Black box black schmox: What’s really going on in Ukraine?
by H.B. Koplowitz
Now that pro-Russian separatists have turned over the flight recorders from the second Malaysian Airlines disaster, will the mainstream media finally stop obsessing over the crash of Flight MH17 and move on to more significant issues, like what the heck is really going on in Ukraine?
Much of what follows comes from Stephen F. Cohen, a former Princeton professor and “Sovietologist” who is sometimes accused of being a Soviet apologist, if only because he often writes for and is married to the editor of the venerably liberal magazine The Nation. In a June 30 Nation article called “The Silence of American Hawks About Kiev’s Atrocities,” Cohen alleges that under the guise of an anti-terrorism campaign, newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko “has repeatedly carried out artillery and air attacks on city centers, creating a humanitarian catastrophe — which is all but ignored by the US political-media establishment.” He also asserts that ultranationalist, neo-fascist, paramilitary organizations are not just represented in the US-backed Ukrainian government, but are being used to brutally crush the revolt in eastern Ukraine by separatists backed by Russia.
“Little of this is even noted in the United States,” Cohen says. “In a democratic political system, the establishment media are expected to pierce the official fog of war. In the Ukrainian crisis, however, mainstream American newspapers and television have been almost as slanted and elliptical as White House and State Department statements, obscuring the atrocities, if reporting them at all, and generally relying on information from Washington and Kiev.”
More on that in a moment. But first, the media’s recent obsession with black boxes. Flight recorders are used by transportation officials to improve airline safety by determining whether pilot error or mechanical defects caused a crash. In the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, the recorders can only confirm what everyone already knows, which is that the plane was shot out of the sky near the Ukraine-Russia border on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 people aboard. But they won’t tell where the rocket came from or who fired it. Same with the debris and corpses. But so what? Except for the mainstream media, it’s a closed issue. Based on intercepted communications between Ukrainian separatists and Russian military advisers, US intelligence and multiple other sources, it’s perfectly clear that Ukrainian rebels, supported by Russia, did the misdeed. So why doesn’t the media move on to more interesting questions, like what were Ukrainian separatists doing with sophisticated ground-to-air guided missiles?
According to Cohen, the weaponry, possibly supplied by Russia or captured from a Ukrainian military base, was used in response to deadly air attacks by Ukrainian planes over cities held by pro-Russian forces. The rockets and other weapons have been used against fighter jets, helicopters and a transport plane carrying 49 Ukrainian troops, and the separatists apparently mistook the Malaysian airliner for another transport when they shot it down. The accidental downing of a civilian aircraft is horrendous, but could the media stop pretending it’s an unprecedented war crime? As Rachel Maddow and a few other media outliers, like Vox, have noted, it’s at least the seventh time that various militaries, including the United States, have accidentally shot down civilian planes in war zones and denied it.
Meantime, on-site reporters continue to prattle about the “crime scene” being “compromised,” seemingly oblivious or incurious to the Ukrainian civil war raging around them. Cohen, on the other hand, makes eastern Ukraine sound like Gaza, saying the US-supported government in Kiev’s “‘anti-terrorist’ tactics have created a reign of terror in the targeted cities. Panicked by shells and mortars exploding on the ground, menacing helicopters and planes flying above and fear of what may come next, families are seeking sanctuary in basements and other darkened shelters … Meanwhile, an ever-growing number of refugees, disproportionately women and traumatized children, have been desperately fleeing the carnage.” Every time a Palestinian civilian is killed, the media accuses Israel of “over-reacting,” while Ukraine gets a pass.
A more nuanced view of Ukraine, written in response to Cohen’s article, comes from Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institute, considered a centrist-leaning think tank. Pifer points out that what prompted Ukraine’s offensive wasn’t nonviolent protesters, but armed separatists, sometimes led by undercover Russian troops, who seized local administration and police buildings. He also says that rather than indiscriminate attacks on civilians, “Ukrainian military operations appear aimed at a foe who is well-armed, including with tanks and sophisticated surface-to-air missiles.” He notes that in the May 25 presidential election, the right-wing ultranationalists got less than two percent of the vote, but he concedes that their role in the Ukrainian government is “of concern,” and that Ukraine “should act to disarm [them].”
Cohen says one of the “crucial questions rarely discussed in the US political-media establishment” is the role of the ultranationalists in Kiev’s government and military. He says Putin’s claim — that the entire Ukrainian government is a “neo-fascist junta” — is bogus, and that “many members of the ruling coalition and its parliamentary majority are aspiring European-style democrats or moderate nationalists.” Indeed, a majority of Ukrainians may want closer ties to the West. However, Cohen adds that, “Independent Western scholars have documented the fascist origins, contemporary ideology and declarative symbols of [the ultranationalists] … [who] “glorify Ukraine’s murderous Nazi collaborators in World War II as inspirational ancestors.” They also “call for an ethnically pure nation purged of the ‘Moscow-Jewish mafia’ and ‘other scum,’ including homosexuals, feminists and political leftists.” Cohen goes on the say that physical attacks on Kiev’s LGBT community are increasing, and on July 5 “authorities in effect banned a Gay Pride parade.”
The two main ultranationalist factions are named Right Sector and Svoboda. When was the last time you heard them mentioned in the news?
While the mainstream media continue to focus on the shoot-down of the Malaysian airliner, they are providing a one-sided perspective on the Ukrainian civil war, when they report on it at all. Cohen is among those who has raised concerns regarding the US-backed Ukrainian government, and the dearth of critical media coverage. Another is unabashed Libertarian and former senator Ron Paul. In an essay titled, “What the Media Won’t Report About Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17” (which makes the far-fetched claim that the Ukrainians may have shot down the airliner themselves), Paul says that, “While western media outlets rush to repeat government propaganda on the [crash], there are a few things they will not report.” Among those things are that Ukraine has “killed 250 people in the breakaway Lugansk region since June, including 20 killed as government forces bombed the city center the day after the plane crash! Most of these are civilians and together they roughly equal the number killed in the plane crash. By contrast, Russia has killed no one in Ukraine, and the separatists have struck largely military, not civilian, targets.” He also asserts, “the crisis in Ukraine started late last year, when EU and US-supported protesters plotted the overthrow of the elected Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Without US-sponsored ‘regime change,’ it is unlikely that hundreds would have been killed in the unrest that followed. Nor would the Malaysian Airlines crash have happened.”
In fact, Ukraine has been the rope in a tug of war between Russia and the West since it declared independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991. The war heated up last November, when then-President Yanukovych reversed course on an alliance with the EU and accepted a loan bailout and closer ties with Russia. That led to street protests and the occupation of Kiev’s Independence Square, which turned into a government crackdown and deadly clashes across the country, which led to Yanukovych’s ouster and eventual election of the pro-Western Petro Poroshenko. Russia responded by annexing Crimea and destabilizing the rest of Ukraine with military exercises and materiel support for pro-Russian separatists.
Cohen notes America has funded “democracy promotion” organizations in Ukraine for the past 20 years. When one superpower tries to lure a satellite away from another, things can get messy, as evidenced by the US response to socialist governments in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The former Soviet Union also has a history of stamping out uprisings in its sphere of influence, going back to Hungary in 1956. So there should be little surprise that Russia is trying to keep a border state from joining NATO or the European Union.
Given that history, Cohen argues that Putin has been relatively “restrained” in his efforts to destabilize, rather than invade, Ukraine. But the mainstream media doesn’t do nuance, and instead portrays the Russian president as a bare-chested bully. However, just as President Barack Obama has to contend with people like Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham calling him a pussy for not involving America in every war that breaks out on the planet, Cohen says hardliners in Russia have put pressure on Putin to take more decisive action in Ukraine. The sanctions and tough talk from Washington only increases the pressure on Putin to do something dramatic. Cohen also notes that unlike the Western media, Russian state media have shown vivid accounts of Kiev’s attacks in eastern Ukraine, sparking “widespread indignation and mounting perplexity, even anger, over Putin’s failure to intervene militarily.”
Noting that such eminences as Hillary Clinton, Zbigniew Brzezinski and George Will have compared Putin to Hitler, Cohen says that “is recklessly damaging US national security in vital areas where Putin’s cooperation is essential,” such as Iran and Syria. “Looking ahead, would-be presidents who make such remarks can hardly expect to be greeted by an open-minded Putin, whose brother died and father was wounded in the Soviet-Nazi war. Moreover, tens of millions of today’s Russians whose family members were killed by actual fascists in that war will regard this defamation of their popular president as sacrilege, as they do the atrocities committed by Kiev.”
Quoting Cohen again, “The [Obama] administration’s actual goal has been unclear, and not only to Moscow. Is it a negotiated compromise, which would have to include a Ukraine with a significantly federalized or decentralized state free to maintain longstanding economic relations with Russia and banned from NATO membership? Is it to bring the entire country exclusively into the West, including into NATO? Is it a long-simmering vendetta against Putin for all the things he purportedly has and has not done over the years? … Or is it to provoke Russia into a war with the United States and NATO in Ukraine?” And wouldn’t that be fun.
So what’s really going on in Ukraine? It’s clear the Russians are backing the separatists, but how much assistance is the West giving Kiev? What is the will of the people? Who’s winning? What’s the body count? What efforts are being made to bring about a ceasefire and negotiated settlement? And why should America care? The answers won’t be found in a black box, or the mainstream media.