Reality Check in Ukraine
DONETSK, Ukraine -- In the war of words between Washington and Moscow—a rhetorical clash that is descending to personal insults – both sides are determined to prove they are in the right in an information war waged at a Twitter-driven speed that would have made the heads of their Cold War predecessors spin.
But who is telling the truth? Below is The Daily Beast’s checklist on the Geneva agreement that is the closest thing we have as a touchstone for gauging reality.
Diplomats drawn from Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union hammered out the accord on April 17. They agreed to “initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions” in Ukraine with all sides saying they would “refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions.” The joint communique called for “all illegal armed groups to be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings to be returned to their legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns to be vacated.”
So, who has kept to the letter and spirit of the accord more and who has been more egregious in shunning it?
Refrain from any indimidation
When forces dispatched by the Kiev government started an “anti-terror” operation to clear pro-Russian separatist checkpoints on the outskirts of the flashpoint city of Slovyansk, Russia announced a new round of intimidating military drills coming within a kilometer of the border near the Ukrainian town of Luhansk. More than 40,000 Russian troops are massed on the border in a highly aggressive posture, say U.S. and Ukrainian officials. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Moscow’s defense minister all warned darkly that unless the Kiev government’s operation against armed separatists was halted, Moscow would intervene militarily.
On Thursday and Friday, Russian warplanes breached Ukrainian airspace on several occasions, according to U.S. officials.
Western powers have not launched any drills approaching the massive scale of the Russian endeavors. On April 22, the American frigate U.S.S. Taylor entered the Black Sea, as the Pentagon announced plans to dispatch 600 troops to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia for military exercises. The French frigate Dupleix is expected in the Black Sea this weekend and on April 30 the French surveillance ship Dupuy de Lôme will leave for the region.
Russia’s pre-Crimean-crisis Black Sea Fleet consisted of two cruisers, one destroyer, two frigates, nine corvettes, one diesel-powered submarine and six missile boats but it has been reinforced and supplemented by seized Ukrainian warships. The mismatch in superpower military strength in the region is eye opening. President Obama and other Western leaders describe the Russian posture as highly threatening and intimidating and have called for a Russian pullback.
Russia on Friday night did withdraw the most forward-leaning units from near Luhansk but the “drills” continue with considerable movement of armored formations.
Refrain from violence or provocative actions
Since the signing of the accord pro-Russian separatists in Slovyansk led by the thuggish former Soviet soldier Vyacheslav Ponomaryov have kidnapped more than two dozen people – including the town’s mayor; American reporter Simon Ostrovsky, roughing him up and holding him captive for two days; two Maidan activists; and five members of an official military mission from the OSCE, along with five Ukrainian military personnel accompanying them. Ponomaryov claimed responsibility for a successful grenade attack Friday on a military helicopter, injuring the pilot, in a nearby town.
In Kramatorsk, the police chief was kidnapped and the deputy mayor is languishing in hospital reportedly after being beaten up by pro-Russian militants for refusing to go along with a takeover last weekend of the town’s municipal building. There have been other reports of abductions across eastern Ukraine.
The most egregious separatist violence came early last week when the tortured bodies of Volodymyr Rybak, a local pro-Kiev politician, turned up along with the corpse of an unknown man. Ukrainian authorities blame Ponomaryov and Russian military intelligence officers they name as Ihor Strielkov and Ihor Bezlier for the murders. Ukrainian SBU officials say the Russians decided to kill the politician after he tried to raise the national flag on the municipal building in the town of Horlivska and he was transported to Slovyansk, they claim, where he was tortured and Ponomaryov was ordered to dump the body.
On Saturday Ponomaryov’s people picked up three men they say are members of the Ukrainian intelligence service, the SBU. The agents reportedly were trying to investigate the Rybak murder. The three were presented to the press on Sunday morning blindfolded, manacled to chairs and showing signs of severe beatings.
Pro-Russian separatists point to an attack a week ago on a Slovyansk checkpoint that left three local militants dead, which they blame on ultranationalists from Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), the far-right group that’s threatening to take matters into its own hands and clear the east of Moscow-backed pro-Russian militants if the government in Kiev fails to do so. That an attack took place is not in doubt – the dead were buried earlier this week and were in open caskets for the funeral service in the town’s main church – but there are troubling discrepancies in the accounts offered.
One militant, a stocky, red-faced separatist who gave his name as Anton and who says he was at the checkpoint during the assault, claims an intense hour-long firefight took place, but less than 24 hours after the attack there were no spent cartridge casings to be found at the scene and no pock-marked trees or damaged foliage in the country lane where the firefight took place. And a video report on the clash by the Kremlin-controlled Life News TV station was uploaded to YouTube on April 19 when militants say the attack took place at 2am on April 20.
Further, Right Sector paraphernalia and crisp new $100 bills showcased by separatists and meant to prove ultranationalists carried out the attack remain oddly free of scorch marks – surprising considering they are meant to have been recovered from two burnt-out vehicles the assailants left behind as they fled.
All illegal armed groups to be disarmed
Moscow points to the supposed Right Sector checkpoint attack as an example of the failure of the government in Kiev to crack down on armed groups opposed to the separatists and Russian officials say Ukraine is gripped by anarchy. The picture painted of chaos in Ukraine is highly distorted: Ukrainians in towns and cities across the country are just keeping their heads down and getting on with daily life – trains and buses run on time and private sector businesses function, although they are struggling to cope with Ukraine’s rapidly deteriorating economy.
But the government in Kiev has not followed through on curtailing the activities of the Right Sector and other shadowy ultranationalist groups since the death of Sashko Muzychkon, a notorious ultranationalist thug, who either was shot dead by Ukrainian interior ministry police or committed suicide to avoid falling into their hands.
Ukrainian authorities terminated a siege earlier this month of the country’s parliament building by the Right Sector nationalists following Muzychkon’s death but it has avoided other tough moves against the group and pulled back from banning it, something that was discussed at security meetings. And some Ukrainian officials condone the idea of violent ultranationalists joining a proposed national guard as a way of coaxing the movement to disband. That is a less than shrewd move as it has given Moscow and separatist propagandists the opportunity to claim that Kiev is establishing a fascist guard corps.
Nor have mainstream Kiev politicians leapt to denounce the midweek announcement by Right Sector leader Dmitry Yarosh that he is moving his headquarters from the capital to Dnepropetrovsk in southeast Ukraine to monitor developments in the east. “The purpose is to prevent the spread of the Kremlin infection,” he told a press conference. He says he is forming a special squad of 800 fighters called “Donbas” to fight the separatists.
Much of the propaganda centering on the Right Sector is scaremongering – the group’s activities and reach are highly exaggerated. “It is amazing how the Right Sector has been demonized so effectively and so quickly by Moscow,” says a Ukrainian intelligence colonel. “It is testimony to the effectiveness of Russian propaganda and psy-ops,” she says.
The Geneva accord does state that “illegal armed groups” should be disarmed and currently Pravy Sektor is not a proscribed group – Yarosh is registering it as a political party. So technically there is no breach of the accord by not seeking to dismantle the group, but Kiev’s failure to pursue a crackdown on the Right Sector could be seen as breaking the spirit of the agreement and certainly would help to remove from Moscow and the separatists a stick with which they can beat the interim government.
Moscow is conveniently two-faced when it comes to disarming pro-Russian separatists. The Ukrainian “anti-terror” operation re-launched last week that has so far seen up to 10 militants killed has been denounced by Moscow as an attack by Kiev on the ethnic Russians by an illegitimate government. On Friday, Lavrov said Kiev’s actions against Moscow-backed armed separatists in eastern Ukraine “are bloody crimes for which they will be held responsible.”
The wording, though, of the Geneva agreement demands someone to act to disarm the groups (presumably when they refuse to lay down their weapons). The accord doesn’t say (in either English or Russian) that the groups should be disarmed but that all illegal groups are “to be disarmed” (my emphasis).
That presupposes action and agency – and the Kiev government is the accepted legitimate government recognized by the UN. If the lawful authority isn’t meant to be the disarming agent, who is?
All illegally seized buildings to be returned to their legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns to be vacated.
Moscow has gone on the attack on this issue. Lavrov draws equivalence between the tent-city in Kiev’s Maidan and the continued operation of many government buildings in and around the capital’s Independence Square with the occupation by separatists of 30 government buildings in at least ten cities across eastern Ukraine.
“Maidan remains in Kiev, and nobody intends to leave it,” he said. “Instead of car tires, concrete blocks are placed there now, and nobody intends to disperse,” the minister said. Ukrainian officials counter that the city authorities have given permission for the Maidan activists to remain and they have been given rental agreements -- therefore there is not an illegal occupation underway in Kiev.
Again, while technically there is no breach it would serve the Ukrainian government’s better interests if the Maidan activists dispersed and vacated the square and Khreshchatyk Street.
Privately, mainstream politicians in the government and in the country’s Rada (parliament) agree, and they have sought to coax activists to leave but they realize, they say, they have to restrain their frustration and work slowly to persuade the hardcore protesters who saw their comrades die in the fight to rid the country of Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych to depart.
They counter Lavrov’s obsession with the Maidan by pointing out that Russia, as far as they can tell, has not been working publicly or behind-the-scenes to persuade separatists to vacate government buildings they have seized in eastern Ukraine. To the contrary the Kremlin is fueling the unrest by infiltrating intelligence operatives and Special Forces into the region to coach, train, direct and fund them.
As Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., noted last week: the Kremlin has not publicly called on the separatists to vacate the buildings they now control.
The participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-Semitism
The Geneva accord called also on all sides to curtail rhetoric – “to stop crying fire in a crowded theater,” as a European diplomat glosses it. But a fantasy narrative from Moscow hasn’t ceased with claims of nationwide chaos and widespread violence against ethnic Russians.
Ambassador Power has described the non-stop 24-hour propaganda spewing from Russia and broadcast by Kremlin-controlled media outlets such as Russia Today and Life News as a “well-orchestrated professional campaign of incitement.” Kerry on Friday called Russia Today’s output “bullhorn propaganda,” earning the odd reproof from Lavrov that he wasn’t being polite.
Others have not seen huge human rights abuses claimed by Moscow – except, of course, the thugs of Slovyansk, when they are not roughing up Western journalists.
A human rights report by a U.N. monitoring mission dismissed the allegations that the ethnic Russian minority in the region has been under sustained attack. “Although there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian community, these were neither systematic nor widespread,” it says.
Unsurprisingly, Russian diplomats dismissed the report as biased. Maybe Lavrov should take to heart his recent statement, “it is impossible to conceal the truth, and attempts to do so lead to nothing good.”