* Decree honouring loyal media initially kept secret
* Russian media deny propaganda campaign
* Russians, Ukrainians struggle to know what's happening
* Media fight between Moscow and Kiev is mis-matched
By Timothy Heritage and Elizabeth Piper
MOSCOW/KIEV, May 5 Four weeks after Russia
annexed Crimea to great fanfare, President Vladimir Putin
quietly signed a decree honouring more than 300 journalists for
their "objective coverage" of the region's seizure from Ukraine.
The awards made under decree 279 to television, radio and
newspapers loyal to Putin underline the importance of media in
stirring patriotic sentiment over Ukraine. However, the decree's
initial secrecy suggests Putin wishes to distance himself from
the powerful Kremlin policy tool of the media onslaught.
In the official gazette, there was a gap between decrees 278
and 280. Decree 279 remained unexplained until a Russian
newspaper reported its contents on Monday, a fortnight after the
event, offering a glimpse into how sensitive the use of
propaganda has become in the East-West standoff over Ukraine.
A Kremlin source, confirming that Putin signed the decree
making the awards on April 22, said only: "It was for internal
use, not for public use."
To an outside observer, the propaganda war seems to have
reached such a scale that it is all but impossible for Russians
or Ukrainians to discover what is really going on from their
Many events are seen through a mist of disinformation or
just confusion, a situation that suits Putin in what his critics
believe is his attempt to undermine the Ukrainian authorities by
portraying them as unable to control the country.
The veracity of events is increasingly hard to check. When
Russian media reported heavy fighting in the town of Kramatorsk
this weekend, Reuters journalists on the scene shortly
afterwards found a sleepy town with no evidence of clashes.
Russian media deny they are part of a propaganda campaign
and accuse Western journalists of bias, a charge that has found
fertile ground in eastern Ukraine where some reporters have
already been taken hostage or beaten.
The Facebook page of Pavel Gubarev, a detained pro-Russian
protest leader, has described journalists as "catalysts of
intolerance, hatred and violence".
"After lies follows pain," warned the page.
As on other fronts, the media fight between Moscow and Kiev
Russia's well-organised and well-financed state media have
portrayed events in a style reminiscent of the Soviet era,
peppering their reports with the message that Ukrainians, as
during World War Two, may be cooperating with fascists.
By contrast, Ukraine's fragmented media lack the single
mindedness to answer the charges, remaining poorly financed and
usually controlled by business tycoons who have been reluctant
to offend business partners in Russia.
Now largely switched off in the separatist-held regions in
its east, Ukrainian television has so far failed to make the
case for Kiev's new pro-Western leaders that pro-Russian rebels
are in the pay of the Kremlin.
That has been left to the Internet, where a war of words is
raging as Ukraine prepares for three events: a May 25
presidential election, a May 11 referendum on independence in
the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and Friday's
anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two.
All are possible flashpoints in a crisis where Russia could
use clashes to justify an invasion of eastern Ukraine - which
Putin has reserved the right to stage if he believes compatriots
and Russian speakers need his protection.
Several Russian newspapers used the same photo on Monday on
their front page. This showed a man with flames licking up his
sleeve as he throws a Molotov Cocktail into the burning trade
union building in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, where dozens of
pro-Russian separatists died after street fighting.
Blaming Friday's trouble on far-right Ukrainian groups, the
popular Komsomolskaya Pravda ran a banner headline declaring:
Some Russian media likened the blaze to a World War Two Nazi
massacre when all the residents of a Belarussian village were
Ukraine's acting president, Oleksander Turchinov, tried to
win back the initiative at the weekend, using his strongest
language yet to condemn Russia for "waging war against our
country", but lacking support his words failed to catch on.
Other allegations by officials that only drunks and drug
addicts follow the pro-Russians have also fallen flat, leaving
it to Ukraine's bloggers to vent the widespread frustration with
not only the pro-Russians but with their new leaders as well.
"At the time of war, everyone lies," said a post on the
"Odessa on fire" website, trying to defuse bitter debate over
who was responsible for the more than 40 deaths on Friday. Such
comment shows the depth of emotion as a struggle for influence
in Ukraine threatens to tip the country into civil war.
But while much of the Ukrainian blogosphere undermines their
leaders, Russian media coverage is helping to boost support for
Putin, whose ratings last week hit 82 percent - the highest
"Putin played a brilliant hand," said one post on a site
called "For Putin - For a Great Russia", celebrating his moves
to protect the economy from Western sanctions over Ukraine.
"Putin has fooled the European Union and America and wasn't
it great? Before the eyes of the whole world, he played them
like a violin."
(Additional reporting by Alexei Anishchuk; editing by David