Thursday

21st Mar 2019

Russian propaganda prompts alarm in Ukraine and France

Russian propaganda activity has raised alarm of further escalation in Ukraine, amid separate concern on Moscow's role in recent French rioting.

The Russian foreign ministry has, for the best part of a month, promulgated the idea that Ukraine was planning to use chemical weapons against fighters in Russia-occupied east Ukraine.

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  • Ukraine's orthodox priests sided with protesters in the country's pro-Western revolution in 2014 (Photo: Jordi Bernabeu)

Its ambassador to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Alexander Lukashevic, said in November that "information has emerged about preparation of a provocation by [Ukraine] ... with the use of chemical weapons and the involvement of foreign special services".

Its foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, spoke of it in recent days.

The "official rhetoric" on it also "snowballed" in Russian state media this month, a Ukrainian intelligence contact told EUobserver.

The concern is that Moscow might stage a false-flag chemical attack in east Ukraine as a pretext for armed intervention to protect Russian speakers there, the source added.

"The Kremlin followed the same pattern in Syria: The attack was preceded by allegations and 'warnings' by Kremlin authorities and Kremlin-related media," the contact said.

The source was referring to chemical weapons attacks by Russia's ally, the Syrian regime, and Russia's systematic "warnings" that Western powers were planning false-flag chemical incidents there.

Ukraine's concern comes after Russia seized three Ukrainian naval vessels and 23 sailors in the Azov Sea last month.

The clash saw the first-ever shots fired by Russia's official armed forces against Ukrainian ones since the conflict began in 2014.

The concern also comes ahead of sensitive developments in Kiev.

These include elections next March, in which Kremlin-backed candidates are unlikely to be able to stop the country's Western alignment.

They also include a Ukrainian Orthodox Church council on Saturday, which is set to cement the church's split from the Russian one.

EU sanctions

For its part, the EU blacklisted nine people on Monday who recently organised "illegal" elections in Russia-occupied east Ukraine.

It also urged Russia to free the Ukrainian sailors and to end its economic blockade on Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea region.

But EU foreign ministers did not impose extra sanctions on Russia over its Azov Sea aggression despite calls by some.

"Sanctions relating to this topic must be on the table," when EU leaders hold a summit on Thursday, Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevicius said.

Further "personal sanctions" as well as "sanctions against Russian port facilities" in the Azov Sea region should be an option if Russia does not back down, Ukrainian foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, who was invited to Monday's EU talks, added.

Russian propaganda was also a factor leading up to the Azov Sea incident, the EU's security commissioner, Julian King, said in a separate conference in Brussels the same day, echoing Kiev's concern on chemical scare stories.

"If you thought that incident came out of nowhere, you would be wrong," King said.

Russian media had reported there would be "West-inspired provocations" there, that Ukraine was dredging the seabed to welcome Nato warships, and that it planned to "infect the sea with cholera", he noted.

The "conspiracy theories were ratcheted up a notch" prior to the naval clash, King added.

"Russian media reported that British and Ukrainian secret services had been trying to transport a nuclear bomb to the newly built bridge to [Russia-] occupied Crimea in order to blow it up, but had been bravely prevented from doing so by special forces sent by Moscow", the EU commissioner said.

French riots

The alarm on Ukraine comes after France said on Sunday it would look into alleged Russian involvement in stirring up the so-called "yellow vest" riots in Paris and other French cities in recent weeks.

"An investigation is now underway," French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French radio, amid reports that Russian state media and social media tried to foment the unrest.

"We have not interfered and will not interfere in the internal affairs of any countries, including France," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday.

There is a wealth of evidence that Russia did interfere in European and US elections and referendums over the past two years, despite his denial.

The Kremlin is also trying to sabotage EU and Nato enlargement in the Western Balkans.

Montenegro's yellow vests

"It just doesn't stop," Bojan Sarkic, Montenegro's envoy to the EU, said on Monday.

He spoke after a cyber attack shut down his government's email accounts last week.

The ambassador also spoke after hundreds of protesters, who wore yellow vests in imitation of the French movement, held a rally in Podgorice on Sunday, calling for the release of two pro-Russian MPs.

One of the MPs, Nebojsa Medojevic, was jailed for corruption, while the other, Andrija Mandic, has been charged with collusion in a Russian plot, in 2016, to stage a violent coup in Montenegro to stop it from joining Nato, with further pro-Russian "yellow vest" protests expected in the city on Wednesday.

EU warns tech giants on Russian fake news

Social media platforms are told to tackle fake accounts and the spread of fake news more effectively before the European elections next May - or face regulation.

Putin tests new missile to frighten Europe

Russia has tested a "hypersonic" missile capable of a nuclear strike anywhere in Europe, in what Russian president Vladimir Putin called "a great New Year's present for the country".

EU steps up pressure on Russia over Ukraine

Europe has stepped up pressure on Russia to free Ukrainian sailors, amid concern of a potential flare-up in Russian violence, ahead of elections in March.

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