Western governments and media have a problem with the right-wing regime that is governing Ukraine. The country’s economy is a shambles. Even the regime’s own backers in the West acknowledge the country and its economy are hopelessly mired in corruption.
Extremists and neo-Nazis, even, occupy high positions in the police, army and government.
What’s more, the regime is a source of instability as well as embarrassment for its pro-Western neighbours, notably Poland. Poles are none too happy that Ukrainian ultranationalists who allied with Nazi Germany during World War and conducted massacres of their Polish forebears are being rehabilitated as national heroes in Ukraine.
All of this creates a public relations problem for Western governments and their NATO alliance that can explode at any time. A case in point is the arrests in early August of several bands of Ukrainian ultranationalist saboteurs who infiltrated across the Ukraine-Crimea border with explosives in hand. The operation was foiled on August 6 when the infiltrators were discovered and quickly rounded up, though not before the Ukrainian army provided cross-border covering fire. When the smoke cleared, one Russian soldier and one Russian policeman were dead.
A statement by Russia’s Foreign Ministry on August 11 says the mission was planned by the Ukrainian Defence Ministry’s Chief Intelligence Directorate. Russia’s national security police, the FSB, has released photos and videos of the material carried by the saboteurs. It has also released information gathered from initial interviews with the arrested. All will be learned at forthcoming trials.
This is a big public relations problem for the regime in Kyiv and its backers in the West because according to the narratives they have been peddling for more than two years now, Ukraine is a tragic victim of Russian aggression following the Maidan coup, er, ‘Revolution of Dignity’, that saw Ukraine’s elected president overthrown in February 2014. Needless to say, news of a terrorist infiltration plot is hardly conducive to selling the Ukraine-as-victim story.
What’s more, President Vladimir Putin has promised that new measures will be taken to protect Crimea, but has also said that Ukraine’s government and army will pay a price for their folly. As Turkey has learned since it shot down a Russian fighter plane last year, the Russian government doesn’t take kindly to rogue military operations which kill its servicemen.
So what are the governments of the NATO alliance and their allied media outlets doing now that Ukraine has created another public relations problem?
Western governments have, for the most part, reacted to the Ukrainian provocation with careful language. Alexander Mercouris explained in The Duran on August 13:
In the event, the most surprising fact about the Crimean incident is that there have not even been the ritual statements from Western governments of support for Ukraine that I expected. On the contrary, Western governments have publicly said virtually nothing about the incident. A meeting of the UN Security Council did take place on August 11 to discuss the incident, but the meeting took place in closed session so scarcely anything is known about it. By contrast, the calls for restraint I said would be made by the West to Ukraine in private are being made in public as well.
But the reaction of Western media has been quite aggressive, going on the propaganda offensive. It has waged a two-front offensive in the week following the August 6 arrests.
One front is flat denial. Reuters reported, for example, on August 11, “What actually happened in and around Crimea at the weekend remains disputed.” The New York Times‘ Max Fisher wrote, “It’s difficult to judge the truth of these [Russian] claims.”
The Guardian‘s Shaun Walker called the infiltration and the subsequent clash “alleged”. He gave lots of space to the denials of any involvement by the Ukrainian government. He reported at face value U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt messaging on Twitter, “Russia has a record of frequently levying false accusations at Ukraine to deflect attention from its own illegal actions.”
Germany’s state broadcaster Deutsche Welle also featured the denials of the Ukrainian government. It included in its report several threatening-looking photos of Russian military equipment to bolster the report’s musings over ‘what is Russia up to?’.
The Associated Press‘ report by Nataliya Vasilyeva headlined that the clash in Crimea was a case of “tough talk between Russia, Ukraine heating up”. She used quotation marks in referring to Russia’s description of those it arrested as “saboteurs”. English grammar studies teach that the use of “quotation marks” around a discussion subject signals the writer’s view that the story is concocted or just plain untrue.
Many reports used a clever twist in describing one of Russia’s reactions to events, which was Russia cancelling participation in a planned briefing with Germany and France over the situation in eastern Ukraine which was to take place during the G20 summit meeting next month in China. The AP‘s Vasilyeva writes, “The strong language used by Putin and other Russian officials, particularly Putin’s refusal to discuss the implementation of the peace accord with Poroshenko, has raised fears of a possible escalation of hostilities.”
One week later and Western media is still denying. The BBC‘s Sarah Rainsford wrote on August 14, “No video footage or independent confirmation of that [August 6] incident [sic] has yet emerged. What actually took place therefore remains a mystery.”
Change the subject
Denial alone does not make a strong case, particularly when in this case, the FSB has released visual and written details of the saboteurs’ work and when this is only the latest in a string of terrorist attacks against Crimeans by Ukraine (more on that later). So an accompanying step is to change the subject by introducing tried and true conspiratorial musings as to what is really going on in the heads of Russian leaders–the proverbial and ever-present “mystery” of Russia cited by the BBC‘s Rainsford. Here, media is having a field day.
It starts with extensive reporting of Ukrainian government denials complete with Ukrainian claims of a Russian conspiracy against them. Journalists then add their own twist to the mix.
The Times‘ Max Fisher writes, for example, “Russia is conducting a series of military and rhetorical escalations toward Ukraine that have anxious Western analysts once again looking for clues as to President Vladimir V. Putin’s next move.”
The BBC‘s Rainsford says, “But it is what happens next that matters most [emphasis added], as the incident raises tensions between Moscow and Kiev to dangerous heights.”
Reuters calls Russia’s response to events “belligerent”. It writes, “Escalating tension over Crimea could give Putin a pretext to abandon [Minsk 2-related] talks altogether, or demand changes to their format and terms, while holding out the prospect of a full-scale renewal of hostilities if he doesn’t get what he wants.”
Shaun Walker writes, “Russia showed no sign of toning down the rhetoric on Thursday [August 11] …”
The Financial Times combined denial and conspiratorial musings in its story headline of August 11: ‘Russia ratchets up rhetoric against Ukraine after Crimea plot allegation’.
Let’s see. Russia is attacked by saboteurs, who received cover fire from the Ukrainian army. The Ukrainian side killed a Russian soldier and a policeman, and the infiltration has stoked fear of a flat-out, new front of global terrorism opening up along the Ukraine-Crimea border. In response, Russia is upset and angry and is promising stronger measures to defend its citizens in Crimea. The nerve of those Russians!
Past silence and complicity pays off
The claims of innocence by Kyiv, repeated widely in the Western press, are disproven by the evidence provided by Russia since the August 6 attack, with much more to come as trials are prepared.
And there is an additional reason to discount Ukraine’s claim of innocence and discount Ukrainian and Western media conspiratorial distractions. It is the simple reason that this is not the first time that the citizens of Crimea have suffered terrorist attacks by Ukrainian ultranationalists. On the contrary, it is the latest in a long line.
In late February 2014, during the Euromaidan ‘Revolution of Dignity’ in Kyiv, Crimean citizens who had made their way to Kyiv to voice opposition to the looming overthrow of the President Yanukovych (for whom the large majority of Crimeans had voted in 2010) were attacked on their way home. It happened near Korsun in southern Ukraine. Some 350 people were taken off eight buses. The buses were burned and passengers were roughed up and worse. Reportedly, several dozen people were killed. (Reports here and here.)
The attack at Korsun and the many threats voiced by Ukrainian extremists that ‘order’ would be delivered by force in Crimea were compelling reasons why Crimean authorities moved swiftly to organize a referendum in March 2014 to secede from Ukraine (quite apart from the long-standing, historical justification for such a vote). As events quickly showed in Donbass, eastern Ukraine and in Odessa (the massacre of May 2, 2014), the violent threats being widely voiced by Ukrainian right-wing paramilitaries against Crimeans were real and imminent. The threats only escalated after secession.
In September of 2015, right-wing, ultranationalist paramilitaries mounted a road transport (including food) blockade against Crimea. The Kyiv government did not lift a finger against the extremists. On the contrary, three months later, it made the transport blockade official government policy.
Then in November 2015, the extremists mounted their boldest attack on Crimea since the Korsun massacre. They blew up electricity pylons on all four electrical service lines serving Crimea from Ukraine, cutting most of the peninsula’s electrical supply. The rightists blocked crews from conducting repairs and once again the government in Kyiv condoned their actions.
These events should discredit the efforts of Western media to dismiss or downplay the latest sabotage against Crimea. But that doesn’t happen because Western media has been working on a fix for that all along: don’t report the news from Crimea and Ukraine! Hence, the Korsun massacre was never reported, not a breath. The road and electricity blockades of 2015 were reported perfunctorily and then quickly erased from the news. The blockades were certainly never reported as being the violations of human rights and international diplomacy that they were.
The acceptance by many on the political and antiwar left in Western countries of the ‘Russia annexed Crimea’ meme makes matters worse.
There are few cases more glaring than Crimea in recent decades of Western corporate media going flat out to “manufacture consent” (to use the title of the 1988 book by authors Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky) for its claim that Russia illegally seized and annexed Crimea.
The vote by the people of Crimea in March 2014 to secede from Ukraine and rejoin the Russian federation was an act of political self-determination, fully in keeping with international law (such as that is worth these days). The vote was prompted by unresolved, longstanding grievances over Crimea’s second-class status in Ukraine, including how Crimea became to be a part of Ukraine in the first place. It was also prompted by imminent threats against the rights and personal security of Crimeans by a right-wing coup regime in Kyiv to which they rightly accorded no legitimacy.
Given how the ‘Russia annexed Crimea’ story is a centrepiece of NATO war threats against Russia, including the underlying threat of nuclear war expressed in the U.S. government posture, an international campaign of solidarity with the Crimean people is urgently needed. The economic sanctions against Crimea and Russia should be lifted. Pressure is needed on the government in Kyiv to end its military attacks in eastern Ukraine and adhere to the political resolution of the conflict spelled out in the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement of February 12, 2015.