The case of Vitaliy Markiv has become emblematic of the effectiveness of Kremlin propaganda in influencing western minds. This Ukrainian National Guardsman was sentenced to 24 years in jail by a first instance court in Italy in 2019 over his alleged role in the May 2014 killing of Italian journalist Andrea Rocchelli and his Russian colleague Andrei Mironov, who were covering the Russo-Ukrainian war in eastern Ukraine.
Proof of his guilt was absent. Instead of it, the court used reports from Russian propaganda outlets. The Kremlin’s skewed portrayal of Ukraine’s defensive war against Russian-backed militants in eastern Ukraine as something evil held sway over the Italian discourse — and the verdicts of the judges and jury.
An innocent man was sentenced because, literally, he was framed by Russian propaganda.
However, justice was finally served: Markiv was acquitted in November 2020. This was possible thanks to the joint efforts of many people. One of them is Olga Tokariuk, one of the filmmakers of Crossfire, a documentary that proved Markiv is innocent by actually recreating the events of that fateful day on the ground. Recently, Olga published the report Battle of narratives: Kremlin disinformation in the Vitaliy Markiv case in Italy.
We sat down with Olga to summarize the facts and discuss the impact of Kremlin disinformation campaigns in Italy and in the global information space.
Information has become central to the Ukraine crisis, with some journalists and experts referring to an information war initiated by Russia. Kremlin disinformation has become increasingly sophisticated, disseminating fake stories and news to a global audience through multilingual news channel RT, website Sputnik News, etc., politicians and local left- and right-wing fringe groups, subsequently picked up and disseminated by mainstream media.
Although there is no evidence of direct Kremlin meddling in the Markiv case in Italy, Olga Tokariuk maintains that Kremlin disinformation tainted the trial and its outcome. Russian narratives were directly or indirectly voiced during the court proceedings, and simultaneously picked up by Italian media resources, mainly:
- there is no Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine; the Russo-Ukrainian war is an internal conflict, a civil war;
- a spontaneous grassroots uprising took place in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in protest against the Euromaidan;
- the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian military, including the National Guard and the Armed Forces, conducted punitive operations against the population of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, deliberately shelling residential areas and attacking civilians;
- Ukraine is a ‘Nazi state’, far-right forces have infiltrated all levels of the Ukrainian government and military.[/editorial]
In your report, you speak lengthily about these Kremlin narratives. How did they impact the actual court proceedings?
It’s very hard to measure their actual influence, but they were definitely present. My goal was to look for these narratives in the trial, in the court documents, in the verdict pronounced by the first instance court in Pavia, which convicted Markiv, and also to check whether the Italian media adopted and expressed these narratives in their coverage of the court hearings, both the mainstream media and fringe online platforms.
I managed to identify several narratives in court papers and the media, which matched Kremlin propaganda and disinformation about Ukraine:
- it’s a civil war;
- the Ukrainian military deliberately targets civilians and journalists in Eastern Ukraine;
- Russian proxies protect the civilian population and journalists;
- neo-Nazis are widely present in the Ukrainian military and Vitaliy Markiv is a neo-Nazi.
Let me specify, to be clear. Here you’re talking about your analysis of the first instance court trial in Pavia, right?
Yes. And, I also found that several Kremlin propaganda sources are quoted as evidence in the court verdict. For example, an article published on the propaganda website ‘Russian spring’ (Russkaya vesna) referring to a forged document, which was aimed at discrediting the Ukrainian witnesses at the trial. Despite the depositions of several members of the National Guard and representatives of the Ukrainian government testifying that this document was a fake, it was quoted in the court’s Statement of Reasons as credible evidence. This is extremely worrying.
We all know that hundreds of Ukrainian political prisoners have been tried in Russian kangaroo courts and are currently imprisoned in Russia and occupied Crimea. On the same day, a kangaroo court in Rostov, Russia convicted three Crimean Tatars for belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir, a Muslim organization, which is legal in Ukraine and in most countries, but labeled as “terrorist” in Russia. The three men rejected the charges, stating that they were Ukrainian citizens and that it was not a crime to read books or study religion.
At the same time, the Court of Appeals in Milan acquitted Vitaliy Markiv on 3 November 2020. In this case, what can we say about the judicial system in Italy as opposed to Russian judicial institutions?
Of course, the main difference between these two judicial systems is that Italy is a democracy and in no way can it be compared to authoritarian Russia. However, there are definitely flaws in all democratic systems and these were revealed during the court hearings in Pavia.
Various human rights organizations voiced their doubts and concern after the first instance trial verdict, such as the Russian NGO Memorial, the Italian Federation for Human Rights, and the Ukrainian Center of Civil Liberties. International lawyers stated that the burden of proof was reversed in this case, i.e. Markiv’s defense team had to establish his innocence.
What was revealed is that a democratic state like Italy with an independent judiciary is not immune to mistakes or malicious foreign influence. The Markiv case showed us Kremlin disinformation can penetrate not only political systems but even the judiciary in the West. However, when an independent judiciary in a democratic country makes a mistake, it can be reversed.
In your opinion, did the presence of witnesses from Ukraine and independent foreign media play an important role in the Markiv case?
We can’t really measure the impact of these outside agents. However, we know that after the first instance trial and the controversial verdict in Pavia the case received a lot of publicity, both domestic and international. The appeal court proceedings in Milan were closely monitored by human rights organizations, as I said before. Reputed foreign media, such as The New York Times, also wrote about the case. This was important, but I cannot say with certainty that it had an impact on the court.
What is the status of the Markiv case today?
Well, according to my information sources, the prosecution has filed a complaint to the Supreme Court of Cassation in Rome, which will be reviewed sometime this autumn. The court will not review the content of the case (testimonies, witnesses, etc.), but, as far as I understand, they will examine procedural details.
I’m afraid I can’t give you more information. I hope the Ministry of Justice of Ukraine is working on this complaint and will be able to provide more details very soon.
I’d like to draw your attention to an important point. Yes, the Milan court acquitted Vitaliy Markiv,
Let’s talk about your film Crossfire – the documentary, which explores the events in question? You worked with three Italian colleagues – Danilo Elia, Cristiano Tinazzi, and Ruben Lagattolla, shot footage on-site near Mount Karachun, created a digital map of the terrain, and carried out visibility and arms range tests. You found two other survivors of that attack, never heard by the court and you spoke with dozens of international journalists. Could you tell us something about this experience?
My Italian colleagues are currently finalizing the film and I’m not involved in this process. But, I can tell you a little about our work in Ukraine.
The most difficult part was getting in touch with the protagonists and arranging interviews, and obtaining all the required permits from the authorities – access to Karachun, which is a strategic military site, permits for film crews, etc. That’s the extent of our collaboration with the Ukrainian authorities… although many propaganda resources accused us of being financed by the National Guard and the Ukrainian government. These allegations are absolutely false!
What is the prime objective of your investigation report – Kremlin disinformation in the Vitaliy Markiv case in Italy? Who is your target audience?
First of all, I’d like to mention that the report was produced in collaboration with the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center (UCMC), which researches and reveals hybrid threats, Kremlin disinformation and propaganda. The report is available on their website. My colleagues from UCMC Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group are disseminating the report among various international organizations working in the disinformation field, tracking Kremlin lies.
I’ve also published it on FB and Twitter and have received some invitations from Ukrainian media, but of course, I’m hoping it will reach a wider global audience. After all, our prime objective is to explain how Russian hybrid warfare operates on a global scale and the dangers it poses to countries everywhere.
Thank you, Olia! Is there anything that you’d like to add?
Yes, there’s an important point that we didn’t touch upon – the presence of Kremlin disinformation in the Italian media. It’s common knowledge that far-right marginal groups and online fringe sources often spread disinformation… but in Markiv’s case, these were mostly far-left groups, some of which had ties with Russian proxy forces in the Donbas.
In fact, one of the authors of such online publications was a former Italian militant Alberto Fazolo, who was reported to have fought with the so-called “LNR” forces. These online fringe resources regularly spread defamatory propaganda about Ukraine and the Markiv case, and they also publish Kremlin disinformation about the opposition in Belarus and the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
In conclusion, I sincerely hope that this report will be read and shared in Italy. Unfortunately, the Italian media didn’t investigate the case properly and continue to maintain that the Ukrainian military was responsible for these killings. In a nutshell… OK, Markiv didn’t kill Rocchelli and Mironov, but some other Ukrainian soldier did, so Ukraine is guilty!
The Italian Press Federation published a statement where they basically underlined that the appeal hearings in Milan had established a historical truth, i.e. the Ukrainian side killed Rocchelli. They appealed to the Italian government, demanding that a thorough investigation be conducted by Ukraine and all evidence should then be turned over to Italy.
And last but not least, while it is virtually impossible to prove that the Kremlin is directly behind this case and the trial, we can openly say that the Kremlin propaganda system has been pushing multiple disinformation narratives about Ukraine in Italy since 2013, and they were repeated in the court, during the hearings, and in the media.
This is how it’s done, all over the world… not directly, but indirectly, pushing inflammatory content and deceptive information to make nothing certain or true … through various networks, covert media postings, etc. and then shared by people who might be unaware of how Kremlin disinformation operates. Then, it’s picked up by reputable media and influential figures in society, which basically legitimizes the falsehoods.
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