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TASS, a prominent wire service in the Russian news media, has done a lot to help Russian President Vladimir Putin craft an alternate reality about what is happening along the country’s border with Ukraine. The service has featured a steady drumbeat of reports claiming hostile Ukrainian, NATO, and U.S. actions aimed at a “besieged” Russia and its occupied territories -- Crimea and the so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk (DNR) and Luhansk (LNR).  

TASS’s headlines are crafted by Kremlin “information technologists” to convince the Russian people that the true aggressors in the crisis are Ukraine, NATO, and the United States. Readers are supposed to believe that it is NATO and Ukraine that are building up troops on the Russian border to attack Russia. According to TASS, the tens of thousands of Russian troops poised on Ukraine’s borders are simply protecting Mother Russia from the impending onslaught of American-backed Ukrainian neo-Nazis and rabid nationalists. 

The following TASS  “news” reports show how the Kremlin uses a steady dose of lies to manage Russian public opinion: 

TASS Feb. 18   

Donetsk ,Luhansk republics need Russia’s support … as hundreds of thousands of Russian inhabitants of Donbas are at risk of being annihilated by the Ukrainian military.  

TASS Feb. 17 

Kremlin warns situation near Russia’s borders could ignite at any moment…but  Russia maintains a responsible position and awaits dialogue from its partners.  

TASS Feb. 19   

Ukrainian military fires 200 shells at Donetsk Republic over three hours…as the situation at the line of engagement escalated.  

TASS Feb. 18 

Russia checking reports about mercenaries for Donbas from Kosovo, Albania, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Mercenaries were also being recruited to participate in conflicts that are stoked by countries including the United States.  

TASS Feb. 11 

DNR head says 130 mass graves of people killed during Ukraine’s aggression were found…and authorities have started a criminal probe.  

TASS Feb. 18 

Powerful explosion rocks downtown Donetsk…and was "heard across the entire city."  

TASS Feb. 17 

NATO builds up forces at Russian borders, accusing Moscow of doing the same. Russian forces are on their territory and are not invading anywhere.  

TASS Feb. 16 

Kremlin points to the high probability of Kiev unleashing a military attack on Donbas. Despite weeks of intensive international negotiations on de-escalation in Ukraine, the tension between Kiev and Moscow is not abating.  

TASS Feb. 18 

Russia to protect its citizens in Donetsk, Luhansk if they are in danger.  

TASS Feb. 16 

Situation at line of engagement in Donbas escalates significantly. LDR authorities urge international observers to record aggressive actions on the part of Kyiv’s militants.   

TASS Feb. 15 

Russia to provide response to Ukraine should it attack or kill Russian citizens. "If the Ukrainians launch an attack against Russia, you shouldn’t be surprised if we counterattack. Or, if they start blatantly killing Russian citizens anywhere - Donbas or wherever." Ukraine may stage an incident against the self-proclaimed Donbas republics, provoking them, and then hitting them with all their might, thus provoking Russia to react in order to avoid humanitarian catastrophe on its borders."  

These TASS reports might strike observers as bizarre if they know the truth of the situation: that nearly 200,000 Russian personnel encircle the porous borders of Ukraine. For Kyiv and its allies to plot an attack against such overwhelming force would require a national suicide wish. The power of a repeated message, however, is evident in the Kremlin’s success in forging Russian public opinion. Polling reveals that only a token portion of Russian citizens (5%) blame their own country for the escalation. 

Russian propagandists’ molding of Russian public opinion provides adversaries with advance notice of what the Kremlin has in mind. TASS’s emphasis on the Donbas reveals that the most likely plan is for the Kremlin to cook up a false flag operation, which gives the go-ahead for DNR and LNR troops to attack. As they are pushed back by superior Ukrainian forces, they will issue a call to their Russian comrades to come to their defense. The war is joined – or is the war simply resumed? Can it be limited, or will it get out of control? 

Paul Gregory is Cullen Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Houston and Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. He is also a Research Fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research Berlin. He writes on Russia, Ukraine, and comparative economics. The views expressed are the author's own.

Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor of economics at the University of Houston, Texas, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research.