MOSCOW: Russia launched an all-out propaganda campaign Sunday to whip up support for possible military action in Ukraine, as state media and ruling party officials claimed armed marauders were terrorizing the ex-Soviet nation.
Kremlin-controlled media aired footage aimed at discrediting the new Kiev authorities and rousing anger at alleged outrages perpetrated against the Russian-speaking population.
In a surprise move, Russian television even announced it was cancelling live footage of the Oscars show to concentrate on Ukraine coverage.
“Our propaganda on state channels is really running wild,” commented former economy minister Andrei Nechayev on Twitter.
Fanning suspicions of international involvement in the Kiev protests, news channel Russia 24 aired an apparent confession from a young Russian who claimed he was paid to serve as a sniper with opposition forces.
“There are mercenaries there… they come from very different countries: the United States and Germany, they come wearing identical military uniforms,” he alleged.
He said he feared violent reprisals for his revelations, alleging that the protest leaders in Kiev would “just put people in a cellar and kill them.”
Named only as Vladislav, he was filmed being grilled by investigators after being caught in the Bryansk region bordering Ukraine.
A Russia 24 anchor added a warning that “mercenaries are now going to Crimea. Their aims are clear enough: to provoke a new wave of the crisis and rob people on the sly.”
The same channel interviewed the governor of the Belgorod region bordering Ukraine, Yevgeny Savchenko, who warned that “crowds of armed people” were on the move and on Saturday tried to block a highway to Crimea.
The unspecific but threatening reports seemed principally aimed at stirring fears.
In an embarrassing blooper on Sunday, Channel One illustrated a story on thousands of Ukrainians seeking shelter in Russia – as Russian officials have claimed – with footage of cars queuing to cross into Poland.
The Channel One news item clearly shows the name of the border post as Shehyni on Ukraine’s western border with Poland, as the news reader says that “more and more Ukrainians are arriving in southern regions of Russia.”
– Oscars off –
In a last-minute change, Channel One state television cancelled planned live coverage of the Oscars red carpet set to air in the early hours of Monday Moscow time.
It said on its website this was “due to the large amount of news concerning the situation in the autonomous republic of Crimea and Ukraine.”
The awards ceremony will now be shown early Tuesday, the channel said. Oscar coverage was timed to run from 4:00am to 9:00am local time on Monday.
A journalist who had been hired to comment on the winners and losers, Yury Gladilshchikov, wrote on Facebook that staff at the channel told him “for the morning programming they are inviting politicians.”
Top Russian lawmakers on Sunday reassured the public, stressing a mood of national unity backing Putin.
“The situation in Ukraine brings together all Russian civil society,” said lawmaker Leonid Slutsky of the ruling United Russia party, who heads the lower house’s committee on links with ex-Soviet states.
“Everyone is unambiguously in support of protecting our people in Ukraine, so as not to allow the Russian language and Russians to be pushed out of Ukraine,” he said, cited by RIA Novosti news agency.
He said that the crisis acted to “strengthen even further the authority of the Russian president, who is taking a courageous and timely decision.”
United Russia organized a march backing military intervention in central Moscow on Sunday, calling Ukraine’s people a “brother” nation that “needs our protection and support.”
Police said the march gathered around 20,000 people, who were shown on television waving Russian and nationalist flags.