Crimea: War Shrouded by Moscow’s Propaganda Fog

With Ukrainian news sites blocked, disinformation shapes people’s perception of events.

Crimea: War Shrouded by Moscow’s Propaganda Fog

With Ukrainian news sites blocked, disinformation shapes people’s perception of events.

A poster near the memorial site Malakhov Kurgan reads “Thank you to the Russian army and each soldier – Z, for Russia”.
A poster near the memorial site Malakhov Kurgan reads “Thank you to the Russian army and each soldier – Z, for Russia”. © IWPR
A large banner with the symbol "Z" hangs over the building of the Russian government in the centre of Sevastopol, Crimea’s largest city. The “Z” has been become a symbol of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and it is found all across the peninsula, painted on vehicles, displayed on banners or printed on clothing items.
A large banner with the symbol "Z" hangs over the building of the Russian government in the centre of Sevastopol, Crimea’s largest city. The “Z” has been become a symbol of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and it is found all across the peninsula, painted on vehicles, displayed on banners or printed on clothing items. © IWPR
In Sevastopol’s Nakhimov Square, an exhibition titled “Russian Spring” marks the 8th anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
In Sevastopol’s Nakhimov Square, an exhibition titled “Russian Spring” marks the 8th anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. © IWPR
Russia’s military symbols of the invasion of Ukraine – the “V” and the “Z” hang over Pobeda cinema hall.
Russia’s military symbols of the invasion of Ukraine – the “V” and the “Z” hang over Pobeda cinema hall. © IWPR
A police car with a "Z" sticker in front of Sevastopol’s main post office on Bolshaya Morskaya Street.
A police car with a "Z" sticker in front of Sevastopol’s main post office on Bolshaya Morskaya Street. © IWPR
In a local supermarket a note specifies how many items of essential staples like flour, sugar, and cooking oil can be purchased by each customer. Sanctions on Russia have pushed groceries’ prices up and supermarkets have started rationing basic food items.
In a local supermarket a note specifies how many items of essential staples like flour, sugar, and cooking oil can be purchased by each customer. Sanctions on Russia have pushed groceries’ prices up and supermarkets have started rationing basic food items. © IWPR
An elderly man busks with his accordion on Primorsky Boulevard.
An elderly man busks with his accordion on Primorsky Boulevard. © IWPR
T-shirts and caps with military symbols of Russia’s war to Ukraine are available in most souvenir shops.
T-shirts and caps with military symbols of Russia’s war to Ukraine are available in most souvenir shops. © IWPR
Children's military uniforms on sale in a souvenir shop.
Children's military uniforms on sale in a souvenir shop. © IWPR
Monday, 16 May, 2022

In Sevastopol, we woke up around 5am on February 24 as loud noises broke the silent dawn and dozens of military fighters and attack aircraft roared through the sky.

We turned the TV on to learn that Russian President Vladimir Putin had launched a “special operation” against Ukraine, to help the “republics” in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas, our “brothers” in Donetsk and Luhansk.

I knew by this that he meant war.

Since then, the Russian military presence across the peninsula has been stepped up. Sevastopol is now home to dozens of units: a marine brigade in the Cossack Bay, air defence and military aviation at the Belbek airfield, support for the Black Sea Fleet and many more. Soldiers are nowhere to be seen in the streets, though, as they are either serving in the so-called operation or segregated in barracks or on ships.

In the first week of the war, most of Sevastopol’s residents supported the Kremlin’s invasion and looked at this venture with great optimism, believing in Russia’s strength. They had full confidence in Putin’s decisions and no doubts about the veracity of his narrative.

This was fuelled by Crimea’s information blockade, which shrouds residents’ knowledge of what is happening in mainland Ukraine. The popular social networks are banned, opinions and views other than the Kremlin’s are largely inaccessible. Russian internet providers block almost all Ukrainian sites. VPN services are popular, but limited to tech-savvy people.

Those who maintained family ties with mainland Ukraine are depressed and increasingly desperate.

"As scepticism rises, so does anxiety."

On the surface, Sevastopol is its usual, Russia-occupied self, but signs of fear are evident. Queues at bank machines are longer than usual, although people are no longer rushing to ATMs to withdraw cash as they did at the start of the “operation”.

Queues also appeared in shops: people bought up non-perishable items from canned food to sugar, salt and hygiene products. Fearing shortages, city authorities are rationing how much each buyer can buy and supermarkets began putting up signs to limit the number of purchases. We have also begun to feel the pinch of sanctions: inflation has risen and our salaries can buy less.

Vegetables and fruits are 15-25 per cent more expensive, while cereals, sugar, milk and bread have hiked by 20 per cent. Meat, with prices higher by 30-35 per cent, has become a luxury. The prices of imported products rose even more dramatically: tea by up to 90 per cent, coffee has become twice as expensive. Tech goods also doubled, when they are available at all. Many devices have simply disappeared from the shelves due to sanctions.

As for medical supplies, the situation is critical. Many treatments are simply not available and when you can find imported medications, they come with a price tag about double that they cost in January.

Construction materials more than doubled, but again are barely available. Warehouses are running out of supplies as imported materials cannot be replaced and Russia-made goods arrive only intermittently.

Foreign currencies have vanished - in early March, Russia’s central bank barred their sale - and suppliers do not want to work with roubles.

Dollars and euros became rare commodities, and despite lifting the restrictions on April 18, banks can now only sell currency that they buy back from citizens.

The exchange rate is all over the place, about two times lower than the real one. In Istanbul, Russians reportedly have to pay about 150-160 roubles for one US dollar. In Crimea, the Russian National Commercial Bank (RNKB), the peninsula’s largest network, buys one dollar at 75 roubles and sells it at 85 roubles.

Alongside our deterioration in living standards, Russian propaganda was in full swing by early March. Photos of Russian servicemen appeared on billboards across the city, hailing their service and path to victory.

Stickers with the letter Z were pasted on all official cars, be they of the civilian administration or law enforcement. The few citizens who did not paint their vehicles with the symbol displayed it on their car windows.

Trucks painted with the letter Z, the symbol of Russia’s declared target to de-nazify Ukraine, were everywhere and the authorities started placing it on non-military objects too.

The largest banner now adorns the city council, a placard about 20-metres high at the top of the building.

The mood started changing in late March as news of fierce battles slowly managed to filter through the net and the number of wounded and dead soldiers brought to the city increased.

Pro-Kyiv Ukrainians in the peninsula began expressing their anger, even though in early March Russia’s parliament amended the law to allow those who call the "special operation" a war or "distort the role and goals of the special operation" to be prosecuted.

Police have opened criminal cases against two young people who slashed the tyres of cars with the Z symbol, another man who cut down a Z banner, and a woman who painted anti-war signs on park benches. It is unclear what measures the police will take against them but in similar cases in Simferopol, the citizens were fined and forced to apologize on camera.

As scepticism rises, so does anxiety. Talks of the “special operation” have become whispers, and only with relatives and close friends as people increasingly fearing Russian’s secret service surveillance.

Soldiers’ families seem increasingly disturbed. Officials said that 25 servicemen have been buried in the city since February 24, but people, used to the authority’s and military’s manipulation of figures know that the real number is much higher. An acquaintance, a doctor working in a military hospital, told me that scores of wounded are brought in almost every day.

The sinking of the Moskva battleship in mid-April came as a wake-up call to many. For those of us who had been trying to read through Moscow’s propaganda, breaking the information blockade to understand what Kremlin’s “special operation” in Ukraine really was, it was just a confirmation that this was a fully-fledged war.

Russia’s flagship was a symbol of the Russian army’s might. It was irremediably wounded, like its pride, and sank. Now we wait to see what comes next.

The author is a Sevastopol resident who asked to remain anonymous. 

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