Ukraine: Schools turned into military outposts and other lies: Odessa becomes the testing ground for Russian propaganda | International
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“According to reliable information, the kyiv regime is preparing an act of refined provocation in Odessa to accuse the Russian Armed Forces of a massacre of the civilian population, including minors. From June 26 to 28, 20 foreign media representatives and Unicef officials prepared with the Odessa Military Administration a simulated attack by the Russian Armed Forces to destroy a civilian target where 30 pro-Russian activists would be gathered to play the role of dead. All the participants of these theatrical scenes were paid 500 dollars (about 490 euros), 100 in advance. We want to warn the international community of this and other lies about ‘Russian crimes’ being prepared by the kyiv regime”.
This message appeared on July 1 on the Telegram channel of the Russian Defense Ministry. Of course, there is no evidence that Ukraine has prepared such an operation on its own soil. It is proven, however, that the notice was published a few hours after two Russian missiles hit a nine-story residential building and a tourist center in Serhiivka, a town on the Black Sea coast, a few kilometers away. from Odessa. More than 20 people far from any front lines were killed in the attack. As if by magic, Russian propaganda seemed to put on the bandage before the wound: first they massacred the civilian population, and then they warned that Ukraine was preparing dark operations to make Vladimir Putin’s army look bad in front of the world.
This is not an isolated message. Every week, Moscow launches poison darts in the form of Telegram messages accusing this Black Sea city of turning its hospitals into military bases, preparing a “provocation” with chemical weapons in the port or transforming a study of cinema in a weapons factory. “Our only military equipment is a car from World War II that we use for filming,” replied the director of the film studio, Andrei Osipov, after the news spread.
Only improvement works
These tactics are well known to Svitlana Fomenko, who has headed School Number 56 in Odessa for more than a decade. The life of this experienced teacher was shocked on June 1. That day, the Russian Ministry of Defense reported that trenches were being dug at her school to turn the center into a military outpost. Fomenko explains that where the Kremlin saw work to fill a warehouse with weapons, it was, in reality, simple improvement works that required lifting part of the road to renew the channeling. “The day the news was published, many parents called me. But none took the children out of school for fear of a Russian attack. We are used to these things. We all know they are a lie, ”she says from her office, presided over by the omnipresent blue-yellow bicolor flag throughout the country.
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In School Number 56, a cannon that commemorated the liberation of the city from Nazi rule in 1944 has been removed from the courtyard. They feared that the Russian enemy could consider it a military element that would justify an attack. For the duration of the war, it will be kept in a museum in the city. “We made a video showing that there were only students and teachers here. And that the canyon was a historical monument. But now, just in case, it is better to keep it as far away as possible”, explains Fomenko, who ends the conversation showing his uncertainty in the face of the Russian strategy: “I don’t understand why they insist on saying things that are not true”.
“There is nothing new in these tactics,” says Ian Garner, an expert on Russian propaganda and author of Stalingrad Lives: Stories of Combat and Survival. “It is the old speech that always appears when the Russians attack a town and accuse the Ukrainians of using women and children as human shields,” he says from Canada through a videoconference.
On the one hand, Garner considers the Kremlin’s strategy “not very smart.” “They are often presented as masters of propaganda, but in reality their practices are not much more sophisticated than those of the Soviet era: launching endless conspiracy theories, controlling the media and suppressing critical voices. Russia has become a state based on lies.” But, on the other hand, it admits a certain effectiveness when it comes to achieving its purposes, both inside and outside its borders. “Among their population they try to get more support for the war and make sure that there will be enough people willing to go to the front. Outside, the important thing is to just create chaos, which is what they’re really good at,” he continues.
Garner says that Moscow does not need a very high percentage of people who believe its fallacies, but a sufficient one. “In Russia they have not been able to convince most of their most extreme ideas, but they have spread a feeling of ‘when the river sounds, water carries’. They are people who perhaps do not agree 100% with the continuous propaganda on television, but who think that the Ukrainians must be somewhat Nazis. And outside of Russia, well, we already see how there are sectors that swallow totally outlandish ideas, such as that the coronavirus does not exist or that Donald Trump really won the 2020 elections ″, she concludes.
As in all wars, propaganda does not work only in one direction. Ukraine also strives to control as much as possible the narrative of what happens on and off the battlefield. Every day the number of Russian victims in the conflict is published with big headlines: there are already 37,200, according to official information. ukrainian digital newspaper Pravda tops its information 24 hours a day with an update on the casualties of the “enemy”, both the number of dead and missing and the losses of military equipment such as planes, helicopters or tanks. On the number of Ukrainian victims, however, a deathly silence is kept.
The martial law promoted by President Volodímir Zelenski as soon as the war began puts the media under tight control. The different television channels have unified their programming in a 24-hour informative marathon in which the version that appears on the air does not deviate a millimeter from the official one.
The mayor of Odessa, Genadii Trujánov, explains the reasons for the Russian obsession with his city: “Getting Odessa would be Putin’s dream. But since they have not succeeded, they are dedicated to launching long-distance missiles. That frustration leads them to always include us in the supposed reports of their Ministry of Attack [nombre que muchos ucranios usan para hablar del Ministerio de Defensa ruso]. The objective is to sow hatred towards the Ukrainians and justify their attacks”, he answers in writing to questions from EL PAÍS.
Garner explains that, in the eyes of Putin, Odessa is that mythical city founded by Catherine the Great in 1794 that would serve to confirm the power of the Russian Empire. “But it is a purely nostalgic view. It leaves aside its history as a city of exchange of cultures, with an important Jewish and Ukrainian footprint”, he explains.
“The rhetoric of the Kremlin is changing. Before, they justified this war with support for the Russian-speaking population of the Donbas region, then with the prevention of an attack on Russia and the expansion of NATO. And today it is a fight against the alleged Ukrainian Nazism. But here in Odessa more than 100 nationalities coexist. We have never had conflicts for linguistic or ethnic reasons. We have never put one nation above the other”, concludes Mayor Trujánov.
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