In Digest, Media critique, Ukraine

By Nahia Sanzo, July 2, 2015, translated from the original Spanish on by Greg Butterfield and posted to his website ‘Red Star Over Donbass’

On February 21, 2014, then-President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, and opposition leaders, along with the foreign ministers of several European Union countries, in the presence of Russia, signed a deal that should have put an end to the political crisis that had led to several months of protests in Kiev’s Maidan Square. Yanukovych agreed to leave much of his power as president in the hands of a unity government that would ensure the stability of the country until early elections. [1] The next day, Yanukovych was ousted and forced to flee the country.

Signing of political agreement in Ukraine on Feb. 21, 2014 (Thomas Trutschel, Phototek via Getty Images)

Signing of political agreement in Ukraine on Feb. 21, 2014 (Thomas Trutschel, Phototek via Getty Images)

Thus ended what for some was a revolution of dignity and for others a coup. It ended the phase of political protests on Maidan and began, almost immediately, the wave of protests in the east of Ukraine. These were mainly the result of the first measures of the new Yatsenyuk government repealing the law granting official status to the Russian language, spoken by at least 10 percent of the population [of Ukraine]. This measure affected mainly the eastern regions of the country, part of Russia until the Soviet era, where Russian is the lingua franca.

In those early demonstrations, the population was already carrying Russian flags, an obvious symbol of the culture and language that they sought to protect. And although at the time, in February and March 2014, the demand for autonomy, which would appear in April, or independence, which appeared in May as Ukraine launched its counterterrorism operation, had not even been raised, the protesters were already qualified as pro-Russian.

Lenin Square in Donetsk

Lenin Square in Donetsk

Throughout 2014, as the rebellion in Donbass strengthened, the war progressed and reached the harsh defeat[of Ukraine] at Ilovaysk, the Ukrainian government and part of the Western media began to set aside the term “pro-Russian rebels” for “rebels supported by Russia”, to start deliberately overestimating Russia’s role in military actions. Then they began to speak of large columns of Russian tanks crossing the border to face the Ukrainian forces. But none of these columns were photographed or detected by Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe observers. In an interview in Kiev, Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the OSCE observation mission, admitted not having evidence of Russian military aid, but insisted that this didn’t mean it didn’t exist.

Despite the absence of compelling photographic evidence of a massive Russian presence in Donbass, the Ukrainian government has continued denouncing a Russian presence in Ukraine, described at first as an intervention, later as invasion, and finally as occupation. Following the same evolution, the media has considered as Russian any military vehicle accompanied by a Russian flag, although Russian flags have existed, and continue to coexist today, alongside the Donetsk, Lugansk, Novorossiyan and even Soviet flags. But as the war progressed, the need to prove the origin of soldiers or military vehicles disappeared. Unlike at the beginning of the war, when the press was looking for any evidence of a Russian presence, now it is taken as a fact.

On June 30, 2015, The Daily Beast published an article in which it claimed to have discovered a Russian base around Volnovakha, south of the city of Donetsk, which, if confirmed, would be the first real proof of a Russian military presence and its offensive intentions. So far, the only military presence of the Russian army in Donbass (beyond Russian volunteers, whose presence has never been denied) is the team led by Alexander Lentsov, working since November 2014, at the invitation of President Poroshenko, monitoring compliance with the truce together with the OSCE and the Ukrainian army.

The Daily Beast report has aerial images that show, over several days, a military base that increases in size. “Drones show a Russian military base in Ukraine,” said the report, which did not provide any evidence that it is a Russian base rather than a base of the Donetsk People’s Republic or the Ukrainian army, which all use similar weaponry. “More war is inevitable,” it proclaims.

The report is based on a series of images captured by reconnaissance drones of the Ukrainian volunteer battalion Dnepr-1. These indeed show a military base, although there is no evidence of a Russian presence in them. The images show the usual elements of a military position: tanks, support vehicles, a kitchen, tents for soldiers – but nothing to identify the Russian army. And despite the idea transmitted by the report, which openly suggests a Russian offensive, the video does not prove the offensive nature of the position. At any given time, signs point to a few concrete blocks “to build defensive structures.”

The Dnepr-1 battalion, visited recently by Senator John McCain in his latest attempt to pressure the U.S. government to supply weapons to the Ukrainian army, is commanded by Yuriy Bereza. He is a veteran of the struggle for American weapons to Ukraine. It is not the first time Bereza, who in February called for “burning Crimea, if necessary with all its residents” and who in the past has advocated attacking Russia, has tried unsuccessfully to prove a Russian presence in Donbass. In November 2014, a Ukrainian delegation touring the United States, whose sole purpose was to get U.S. weapons for the Ukrainian army, met with Senator Jim Inhofe. Primarily made ​​up of parliamentarians, Bereza and Semenchenko among them, the delegation tried to prove Russian intervention by showing a series of photographs of columns of Russian tanks. To the embarassment of the senator, these were to be denied by the media later. In fact, those pictures did not show Russian tanks in Ukraine but, rather, equipment on the road to South Ossetia in 2008.

The Ukrainian delegation also had an American, Phillip Karber, who apologized for Bereza after he declared to have delivered only photographs taken by his men in August-September 2014 to Senator Inhofe. Karber, a member of the Potomac Foundation and professor at Georgetown, is one of the great defenders of militarizing the conflict. Standing next to Commander of NATO forces in Europe Wesley Clark at a ceremony, Karber opened the door to the possibility of U.S. volunteers joining the Ukrainian forces in case Russia violated the Minsk ceasefire agreement.

Michael Weiss appeared alongside Rodichenko on CNN, MSNBC and other networks. In his collaboration with Peter Pomerantsev, their participation in the Legatum Institute and now as editor at The Daily Beast , Weiss is one of the voices who routinely want to portray the war in Donbass as a conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Weiss worked in February as Rodichenko’s spokesman, repeating his version of the epic war, a modern version of David and Goliath in which Ukrainians with old AK-47’s faced Russian tanks.

Michael Weiss is also editor-in-chief of The Interpreter, funded by the Institute of Modern Russia, whose president is Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. At that time, on February 17, The Interpreter published a translation of an article by Ivan Rodichenko on an episode that occurred in the summer in the Chernigov region, north of Kiev. In his first military mission, Rodichenko told of a night when their commander, Vysota, informed the staff of an imminent Russian invasion: “’Men, the Russian Federation may possibly invade Ukraine! There is an enormous group of 17,000 of the enemy along the Chernihiv line.’ Infantry, 300 tanks, 500 APCs, 100 Grad systems, planes, helicopters and so on. And now the commander said the most important thing. There were only 1,500 of us on the border, including our battalion, which meant that we would last only seven minutes in battle!”

The battalion returned to its barracks, waiting for an invasion that clearly was not going to arrive, since Donbass, where the conflict took place, was hundreds of kilometers from the area. “We had avoided the Russian invasion. The politicians had reached an agreement, diplomacy had worked,” said Rodichenko of this alleged attempted invasion. The Interpreter did not feel the need to provide evidence of these 300 tanks and 500 armored vehicles prepared to invade Ukraine from the most unexpected place, just as today it does not need evidence to say that Russia amasses troops at the supposed base located between Donetsk and Mariupol.

It is striking that the information published in The Interpreter in turn becomes a source for other media such as The Daily Beast. “On June 17, our team at The Interpreter reported evidence taken from social networks on the presence of a training camp in Razdolnoye, equipped with tanks, infantry, combat vehicles and Grad rocket launchers,” says the report.

Information from The Interpreter reports a training camp with tanks and anti-aircraft systems, “surely” supplied by Russia, and moves on to speculate on the militiamen who, without any evidence, are accused of being part of the Russian secret service. That speculation is enough to be considered a reliable source by The Daily Beast, so obsessed with presenting the conflict as a war between Russia and Ukraine that it ran an article on May 2, 2015, the first anniversary of the Odessa massacre, presenting it as “clashes between Russians and Ukrainians.” Throughout the day, it was modified to describe clashes between “pro-Russians and pro-Ukrainians,” which although not exact, is closer to reality.

The danger of an offensive in southern Donetsk and Mariupol is obvious, according to The Daily Beast. With the information presented, it believes that “the rapid development of this base suggests that the time for such an attack is approaching.” This information is corroborated by that provided by the Ukrainian government, which says to expect a Russian offensive.

The fact that the Donetsk People’s Republic has given the order to demilitarize Shirokino and withdraw its troops, who had fought for months to hold this town, the last militia position near Mariupol, suggests that The Daily Beast is wrong, as is much of the press, whose narrative corresponds exactly with the Ukrainian government’s.

The media seem to have forgotten that it is their job to independently verify the claims of governments. Presenting speculation as fact, the media repeated in an absolutely uncritical way any statement of the Kiev government. It is so absurd that President Poroshenko can claim in early June that Russia has 9,000 troops in Donbass, and three weeks later that the number of troops has increased to 200,000, without journalists even asking how the president came up with that number.

[1] The text of the agreement signed on February 21, 2014 is here.

The Facebook page of Nahia Sanzo Ruiz de Azua is here.


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