In Media critique, Roger Annis, Ukraine

By Roger Annis, published on Counterpunch, January 30, 2015

The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation daily newspaper, is running with the neo-conservative government in Ukraine and the extreme right-wing parties and paramilitary militias with which the government is allied. ​That’s the conclusion that comes from reading the newspaper’s editorial opinion, its highly selective news offerings, and the articles of Star journalists that have been promoting the causes of the extreme-right in Ukraine.

Shelling in Donetsk, Jan 2015, photo by AFP

Shelling in Donetsk, Jan 2015, photo by AFP

As in the rest of mainstream media, the overriding theme of writing and publishing in the Star is that the war in eastern Ukraine is a war of “aggression” by Russia and “pro-Russian rebels”.

The case of Nadiya Savchenko

Twice in the past month, the Star has published articles by its journalists promoting the campaigns of the far right in Ukraine. The latest such article appeared on January 14, by Star foreign affairs writer Olivia Ward. It champions the cause of one Nadiya Savchenko, a member of the far-right ‘Aidar’ paramilitary battalion who has been in jail in Russia since June 2014.

Savchenko is a staunch ideologue of the war in eastern Ukraine. She took a “vacation” from her posting in the Ukrainian armed forces in order to join the Aidar Battalion and see action, not long after Kyiv launched its civil war in the east in April 2014. She was already known as one of only two women in Ukraine to volunteer and serve in the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003. She is a trained pilot in the Ukrainian air force.

Savchenko faces criminal charges that she directed mortar fire in the Luhansk region on June 17 causing the deaths of two Russian journalists, Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, who were reporting on the conditions of war refugees in eastern Ukraine. Two other journalists, a Russian and Italian, were killed by battalion mortars one month earlier, on May 24.

There are several versions of how Savchenko ended up in a Russian jail. One has her arrested by self defense forces and then transferred into the hands of the Russian judicial system. The other (the Russian government version) says she crossed the border into Russia and was detained.

Terming Savchenko Ukraine’s “Joan of Arc”, Olivia Ward writes, “She has shattered sexist stereotypes to become a poster girl for Ukraine’s battle with its giant neighbour, which has seized the Crimean Peninsula and is now eyeing Ukraine’s turbulent eastern region.”

Nadiya Savchenko

Nadiya Savchenko

Savchenko has become a cause célèbre of the far right in Ukraine as a result of her detention. She was appointed to the Ukrainian Parliament (‘Rada’) following the election of Oct. 26, 2014 by the ‘Fatherland’ electoral machine of the billionaire, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. (In Ukraine’s electoral system, parties appoint approximately half the seats to the Rada, proportional to the votes they receive.) Savchenko resigned from the armed forces following her appointment.

Small rallies demanding her release from custody were held in Ukraine’s larger cities on January 26.

Savchenko told a television news interview last spring that she took leave from the air force because she could not countenance what she considered the timidity of the Ukrainian government in not going to war against Russia. Her delusional logic was the following: since the war in the east is against a foreign, invading power, Russia, and its local lackeys (whom the Toronto Star and other Western media term ‘pro-Russian’ rebels), the Ukraine government should declare war on Russia and undertake a full military mobilization.

There is a twisted logic to Savchenko’s argument. Kyiv’s police operation in eastern Ukraine does, indeed, amount to full scale war. Its army is in the field and is shelling towns and cities. The Kyiv government has declared martial law in the war zone and effectively exercises martial law throughout the country. It has given its police the right to preventively detain or even shoot on sight so-called “separatists”.

How can the neighbouring governments of Ukraine in eastern Europe or a skeptical public in western Europe and North America be convinced of the mission of a government in Kyiv going to war against its own people? Kyiv and its think-tank advisors from NATO countries have turned to a time-worn prop—the ‘anti-terrorist’ ideology of the post 9/11/2001 world. Kyiv calls its civil war in eastern Ukraine an “Anti-Terrorist Operation”. Voilà. Surely an endeavour so titled must be virtuous and worthy!

But that ruse proved unsatisfactory for the purist Savchenko. She wants the unblemished story, as her ideology would have it. Forget the props–she wants all-out war against her fellow citizens in eastern Ukraine, and with Russia, even.

The Russian court has appointed lawyers to defend Savchenko. Her psychological state will be a factor in any trial. Her family has engaged the services of a Ukrainian lawyer who is traveling to Russia to defend her and is working with Russian-appointed court lawyers.

Nadiya Savchenko’s story was featured in the Nov 14, 2014 issue of the weekly fashion magazine in France, Elle. The magazine published a glamour story about the small number of women in Ukraine who have volunteered to fight with the extreme-right battalions. The magazine editors were caught out by some readers who noticed that one of the women that it featured was a brazen neo-Nazi who displays her fascist ideology on social media, including photos of herself giving Hitler salutes. The magazine apologized for glamorizing that particular neo-Nazi, but not for the overall adulation of Ukraine’s far-right battalions that its article lavished on readers.

The ‘Aidar’ fascist battalion

Just what is the ‘Aidar Battalion’ that the Toronto Star‘s heroine Savchenko joined last spring? It is one of the battalions of the extreme right in Ukraine issuing from the EuroMaidan uprising of late 2013/early 2014. The baptism of fire of the battalions or their precursors was in serving as the shock troops of the overthrow of president Victor Yanukovych in late February 2014. They have grown since that time and are serving as the shock troops of the war unleashed in April in the wake of EuroMaidan.

The battalions play two crucial roles in the war. One, many of the conscript soldiers of the Ukraine army have proven unwilling to follow orders to shoot their fellow citizens or enter into foolhardy combat in which they themselves could easily be killed. The more-ideological battalions have leapt into the breach to do the dirty work of shelling towns and cities and killing and abusing the rebellious people of occupied, eastern Ukraine.

Two, the extreme rightists maintain an autonomy from the command structure of the Kyiv government and its armed forces. As fascists, the political leadership of the battalions have a goal of eventually doing away with the last pretenses of democratic government in Ukraine and creating a racially and culturally “pure” country. The willingness of the Ukraine government and the NATO powers to train and arm the battalions, including under the formal umbrella of Ukraine’s National Guard paramilitary institution, is an important stage of empowerment for the fascists, even if it sometimes makes for a wary marriage of convenience.

Amnesty International is one of several human rights agencies to lift the veil of respectability that Western governments and media have accorded to the fascist battalions. It issued a statement on December 24 condemning Aidar and other battalions for blocking humanitarian shipments from Ukraine into eastern Ukraine. An earlier statement by Amnesty on Sept. 8 detailed “war crimes” it accuses Aidar of perpetrating in Luhansk, the region where Nadiya Savchenko was arrested.

Few Western media are reporting the uncomfortable details on the far-right in Ukraine because that gets in the way of the ‘blame Russia’ editorial narrative. One of the few outlets to buck that trend was the UK Telegraph back in August. Its reporter Tom Parfitt wrote a feature article on the ‘Azov’ Battalion. He explained, “Kiev’s use of volunteer paramilitaries to stamp out the Russian-backed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”, proclaimed in eastern Ukraine in March, should send a shiver down Europe’s spine. Recently formed battalions such as Donbas, Dnipro and Azov, with several thousand men under their command, are officially under the control of the interior ministry but their financing is murky, their training inadequate and their ideology often alarming.”

Parfitt asked one of the ‘Azov’ volunteers about his political views. The paramilitary replied, “After the First World War, Germany was a total mess and Hitler rebuilt it: he built houses and roads, put in telephone lines, and created jobs. I respect that.”

Homosexuality is a mental illness and the scale of the Holocaust “is a big question”, the volunteer added.

Parfitt went on, “Ukraine’s government is unrepentant about using the neo-Nazis. ‘The most important thing is their spirit and their desire to make Ukraine free and independent,’ said Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Arsen Avakov, the interior minister. ‘A person who takes a weapon in his hands and goes to defend his motherland is a hero. And his political views are his own affair.’ ”

‘Medical aid’ for fascist battalions

One month ago, another Star writer, Tanya Talaga, published an article promoting another far-right cause—the ‘Patriot Defense’ medical aid project for the battalions. That publishing effort was exposed by this writer in an article published on December 29. I decided to expose the matter after an e-mail complaint that I sent to the writer and to the Star editors was ignored.

Indeed, I have sent a string of e-mails beginning last spring to Star editors complaining about their biased coverage of Ukraine. In August, I complained when the Star chose not to report that Ukraine Independence Day festivities in Toronto on August 23 featured a fundraising booth of the Ukrainian fascist party Right Sector. The group was raising funds for the purchase of military equipment.

The festivity was organized by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) and was attended by prominent Canadian politicians, including federal Minister of Immigration and Citizenship Chris Alexander and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynn. Alexander rebuffed questions by reporters at Radio Canada (CBC French) after they noticed the high-profile presence of the Right Sector. They asked the minister if he was comfortable attending an event in which they would have such a prominent role. Premier Wynn delivered a rip-roaring, pro-war speech to the small crowd attending the day’s event.

The following month, The Star and its sister Toronto newspaper, the Globe and Mail, reported on a gala fundraiser for the war effort in Ukraine organized by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. That event was held on September 11. (Get it?—an event supporting the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” in eastern Ukraine on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York City?) It featured Prime Minister Stephen Harper, professional hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and many prominent politicians in Ontario.

The Right Sector was again featured prominently by the UCC at an event in Toronto on November 29, to commemorate a one-year anniversary of the EuroMaidan movement. Right Sector operative Valeriy Chobotar was brought all the way from Ukraine as the featured speaker. NDP Member of Parliament Peggy Nash shared the platform with him and praised the war being waged by the Kyiv government and the battalions.

Amnesty International wrote in its Dec. 24 report, “These battalions often act like renegade gangs and urgently need to be brought under control. Denying food to people caught up in a conflict is against international law and the perpetrators must be held to account.” Alas, there is little “holding to account” going on at the desks of the Toronto Star.

Journalist integrity is running short

Some well-known journalists in the world (though none from Canada) have distinguished themselves in exposing how Western media outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post and The Guardian are playing with fire in eastern Europe by supporting Kyiv’s ruinous war in eastern Ukraine and slamming Russia with an economic embargo and provocative military threats. Robert Parry of Consortium News, Patrick Smith, John Pilger and the writers for Counterpunch come to mind. Many others are similarly engaged, albeit out of the limelight.

Patrick Smith has just penned a new blast against the New York Times in He writes on January 21, “I am awestruck as news of recent events unfolds. Ukraine is more than an economic, political and military mess: It is a major humanitarian tragedy… How can we possibly arm neo-Nazis in Ukraine while right-wing extremists and anti-immigration atavists rise all over Europe?”

Canada’s print media cartel as well as the country’s public broadcaster, the CBC, are firmly in the camp of Kyiv’s and NATO’s war in eastern Ukraine, serving as mouthpieces for a crazy and reckless policy of confrontation with Russia that threatens war and is tipping Europe into an economic slump. Their propaganda effort is in high gear, once again, in recent days as self-defense forces have said ‘enough is enough’ of Kyiv’s violations of a supposed ceasefire signed in Minsk, Belarus on Sept 5. After enduring months of shelling of their towns and cities, including two savage attacks on buses so far this year that killed 25 people, self-defense forces of Donetsk and Luhansk regions were left with no choice but to strike back. Yet this act of self-defense, not the months of shellings and other war crimes by Kyiv that preceded it, is presented as a definitive rupture of the ceasefire against an innocent Kyiv regime.

Unless we are to naively trust that the mainstream media in Canada will eventually get things right, the ball is firmly in the court of alternative media to broadcast the truth of the war in Ukraine. Progressive and antiwar Canadians need to speak in larger and louder numbers against Ottawa’s and NATO’s pro-war course. The stakes are just too high to act otherwise.

Roger Annis is a frequent writer on the war in Ukraine. He is an editor of the website New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond. The website publishes daily news and analysis by its editors and contributors and it reprints articles from other sources.

The Toronto Star is plugging away in support the extreme-right battalions in Ukraine. In its edition of January 31, the Star promotes a stage play in Toronto which is raising funds for the ‘Patriot Defense’ fundraising campaign of battalion supporters. An article by Star writer Leslie Ferenc writes a decription of the play and cites its co-author. He describes the political conflict and subsequent war during the past year in Ukraine as “an atrocity against humanity which became a full-blown Russian invasion”.

Then in its edition of February 8, Foreign Affairs Reporter Olivia Ward returns to the charge with a front-page article which is another appeal by the newspaper for military support to Kyiv’s war and the “warriors” of the extremist paramilitaries in Ukraine. The article appeals for support to the fundraising work of something called ‘Army SOS‘. The website of that shadowy outfit says, “Army SOS Citizen’s Initiative coordinates people’s efforts to help soldiers of Ukraine. We manage purchases of necessary ammunition, shields, intercommunication and reconnaissance facilities, uniforms and food supply. We deliver all goods directly to the unit’s emplacement and pass them right to the hands of our warriors.”


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