5 persistent falsehoods about events in Ukraine

Here are the five most common myths about events in Ukraine, together with a short explanation of why they are wrong.

The Russian propaganda machine has been full throttle in recent months, with television stations such as RT painting a completely different picture of the Euromaiden uprising in Ukraine than other, more independent outlets.

And it isn’t hard to work out why: Putin was constructing the purported rational for his invasion and annexation of Crimea which, according to the Russian narrative, was overrun by ‘fascists’ intent on persecuting Russian-speaking citizens and generally causing mayhem.

What’s been so depressing is the extent to which the Russian version of events in Ukraine has been so effortlessly adopted, to varying degrees, by some in the West.

Here are the five most common myths which are doing the rounds, together with a short explanation of why they are nonsense.

The EU/Nato ‘provoked’ Putin

Both Little Englander eurosceptics and the regressive left have been portraying Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea as a response to the ‘expansion’ of the European Union and Nato. Spouting the Russian line almost verbatim (some things never change), Seamus Milne wrote a few weeks ago that the Russian annexation of Crimea was the “fruit of western expansion”.

“The US and its allies have…relentlessly expanded Nato up to Russia’s borders, incorporating nine former Warsaw Pact states and three former Soviet republics into what is effectively an anti-Russian military alliance in Europe. The European association agreement which provoked the Ukrainian crisis also included clauses to integrate Ukraine into the EU defence structure,” Milne wrote.

In reality, Nato and the EU haven’t ‘expanded’ so much as welcomed into the security umbrella former communist states that were desperate to escape the Russian ‘sphere of influence’.

Considering these countries often languished under Russian-backed dictatorships for much of the 20th century, this should hardly come as a surprise. The Russian annexation of Ukraine should drive the point home further – are the Baltic states going to be watching events in Ukraine with a feeling of regret at joining Nato? Of course not. Russian aggression encourages Nato expansion, rather than the other way around.

It also isn’t necessary to speculate as to Vladimir Putin’s motivations in Crimea. As Putin said last week, he believes that “Crimea has always been part of Russia”. Less self defence in the face of ‘provocation’ and more naked imperialism. Putin has made no secret of his desire to restore the former glory of the Soviet Union. The invasion of Crimea should be seen in this context.

The new Ukrainian government is ‘fascist’

Were this actually true then it would be deeply concerning, only it isn’t. Ukrainian nationalists were certainly among those demonstrating against former President Viktor Yanukovych last month, but then so were plenty of Jews. And contrary to the Moscow line, the Ukrainian Jewish community believes that it is pro-Russian provocateurs, rather than Ukrainian nationalists, who are behind a recent spate of attacks on synagogues in Ukraine. Three of the new Ukrainian ministers denounced as ‘fascists’ by Moscow are also themselves Jews, such as deputy prime minister Vladimir Groisman.

Chairman of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine Josef Zissels has characterised Putin’s message of widespread Ukrainian anti-semitism as part of an “unprecedented massive Russian propaganda that recalls Soviet times”.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in an ‘illegal coup’

Listening to some of the more bitter arguments emanating from Russia and Russian apologists in the West, you could easily believe that former Ukrainian President Yanukovych was some kind of democrat, rather than a corrupt autocrat who had been beset by credible allegations of electoral fraud since he returned to office in 2010.

Rather than being thrown out in some sort of anti-democratic ‘coup’ last month, Yanukovych fled to Russia because the democratically elected Ukrainian parliament voted 328-0 to impeach him for the massacre of peaceful demonstrators. If you don’t believe that this is a good enough reason for the impeachment of a President (elected or otherwise) then I submit that you aren’t really a democrat.

Despite Russian rhetoric, the real coup was in Crimea, where the Crimean Assembly building was taken over at gunpoint by Russian forces pretending not to be Russian forces.

Russians living in Crimea are in danger

One Russian citizen has died in the current crisis, and he was shot by pro-Yanukovych snipers. Rumours spread by the Russian government – that Russian speakers in Crimea are threatened by the new government in Kiev – are just that: baseless rumours. More Crimeans have been fleeing from Crimea to other regions of Ukraine than Russians have been fleeing from Crimea and eastern Ukraine to Russia, mainly in order to escape heavily armed and violent Russian militias.

There is simply no evidence that Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine and Crimea are threatened by the government in Kiev. Russian claims also have a worrying historical precedent: Adolf Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia was based on a German claim of privations being suffered by the ethnic German population in the country.

There is a moral equivalence between the actions of the West and those of Russia/Crimea demonstrates the West’s ‘hypocrisy’

It isn’t difficult to make this sort of self-flagellating argument, but it doesn’t contribute anything very useful to the debate. It can also lead a person to make silly comparisons. So for example, in the New Statesman last week Mehdi Hasan compared the Russian invasion of Ukraine to Nato intervention in Kosovo, ignoring the fact that in the case of the latter, intervention occurred on the back of a “systematic campaign of terror, including murders, rapes, arsons and severe maltreatments” by Serb forces (not my words, but those of the UN).

As Hasan writes:

“it is ‘illegal and illegitimate’ for Russia to try to detach Crimea from Ukraine by means of a dodgy referendum, Hague says. Indeed, it is. But was it any less illegal or illegitimate for the west to detach Kosovo from Serbia in 1999 with a 78-day Nato bombing campaign?”

I don’t know about ‘legality’ (an unreliable construct based on who votes which way at the UN Security Council), but the Russian annexation of Crimea is self-evidently more ‘illegitimate’ than Nato action in Kosovo. As the Economist put it this week: “Nato’s bombing of Kosovo came after terrible violence and exhaustive efforts at the UN – which Russia blocked”. Kosovo also seceded on its own initiative nine years after intervention and was not annexed in the manner of the Russian invasion of Crimea.

Western states can certainly be hypocritical, but the issue here is that Russia under Vladimir Putin is bullying and blackmailing its neighbours. Talking about Kosovo/Iraq/what Tony Blair had for lunch/Henry Kissinger/ is pure whataboutery.

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48 Responses to “5 persistent falsehoods about events in Ukraine”

  1. Asteri

    While there is much to take issue with in regards to Russia’s behaviour
    towards Ukraine and Crimea, some of these “myths” are not really myths.

    “The EU/Nato ‘provoked’ Putin”

    In a broad sense – yes! The west (i.e Washington) broke an unofficial
    agreement with Gorbachev in 1990 that the USSR would accept a re-united Germany
    on the condition that NATO would not expand to its borders. Since 1991
    Washington decided to mercilessly exploit Russia’s weakness and continue to needlessly
    provoke it. There is little evidence that Moscow initially wanted any such conflict
    with the west. This has only emboldened Putin and justified Russian policy to
    its public as being a reaction to something they did not start. NATO had no
    need to exist after 1991, and Washington chose to aggressively provoke Russia
    for no reason other than to justify NATOs continued existence; the result has obviously
    been to justify Russian counter measures internally.

    “The new Ukrainian government is ‘fascist’”

    Well no, but its not a pleasant picture.

    Isn’t sanitizing Svoboda just a little bit hypocritical?

    http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/ivan-katchanovski/ukrainian-%E2%80%98freedom%E2%80%99-party-should-be-ringing-alarm-bells

    “There is a moral equivalence between the actions of the West
    and those of Russia/Crimea demonstrates the West’s ‘hypocrisy’.”

    I don’t know about moral but there is an equivalence.
    Calling it “silly” means dismiss what is inconvenient. The west (USA, UK and Germany)
    engineered Kosovo ‘independence’ in violation to every international law concerning
    territorial integrity, UN resolution 1244 and the constitution of Serbia, all
    of which the west had agreed to abide by. The idea “Kosovo also seceded on its
    own initiative” is utterly false. Serbia bent over backwards in 2007 to negotiate
    a more than generous autonomy deal. The west had no intention of seriously negotiating
    and only did so to look as if they were doing things by the book. The US just
    claimed that Kosovo was so extraordinary that it was beyond the realms of legality
    and thus ‘special.’ This is bogus and not supported by any serious legal or IR
    experts. It created a precedent (that the US denies exists) and this is what we
    have. It is the sort of argument that would be supported by, say, dangerous authoritarian
    states.

    But anyway, did anyone ask the Crimeans if they wanted to be
    transferred to Ukraine in 1954? Even if it had been done fully legally without
    Russian forces, it would still have had the same result.

  2. Caroline Louise

    Why do you not mention that the neo-Nazi Svoboda and Right Sector hold four posts in the new government? Or that several Israeli MPs have expressed worry over the antiSemitism of the far right in Ukraine? Why no mention that all the Region MPs were forcibly evicted from the government by the protestors and that the current parliament has no representation from almost half the country? Is this really an attempt to tell the whole truth?

  3. christianguthier

    I’m surprised about the blind support you are giving to the US/EU actions against Russia.

    In your diatribe you also forget to mention that the Crimea has a majority Russian population and is of strategic significance to Russia. The Crimea was handed over to Ukraine in the 50s – when it was part of the Soviet Union. Since this is no longer the case, Russians are jumpy about encroachment, and certainly don’t want to give up military advantages.

    Looking at Syria, I worry about the consequences of our meddling in yet another nation’s struggle for progress and development. Will we end up with another blood bath by a western incited civil war?

  4. Doug Smith

    Useful piece from Foreign Policy magazine on the fascists in the Ukrainian government:

    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/03/18/yes_there_are_bad_guys_in_the_ukrainian_government

  5. Matthew Rees

    I gave up reading this nonsense after, “In reality, Nato and the EU haven’t ‘expanded’ so much as welcomed into the security umbrella former communist states that were desperate to escape the Russian ‘sphere of influence’.” So Nato is allowed to welcome countries in to their security umbrella but Russia cannot do the same for Crimea?

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