Vladimir Putin could not have picked a better day than Thursday, April 17, to hold his annual call-in show on Russian television. Two days earlier, Ukraine’s government had sent its military to fight armed Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The result on Wednesday in the region of Donetsk was a series of clashes and confrontations between the military and the local separatists. So on Thursday, when Putin appeared live on TV, he clearly felt he had every excuse to move one step closer toward a Russian intervention.
“The people in the eastern regions have started arming themselves,” Putin said in response to a question about the Ukrainian crisis. “And instead of realizing that something isn’t right in the Ukrainian state and moving toward a dialogue, [the government in Kiev] began threatening more force and even moved in tanks and planes against the peaceful population. This is yet another very serious crime of Ukraine’s current rulers.” He then reminded viewers that the Russian parliament has given him approval to send troops into Ukraine. “I really hope that I’m won’t be forced to use that right,” he says.
But Russia has been warning for months that it would take eastern Ukraine “under its protection” if the local population came under threat of military force. The Kremlin’s television channels have meanwhile been hyping that threat with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Their narrative has been simple: Ukraine’s revolution brought fascists to power in February; those fascists are out to repress the Russian-speaking regions of southern and eastern Ukraine; salvation lies in separatism and, if needed, in Russia’s protection.
In late February, when Russia began its invasion of Crimea on the pretext of protecting its residents from Ukraine’s revolution, that story was an easy sell. The new government in Kiev was only a week old at the time, and most people in Ukraine’s outlying regions had no clear idea of the leaders who would emerge from the revolution. Many people in Crimea bought into the Russian line that nationalist thugs were on their way from Kiev to terrorize the local population.
But in the past few weeks, the Kremlin’s narrative had grown increasingly hard to maintain. The people of eastern Ukraine have had nearly two months to size up their new leaders and compare them to the fascist cabal depicted on Russian TV, and they could see that Russia’s warnings were overblown. “It’s all lies,” says Vera Oleynik, a pensioner in the city of Donetsk who said she stopped watching the news – Russian and Ukrainian – weeks ago. “It’s enough to give you heart trouble,” she says. “I only believe what I see with my own eyes.” And it has been clear enough to the locals that no nationalist thugs have come to cause havoc, while Kiev’s choice for the new governor of the Donetsk region, Serhiy Taruta, turned out last month to be a local tycoon who runs the region’s football club. Even if his constituents do not like him, they know him well enough to tell that he’s no fascist.
For the region’s pro-Russian separatists, that has been a frustrating development. The crowds that have come out to support them in eastern Ukraine have been thin, numbering a few thousand people at most, many of them idle gawkers or truant teenagers. Opinion polls suggest that there is nowhere near a majority of people in these regions would favor breaking away from Ukraine and joining Russia, as the separatists managed to do last month in Crimea.
But in the past two days, the tanks rolling into eastern Ukraine have helped Russia revive its narrative and build its case for an intervention. That effort has involved large doses of deception. In his call-in show, for instance, Putin neglected to mention what exactly these tanks were doing in eastern Ukraine. So far, they have mostly been surrendering to the local gunmen rather than firing a shot. In the village of Pchyolkino, a column of Ukrainian tanks was surrounded for hours on Wednesday by a mix of civilians and uniformed gunmen, and rather than forcing their way through, the soldiers abandoned their tanks and armored vehicles to the crowd.
Though humiliated, those soldiers most likely avoided a bloodbath at the cost of their pride and their careers. (The government in Kiev pledged on Thursday to put them on trial for “cowardice.”) But the separatists in eastern Ukraine still managed to get the gunfight they have been trying to provoke for days. On Wednesday night, a group of gunmen arrived at a military base in the south of the Donetsk region and demanded the Ukrainian soldiers surrender their weapons and “come over to the side of the people.” Though it is not clear who fired the first shot, the ensuing firefight reportedly left a dozen people wounded and as many as three dead before midnight.
The Russian state media jumped on this news immediately. The Kremlin-funded Russia Today network reported that the casualties resulted from a “confrontation between anti-government protesters and soldiers.” Its report neglected to mention that the protesters were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, which they were not shy in firing at the military servicemen. But those details are easily lost in the Kremlin’s broader picture of peaceful civilians being overrun by the Ukrainian army.
Across the Donetsk region, the increasing brazenness of the separatist attacks now seems geared to provoke that kind of violence. On Wednesday morning, for instance, a group of masked gunmen stormed city hall in the region of Donetsk. Calling themselves members of a group called Oplot – in English, Bulwark – the two dozen men walked into the building with shotguns and assault rifles and set up positions at every entrance. One of their leaders, a pudgy man in his fifties who identified himself as Igor, told TIME near the backdoor of the building that they were simply there to make sure that local officials “do their job without interference” from the central government in Kiev. And what if Kiev sends its military to interfere? “I don’t know,” Igor said, lifting his surgical mask to drag on a cigarette. “Maybe Moscow will help us.”