On Ukraine, some Russian claims veer from reality

President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Kremlin-friendly news media have portrayed Ukraine and especially its Crimean Peninsula as beset by hooligans and fascists who threaten the lives of peaceful Russian-speaking residents.

It is a story line intended to justify Russia’s decision to intervene militarily in Crimea. But reporters on the ground in the region have noticed that a lot of it has no basis in reality.

The mood is mostly calm in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, and it has been nearly celebratory in the pro-Russian cities of Crimea, where some residents have sought out newly arriving Russian troops for cellphone selfies. Although images of masked men throwing gasoline bombs remain a staple of Russian television, those pictures date to protests two weeks ago in Kiev’s Independence Square.

Some of the most feverish Russian assertions to date were offered up Tuesday by Putin at a news conference in Moscow. He called attention to what he described as “the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-­Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine’’ and declared that a regional governor had been locked in a cellar and tortured.

Putin appeared to be referring to an encounter three weeks ago in which the governor of Lutsk was doused with water. There was no evidence of torture.

As tensions rise between Russia and Ukraine, what can President Obama do? The Post's Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung weigh in. (Jeff Simon/The Washington Post)

In a similar claim Saturday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced that “unidentified armed people who were sent from Kiev” had tried to storm the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs building in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, in the early morning hours in a “treacherous provocation” that led to casualties.

But pro-Russia militiamen at the scene said the night passed without incident. Igor Aveytskiy, named by the Kiev government to serve as chief of the Crimean branch of the national police, said in an interview in the courtyard where the violent attack was said to have occurred that “all was peaceful.”

On other occasions, Russian officials have warned that Crimea has been invaded by “hooligans,” though it was the arrival of Alexander Zaldostanov, the leader of the Russian motorcycle gang the Night Wolves, that made news when his plane landed in Simferopol. Zaldostanov, a.k.a. “the Surgeon,” is an ally and friend of Putin’s. The two have ridden together.

A member of the club’s local chapter told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper: “If we have to fight, we’ll fight with everything we can get our hands on.”

Russian news agencies also have repeatedly carried reports that Ukrainian refugees are flooding across the frontier into Russia. The news agencies quoted border guards as saying that 675,000 Ukrainians have entered Russia in the past two months and quoted the Federal Migration Service as saying that 143,000 have asked for asylum.

One Russian television channel carried an image of a line of cars at what it called the Russian border, but independent reporters said the photo was taken at a Polish crossing.

Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service reported at the beginning of the week that there had been no increase in traffic on the eastern border with Russia in recent days.

Russian troops occupy Ukrainian bases

As for any uptick in police detentions and roundups, the only protesters arrested in the past week were antiwar demonstrators in Moscow, where more than 300 people were hustled into police vans Sunday.

In his visit to Kiev on Tuesday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said he was determined to “set the record straight’’ as he sought to dismiss a long list of Russian assertions.

“They would have you believe that ethnic Russians and Russian bases are threatened,” Kerry said. “They’d have you believe that Kiev is trying to destabilize Crimea or that Russian actions are legal or legitimate because Crimean leaders invited intervention.”

“Not a single piece of credible evidence supports any one of these claims,” he said. “None.”

Stanislav Belkovsky, a Moscow commentator and fierce Putin critic, said he was both exasperated and pleased by all the contradictory information he was hearing about Ukraine and Russia’s role there. Finally, he said, Putin had gone too far.

“All of us have thought many times how Vladimir Putin will terminate his political career,” Belkovsky said. “Now we are seeing it.”

Lally reported from Moscow.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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