How Canada’s media gets Ukraine all wrong

Much is obscured in the simplistic ‘blame Russia’ narrative
Photo: Sasha Maksymenko

Blaming Russia is all too easy when it comes to the war in Ukraine. Here’s what mainstream media in the West are missing.

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The Globe and Mail is the only newspaper in Canada spending time and resources to report from the war zone of eastern Ukraine. Seasoned Globe reporter Mark MacKinnon has been in and out of there for many months, and in late November had a substantial article that provides a useful reference point for examining how mainstream media present the story of the war in Ukraine to Canadians.

Canada has been an enthusiastic partner with the U.S. and European Union in supporting the right-wing government that came into power in Ukraine last February, following the overthrow of the elected president. The new government went to war against its population in the east of the country (the region called Donbas) in April. That was its response to popular demands for more political autonomy and democracy for the region. Kyiv calls its war an “anti-terrorist operation.”

Kyiv would have carried a war into Crimea as well, where opposition to the new government was also very high. But the population there took a decisive step to prevent that by voting on March 16 to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.

Canada has been supplying military equipment to Kyiv, and the first Canadian military personnel have hit the ground in Ukraine, in a contingent of ten military police. Canada and Ukraine have signed an agreement providing for Canadian military personnel to commence a support role for the Ukrainian armed forces. The agreement falls outside the framework of NATO and explicitly states that it also falls outside of any existing international treaties or conventions of war.

Welcome to the new cold war.

‘We have no homeland’

Mark MacKinnon’s article in the Globe recounts the story of four families from the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine who have been displaced by the war.

One family, near Kyiv in a refugee camp, endures regular harassment from right-wing paramilitaries. The extreme right sees all those fleeing the war as outsiders who should have stayed home. It’s a cruel circumstance for the family because the male head says he favoured the change in government that took place in Kyiv in February.

Another family has stayed in Donetsk. The woman family head says, “We sit in the house all day on the sofa and count the missiles as they fly over.” A third family — a mother, grandmother and daughter — has followed promises of jobs and a roof over their head, ending up in eastern Siberia, 9,000 kilometers away from Ukraine. A fourth family, a single mother with two children, lives in Russia just across the Ukraine border. They are “well off as refugees go,” says MacKinnon.

MacKinnon provides a sympathetic description of the families’ circumstances and describes their divided opinions on what has caused the catastrophe in Donbas. The article’s title is drawn from the lament by the head of the family stuck near Kyiv: “We have no homeland.”

But the reader is left bewildered by it all. The scale of the catastrophe might suggest that a complex set of factors is involved. But MacKinnon has only one explanation: Russia did it.

Blame Russia

The root of the story, according to MacKinnon, is 80 years old, starting with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. “Ukraine is once more seized by a tumult largely made in Moscow.”

What “began as a simple trade dispute and escalated into war” is a “response to a pro-Western revolution in Kiev,” known as the Euromaidan protest movement, in February 2014, writes MacKinnon. That is, the people and forces who opposed the calls for the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych are to blame. Russia, specifically, is accused of fomenting opposition among Ukrainians to the authoritarian government that emerged after the toppling of Yanukovych.

The other party specifically named as at fault for the war raging in eastern Ukraine is “the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, a Russian-backed entity at war with the Ukrainian state.”

MacKinnon cites other causes of the war, including the alleged annexation of Crimea by Russia in March and the declarations of independence by the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (provinces) of Donbas in April and May. Russian president Vladimir Putin inspired those moves by Donetsk and Luhansk, says MacKinnon, by using incendiary language referring to the conflict region as Novorossiya, which roughly translates as “New Russia.”

In the journalistic world of Russian annexations and aggression in Ukraine, many key events of the past year are made to disappear:

  • The right-wing government that came to power in February following the overthrow of President Victor Yanukovych proposed a sharp rupture of Ukraine’s existing political and economic ties with Russia in favour of association with austerity Europe and dependence on the IMF for government financing.

  • The overthrow of Yanukovych was spearheaded by the cadre of parties and paramilitary militias-in-formation of the extreme right, which have served as the shock troops of the war in the east because many of Ukraine’s conscript soldiers have been reluctant to kill or be killed.

  • The “anti-terrorist operation” launched in April was Kyiv’s response to the demands of the populations in the east and south of Ukraine for more political autonomy, election of provincial governors and a halt to the rush into association with Europe (including the deep cuts to social services and to price supports for essential items, which the IMF has demanded from the outset).

  • The people of Crimea were attached to Ukraine by a bureaucratic decision of the Soviet Union 60 years ago. Crimea became an autonomous region of Ukraine with its own regional elected assembly. Decades later, the elected assembly decided to organize the March referendum, and a large majority of Crimeans voted to secede.

  • The government in Kyiv, located in modern and democratic Europe, has for the past six months been shelling and bombing the towns and cities of eastern Ukraine, using cluster weapons, as uncovered by Human Rights Watch and the New York Times. The bombings are destroying life support systems such as electricity, water, home heating, sanitation and communication. Kyiv has cut banking services, delivery of medical supplies and social service payments to the people of Luhansk and Donetsk.

All of the above and more are simply disappeared from the news and from political discourse. Such are the strident biases framing the coverage of Ukraine by mainstream media in the West.

The argument that frames the media bias is that Russia’s actions have provoked the whole mess. Accusations of direct intervention by Russian troops into eastern Ukraine are regularly trotted out, sometimes accompanied by suggestive photos of military equipment on the move. The follow-up proof is never offered, and soon after the next cycle of invasion accusation begins.

The true story is complex, but decipherable. Russia is a big capitalist country that has considerable economic as well as national security interests in preventing Ukraine from following the 11 other former countries or Soviet republics of eastern Europe that have joined the NATO military alliance and the European Union. (NATO promised to the crumbling Soviet Union that it would not seek to take advantage of the chaotic circumstances to expand eastward, but it never intended to keep that commitment.)

But invading Ukraine? There is only one plausible case of direct intervention. At the end of August in the very southeast of Ukraine, a large-scale intervention by rebel forces dealt a crushing blow to the most geographically advanced units of the Ukraine army and extreme-right militias. It’s unlikely that such a blow could have been delivered without direct Russian assistance.

Following that decisive setback to Ukraine, a very unstable ceasefire was signed in Minsk, Belarus, on Sept. 5. The ceasefire was disadvantageous to the rebel forces because it left half of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (provinces) under Kyiv’s control. From there, Kyiv has continued its shellings of cities, including the two large cities of Donetsk (pre-war population of 900,000) and Luhansk (450,000). But that was the limit set by Russia: It decided it would not allow Kyiv to crush the anti-austerity and anti-NATO rebellion, but neither would it give free reign to a rebellion it did not control.

Otherwise, Russian assistance to the rebel forces in eastern Ukraine has taken two forms: it has provided life-saving humanitarian aid, and it has refused the demands of NATO that it police the rebel movement into submission by preventing the cross-border movement of the considerable human and material resources that Russian citizens are providing to Ukraine.

The IMF and austerity Europe: A ‘nation-building project’

MacKinnon summarizes the new political situation beginning in February 2014 in these words: “Donetsk, Lugansk and Crimea resisted the nation-building project under way in the rest of the country.”

Yes, they did refuse the pro-Europe project, and for good reason. Economic association with Europe means the effective dismantling of much of the existing economy of the country, including in the heavily industrialized Donbas. There is much worse to come as the IMF oversees the scuttling of the trade ties and government programs that have shaped Ukraine for decades.

Ukraine’s workers and communities are not taking the economic dismantling lying down. Important protests against factory closings and against deep cuts to the social wage in Ukraine are on the rise. The country’s largest trade union federation says it will stage a general strike on Dec. 23 if the government does not begin to heed its concerns. Unions are discussing how to create better coordination.

MacKinnon provides a historical sketch of Ukraine, which becomes downright bizarre in its revisionist presentation of the German Nazi invasion and occupation of 1941–45 that laid Ukraine to waste. He writes that the Euromaidan movement and the war in Donetsk and Lugansk “are just the latest skirmishes in this long and often-violent clash over history. It’s an angry argument about whose grandfathers were on the right side of the Second World War, when Hitler fought Stalin in Ukraine.”

Huh? There was a “right side” and a “wrong side” in the war against Hitler and German fascism? Did Canada, the U.S. and democratic Europe perhaps fight on the wrong side? The reputations of those who collaborated in the Nazi slaughter of Jews, Poles, communists and other resistance fighters in Ukraine during World War II are indeed getting a renaissance in the new right-wing Ukraine. And the infection is spreading.

Who is accusing Russia?

The ‘blame Russia’ scenario is at odds with the facts of the situation in Ukraine. Dispelling its ideological grip over discourse of Ukraine requires examination of the credentials of the accusers. It’s now official that the lead country egging the Kyiv government on to war — the U.S. — is a rogue torture state.

That’s the inescapable conclusion of a U.S. Senate report released on Dec. 9. A heavily redacted 528-page summary of the full report, prepared by the body’s so-called Intelligence Committee and released to the public, is primarily concerned with the fact that torture didn’t produce great results in obtaining information.

The Guardian reports that 20 European states are likely complicit in the U.S. policy of illegal detentions and torture. At least three NATO member countries — Romania, Lithuania and Poland — are known to have hosted CIA torture centres on their territories.

The Canadian government is trying to evade the stain of association with the U.S. government and CIA policy depicted in the report. Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced, “This is a report of the United States government. It has nothing to do with Canada.” But the record is clear and shows otherwise. Canada has a disgraceful record of complicity with the U.S. torture program in Afghanistan and in other countries.

Its varied record of complicity in torture is detailed in a Dec. 11 Toronto Star column by Haroon Siddiqui. To this can be added the 2011 directive by the federal government to Canada’s spy agency, CSIS, that it may henceforth use evidence obtained by torture from foreign governments or police agencies to guide its work.

Canada and allies on a dangerous and provocative course

Eastern Europe’s growing military buildup against Russia, to which Canada has contributed a warship, fighter aircraft and soldiers, now sees Canadian boots on the ground in Ukraine. It’s an exceptionally provocative and dangerous course that Canada and its allies have embarked upon.

The NATO imperialist countries are engaged in a political and military offensive in which all the peoples of the region — Ukrainian, Russian, Crimean and more — are threatened and already suffering. The international left needs to step up efforts to provide all available assistance so that a common struggle for social justice and national and language equality can be forged. That includes opposing the economic embargoes against Russia and Crimea.

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