Photo credit: Istinomer/Zoran Mrđa

Ukrainian ambassador: “Ukrainian crisis” as a phrase is Russian propaganda as if we cannot say war, which is real

When I saw the cover page of the daily “Informer” that said Ukraine attacked Russia, I wanted to take the journalist by the hand and bring him to the Ukraine, where bombs are being dropped, so he could see with his own eyes what was really going on, said the outgoing Ukrainian Ambassador to Serbia, Oleksandr Aleksandrovich.

Oleksandr was counting his last days as the Ambassador on his duty in Belgrade, but the invasion kept him in Serbia. We talked about current events in Ukraine with him, but also how the media in our country are reporting on war, if the citizens of Serbia were receiving the real insight into what was going on in Ukraine and how to fight disinformation we were exposed to from all sides – on social media, from media outlets, but also in officials’ statements.

Information from the field is changing daily, according to your information, what is currently going on in your country? We learn from the media that civilian casualties are quite high.

Russian army believed it would occupy entire Ukraine in a couple of days, but since they failed to do so, they started shooting both military and civilian facilities indiscriminately. About 400 Ukrainian civilians have lost their lives so far, and 1,000 were wounded. There are probably more victims, but many villages and cities are cut off, so we do not have information on what is going on there. We are witnessing Russian aviation bombing residential areas, schools, hospitals, kindergartens and ambulance vehicles every day. Ukraine trapped several Russian pilots, and they testified in front of the cameras that they were given orders to shoot, not discriminating between military and civilian facilities.

We have seen information that many children are among the casualties.

So far, we know that 38 children have been killed, unfortunately, the situation is changing every day, and we fear there are more.

Official Moscow, however, will not admit the civilian casualties.

Since the attack began, Russia will not admit there were civilian casualties, and we know that the same happened in Syria several years ago. The Russian army bombed civilian targets there as well, and the goal was to create the wave of migration that had moved towards Europe. Now, the goal is more or less the same, for more refugees to leave Ukraine, and also to create fear among people.

The United Nations have reported that more than a million and a half Ukrainians have left the country. According to your information, where do people flee the most?

Most refugees went to Poland (about a million people), but also to Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. What is important is that people leave only the countries west of Ukraine. No Ukrainian will go towards Russia.

Has the European Union done enough to help refugees from Ukraine?

There is an EU-level mechanism for taking care of refugees from Ukraine. Many Ukrainian citizens live in the EU countries, particularly in Poland and the Czech Republic, and many families are now together. The governments of the EU countries also assist in taking care of the refugees. I must mention that we have good cooperation with the Serbian government, and we are grateful that Serbia is willing to take in and accommodate potential refugees from Ukraine, although currently, none of them is here. It is essential to say that besides the million and a half people fleeing Ukraine, in the last couple of days, 140,000 Ukrainians living in the EU are back in Ukraine to defend their country.

Photo credit: Istinomer/Zoran Mrđa

Regarding the media in Serbia, do you think our citizens are informed honestly and have an accurate picture of what is currently going on in Ukraine?

Unfortunately, citizens of Serbia are not properly informed. First, most media are reporting on the “situation in Ukraine” and “crisis in Ukraine”. The Russian propaganda narrative is the “Ukrainian crisis” and “situation in and around Ukraine”. As if we cannot say openly and publicly what it is about, it ss the Russian war against Ukraine. The role of the media and the responsibility of journalists is enormous, of course. This is what we witnessed in history too. Let’s recall Nazi Germany. The dominant media at the time was the radio. Owing to the Nazi propaganda, almost the entire German nation believed that Hitler was absolutely entitled to take over Europe. The same thing is happening in Russia now. The only difference between Putin and Hitler is that Putin does not directly address citizens so often. Government media such as Sputnik or Russia Today do that on his behalf.

We will discuss the media in Russia later, but let us go back to what is happening in Serbia. CRTA carried out the analysis demonstrating that for some of the media, those with the largest audience and most considerable readership, the West is the only one to blame for the war, Russia being a victim, not the aggressor. What is your comment on this?

I cannot really vouch that it is one hundred per cent true since I have no evidence, but the journalists from Serbia told me that when they report on the NATO, European Union, some Western countries, even China, they are free to write what they want – report positively, negatively, or stay neutral, so I believe that we get the objective picture, more or less.

However, they said they could write only about Russia in a positive tone, which has been like that for years. Many Serbian media outlets have been creating a colourful and magic-like image of Russia as the “mother Russia” seen as a peace-loving country. As this horror started and people got killed, the citizens were confused and distrustful. They do not understand what is going on and have a hard time believing that Russia is the aggressor.

At the same time, since the beginning of the attack, the national media continue to glorify the military supremacy of Russia, nurturing the cult of President Vladimir Putin as a decisive leader willing to oppose the West. Who holds the crucial responsibility for creating such an image of Russia? Do you think the media continue to breed the pronounced pro-Russian sentiment on their own initiative?

It has probably started with the Russian investment into local media and the economy in general, and I gather it continued naturally. The media and journalists bear the greatest responsibility. Without any intention to judge, this form of reporting creates false images in people’s minds and will cause a massive tragedy sooner or later.

Simultaneously, the same media disseminating the pro-Russian propaganda are also known for being close to the government, i.e. the ruling regime. Do you believe that Serbian officials contribute to creating a truthful image or the opposite with their statements?

I do not know if the media are pro-government or critical of the regime. What is important to me is what they say about Ukraine, the Ukrainian-Russian relationship, and the Russian war against Ukraine. In my opinion, the theory that every journalist should be 100 per cent objective is wrong. It is said that they should give space to both sides, that supposedly truth is somewhere in the middle, but the truth is sometimes left, sometimes right. If we presume that we have a victim and an oppressor, we have the oppressor who is free to explain his feelings to the public. That is horrible.

Did you hear any words of support in the Serbian media from the officials in favour of Ukraine and the citizens of your country?

I have heard President Vučić and other officials saying that Serbia respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and Serbia had voted to support Ukraine in the General Assembly of the United Nations, which is important to me. I gather that for a general opinion in some societies, it is highly important what the government says because all media outlets immediately report President’s words.

Photo credit: Istinomer/Zoran Mrđa

How do you personally feel these days when you skim the press and the media in the morning and see the headlines?

For example, when I saw the cover page of the daily Informer that said Ukraine attacked Russia, I wanted to take the journalist by the hand and bring him to the Ukraine, where bombs were being dropped, so he could see with his own eyes what was really going on.

You have mentioned the media in Moscow. We hear from the reporters that citizens of Russia live in the parallel reality of Russia being the victim of the Western powers. It is even forbidden to use the word war in public, as it is designated exclusively as a military operation.

First, it is the tradition of the former Soviet Union and today’s Russian Federation that many intelligence officers work as journalists under the auspices of different media outlets. Those journalists even have military ranks. So they are not journalists, the fact that they have some journalists’ IDs does not mean they actually do that, as they are there for some other assignment. Second, the Internet in Russia is restricted, many Ukrainian and Western websites are prohibited, and people do not have access to information. Due to this, we now hear some unbelievable news. For example, Russian soldiers who were trapped in Ukraine were given an opportunity to contact their families, and they assured their closest ones that the genocide was happening in Ukraine, the Russian army killing the civilians. Owing to the information that finds its way to the citizens of Russia, we have rebellions in many cities. Also, I have read recently that the hacker group Anonymous has attacked several Russian media channels and posted images of war in Ukraine of the Russian army bombing the civilian targets.

We see that even Russian citizens are rebelling against it, but we are also witnessing the anti-Russian hysteria demonizing the entire Russian people, particularly on social media.

This support and rebellion are critical. I am not accusing the entire nation because that is not fair. I see more and more famous people who are Russian citizens publicly stepping out against the war in Ukraine, condemning Putin for the war. Also, there was a support protest in Serbia for Ukraine, and it included a lot of Russian and Belarusian citizens, not only Serbian and Ukrainian ones. They also clearly declared their support for Ukraine. Every voice counts, coming from Russia’s citizens who are aware of what is going on and condemn the war supporting Ukraine, especially because those people put up with the repression from the same regime in their own country.

How do we reach those who stick by their own “truth” even when confronted with clear and solid evidence of disinformation?

This happens due to many years of propaganda. When you have been listening to lies for years, you start believing in that lie, you cannot remember who was guilty anymore, what came first, chicken or egg. That is why the role of journalists is important. It is not hard to find out what is going on, now, at least we have photos, videos, people on the spot, and testimonials. It is not only important to report the information but also to fact-check that piece of information.
In the web of lies, disinformation and spins, we reached the stage where we do not even
trust “true information”.

How can ordinary citizens find their way through it and know what is true since that is hard even for us, although we are checking the posts on social media and inspecting the media content daily, after being trained about various checking techniques?

There is always a way to reach the truth. Russia is using a perfidious propaganda technique. When they cannot refute something, they start throwing many different versions of truth into the public space, so the people do not understand what is going on anymore. Due to many different versions of the truth, the real truth, which will exist despite everything, is lost. I appeal to journalists and ordinary citizens to be careful when it comes to the reports from Ukraine. If the information is reported only by the Russian media outlets and none of the European or global media outlets, something is probably off. I often say: you can fool one person several times, and you can fool the entire world once, but you cannot fool the whole world more than once.

In disclosing the false content, Istinomer journalists encounter the disinformation coming from both sides, favouring both the Russia and Ukraine narratives. Do you think that such information causes additional harm to your country?

Sometimes an ordinary person can spread false information, but it does not mean he spreads disinformation. For instance, we heard about the news that supposedly, the Chief of the General Staff of the Belorussian army had resigned because he did not want to send the Belorussian army to Ukraine. Many Ukrainians shared that news immediately, but it turned out it was disinformation. Those spreading such lies must apologize and admit they were wrong.