In Background, Feature Articles, Media critique, Roger Annis, Ukraine

By Roger Annis, Dec. 19, 2014. An abridged version of this article is published in Ricochet, a new, progressive media platform in Canada.

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. The newspaper published a substantial article by him in its Saturday edition of Dec. 6. The article is a useful reference point for examining how mainstream media is presenting the story of the war in Ukraine to Canadians, for good and for bad.

Shelling in Luhansk region early July 2014, photo RIA Novosti, Valeriy Melnikov

Shelling in Luhansk region early July 2014, photo RIA Novosti, Valeriy Melnikov

Canada has been an enthusiastic partner with the United States and European Union in supporting the right wing government that came into power in Ukraine in February of this year, 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. (See my lengthy article of Dec. 10 telling that story.)

Canada has been supplying military equipment to Kyiv, and now we have learned that the first Canadian military personnel have hit the ground in Ukraine, in the form of 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 is outside the framework of NATO and it explicitly states that is it not subject to any existing international treaties or conventions of war. Welcome to the new cold war.

‘We have no homeland’

MacKinnon’s article recounts the story of four families from the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine who have been displaced by the war. One family is near Kyiv in a refugee camp. It is enduring threats and harassment by right-wing paramilitaries who drop by regularly to tell the family members they are not welcome.

The extreme right does not distinguish friend from foe among those fleeing the war in eastern Ukraine. They are all ‘outsiders’ and should stay home. And if they are loyal to Kyiv, they should take up guns against their fellow citizens. It’s a cruel circumstance for the family because the male head says he favored the change in government that took place in Kyiv in February.

Another family has stayed in Donetsk and is living in harrowing circumstances. 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 opted to move to Russia and start anew. They have ended up in eastern Siberia, 9,000 kilometers away from Ukraine because there are promises of jobs and a roof over their head.

A fourth family, a single mother with two children, is living in Russia just across the Ukraine border. They are “well off as refugees go”, explains MacKinnon.

MacKinnon provides a sympathetic description of the families’ circumstances. He also describes their divided opinions on what has caused the catastrophe that has befallen their Donbas homeland. The title of his article 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. It goes something like this.

Blame Russia

The root of the story, according to MacKinnon is 80 years old, during the time of the Soviet Union under the rule of Joseph Stalin. “Ukraine is once more seized by a tumult largely made in Moscow.” So it seems the evil Russia is as omnipresent as ever in the life of Ukraine.

“It [the present-day conflict] began as a simple trade dispute and escalated into war.” We’re told that the conflict is “in response to a pro-Western revolution in Kiev [in February 2014]”. That is, the people and forces which opposed that change, including Russia, are to Blame. Russia, specifically, is accused of fomenting the opposition of so many Ukrainians to the authoritarian government that emerged from the ‘Euromaidan’ protest movement outcome.

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”.

In case the reader missed the point of who sparked the war in eastern Ukraine, MacKinnon cites additional causes, including the “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, we’re told, by using incendiary language referring to the conflict region as ‘Novorossiya’, which roughly translates as ‘New Russia’.[1]

In the journalistic world of Russian “annexations” and “aggression” in Ukraine, most of the key events of the past year that have truly caused the political crisis are made to disappear, as if by magic:

  • 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 the parties and paramilitary militias-in-formation of the extreme right. The extreme right paramilitaries 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 that 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, it was the elected assembly that 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, including, as uncovered by Human Rights Watch and the New York Times, the use of cluster weapons. 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.

Poof! All gone from the news. Such are the strident biases framing the entirety of coverage of Ukraine by mainstream media in the West. All of the above and much, much more are simply ‘disappeared’ from the news and from political discourse.

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. 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 that was a commitment it never intended to keep.) 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 September 5. The ceasefire was highly unsatisfactory and disadvantageous to the rebel forces because it left half of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts 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 movement across the Russia-Ukraine border of the considerable human and material resources that Russian citizens are providing.

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. An article in Business New Europe two months ago summarized the devastating factory closings already suffered by the communities and workers of industrialized Ukraine. 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 December 23 if the government does not begin to heed its concerns. Unions are discussing with each other how to create better trade union coordination.

MacKinnon provides an historical sketch of Ukraine by way of explaining context to today’s events. The sketch becomes downright bizarre in its revisionist presentation of the German Nazi invasion and occupation of 1941-45 that laid Ukraine to waste. He writes, “The Maidan [the protest movement in Ukraine that led to the overthrow of Yanukovych] and the war in Donetsk and Lugansk are just the latest skirmishes in this long and often-violent clash [in Ukraine] 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 WW2 are indeed, getting a renaissance in the new, right-wing Ukraine. And the infection is spreading.

MacKinnon makes another, odd reinterpretation of history in a Dec. 15 Globe article on the current political situation in Hungary. The article chastises Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a right-winger, because he is improving his government’s relations with Russia in an effort to rebuff the heavy-handed influence that the large countries of the EU and NATO are trying to exercise over Hungary. But MacKinnon neglects to mention Orban’s most egregious actions—the ideological drive by his party and government to whitewash the country’s World War Two collaboration with Nazi Germany and a related crackdown on progressive political movements in the country today.

Who is accusing Russia?

The ‘blame Russia’ scenario is universal in mainstream media, but it is very much 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 United States—is a rogue torture state. That’s the inescapable conclusion of the report of the U.S. Senate released on Dec. 9. The Senate report as released to the public is a heavily redacted summary, 528 pages long, of the full report prepared by the body’s ‘Intelligence Committee’. It is primarily concerned with the fact that torture didn’t produce great results in obtaining information.

Dr. Nafeez Ahmed has written a sharp reminder in Alternet that CIA and U.S. government torture practices have not ended under President Obama. He writes, “Much of the media coverage of this issue is missing the crucial bigger picture: the deliberate rehabilitation of torture under the Obama administration, and its systematic use to manufacture false intelligence to justify endless war”.

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 are known to have hosted CIA torture centers on their territories—Romania, Lithuania and Poland.

The Canadian government is trying to evade the stain of association with the U.S. government and CIA policy depicted in the Senate report. Stephen Harper pronounced, “This is a report of the United States government. It has nothing to do with Canada.” But the record 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 by Toronto Star columnist and editor Haroon Siddiqui in a Dec. 11 column, ‘Canada must own up to its complicity in torture

To this can be added the 2011 directive by the federal government to Canada’s spy agency, CSIS, that the agency may henceforth use evidence obtained by torture from foreign governments or police agencies to guide its work. (See also a recent article on this subject by Linda McQuaig.)

Coincidentally, the Globe and Mail is waging a laudable news effort to expose grim practices in Canada’s prisons, specifically the one called ‘solitary confinement’. A growing number of countries are cutting back or stopping the practice because it is known to destroy the psychology of the victim and degrade the humanity of the practitioner. That’s ‘torture’ by any reasonable definition, even if the editors of the Toronto Star chose to call it otherwise (“prisoner abuse”) in a Dec. 13 editorial. In Canada, the practice is growing.

One reason for Canada’s ease of mind in practicing solitary confinement is that, along with the U.S., it is not a signatory to the 1992 Optional Protocol of the United Nations Convention against Torture (1984). Among other things, the protocol allows for international inspection of jails and other places of detention. (See a open letter on the subject dated Dec. 10, 2014 and addressed to the Canadian government.)

The solitary confinement policy in Canada’s prisons is doubly concerning because notwithstanding occasional federal government lip service to the rights of Aboriginal people—for example, the 2008 formal ‘apology’ for Canada’s racist and genocidal past policies–the jails are filling up faster than ever with them. A justice department report that the government tried to keep under wraps shows a 97 per cent increase in the number of Aboriginal women in jail over the past ten years. Four per cent of Canadian women are Aboriginal, but Aboriginal women make up a whopping 40 per cent of women prisoners in the country. The editors of the Toronto Star call the situation a “blight” on the reputation of Canada.

Can we trust a biased media for anything to do with Russia?

The falsehoods or distortions in news reporting of Russia are not limited to the war theatre in Ukraine. Nothing can be trusted, it seems.

When Russia announced it was cancelling the South Stream natural gas pipeline that would run under the Black Sea to Europe, estimated to cost $40 billion, this was presented by much of mainstream media as a huge blow to Russia’s economic fortunes. Not only would the cancellation of the project diminish Russia’s prospects for selling gas, it would lose the $4 billion it had already spent to build it.

Mark MacKinnon reported in the Dec. 8 Globe that, “[South Steam’s] death leaves Mr. Putin’s energy plans in tatters and his country more reliant than ever on partners like China and Turkey. They are using the moment to extract better deals from the Kremlin, which can ill afford any more bad economic news.”

But the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, doesn’t see matters this way. He is angry at Russia’s decision and wants the pipeline to be built. EU Energy Commissioner Maros Sefcovic also wants South Stream to be revived, according to an in-depth analysis of the whole Europe-Russia natural gas issue published in Eurasian News.

Investment analyst Chris Weafer who advises clients on investment in Russia says South Stream was a “bad commercial decision” that Russia is better off without. A commentary by him appeared in the Moscow Times on Dec. 4. A similar tone, that Russia is better off without the project, is sounded by Binoy Kampmark of RMIT University in Melbourne.

A memorandum of understanding has been signed between Russia and Turkey for an alternative pipeline to South Stream. Chris Weafer notes that economic relations between the two countries are growing. Concerning the threat of more sanctions by the EU against Russia, he closed his commentary with some advice for Brussels: “Be careful what you wish for.”

As for the lost $4 billion on South Stream, the head of Russia’s Gazprom, Alexei Miller, says much of that can be repurposed for the alternative route that Russia is now planning with Turkey.

The growing military buildup in eastern Europe and 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 are 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 effort to provide all available assistance so that a common struggle for social justice and national and language equality can be forged. That should include opposing the economic embargos against Russia and Crimea.

Roger Annis writes frequently on events in Ukraine for Truthout and other publications. He is an editor of the new website, The New Cold War: Ukraine and Beyond. His previous article there is ‘The propaganda war over Crimea’s break from Ukraine, Dec 10, 2014.

[1] ‘Novorossiya’ is a term used for centuries, including long before Ukraine became a national entity, to describe the territory lying along the northern coast of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov (not including Crimea). Right-wing nationalists in Ukraine take great offense at the term, but it is a gross exaggeration to call usage of it by a Russian president as provocative and akin to supporting secessionism.

Read also:
Canada’s Globe and Mail daily joins in extolling Ukraine’s extreme-right, by Roger Annis, New Cold, March 9, 2015


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