For eastern Ukrainians, a growing doubt: Is Russia manipulating us?

Part 2 of 2: Russia has long been viewed with brotherly affection in eastern Ukraine. But some easterners are becoming disillusioned after seeing facts on the ground contrast with fictions in Russian media.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
A building formerly occupied by rebels lies burned as eastern Ukrainian residents of Slaviansk, Ukraine, cope with the aftermath of months of pro-Russian separatist control of their town.

Shortly after pro-Russia rebels left this eastern Ukrainian town, Russia's state-owned Channel One broadcast a heart-wrenching interview with a refugee mother who had fled to Russia with her children.

The woman told a tearful story, claiming that she witnessed Ukrainian soldiers gather residents at the Slaviansk central square, to watch the “crucifixion like Jesus” of a three-year-old boy on a notice board at city hall. Then the boy’s mother, who had fainted, was tied to a tank and paraded around the square.

The studio anchor, shocked, said the “mind refuses to understand how such a thing is possible, these days in the center of Europe.”

Viewers in Slaviansk were just as shocked – because such an event never took place.

It is tales like this that have turned hearts and minds in eastern Ukraine – where the Russian-speaking majority once welcomed a separatist uprising and Moscow’s backing for it – increasingly against Russia. In towns like Slaviansk, rebels have left behind a population disillusioned and angry. They're still suspicious of the Ukrainian government forces they believed would kill them, but also disappointed by how a once-trusted Russia tried to manipulate their fears.

Stoking fears

Nationwide, recent polls show that more and more Ukrainians consider Russia an “enemy” and not a friend, despite a long and intertwined history. One poll in early June found that 73 percent of Ukrainians viewed Russia as a “threat.” This month, by one count, 58 percent believed Russian “special service” operatives sparked the conflict.

That is an unsurprising reaction in western Ukraine, which traditionally leans more toward Europe and the West – and which holds little love for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In Kiev, you can even buy rolls of toilet paper printed with portraits of Mr. Putin.

But such doubt about Russia had never taken hold before in the east. Indeed, in February, before the fall of President Viktor Yanukovych's presidency, eastern Ukrainians overwhelmingly – some 92 percent – thought positively of Russians. And that good will extended towards the anti-Kiev rebels.

“People were absolutely supportive at the beginning,” says Denis Bigunov, a member of the Slaviansk City Council, referring to the uprising that began here on April 12.

It was particularly seized on, Mr. Bigunov adds, by some groups in Slaviansk that had tried to “popularize this Putin-Soviet idea, used loudspeakers, and gave bullets.” They argued that eastern Ukraine naturally and historically belonged to Russia, just like the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March.

And Russian television – the staple news source for many eastern Ukrainians – repeatedly stoked fears about Ukrainian killings and atrocities.

“People went mad,” says Bigunov, speaking on a street with crumbling ornate façades from Soviet times. "Everybody was afraid that the Ukrainian Army would come, or right wingers, and would kill all the Russian speakers – they believed Russian TV."

Marina, a woman from Donetsk who once supported the separatists, recalls reports – true or not, she does not know – of Russian speakers being taken off a train and being forced to sing the Ukrainian national anthem.

“These made people angry, which ... created this [anti-Ukrainian] frenzy,” she says.

'Fascism was here'

But while many believed that “Russia would help protect them” – per pledges made by Putin – and that the Ukrainian Army was bad “like Nazis,” the rough experience of three months of Russia-backed occupation has soured views about Moscow, says Bigunov.

“People have opened their eyes,” he says. “People used to think that fascism was there [in Kiev], but they found that it was here.”

Marina agrees, saying she is confused by events and the barrage of propaganda that portrays Ukrainian forces as cold-blooded killers. “After awhile we realized we were being manipulated and provoked.”

The majority of people she knew thought like her until the rebellion, and “hoped Russia would include us in their territory, so many people are disappointed,” says Marina. Yet, they still are far from joining hands with Kiev. "Nobody blames Putin” for the failure of the separatists, asserts Marina. “They think he has lowered pressure and prevented a bigger war that the West wants to impose.”

But Russia's apparent manipulation has nonetheless tempered eastern Ukrainian enthusiasm for Moscow. Residents of Donetsk have even made a joke about the risks of Russian support. Two friends meet, both native Russian speakers – as is everyone in this region – but one speaks Russian, and the other insists on speaking Ukrainian.

“Why are you speaking Ukrainian?” asks one friend. “Are you afraid Ukrainian nationalists will come and kill you?”

“No,” comes the reply. “I’m afraid if Putin hears me speaking Russian, he will come to ‘protect’ my rights!”

Several nationwide polls since February show a sharp decline in support for Russia, even in the east, though the shift is much more profound in the west of the country.

The Russians "really lost Ukraine, and they have Putin’s actions to blame,” says Victoria Syumar, the deputy head of Ukraine’s Council of National Security in Kiev. “It’s a fear of military aggression. This country never had a war, for us it is something terrible because it came from Russia.”

That is a dramatic turnaround from previous decades. “Before, the enemy was America, and we allowed Russian propaganda to work here, but now things have fallen into place,” says Ms. Syumar. “America is our biggest hope; Russia is our biggest enemy.”

'Upside down'

“I was pro-Russia, but I changed in one day,” says one young native of Donetsk who asked not to be named. She studied in Moscow and describes a natural, brotherly feeling that prevailed for decades between eastern Ukrainians and Russia.

But two events in Donetsk changed her mind, because of how they were misrepresented on Russian television. In one case, she was in Moscow and shocked to see Russian state TV report that all residents of Donetsk marched on the streets with Russian flags, supporting Russian intervention to “protect” them. She knew it was not true.

And in mid-March in Donetsk she witnessed pro-Russian activists attack a small protest against Russian interference with knives and clubs, killing one. Russian channels reported the event “upside down,” she says, and claimed that it was a “peaceful” pro-Russian crowd that was attacked.

After that, she says, she “understood that they are manipulating us.” The result shattered her faith in Russia and its narrative, she says. “It’s like someone very close to you – like your husband ­– does something terrible to you.”

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