Herding the Media Sheep
Peter Leonard’s March 15 Associated Press report is entitled: “Russian propaganda war in full swing over Ukraine.”
“This is Ukraine today,” he begins, “at least as seen by most Russian news media: the government is run by anti-Semitic fascists, people killed by opposition snipers and the west is behind it all.”
It’s not quite a reductio ad absurdum argument; that is, Leonard is not saying that his own proposition (that Russian charges are mere “propaganda,” not rooted in fact) is proven by the fact that to challenge it (and affirm the general accuracy of the Russian narrative about what happened in Kiev, especially on Feb. 22) would be absurd. But he’s clearly not interested in engaging all the facts. He wants to dismiss the serious accusations of neo-fascist involvement in the regime change and in the new cabinet as a “smear campaign.”
Leonard is asking, in effect: how can anybody imagine that the government of Barack Obama would support a government in Ukraine including serious neo-Nazis? How can imagine that the shocking incidences of sniper fire preceding the transfer of power last month were in fact probably organized by the anti-Yanukovich opposition?
But the fact is: there are anti-Semitic neofascists in the group that seized power suddenly on Feb. 22, including four cabinet members in the Svoboda Party, to whom Leonard makes no reference. Instead Leonard pooh-poohs Russian concern about Right Sector storm troops aligned to the Svoboda neo-Nazis. (For what it’s worth, the World Jewish Congress designated Svoboda a “neo-Nazi” organization last May. They are probably not engaging in a mere “smear campaign.”)
Leonard calls Right Sector a “radical ultranationalist group that spearheaded the most violent assaults against riot police” in the Maidan events,” yet says it “is a subject of scaremongering daily exposes” in the Russian press. (Leonard thus raises the question: Why should anyone encourage people to fear radical ultranationalists given to violent assault, such as Svoboda and Right Sector?)
These groups are in fact being exposed by western columnists as well as Russian journalists. They are not interested in “scaremongering” but in understanding what has happened in Ukraine recently.
Leonard states “For all the attention it has received, the [Right Sector] group has not been granted any posts in the new government and observers say it has little actual clout.”
Pardon me? Two top members of the Right Sector—Andry Parubiy and Dmytro Yarosh—now hold the posts of director and deputy director of the National Security Council of Ukraine. They control the police.
“Observers say it has little clout?” Really? Plenty of observers have said they have lots of clout. Putin echoes their observations. Some journalists might accuse him of exaggerating. But Leonard blithely dismisses the prospect that fascists constitute a threat in Ukraine.
Were people killed by opposition snipers? The intercepted conversation between EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton and Estonia’s Foreign Minister Urmas Paet indicates that Paet believes that the sniper fire that occurred in Maidan, attributed by the opposition to Yanukovich’s security forces in order to justify their putsch, was actually staged by opposition (likely Right Sector) forces.
As for the west being behind it all, Victoria Nuland and other State Department officials have proudly acknowledged a $ billion investment in “democracy” in Ukraine. Nuland has been cordial with Svoboda chief Oleh Tyahnybok, and urges the newly installed Arsenyi Yatsenyuk to consult with him four times a week.
Perhaps the Russian narrative is too slick. The west is not behind everything, surely. But successive U.S. administrations have indeed seemed hell-bent upon provoking Russian response with relentless expansion of NATO. Is Moscow really supposed to accept Ukrainian entrance into EU, subject to an imposed austerity program, defaulting on its debts to Russia; and entrance into a hostile military pact likely to throw the Russian fleet out of its Crimean base dating to 1783?
The U.S. State Department story is slick too. A mass-based democratic movement (with some U.S. help), overthrew a dictator, who’s supported by big bad Putin (who wants to reconstitute the Soviet Union, and thwart the desire of the Ukrainian people to join Europe). It’s just a matter of the sovereign right of a nation to make its own decisions. Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty requires condemnation of the “international community” and appropriate sanctions.
AP’s Leonard report on “Russian propaganda” actually indicates that the U.S.’s “propaganda war” is “in full swing over Ukraine.” It includes the premise that Russian anxiety about NATO encirclement is rooted in some historical paranoia about “the west” being “behind it all.”
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I don’t know that donating/investing $ 5 billion makes you “behind it all.” But it makes you very complicit, does it not? I don’t know if Nuland’s famous endorsement of the newly crowned Arseniy Yatsenyuk before the Feb. 22 coup proves that she was the king-maker here. But certainly things have gone Washington’s way. A pro-Russian, democratically elected prime minister was forced to flee Kiev; the parliament (lacking the constitutionally required number of votes) removed him from office and approved an interim cabinet headed by the former economics minister and central bank chief (whom Forbes Magazine reports is a “Mario Monti type: unelected and willing to do the IMF’s bidding” by implementing austerity measures).
The Right Sector brownshirts whose efforts were necessary to produce the Feb. 22 putsch have been incorporated into the police apparatus under the National Security Council, now headed by Right Sector activists Andry Parubiy (“security commandant” during the Maidan protests) and Dmytro Yarosh.
Washington now demands that Russia recognize the legitimacy of the Yatsenyuk administration. Moscow refuses; from its standpoint Yanukovich remains the elected prime minister, and (it insists) the forces around Yatsenyuk especially in the security forces include people who should be considered “fascists.” Under such circumstances, Russian officials have argued, the people of Crimea have the right to request and be granted admission into the Russian Federation.
Who knows? Maybe the wily Putin will step back and say, “Well, while we understand the people of Crimea and are moved by their feelings for Mother Russia, and will take measures to protect their scurity, we cannot at this time agree to incorporation into the Russian Federation pending discussions with partner nations.”
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Putin has nothing to lose by appearing to take a calm, measured approach. This might allow time for the western media to shift from unbridled State Department propaganda (about a popular uprising against a dictator producing a democratic pro-EU, pro-NATO leadership in a Ukraine trying to pull away from Russia while Putin conspires to recreate the USSR) to some semblance of objective journalism that at least accomplishes the following:
(1) Good journalism needs to convey to the reader some needed historical background, including the fact that Kiev was the center of the first Russian state, about 1000 years ago—before Russian and Ukrainian became distinctly different languages—and that Ukraine was a mainly Roman Catholic Russian principality from 1654 to the Bolshevik Revolution, after which it became a greatly enlarged Soviet Socialist Republic, with a new, largely Russian-speaking and Russian Orthodox eastern half beyond the Dnieper (producing today’s deep ethnic-geographical division); and the fact that the Crimean Peninsula was only transferred to Ukraine from Russia in 1954;
(2) it should put the whole thing in the context of NATO’s relentless expansion at Russia’s expense—twelve more countries encircling Russia in a nuclear military alliance between 1999 and 2009—finally producing some blowback in August 2008 when Putin intervened in Georgia after its president (wooed by NATO, and eager to join) foolishly attacked South Ossetia, and South Ossetia and Abhkazia under Russian protection declared their independence;
(3) it should pay due attention to U.S. State Department involvement in Ukraine, from before the time of the Orange Revolution of 2004-5; pay due attention to the geopolitical importance of the Crimea (site of the Russian Black Sea Fleet for over 230 years); and pay due attention to Yatsenyuk’s history (in order to explain his unique appeal to Washington);
(4) it should recognize and investigate the input of the Right Sector, commanded by the current National Security Council director, into the Feb. 22 violence in Kiev, including the reported use of sniper-fire to create panic;
(5) it should note the illegality (or at least dubious constitutionality) of the parliament vote approving the Yatsenyuk cabinet, and acknowledge that Moscow and other governments declining to recognize the new regime have reasonable (and traditional) grounds to do so;
(6) it should (rather than making light of Russian “scaremongering”) acknowledge the prominent Svoboda Party and Right Sector participation in the regime, including cabinet posts;
(7) it should incorporate in reporting, to provide appropriate context, the pro-fascist, anti-Russian and anti-Semitic pronouncements of prominent figures in and around the Yatsenyuk government (including Tyahnybok);
(8) it should emphasize that the Yatsenyuk group’s first act upon obtaining power was to cancel the existing language law, thereby making Ukrainian the sole official language and those whose first language is Russian, Hungarian, Moldovan and Romanian second-class citizens and signaling the rise of a frighteningly ultranationalist regime;
(9) it should whenever discussing Russian troop deployments in Crimea note that the 1991 Budapest Memorandum—which resulted in the removal of nuclear weapons from Ukraine, the mutual recognition of Russia and Ukraine and the maintenance of the Russian Black Sea fleet on the Crimean Peninsula—allows for Russia to maintain 25,000 troops there permanently to 2042; and
(10) good journalism must always avoid using the term “international community” when referring to the U.S. + whomever, in relation to some object the State Department has decided to target and hence wishes to portray as deserving military punishment, carried out by itself but done on behalf of all humanity (even though it might leave out, say, China, or China, India and Brazil).
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At the head of the list of those violating that last is CNN’s “senior international journalist” Christiane Amanpour. My most disturbing memory of her was when she was reporting from Belgrade, in March 1999, reporting that Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was continuing to defy “the international community” by rejecting the terms of the “Rambouillet Agreement” proposed by NATO to Belgrade.
But as Henry Kissinger told a reporter in June, after ten weeks of bombing had forced Milocevic into submission, “The Rambouillet text, which called on Serbia to admit NATO troops throughout Yugoslavia, was a provocation, an excuse to start bombing. Rambouillet is not a document that an angelic Serb could have accepted. It was a terrible diplomatic document that should never have been presented in that form.”
Around the same time George Kenney, a former State Department Yugoslavia desk officer, revealed in the Nation and on Pacifica Radio that a “senior administration source” had quoted Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as saying “We intentionally set the bar too high [at Rambouillet] for the Serbs to comply. They need some bombing and that’s what they are going to get.”
Amanpour, then newly married to State Department Chief Spokesman James Rubin, was touting the State Department line, as she is now and has throughout the Bush and Obama administrations. Then she depicted Serbian resistance to “a provocation,” a bar intentionally set too high, as “defiance of the international community.” She was thus deeply complicit in Albright’s determination to bomb, which was, by the way, firmly supported by the First Lady, Hillary Clinton.
Some of us recall how at the time State Department officials were talking about tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of ethnic Albanians had already been killed by inexplicably evil Serbs. Various investigations after the war showed that around 3000 Kosovars had been killed, none in acts of genocide, just before and during the course of the NATO bombing. Most were killed after the attack began.
As a result of that war in 1999 based on lies, we now have a humiliated, truncated Serbia, and an ethnically cleansed Kosovo governed by people once defined by the U.S. State Department as “terrorists” (because their group had killed Serbian policemen, which the U.S. considers “civilians”). The old regime has been replaced by one whose very establishment (under U.S. auspices) has thrown open the question of what constitutes legitimacy. This is not the Russians’ fault.
Nor is it anyone’s fault other than Washington’s that Kosovo with its massive U.S. army base has become a global center of human, human-organ and narcotics trafficking, while ethnic strife and attacks on Serbian Orthodox holy sites continue. Washington decided to show it was (still) boss in Europe after the end of the Cold War, and to show it could call the shots—even in this one-time bastion of East European non-alignment in 1999.
Maybe Putin wants to show that he is boss, at least in his neighborhood, in the Slavic homeland north of the Black Sea—to which the west offers nothing but austerity, debt refinancing, privatization, E.U. membership, and incorporation into an anti-Russian military alliance. Maybe he wants to say, “Enough, already! The destruction of Serbia, Iraq and Libya, the threat of unilateral strikes on Syria (without convincing evidence of Damascus’ use of chemical weapons, “cherry-picking” intelligence as Seymour Hersh pointed out last December), the constant threats to bomb a (non-existent) Iranian nuclear weapons program? Enough! You don’t own the world, Mr. Obama. You can’t just decide to put your man in charge in Kiev surrounded by a bunch of thugs Ms. Nuland likes and expect Russia to say, ok, fine. You always talk about ‘consequences’ for overstepping your ‘red lines.’ Well we have red lines too. These include preventing you from drawing Ukraine into NATO and challenging us over Crimea.”
Maybe this is what he is telling Obama. And while one doesn’t want to take Putin’s part (in terms of some upcoming U.S.-Russian Cold War-type confrontation) neither does one want to promote one false narrative over another. In this case the Russian narrative is somewhat more accurate than the U.S. one.
The issues of historical rights (including linguistic rights) and habitation, and the experience of Nazi occupation (including the slaughter of Jews abetted by the ancestor of the Svoboda Party), and possible threats to regional stability by neo-fascist activists might incline one to accept as inevitable the re-integration of all of East Ukraine “back” into Mother Russia.” I personally think that would be a bad idea and am not advocating it.
But it looks unlikely that this “crisis” will end with twentieth century Ukraine intact, or the NATO alliance firmly united around an anti-Russian course of action. (Germans will not accept a doubling in their gas prices to help the U.S. make a point about Crimea.) These outcomes—splits in Ukraine and in NATO—are not necessarily bad for the world.
One might hope that the setback to U.S. ambitions for NATO expansion would force the corporate press to abandon its propagandistic promotion of the U.S. as leader of a mythical “international community” that always wants what NATO wants. That is becoming too manifestly absurd to seriously argue. In any case, the propaganda war over Ukraine is a war about real facts, real histories, real fascists. The truth will out in time, to those paying attention.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org