The Kremlin propaganda outlet RT is often a bizarre fun-house mirror turned on what's going on in the real world. The website and channel doesn't so much put a pro-Kremlin spin on world events as run its stories through 100 industrial-grade centrifuges.
For instance, as Tripoli was falling to rebels in Libya in 2011, RT was carrying reports from the capital saying that all other stations were lying, that rebels were not at the gates, and that the shooting viewers heard in the background was merely celebratory gunfire from Qaddafi loyalists delighted at winning a great victory over their opponents. As RT says of itself: "We are set to show you how any story can be another story altogether."
Though the station is frequently cartoonish, it is nonetheless a reflection of how the Kremlin sees the world and/or wishes it to be. Which makes paying it some attention at times like the crisis over Ukraine useful.
Take, for example, the mysterious soldiers, uniformed but without insignia, who took up positions today at the airports of Crimean cities Sevastopol and Simferopol. While it now seems clear that the soldiers are Russian (The Interpreter is running a very useful live blog on unfolding events in the Crimea and elsewhere), that's not what you'll learn from RT. The site's current top headline on events there says "'No takeover' at Crimean capital's airport, 'self-defense' squads on patrol nearby."
The self-defense squads that raided Simferopol International Airport during the night have left the airport terminal, but are still patrolling the grounds outside. Airport security says the squads are helping to ensure safety.
Crimeans began protesting after the new self-proclaimed government in Kiev introduced a law abolishing the use of other languages in official circumstances in Ukraine. More than half the Crimean population are Russian and use only this language for their communication. The residents have announced they are going to hold a referendum to determine the fate of the Ukrainian autonomous region.
This kind of framing of regular troops, stripped of their insignia, as "self-defense" squads is potentially part of a plan to cast what's happening in Ukraine as a civil war, in which Russia must intervene to protect embattled Russian speakers. So-called "false flag" operations have been used by militaries for centuries, and the rhetoric out of Moscow is similar to 2008, when Russian troops fought Georgian soldiers in the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia on the premise that the Russian troops were defending Russian citizens. The US and NATO huffed and puffed at the time, but Russia had its way in the matter.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia are now autonomous of Georgia and recognized as independent by only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and Tuvalu. This, of course, leads RT to refer to the breakaway Georgian regions' independence as "internationally recognized."
And while it's true that the Ukrainian parliament did overturn a 2012 law that allowed for the use of minority languages like Russian as second official languages in some regions, RT appears interested in drumming up a maximum Russian-nationalist response.
Aside from RT, most news outlets aren't buying the "definitely not Russian soldiers" line. The BBC reports the airport is still occupied, and points to indications that the men are Russian soldiers. Reuters reports that Russia has flown military helicopters into Ukrainian airspace and that Russian servicemen blockaded a Ukrainian border guard unit in Sevastopol. Many outlets, like USA Today, have been more cautious, but still say that the airport has been taken over by men who "might" be Russian soldiers.
Meanwhile, over at RT, another top story on Ukraine says: "US, NATO, EU lecture Russia with 'provocative statements' on Ukraine."
Moscow has urged NATO to refrain from provocative statements on Ukraine and respect its non-bloc status after a chorus of Western politicians said Russia should be “transparent” about its military drills and avoid any steps that could be “misunderstood.”
“When NATO starts giving a consideration the situation in Ukraine, it sends out the wrong signal,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement published on its website on Thursday.
While the US and others may be making "provocative" statements on Ukraine, Russia is the only foreign power whose military is involved. Russia relies on a Crimean base for its Black Sea Fleet, and would view cancellation of a current 35-year lease agreement as a strategic defeat. And Russia has a recent track record of intervening militarily in countries it considers within its sphere of influence.
RT's coverage of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's press conference this morning is also worth noting. Though it carried most of the press conference live with simultaneous translation into English, it cut away for studio analysis while Yanukovych was saying "I am very much against invasion in Ukraine. It's a sovereign country."
During their break, RT turned to Dmitry Babich from the Russian government broadcaster Voice of Russia for analysis. He said that Yanukovych's "greatest mistake was not relying on his real supporters and his real electorate in the east of Ukraine and ... not trusting Russia.... He trusted the foreign ministers of Germany and Poland and the EU countries and they betrayed him."
While I'm no Ukraine expert, it seems fairly clear that the large numbers of people who took to the streets of Kiev were Yanukovich's principal problem. And while the issue of closer ties to the EU rather than Russia has divided much of the country, Ukraine's rampant corruption and dysfunctional economy were key to weakening the president's rule.
Meanwhile, as Russia's military engages in combat readiness drills near the Ukrainian border and seems highly likely to already have combat troops on the ground in the Crimean peninsula, RT has another piece on its front page: "Art of drills: 10 NATO war games that almost started armed conflicts."
The Kremlin, via RT, is sending both warnings and signalling its intentions.