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Vote — or else: Crimea’s propaganda machine fans fear in closing days of Putin’s campaign

Yekaterina Kozyr, head of the Crimean government broadcaster, at her freshly renovated headquarters on March 15, 2018.
Yekaterina Kozyr, head of the Crimean government broadcaster, at her freshly renovated headquarters on March 15, 2018. (Anton Troianovski/The Washington Post)
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SIMFEROPOL, Crimea — On the eve of Russia’s presidential election, government television here has been airing segments showing Crimeans what they would face if not for Russian President Vladimir Putin: rocket fire, grieving women and same-sex weddings.

On a political show, the host warns that the West will use any sign of Russian weakness due to low turnout to carry out plans to exterminate the Russian people.

“Our role is a military one,” says Yekaterina Kozyr, the head of this annexed territory’s fast-expanding government broadcaster. “There is a war going on.”

In 2014, as Putin’s capture of this Black Sea peninsula unfolded, Russian troops wearing uniforms without identifying markings seized the dilapidated Crimean headquarters of the Ukrainian state television broadcaster. Four years later, the building gleams, freshly sheathed in gray metal siding. Inside the new modern studios, a staff more than double the Ukraine-era size is fanning fears of annihilation to boost Putin ahead of Sunday’s vote.

For all the buzz about Kremlin efforts to influence the Internet, control of the television airwaves remains central to Putin’s power. Nowhere is this clearer than in Crimea, where a propaganda machine that Russia spent millions of dollars to build over the past four years is now fully deployed to drum up votes.

Even though Putin is assured of a blowout victory, analysts say, the Kremlin is seeking turnout as a stamp of legitimacy for his fourth six-year presidential term. In Crimea, a place central to Putin’s domestic image as a fearless protector of Russian interests, officials see turnout as especially symbolic. They are determined to see it exceed the turnout in Crimea’s internationally unrecognized referendum to join Russia in 2014, which pro-Russian authorities put at more than 80 percent.

“Crimeans understand that we must contribute no fewer people in the election than we did in the referendum in 2014,” said Grigory Ioffe, chairman of the territory’s Civic Chamber. “Public opinion in the West will be counting this.”

For Crimea’s state media, that means war — war against Western “spies” who they claim would like to use an underwhelming Putin election victory to foment unrest. Kozyr describes her staff, who were trained by state media specialists from Moscow, as “informational special forces.” Dmitry Taran, host of a show called “Information Warfare,” says he is both “an information specialist and a military man.”

“It’s necessary to create maximum turnout,” Taran said in an interview. “Vote for whoever you want but turn out — in order to shut up all the international intelligence services that are sitting and waiting for the 19th,” he said, referring to the day after the election.

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The message on Crimean television is, if anything, darker and more conspiratorial than the regular fare on Russia’s national TV. That may be because daily life in Crimea is harder than in mainland Russia. International sanctions mean that even Russian companies are wary of doing business here, and the lack of a road connection to the rest of Russia leads to higher prices and more-limited goods.

According to Crimea’s new state media, politics in Crimea isn’t about material well-being. It’s about life or death. Kozyr, the Crimean government broadcasting head, said it’s her job to remind the locals of that.

During the pro-Western revolution in Ukraine in 2014, which included radical nationalists, Russian media warned of imminent violence against Russian speakers and Crimea’s more than 2 million residents.

“Sometimes a splash of cold water is good, to remind people of what we avoided,” Kozyr said, “if it hadn’t been for the voluntary decision of Vladimir Putin to save 2.5 million lives.”

After Russia seized Crimea, the state spent more than $4 million at current exchange rates to build up the region’s state broadcaster, and the regional government continues to provide multimillion-dollar annual subsidies.

Kozyr, a former morning show host who refers to past Ukrainian rule in Crimea as an occupation, said she received media-management training in St. Petersburg and advice from Moscow-based media specialists who flew to Crimea. Russian state TV engineers helped in outfitting the studio despite procurement difficulties because of Western sanctions.

“Russian television and the Russian media industry were far ahead of where Crimea was or where Ukraine is now,” Crimean Information Minister Dmitry Polonsky said in an interview.

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In the converted Ukrainian state TV building, storage space that used to hold Soviet-era props now houses a 24-hour Crimean news channel. The new cameras are Japanese, and a coffee table for the morning show includes a built-in heater to keep the hosts’ drinks warm. Two modern Mercedes TV trucks assembled in Moscow have replaced the Ukrainian channel’s rusting Soviet-made van, and a third is on the way. There is now a children’s department, and a family show that emphasizes patriotism and Russian history is in development.

An independent channel catering to the minority Crimean Tatar population has been banished from the peninsula, replaced by a state-funded, pro-Kremlin version called Millet. The independent channel, ATR, now broadcasts from Kiev and has been urging Crimean Tatars still living on the peninsula not to vote in Sunday’s election. Millet, meanwhile, has been airing a political talk show with a visual style very similar to ATR — but with the opposite message.

“While Ukraine kills its own peaceful citizens,” a Millet announcer intoned this week, “the Russian Federation is building innovation cities, innovation centers, spaceports, unique transportation infrastructure, hospitals, schools and kindergartens.”

Ukraine is trying to fight back. Last year it erected a 500-foot television tower at the Crimean border to transmit Ukrainian TV signals into the peninsula and has provided government funding to ATR. ATR head Lenur Islyamov describes his operation as an “informational cannon” shooting at Crimea. But he said the Russian media campaign is succeeding in creating a feeling of permanence around Russian authority in Crimea that seems to make a return to Ukraine impossible.

“The Russia they wanted was different,” Islyamov said of the Crimeans who supported the annexation. “In the end, they got nothing but propaganda.”

With no reliable public-opinion polling on the peninsula, the impact of Russia’s media campaign is hard to quantify. Protests are suppressed by the authorities and kept off the television screen.

“They don’t show what’s really happening in Crimea,” said Sevil Aledinova, who used to work for Ukrainian state television in Crimea and now works in Kiev. “They don’t show how human rights are being squeezed.”

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But when Putin came to Crimea on Wednesday for a campaign stop, the power of Russian state media was on display. Kozyr’s broadcaster deployed both of its new trucks and nine cameras to cover Putin’s rally in the port city of Sevastopol, beaming a live feed by satellite to state TV headquarters in Moscow.

In the crowd of thousands, people repeated the tropes that have long been a staple of Russian nationwide state TV and are now amplified by the operation in Crimea.

The United States wants to destroy Russia, they said. Anything the West sees as Russian aggression is simply Russia defending itself. Life under Russian rule may not be perfect, they said, but if Putin hadn’t saved Crimea from the Ukrainian nationalists in 2014, unimaginable violence would have followed.

“We weren’t the ones who started this information war,” said Polonsky, the Crimean information minister. “We always tell the truth.”

Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report.

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