Russia Update: Russian Journalists Caught Laughing at Battle of Debaltsevo Refuse to Apologize

February 18, 2015
Kirill Otter (Romanovsky) (L) and Roman Saponkov (R) in February 17, 2015 video message justifying their cynical behavior in Debaltsevo.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here, and see also our Russia This Week stories Ultranationalists Angry over ‘Capitulation’ of Minsk Agreement, ‘Anti-Maidan’ Launched by Nationalists, Cossacks, Veterans, Bikers, The Guild War – How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists? and special features Former Russian Intelligence Officers Behind Boisto “Track II” Talks – and Now the Flawed Minsk Agreement and Johnson’s Russia List Spreads Invented Story About Germany Preparing Sanctions Against Kiev

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Pro-Kremlin photographer Roman Saponkov and Kirill Romanovsky double down on their refusal to apologize for laughing as Russian-backed militants fired on Ukrainian soldiers, now retreating from Debaltsevo.

Russian Censor Sends Formal Warning to Twitter – But Uses Twitter for Propaganda

Roskomnadzor, the state media monitoring agency and censor, has sent an official notice to Twitter’s management asking for clarification of its position regarding failure to comply with Russian law, Interfax reported.

Vadim Ampelonsky, press secretary of Roskomnadzor, said the notice was sent February 13 and no reply had been received. He said the letter was regarding Russia’s anti-extremism laws and Twitter’s refusal to block accounts and turn over user data at the request of the Russian authorities.

Roskomnadzor said on February 10, following Twitter’s release of its annual “Transparency Report,” that Twitter was “systematically not fulfilling the requirements of Russian law.”

“Not a single one of 108 requests to turn over information was honored, regarding the log-ins of accounts of popular users, sent by Roskomnadzor’s administration,” said Zharov.

“Roskomnadzor has a legitimate question about the acceptability of such a position for a company which is carrying out activity on the territory of the Russian Federation,” he said.

By that, Zharov means that the Internet is accessible from Russia. Twitter has no offices in Russia, although it does have Russian representatives.

No doubt the Kremlin is of two minds about Twitter, as on the one hand, it has proven hugely successful in gaining traction for and other propaganda outlets that don’t have many viewers in mainstream media, and it has also provided a fertile ground for Kremlin trolls and bots attempting to influence the debate on the war in Ukraine and other topics.

But opposition members also use Twitter for things like organizing protests and documenting police brutality. No doubt the Russian authorities hope to tame Twitter just enough so that they can continue to harvest the propaganda benefits and any financial rewards that might eventually relate to Twitter, but block unfavorable accounts as it has already succeeded in doing with Right Sector, an ultranationalist Ukrainian group, and Shaltai Boltai, a group of Russian hackers who have leaked Kremlin correspondence.

Maksim Ksenzov, the deputy head of Roskomnadzor, appears to have fallen silent about Twitter’s behavior, even as he continues to avidly use Twitter to retweet things like the news of Lady Gaga’s engagement:

Translation: “@rianru: American singer Lady Gaga has become engaged to actor Taylor Kinney.” Horrible nails.

Ksenzov also tweeted about a new Belarusian tram made with Swiss help…

…and a poll which shows Iran
is considered America’s greatest enemy, not Russia…

…and a comment from
20th-century poet Sergei Esenin about his dislike of America. 

Ksenzov was reprimanded last
year by his boss for jumping the gun in threatening Twitter with
blockage. But apparently he can continue his propaganda work on Twitter.

Translation: Sergei Esenin on America.

Recently he tweeted a stanza from Esenin’s 1923 poem, “Land of Scoundels,” which included the lines:

These people are rotting fish,
All America is a greedy gullet
But Russia – now there’s a rock
Let there only be Soviet power.

What’s intriguing about this tweet is that the poem in fact is
mainly about a fictional anarchist rebel named Nomakh (an anagram of the
famous Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno) and a Bolshevik commissar
Rassvetov who wants to modernize Russia. The section on America is only a
minor part of it. The poem was seen as a criticism of Soviet life at
the time. Esenin, whose works were banned during his lifetime,
ultimately committed suicide.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Abby Martin, Host of RT’s ‘Breaking the Set’ is Leaving Show
Lavrov Says Russia Will ‘Take Measures’ if There Are Attempts to ‘Drag’ Georgia into NATO

While it might seem as if grabbing more territory from Ukraine would preoccupy Russia at the moment, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s remarks at a press conference today following his talks with South Ossetian Foreign Minister David Sanakoyev indicates that paranoia is ever present.

Lavrov said that Russia was prepared to react if NATO tried to “drag” Georgia into NATO (translation by The Interpreter):

We discussed our cooperation in the international arena, including the participation of delegations of Russia  and South Ossetia in the Geneva discussions on stability and security in the Trans Caucasus. We affirmed the need to achieve an agreement for a legally-binding agreement on the non-use of force which would exclude a repeat of the events of 2008.

This task is especially relevant in light of the unceasing process of dragging Tbilisi into NATO. We were united in saying that this would not foster the efforts to secure stability in the Caucasus, and we will, naturally, if these steps will acquire practical outlines, and judging from everything, this has already begun, we will take measures in order not to permit negative influence on the situation from these processes.”

Before the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, NATO countries opted not to bring George and Ukraine into the NATO membership Action Plan precisely because of Putin’s objections. Former US President George Bush pushed for Georgia and Ukraine to be accepted, but German Chancellor Angel Merkel objected on the grounds that it would increase Moscow’s hostility.

The issue was reviewed again in December at another NATO meeting, but member states merely discussed reforms needed by Georgia and Ukraine to potentially join the alliance in the future. Because NATO allies were divided on the prudence of such a step, no further action was taken.


NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow and Minister of Defence of Georgia, Mindia Janelidze.

But with the war in Ukraine, NATO and Georgia have been “coming closer,” in the words of Deputy Secretary General Ambassador  Alexander Vershbow last month.

On February 2, Vershbow, former US ambassador to Moscow, visited Georgia and called it a model for its region and an “exporter of security,” reported:

Ambassador Vershbow also met with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and
discussed the implementation of the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package,
including preparations to establish a Joint Training and Evaluation
Centre in Georgia. He said that Centre will help Georgia to reform,
modernise and strengthen the security and defence sector and expressed
hope to have the Centre operational this year.  The Deputy Secretary
General urged Georgia to continue with democratic reforms, to uphold the
rule of law and to improve the independence and professionalism of the

Amb. Vershbow’s remarks indicate that he remembers the 2008 summit differently than Chancellor Merkel:

The decision that NATO leaders took at an earlier Summit, in
Bucharest in 2008, still stands:  your country will become a member of
NATO, provided that it meets all the necessary requirements
”, Ambassador Vershbow said.  “Since
we took that decision in Bucharest seven years ago, successive Georgian
governments have implemented ambitious reforms and made good use of the
NATO-Georgia Commission and our Annual National Programme.  NATO Allies
welcome the democratic development of your country, and the
modernisation of your military forces and your defence institutions

Merkel made it clear at the last NATO summit in Wales in June that there was no prospect for Georgia to join immediately, although she acknowledged Georgia’s progress in reforms and its contribution to the Allies’ efforts such as in Afghanistan.

“For the next
NATO summit we should consider how to acknowledge that Georgia is a good
partner, especially in these difficult missions, and I think that there
are also ways other than MAP to do it,” the German Chancellor said.

Merkel has repeatedly indicated her conviction that bringing Georgia into NATO will incite further Russian aggression rather than quell it.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Putin and His Allies are Trying to Buy Pro-Life Groups
Canada Imposes Sanctions on Rosneft, Rostec CEO
Defiant Russian Journalists Caught Laughing on Battlefield in Debaltsevo Refuse to Apologize

Two Russian journalists who filmed themselves guffawing as Russian-backed separatists shot at Ukrainian troops in Debaltsevo have responded to their critics in a LiveJournal blog post, newspaper column and video address — and refuse to apologize for their behavior.

Roman Saponkov and Kirill Romanevsky claim that they were only shocked at hearing a howitzer roar for the first time, and that their comments were normal in a battle zone.

“I don’t believe I violated any journalistic ethics,” says Romanovsky.
Saponkov concluded, “And if you think we’re showing you junk, I invite
you to Donetsk.”

As we reported yesterday, on February 14, Roman Saponkov, a stringer for Interpress, TASS and other companies videotaped a scene near Debaltsevo where Russian-backed separatists were firing howitzers at Ukrainian troops, surrounded in a “kettle” from which they are only now retreating.

Kirill Romanevsky, another freelancer who we have now identified in the video, is also seen laughing in the clip and their dialogue reveals cynicism about the war and their role as photographers.


“What will Russia Today say? What will Moscow say?” says Saponkov laughing. “There is no ceasefire.”

“It’s a training ground. It’s Khabarovsky Territory,” says Romanevsky — joking that the scene could be passed off as an exercise in Russia’s far east although it was real — and in Ukraine.

Viewers were outraged at the casual and cynical attitude of the reporters as they filmed the Russian-supplied militants shooting at Ukrainian soldiers dozens of whom have been killed in this battle. Civilians also remained in the town.

Despite thousands of angry and outraged comments at what has been seen
as unethical behavior, the two freelancers — who were even disavowed by and TASS
—  have simply doubled down.  

Despite the challenge to them by blogger and activist Dmitry Aleshkovsky, the two hardened war photographers dismissed all the criticism, and only grew more defiant, implying that anyone criticizing their crudeness just wasn’t willing to see the suffering inflicted on civilians in the war — in their minds, only the fault of the “Ukrainian junta.”

In a post on Live Journal, Saponkov says:

Imagine, those Ukrainian svidomye who rejoiced at the “cotton” and “cooked Colorado beetles,” who killed Russian journalists, who forbid the Russian press to work on the territory of former Ukraine, who openly call the Russian media an enemy and cultivate this image, these svidomye demand explanations from the Russian media, and those media then crawl on their hands and needs and sprinkle ash on their heads in humiliation.

Saponkov uses a number of pejorative words here: svidomye is a Russian term for pro-Kiev Ukrainians who are themselves seen as “separatists”; “cotton” is the disparaging term used by Ukrainians for Russians, based on the cliche of a typical Russian worker in a cotton jacket. “Colorado beetles” nick-name used by Ukrainians for Russian nationalists in Russia and separatists in Ukraine who wear black-and-orange striped St. George ribbons, which are the color of the Colorado beetle. “Baked” is a reference to the crude propaganda of some Ukrainian ultranationalists regarding the Odessa fire.

In a video uploaded to YouTube, Saponkov says that one commenter even wished his tongue would be torn off; most responses were negative.

Romanevsky says he works for Federal News Agency (FAN) — which happens to be the news agency located in the very same building as the “Kremlin troll farm” in St. Petersburg. As we reported in December 2014, these were discovered by St. Petersburg journalists to be operating pro-Kremlin news sites, including supposed “Ukrainian” sites that took the Moscow line:

Lenizdat’s journalist Sofiya Korzova has also researched the fellow tenants of Internet Research in the building, an online news service called Federal News Agency (FAN) which, despite its name, is privately owned by undisclosed business people. Lenizdat suspected that Yevgeny Prigozhin, who founded Internet Research, Ltd. was related to FAN.

Prigozhin, a wealthy restaurant owner with large Defense Ministry contracts, has been Putin’s personal chef and is said to be an investor in the Internet disinformation businesses aimed at attacking critics of the Kremlin.

Although TASS claimed that Saponkov didn’t work for them in a message disassociating themselves from him, he himself said he had worked for TASS since 2007.

He said he had even worked in Libya for TASS, and thought it was shameful for them not to acknowledge his existence. He attributed the public reaction to his laughter on the battlefield as the “intrigues” of the “liberals” represented by Aleshkovsky, who he invited to “come to Oktyabrsky District” in Donetsk across from the airport, which has suffered intense shelling, attributed to Ukrainian forces when they were defending the Donetsk Airport.

Saponkov was sorry about one thing — the fact that a trainee for RT.  Alexander Zhukov, just happened to walk by when Saponkov was filming and get into his video, was instantly fired by RT.

“Here he was running up and down the front risking his ass,” said Saponkov, yet just because he was accidentally included in the film, he lost his job. He thought this was unfair.

Saponkov denied that he himself had ever worked for RT, in fact.


Kirill Romanovsky (L), unknown separatist fighter (C), Roman Saponkov (R)

The claims of the two photographers reflect a bias common among Russian state journalists that refuse to acknowledge the responsibility of President Vladimir Putin for the war in the first place.

They are also selective in their concern for the suffering of civilians, preferring to cover Ukrainian shelling of residential areas in defense of their homeland, and not Russian-backed shelling of residential areas in attempts to grab more territory.  While the hardship of townspeople is real, and understandably they blame the Kiev leadership, the coverage by these stringers is tendentious and doesn’t reflect frequent criticism by local people of the separatists for bringing war, food shortages, and destruction of infrastructure to the Donbass.

The two freelancers also indicate a belief that tragedies throughout the war such as the Odessa fire in which 40 people were killed are “given only a few lines” in the Western press, which isn’t the case. They believe the fascistic tendencies of groups like Right Sector are ignored — although in fact they get plenty of coverage in the Western media.

Most strikingly, these two journalists reveal their dependency on Russian state news sources and pro-Novorossiya blogs when they claim Poroshenko “doesn’t know about” or “doesn’t care about” Debaltsevo and was “doing nothing.”

But as Kommersant Kremlin pool reporter Andrei Kolesnikov reported, 8 of the 16 hours of the night-long talks in Minsk about the ceasefire involved arguments between Putin and Poroshenko about Debaltsevo. The Ukrainian Russian-language site Bigmir also covered these arguments and Poroshenko’s statements about the cynicism in the separatists in leaving Debaltsevo out of the ceasefire.

The current climate even in Russian state journalism is
an uneasy one, as there have been major layoffs at TASS, RIA Novosti and
other outlets. The media landscape is dominated by the state
conglomerate Rossiya Segodnya and pro-Kremlin operations like LifeNews.
Yet these two journalists are fearless in blowing off even the powerful
TASS and RT, and somehow, are still supported and able to
continue to work at the front line.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Navalny Brothers’ Sentences Upheld
A Moscow appeals court upheld the sentence to labor colony of Oleg Navalny, brother of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, and also upheld his own suspended sentence of 3.5 years.

Translation: “My brother remains a hostage.” What Andrei Navalny said after the trial.

The brothers were charged with fraud in a mail-order business contracted to the French company Yves Roches East, which said it had no claims against the brothers. The case is widely believed to have been fabricated in retaliation against Navalny’s anti-corruption activities targeting high officials.

As the New York Times reported, Navalny was released from house arrest, specified in the Yves Roches case, which was valid only during pre-trial and appeal periods.

But now he faces another trial related to trumped-up charges of an “art theft” having to do with a street artist’s sketch given to him by a colleague as a present.