The emails from Russia were pretty straightforward: The government in Kiev was to be referred to as fascist and compared to puppet dictatorships whenever possible. News reports were to mention as often as possible that the puppet master was the United States.
For good measure, the Russian advisers even insisted that media handlers in the so-called “People’s Republic of Donetsk” provide a daily count of how many stories featured the phrase “It’s worse in Ukraine.”
The leaked emails, which were acquired and are being reported on by the German magazine Die Zeit and Germany’s public television broadcaster, ZDF, provide hard evidence of how closely involved Russia is in the separatist movement at the heart of Ukraine’s so-called civil war, which has taken almost 10,000 lives since 2014. That runs counter to the narrative promoted by Russian President Vladmir Putin and other Russian officials.
The emails, sent to the Donetsk and Luhansk information ministries – the two oblasts, or provinces, and main cities in the Ukrainian region known as Donbas – include instructions to the separatists to insist in local news reports and statements to foreign reporters that Ukraine downed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in March 2014, killing 298 people. A report this week by an international team of prosecutors said the missile that struck the aircraft was a Russian BUK that had been brought into Ukraine from Russia in the hours before it was fired and that its launcher had returned to Russia afterward. Russia said the report was “politically motivated.”
The emails make clear that the instructions on how to handle the Malaysia Airlines tragedy were far from an isolated attempt by Russia to direct how the separatists dealt with the news. Die Zeit said one of the emails even mentioned four Russian advisers by name, describing them as “technologists and media officers.”
Half an hour later, a second email came through, asking the recipient to “please delete our last names.”
Die Zeit, regarded as one of Germany’s most authoritative news outlets, reported it had been able to identify two of the advisers: Aleksander Pashin, a provincial propaganda worker from Murmansk, a city and oblast in the far north of Russia near Finland, and Andrey Godnev, a political adviser from Nizhni Novgorod, an oblast about 250 miles east of Moscow. Die Zeit, however, was unable to determine the current jobs of the other two advisers named, Andrey Tolmachyev and Yevgeny Morus.
Beyond these four, the emails frequently included the abbreviation AP, a well-known shorthand in Russia for presidential administration.
One of the emails included an attachment of a Luhansk information ministry manual on how to control and manipulate the media. The manual, titled “Strategy of internal information policy in the Luhansk People’s Republic,” listed its publication address as “Luhansk/Moscow.”
In it, the separatists were told how to control the reporting of television and radio stations and of newspapers. The government in Kiev consistently was to be called “fascist.”
Feature stories were to express the gratitude of Donetsk residents in simple terms. A grandmother should be seen knitting socks for Putin. Schoolchildren should be said to be drawing pictures of the Russian leader. Artists should be planning statues in his honor.
News stories were to more directly serve the Russian narrative. “Experts analyze the situation in Ukraine, rate the Poroshenko regime, draw parallels to well-known right-wing radical regimes, including fascist and puppet dictatorships, and note that they are all controlled by the United States,” the manual said. Poroshenko is Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
A list of accepted experts to contact and quote was provided. They included Russian nationalist politicians, including some former Putin aides. There was also a list of accepted, and rejected, international news outlets. Good media were marked in green. Bad media were marked in red. The Associated Press and Reuters, for instance, were marked in red.
An email on Jan. 25, 2015, to the information minister of the Donetsk Republic gave instructions that “by 6 pm every day submit your top five news stories. Give an account on how many items contain the term ‘It’s worse in the Ukraine.’ ”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews