KYIV -- A satirical animated series produced by Germany's international broadcaster aims to poke fun at Eastern European leaders and their antics -- but Ukrainians aren't laughing.
Many have expressed outrage at Deutsche Welle after its Russian service aired an episode of the new weekly program, Zapovednik (Nature Reserve), saying it portrays Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as an uncouth beggar and aids Russia's efforts to whitewash its military aggression in Ukraine.
Much of the criticism has been targeted at a scene that shows a cartoon Poroshenko speaking Surzhyk -- a mix of Ukrainian and Russian spoken by many in Ukraine's provinces -- as he begs U.S. President Donald Trump for "mind-blowing" weapons to fight off "Martians from Russia" who are "very green and polite."
The scene is reminiscent of one from the 1997 sci-fi blockbuster Men In Black. In the Deutsche Welle version, Poroshenko is in a pawn shop speaking to Trump, who is working behind a display case that is filled with watches until he pushes a button to reveal a cache of guns. Poroshenko picks one up and tries it, erasing his and Trump's memory, and the scene repeats.
If the scene was meant to elicit laughter, Ukrainians didn't find it funny.
Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula was not invaded and occupied by "Martians" in 2014, but by Russian forces, as President Vladimir Putin eventually admitted publicly. They operated professionally but in unmarked uniforms, and initially were called "little green men" and dubbed by Russian state-run media as "polite people."
Mounting evidence has also shown that Russian regular soldiers have fought alongside pro-Russian militants to carve out two so-called "separatist republics" in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The conflict, now in its fourth year, has killed more than 10,000 people – mostly Ukrainians – since April 2014. The Kremlin continues to deny direct involvement there.
Kyiv has repeatedly asked Washington for lethal defensive weapons to deter Russia in its war-stricken east, a move strongly opposed by Moscow. Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy for efforts to end the conflict in Ukraine, has said that Washington is "actively considering" the move, and the request is sitting on President Trump's desk.
In 'Bad Taste'
Many Ukrainians expressed their anger at Zapovednik on social media, saying the cartoon was in "bad taste" and "offensive."
Absolute bad taste and scanty "satire", if what the Russian @dw_russian office has done can be called a satire. And still no reaction from @DeutscheWelle on this Russian propaganda trick https://t.co/GVU3vQeRKN— Viktoria (@Ukropo4kA) November 8, 2017
I just watched Zapovednik and it is certainly very offensive, not only to Ukrainians.Habe gerade Zapowednik geguckt und es it auf jeden Fall offensiv, nich nur zu Ukrainern. Посмотрел заповедник, конечно окскорбительный, и не только для украинцев. @DeutscheWelle https://t.co/x4N2AyZMxE— Maximilian Hess (@zakavkaza) November 8, 2017
Dear @DeutscheWelle, that was a very unfortunate attempt. #Ukraine was invaded by russians, not Martians. And in general, it%27s not ethical to make jokes about the war that took more than 10 thousand lives.https://t.co/zPTyAq5YH8— Kateryna_Kruk (@Kateryna_Kruk) November 8, 2017
Russian DW service "jokes": Poroshenko eats candy flies as a rocket, becomes North Korean rocket. It%27s not satire, it%27s Russian propaganda. pic.twitter.com/U17v0r2cce— Gosha Tykhyi (@goshquiet) November 8, 2017
In a column for the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, human rights defender Halya Coynash said that producers should have taken "much greater care" and shown "sensitivity" in the depiction of Russia's seizure of Crimea.
There has been no official response from Ukraine, but the deputy minister of the country's Information Policy Ministry, Dmytro Zolotukhin, said the show resembled tactics favored by the Kremlin.
"Humor is being used by the Russian side for hybrid hostile activity frequently, and for a long time," Zolotukhin said, using a term to describe the mix of cyberbased economic, media, psychological, and military operations deployed by Moscow against Ukraine.
'Soul Of Satire Is Exaggeration'
Deutsche Welle defended the program on Twitter, saying in a pinned tweet that it was pleased with the show's premiere.
We are thrilled that our new Russian-language satire show #Zapovednik premiered so successfully this week. Satire and humor are an effective means to give politicians from all corners a reality check. @dw_russian https://t.co/RX2mF2YKiA pic.twitter.com/jZwGF1cSWj— DW Deutsche Welle (@DeutscheWelle) November 8, 2017
That sentiment was reiterated by Christoph Jumpelt, Deutsche Welle's head of corporate communications and chief spokesperson, in a phone call with RFE/RL.
"There's pros and there's cons. That's what's expected of satire," Jumpelt said, responding to Ukrainians' criticisms. "Obviously the soul of satire is that it is exaggerating. And it's sometimes very pointy."
He added: "Obviously, I understand people in Ukraine will react to the entire episode with an eye that is more focused on Mr. Poroshenko, but there are -- not only in this episode, but in every other single episode to follow -- other characters."
Jumpelt said roughly 10 broadcasters in several different countries have already expressed interest in airing the show -- which is only available in Russian -- including the Russian independent TV channel Dozhd, or Rain. RFE/RL could not confirm that information.
The show's first episode also features Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan trying to sell tomatoes to Putin, and Kremlin officials discussing how to stamp out opposition protests, among other scenarios.