On the front lines of the propaganda war in Ukraine: Nastya Stanko

A woman reports on Russian state television that she was an eye-witness to the crucifixion of a 3 year-old boy by Ukrainian troops in a public square in Slovyansk for crimes committed by his mother.

Some months later, a bus filled with citizens is shelled by a missile and 13 people are killed. A woman survivor reports on Russian television that the bomb was fired by Ukrainian troops.

As Nastya Stanko and her colleagues from Hromadske.tv reported, the eyewitness in both of these cases had more in common than simply fabricating lies. The eyewitness was in fact the same woman — an actress from a community theater in eastern Russia. Over the past several months, this woman has also impersonated the mother of a solider from Kiev, a refugee from Slovyansk and a citizen from Donetsk.

It is an overcast February day in Kiev and I am sitting with Nastya in a small studio at Hromadske.tv as she tells me this story from the front lines of the sustained Russian propaganda war raging against Ukraine, a war that many believe is just as critical as the one fought with bullets and bombs. Outside the window, the golden onion domes of the ancient monastery of Lavra, one of the most sacred places for the Russian orthodox faith, looms. I gaze down at it, remembering my visit the day before, the cathedral filled with sublime chanting and thousands of beeswax tapers burning with the prayers of the faithful.

Gold domes of buildings
Credit: Lavra Monestery by anaroza/CC

Nastya, whose open and sunny disposition is reflected by the bright red sweater she is wearing, shrugs. As a founding member of Hromadske.tv, one of a handful of independent news organizations in Ukraine, stories like this are part of the fabric of her daily work.

“One of the hardest things is that not only do people in Russia believe these stories, people in Ukraine believe them as well,” Nastya explained. “People from Debaltsve told us that the army from NATO, the Polish army and US army were all in Debaltsve. These people believed that if they were evacuated, they would be killed. So they wouldn’t come out of their basements.” Debaltsve, a critical railway junction, remains a highly contested area in eastern Ukraine, even after the inking of the ceasefire.

The drumbeat of misinformation has a brutal impact on those in the conflict zone. As Nastya and other journalists in the region have reported, conditions in the eastern Donbas are bad and getting worse. People are holed up in basements without food, water, electricity or any connection to the outside world. Even if they have heard about the cease-fire, many don’t trust that it will hold.

A family lives in a tent

Nastya continued, “It is cold. They can’t go buy food because the shops are closed. It is very dangerous to walk even 300 meters. Even so, when you come to try to help them, they believe these crazy things and they don’t want your help.”

It is hard to imagine living in such dire circumstances and fearing help when it arrives. It is also hard to imagine fearing journalists and not feeling safe sharing one’s story. But this is the reality born of a military conflict commingled with a propaganda war. As Nastya’s reporting reveals, and a recent report from Internews makes clear, many people in the conflict zone don’t know who to trust and where to turn for information and help.

“All of the Ukrainian channels report on the army and how hard they are fighting. My objective as a journalist is different. I want to tell the stories of how people on the ground are being impacted by this conflict. We turn on the cameras and let people tell their stories,” Nastya explained.

Reporting from the conflict

It is worth remembering that it was a year ago, in February 2014, that Ukraine rose up in revolt against the pro-Russian oligarch, Victor Yanukovych, and he fled the country, leaving behind a scaffolding of corruption that is slowly being dismantled by fledgling reforms. It was only a month later, in March of 2014, that hostilities broke out in eastern Ukraine between separatist groups fueled by Russian military support and the Ukrainian government. The region soon split into two entities, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic.

In the last year of conflict, more than 80 Ukrainian and international journalists have been detained in one or the other of these self-proclaimed republics. These detentions have been somewhat random and it is often unclear why journalists are detained and why they are let go. Particularly in Luhansk, where there are reportedly up to 14 different factions vying for power, the situation is confusing and complex.

Ukraine army cuts off main road to Sloviansk
Ukraine army cuts off main road to Sloviansk (Credit: Sasha Maksymenko/CC)

On June 30th of last year, Nastya and her cameraman, Illya Bezkorovainy, became two more of the 80. They were detained by security forces while entering the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), after being told they would receive accreditation once inside. They were accused of being spies and locked up in a basement cell for three days. During this time, they were denied food and use of a bathroom for 24 hours. They were continually threatened. At one point, in a bizarre twist that revealed their value as fodder in the propaganda war, Russian media visited them and tried to get them to comment for Russian TV about the Ukrainian forces. They refused.

When they were released, there were 20 Russian media outlets waiting for them. Once again, they refused to comment. Even so, Russian media later claimed that they had come to their rescue and negotiated their release, in a nasty version of good cop, bad cop. They became pawns in the information war despite their best efforts.

Shortly after her release, Nastya reports that one of her stories was rewritten by Russian media. “The Russian federal channel took a report I had done and replaced my narrative with theirs. In their version, they claimed that the Ukrainian army in this particular city killed all the men between the ages of 18 and 55. But it wasn’t true. No one was killed.”

After Nastya and Illya were detained, it became clear that it was no longer safe for them to travel and report from the conflict zone. They are not alone. Only a small handful of Ukrainian reporters are working inside the conflict zone. International press and Russian media have authority to work on both sides, moving freely from Kiev to Luhansk and Donetsk.

Nastya commented, “There are maybe three journalists from Ukraine that can work on both sides. The Russians have greater access. If we could go there, we could make true reports on what is happening with people. We don’t know what is happening in the small towns and villages. We hear that people are suffering, that they don’t have food. But we can’t verify it. We can’t tell the true story.”

Nastya Stanko head shot
Nastya Stenko. Credit:Internews

Throughout our long-ranging conversation, it was this last point that clearly made her angriest. In the same way that Russian-supplied forces in the east have the upper hand over the Ukrainian military, the highly sophisticated propaganda machine that is Russian media has greater access and reach than the Ukrainian journalists.

It is a Monday in Kiev as I conclude my conversation with Nastya. On Thursday, she plans to return to the front and continue her coverage. The last thing I heard was that she was in Debaltsve, covering the fallout from the battle for this critical railroad junction, where bombs continued to fall even in the midst of the cease-fire.

“I love my country and it is very difficult to see what is going on,” she concludes. “One of my best friends was killed in the conflict. How can you continue to work after that? How can you keep going?”

She pauses and shrugs again.

“You just have to.”

Anastasia Stanko is a Ukrainian journalist and television hostess and a member of the “Stop censorship” movement. She reports for Hromadske.tv and Hromadske.tv International, an Internet-based independent news channel in Ukraine and partner of Internews.

This story originally ran in Medium