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Russia and Ukraine Step Up Their Media War Over Crimea Crisis

News Brief

Two days after Russian ships rammed Ukrainian navy boats off the coast of the Crimean peninsula, Russian television has shown several Ukrainian sailors captured during the incident giving “confessions” that appeared to have been made under duress.

The Ukrainian servicemen appeared to be reading a prepared script as they said they had ignored Russian orders, before their vessels were boarded in the Kerch Strait, which divides the Russian-annexed peninsula from the mainland.

Several Western nations have condemned Russia’s use of force four years since it took Crimea from Ukraine — though President Donald Trump appeared to play down the incident when asked about it on Monday.

In their initial coverage of Sunday’s confrontation, pro-Kremlin media appeared to be conflicted in how to report it, and whether to denounce the incident as a Ukrainian “provocation,” or praise Russia’s decision to attack.

The host of a talk show on state news channel Rossiya 24 called the incident a Ukrainian “warlike provocation.”

Later in the program, a Russian reporter at the scene was brought into the discussion, pointing at a harbor behind him: “Here stand seven of our ships. Imagine how many more are at sea.” The studio audience clapped.

On government-aligned NTV, the talk show “Meeting Place” devoted over an hour to the Ukraine incident. Its host portrayed Russia as a responsible steward of the Kerch Strait, while Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was accused of violating Russian waters to score domestic points.

In English, RT echoed this accusation and suggested that the entire standoff “could have been a planned provocation — a domestic ploy aimed at swinging a potentially unwinnable election.”

That’s a claim some in Ukraine and elsewhere have been making, as Poroshenko is set to stand for re-election next year. Some fear that the incident and subsequent martial law could become an excuse to delay the vote.

On Sunday, the head of Russia’s state media agency, Dmitry Kiselyov, gave a sense that the Kremlin may be thinking along those lines too, warning that “it’s unwise to sink the trespassers, since that’s clearly exactly what they want.” But, he added, Russians had to “pray that the rusty old barges of the Ukrainian Navy don’t sink themselves, as they’ll pin that on Russia in any case.”

The Ukrainian government, in turn, appears to be trying to present an image of battle-readiness.

After the country declared martial law, the minister of infrastructure and his deputy appeared at a meeting both dressed in military uniform.