Johnson’s Russia List, or JRL, run by David Johnson, is a widely-read and influential email newsletter and website, also referred to as a listserv, which publishes a regular compilation of English-language news on Russia from a variety of sources.


On February 10, an interesting article with a rather shocking headline was included on that day’s list:

Fort Russ: “Germany reserves the right to impose sanctions on Ukraine”–Steinmeier. Ukrainian MFA summons Germany’s ambassador after Steinmeier mentions possible sanctions against Kiev. 


The article, on the FortRuss blog, was dated February 9, 2015, and is an English-language translation and commentary on an article from the news portal, published that same date.

The article claims that the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has announced, in an interview with ARD TV, that sanctions against Ukraine are a possibility, and that the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry is furious.

An excerpt from FortRuss:

Steinmeier said that if no political decision is reached in Ukraine, the German government reserves the right to “act decisively against the Ukrainian leadership, up to and including sanctions”.

Germany’s ambassador to Ukraine Christoph Weil was forced to have a discussion with the Deputy Foreign Minister of Ukraine Andrey Olefirov due to Steinmeier’s statement.

At this point, it becomes clear that there is something wrong with the report, which is a faithful translation of the Ruposters original.

Andrii Olefirov is, as these recent Ukrainian government statements indicate, the Ukrainian ambassador to Finland, not the deputy foreign minister.

He was, however the deputy foreign minister earlier, before he was assigned his ambassadorial post in October last year.

Two reports, one from RIA Novosti’s German-language service (now rebranded as Sputnik) and another, in Russian, from TASS, appear to show the true story.

Both these reports bear a close resemblance to the paragraphs quoted above, but they date from February 4, 2014, when Olefirov was indeed the deputy foreign minister, in the government of Viktor Yanukovych.

What Steinmeier is referring to here then, is the possibility of sanctions against the Yanukovych regime, which was, at that time, brutally cracking down on the EuroMaidan protests.

In order to help re-contextualize a report on Germany criticising the oppressions of the Russian-backed ancien régime as a critique of the Poroshenko government, the Ruposters piece makes some additions.

From the FortRuss translation:

Ukrainian diplomats are very sensitive to Western countries’ position on the ongoing crisis in the country. However, that sensitivity is very one-sided. In December Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU Andrey Eliseev similarly strongly reacted to Steinmeier’s statement that Ukraine is not wanted in NATO.

“Nobody can prevent Kiev from joining NATO!”  was the Ukrainian diplomat’s reply. Germans, as usual, took no offense, and nobody summoned Ukraine’s ambassador to the German MFA.

The NATO issue does not appear anywhere in the earlier RIA or TASS reports.

Furthermore, the “Nobody can prevent Kiev from joining NATO” line, in it’s original Russian, appears only on Ruposters and several other little-known pro-Kremlin news sites and forums.

Indeed a quick search reveals that, while the Ukrainian ambassador to the EU does have a surname which may have been translated as “Eliseev,” his name is not Andey, it is Kostiantyn Yelisieiev.

Nor can we find, so far at least, the source of this supposed ambassador’s remarks, which Ruposters claims to be in Die Welt.

This piece appears therefore to be a carefully constructed assembly of part-truths and inventions designed to mislead readers. The entire article falls apart under the most basic scrutiny and, given its dramatic and surprising claim, really ought to have been looked at carefully.

Other stories included on JRL lists are most likely fabrications, such as this report on NATO aircraft landing in Kharkiv, again taken from FortRuss. However these stories often depend purely on readers taking conspiracy-theorist blogs at face value, whereas the FortRuss report we have analysed here manipulatively credits real news organisations and includes snippets of genuine reportage.

In October last year, Rosie Gray wrote for Buzzfeed that Johnson’s Russia List did indeed appear to be taking on the Kremlin line:

Since the start of the current geopolitical crisis between Russia and Ukraine, the list has increasingly included content from Russian state media and other sources sympathetic to the Russian version of events. Johnson’s personal Twitter feed, which has been deleted or removed since BuzzFeed News started reporting on this story last week, has been particularly combative. In one cached post, he called the journalist Anne Applebaum a “silly obsessed woman” for warning that the West may have to prepare for military conflict with Russia. He often criticized journalists for seeming to side with Ukraine: “Russia bad, Kyiv good. Is this the story you report?” he tweeted at two journalists covering the story this month. In another tweet, he accused well-regarded Guardian correspondent Shaun Walker of making “uncertified claims” about Russian designs on the eastern Ukrainian town of Mariupol. 

With that in mind, this is more evidence that JRL is either woefully incompetent in reading and selecting articles — choosing a shock-headline, poorly sourced article from an obscure blog to include in their news letters — or that they are intentionally distributing pro-Kremlin disinformation.

By Pierre Vaux, The Interpreter