MOSCOW: Russia launched an all-out propaganda campaign Sunday to whip up support for possible military action in Ukraine, as state media and ruling party officials claimed armed marauders were terrorizing the ex-Soviet nation.
Kremlin-controlled media aired footage aimed at discrediting the new Kiev authorities and rousing anger over alleged outrages perpetrated against Russian-speaking people.
In a surprise move, Russian television even announced it was canceling live footage of the Oscars show to concentrate on Ukraine coverage.
“Our propaganda on state channels is really running wild,” former Economy Minister Andrei Nechayev tweeted.
Fanning the flame under suspicions of international involvement in the Kiev protests, news channel Russia 24 aired an apparent confession from a young Russian who claimed he was paid to serve as a sniper with opposition forces.
“There are mercenaries there. ... They come from very different countries – the United States and Germany – they come wearing identical military uniforms,” he said.
He said he feared violent reprisals for his revelations, alleging that the protest leaders in Kiev would “just put people in a cellar and kill them.”
Named only as Vladislav, he was filmed being grilled by investigators after being caught in the Bryansk region bordering Ukraine.
A Russia 24 anchor added a warning that “mercenaries are now going to Crimea. Their aims are clear enough: to provoke a new wave of the crisis and rob people on the sly.”
The same channel interviewed the governor of the Belgorod region bordering Ukraine, who warned that “crowds of armed people” were on the move and Saturday tried to block a highway to Crimea.
The unspecific but threatening reports seemed principally aimed at stirring fears.
In an embarrassing blooper Sunday, Channel One illustrated a story on thousands of Ukrainians seeking shelter in Russia – as Russian officials have claimed – with footage of cars queuing to cross into Poland.
The Channel One news item clearly shows the name of the border post as “Shehyni” on Ukraine’s western border with Poland, as the newsreader says that “more and more Ukrainians are arriving in southern regions of Russia.”
In a last-minute change, Channel One state television canceled planned live coverage of the Oscars red carpet set to air in the early hours Monday Moscow time.
It said on its website this was “due to the large amount of news concerning the autonomous republic of Crimea and Ukraine.”
The ceremony will be shown early Tuesday, the channel said.
Top Russian lawmakers Sunday reassured the public, stressing national unity backing Putin.
“The situation in Ukraine brings together all Russian civil society,” said lawmaker Leonid Slutsky of the ruling United Russia party, who heads the lower house’s committee on links with ex-Soviet states.
United Russia organized a march backing military intervention in central Moscow Sunday, calling Ukraine a “brother” nation that “needs our protection and support.”
Police said the march gathered around 20,000 people, who were shown on television waving Russian and nationalist flags.
Others in Moscow protested against intervention.
Near Red Square and the Defense Ministry, a few hundred protesters waved banners calling for “no war.”
“Fascism will not win,” they chanted. “ Crimea is Russia. We are for Russian unity.”