart, John McCain?

According to Zheleznyak, it's a dog-eat-dog world in Ukraine. If American weapons were to fall into the hands of a man with no food, "he will kill people." And if America doesn't believe Zheleznyak's warnings, he has a perfect guinea pig in mind to explore the situation on the ground. "If American colleagues want tests they should send McCain there and see if he can survive."  

Nationalist "bandits" have "taken the country hostage"

The Kremlin has repeatedly described the anti-government protesters who toppled former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych as "Nazis" and "fascists." Monday's conference was no different. According to Zheleznyak , the entire country of Ukraine is "populated by armed militants in balaclavas," who are "outlaws" and whose motives are "unknown." The country, according to Markov, needs "free democratic elections, not under the neo-Nazi AK-47." The threat of "radicalization," Zheleznyak warned, has extended to all of Europe, especially in light of the recent financial crisis.

"Full soldier is better than a hungry soldier"

When asked about a recent aid shipment from the United States to Ukraine, Markov responded by first making allegations about the U.S. Navy's presence in the Black Sea. (A Navy destroyer, the USS Truxton, has left the Black Sea after a training exercise.) He then proceeded to compare the current crisis to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which was eventually resolved by President John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev through a behind-the-scenes deal. "We think Obama should be wise as Kennedy" instead of "wrangling with his gun across the world."

Zheleznyak seemed less concerned about U.S. aid to Ukraine. "Full soldier is better than a hungry soldier. If the Ukrainian soldiers have to be fed, that's okay. It's better than cannons." In the end, it doesn't matter to the Russians. "Ukrainian army is very weak, no morale," Markov said.

Russia as the upholder of international law

Repeatedly referring to the current government in Kiev as a "junta," Zheleznyak rejected upcoming parliamentary elections in Ukraine as illegitimate and maintained that only one binding international document remains: the Feb. 21 agreement between the opposition and the then-president, Yanukovych. That agreement called for early elections and constitutional reform, and, according to Zheleznyak, international law "is the only anchor that we have to stick to." Never mind the fact that Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been roundly condemned as a violation of international law.

Russia as the upholder of political freedoms

Markov presented three demands for Ukrainian authorities: Release all political prisoners, curtail "political censorship," and introduce a federal system for governing Ukraine. While it is unclear which political prisoners he hoped to free from the "junta" in Kiev, he failed to mention Russia's long list of prisoners of conscience and restrictions on media freedoms.  

Ukraine has gone back to the stone age

Throughout the conference, Zheleznyak repeatedly referred to Ukraine's alleged "return to the stone age." In the last three months, Zheleznyak said, conditions in Ukraine have regressed from those of a civilized European country and now resemble the stone age -- "where everyone is trying to survive ... where anyone can be assaulted or attacked by gangsters." Needless to say, most reports suggest a tense calm has settled in Ukraine.

Poverty and oppression have prepared Mother Russia well for sanctions

Zheleznyak, one of the officials targeted by U.S. sanctions, dismissed the threat of more sweeping punitive measures under discussion by the United States and Europe. "Due to complex living conditions that Russians used to have, the level of survivability and adaptability is much higher than for US and EU citizens," Zheleznyak said.

The Russian people may not like it, he said, but they have been through worse.

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Will the EU Sacrifice Gay Rights in Ukraine for Geopolitics?

In an effort to bring Ukraine closer to the West and avoid offending powerful conservative sensibilites in the new government in Kiev, the European Union has told human rights activists that it may backtrack on demands that the country improve legal protections for sexual minorities, which had previously been called a requirement for liberalizing visa rules between Ukraine and the EU.

The fight over LGBT rights comes as European officials are scrambling to come up with a response to Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula and has raised the possibility that Brussels may sacrifice demands that Kiev improve its human rights record as part of strengthening ties with Europe.

By liberalizing the visa agreement between Ukraine and the EU, Ukrainian citizens would be allowed to travel freely across member states. EU officials had said that such an agreement would only be implemented if Ukrainian lawmakers passed a tough anti-discrimination law, but the EU now appears to be backing away from that requirement.

On Monday, Ukraine's acting Minister of Justice Pavel Petrenko said that the EU would withdraw the demand and that the union had "found an understanding" with Ukrainian officials. During meetings with civil society leaders and members of the LGBT community earlier this week, officials from the European Commission said that the requirement could be suspended until a later phase of the visa liberalization process, according to activists present in the meetings.

"Now is a moment when the Ukrainian government has a unique opportunity to change the country, to reform, and they need direction and pressure," said Tanya Mazur, the director of Amnesty International Ukraine and who was present in meetings on the matter with EU officials.

Representatives of the European Commission deny that the visa liberalization plan will be changed. "The identified legislative gaps will have to be addressed, including anti-discrimination on basis of sexual orientation," Silvia Kofler, a spokesperson for the EU delegation to the United States, wrote in an email to Foreign Policy.

But according to activists who have met with EU officials, the Ukrainian government has proposed substitute measures to protect the rights of sexual minorities. Those measures would include strengthening the publicly-appointed human rights advocate, using the Ukrainian judiciary to re-interpret existing laws to strengthen rights protections, and changing the country's labor laws to prevent discrimination.

"What we're concerned about is the symbolism of these concessions," said Matthew Schaaf, program officer at the U.S.-based democracy NGO Freedom House. Bjorn van Roozendaal, a program director for the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, called it a "dangerous precedent."

The question remains when gaps in protections for sexual minorities will be addressed and whether the Ukrainian government's proposed alternatives will be sufficient for the European Commission to proceed with visa liberalization. According to Kofler, the commission is "assessing the information received."

EU pressure on Ukrainian authorities remains crucial for the country to introduce reforms to LGBT-rights laws, which Anna Kirey, a gay rights researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Kiev would be unlikely to put in place unless the EU continues to demand progress. Mazur said that during a meeting with Petrenko, the justice minister, he told activists that the government would consider the anti-discrimination law because that was what the European Union wanted.

The problem is a lack of political will. Several members of the new Ukrainian government are very conservative, and the far right played an important role in the anti-government protests that overthrew former President Viktor Yanukovych. Shortly after Russia put in place laws last year that outlawed what the government called "gay propaganda," Ukrainian officials considered adopting similar measures. Though the government did not emulate Moscow's crackdown on gay rights, Roozendaal called an anti-discrimination law a "hard sell" within the country's borders.

Meanwhile, hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity continue to plague Ukraine. According to Kirey, who is currently writing a report on violations of LGBT rights in the country, gay Ukrainians routinely experience violence at the hands of both family members and what she described as "vigilante groups." That violence can extend to schools. Kirey described a 16-year-old boy whose classmates would burn his hair every day. Workplace discrimination against sexual minorities remains rife. And with the lack of institutional support, gays and lesbians rarely seek out assistance for violence discrimination.

At the same time, the Ukrainian LGBT-rights community is active, with over 40 such groups around the country. But without pressure from the EU, the government will likely continue to ignore them.

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