“There are no American mercenaries in #Ukraine, it's all #Kremlin lies and propaganda” tweeted [ru] the US State Department's official Ukraine Twitter account recently, prompting Russian journalist and emigre Oleg Kashin to ask [ru] if it is possible that anyone would be convinced by such a statement. Indeed, by responding to every single internet troll with renunciations, US foreign officials risk looking shrill and shifty. Perhaps this is why they have ignored the most recent conspiracy theory making the rounds on RuNet.
The silence would be a welcome respite from the failures of US diplomacy to connect with ordinary Russians [Global Voices report], if the reason for the conspiracy theory wasn't such a glaring failure in the first place. It was Twitter user @Dikuschka who first drew attention [ru] to a US Government “request for a proposal” [ru] for the reconstruction of a Ukrainian school last fall. No big deal, except that the school in question is in Sevastopol, home to Russia's Black Sea naval base. And the request came from the US Navy's Facilities Engineering Command.
The combination certainly sounds suspicious, and it was easy enough for pro-Kremlin twitter [ru] users [ru] to turn what looks to be actually a school reconstruction under the auspices of US European Command's Humanitarian Assistance program, into the “construction of a US Naval base.” The meme spread through RuNet, via humor websites like Pikabu [ru], newspapers like Komsomolskaya Pravda [ru], and even the (fake) Twitter account of Crimea's leader Sergey Aksyonov (the account is currently suspended).
The idea that the US Navy is simply doggedly pursuing a sometimes awkward policy of winning “hearts and minds,” without regard for how it might look, will probably fall on deaf ears for most Russians. (Simply imagine Russia remodeling schools near US Marine Corps fatalities on Okinawa.) Komsomolskaya Pravda cited a source from Russia's Black Sea fleet command, saying “I don't think that the US Navy would give out money to reconstruct a Sevastopol school just because, what would be the point?” A post [ru] at the VKontakte group “Antimaidan-Berkut” proposed that rather than building military facilities outright, the reconstruction would prepare the school for the children of US servicemen who would be stationed at such hypothetical military facilities.
The request for proposal, with an estimated cost of remodeling Sevastopol School #5 between $200 and $500 thousand, is still up on the Federal Business Opportunities website. On April 15, 2014, however, it was canceled, “due to the current climate in Ukraine.”