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For a response to this commentary, please see "Without Double Standards"
A dangerous polarization of opinion between Russia and the West developed during the early months of the Ukraine crisis, creating a growing gulf between Russians and many parts of the outside world.
This polarization has reached a new level of rhetoric and hysteria with the apparent shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. Many Russians – regardless of whether they have been supporters or opponents of Vladimir Putin – have come to believe the tragedy, and the bodies of its victims, are being used to whip up a hatred that threatens all of them.
They compare this atmosphere to the deafening silence that greeted Russia’s repeated pleas for an international investigation of the 2 May massacre in Odessa. Dozens of pro-Russian protesters were burned alive when the building in which they had taken refuge from pro-Ukrainian gangs was set on fire. According to a New York Times account confirmed by witnesses from both sides, as the flames engulfed the building “Ukrainian activists sang the Ukrainian national anthem. They also hurled a new taunt: ‘Colorado’ for the Colorado potato beetle, striped red and black like the pro-Russian ribbons. Those outside chanted 'burn Colorado, burn.’ ”
Alarmingly, the exact number of casualties still has not been established, and there is no international effort to find the truth.
If Western news organizations declare that it’s their policy to expose the shameful facts of ethnic hatred or the abuse of human rights, they should do so without their fear or favor, regardless of the nationalities involved.
It is easy to dismiss calls to protect of ethnic Russians in Ukraine as Kremlin propaganda. Europe has already paid a high price for its limp response earlier this year to the escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine between government forces and the pro-Russian rebels. Russia’s complaints about rampant Ukrainian nationalism and violations of the rights of ethnic Russians were at first largely ignored in the West, as if they were a total fabrication.
But from the Ukrainian parliament’s move in February – blocked by the president – to repeal a law giving the Russian language official status in some regions, to Ukrainian nationalists singing anti-Russian chants as pro-Russian activists were being burnt alive in Odessa, clearly the claims were serious.
Several Russian journalists, including reporters from Russia’s Zvezda TV, were captured by Ukrainian forces, and three Russian journalists were killed when covering the conflict in Ukraine. Some Russian sources maintain the Ukrainian army was responsible.
This month, Ukraine’s Culture Ministry announced it is preparing a list of Russian actors and singers who will be banned from performing in Ukraine, and the government has announced a ban on two Russian films, including The White Guard, based on the novel of the early 20th-century writer Mikhail Bulgakov, and Poddubny, based on the life of a Ukrainian-born, Soviet-era champion wrestler.
Further, any books presented at book fairs this year that were produced in Russia will have to have a label to that effect, regardless of their content, and there are calls to ban Russia from participating in a book fair in Lviv later this year.
One commenter on a Washington Post discussion board pleaded for objectivity about Ukraine and railed against American indifference to evidence that ethnic Russians were being victimized by rampant Ukrainian nationalism.
“Where's the OUTRAGE, America?” this person wrote. “This has been going on for months, videos of these crimes against civilians posted on youtube [sic] for four months, I have personally posted them over and over on the WaPo comment boards, only to have them ignored and minimized, no outrage, just the usual apologists for everything done by Kiev, and accusations that there are only ‘Russian troops’ in eastern Ukraine, same BS over and over again. American ‘exceptionalism’ is a myth, a sad myth.”
The assumption that Russian television makes claims about the deaths of civilians in order to promote a certain political view does not mean that allegations about these deaths should not be investigated.
The temptation to condemn Putin whatever he does is reaching a crescendo in the West, and many Western politicians and newspapers have used language that could create a mood of ethnic hatred toward the Russian people. Often, it seems, accounts in the Western media consist of little more than what “Ukraine says.” Ordinary Russians feel that their voices are unheard in the outside world and that their opinions are being twisted.
American and Western politicians are outbidding each other, coming up with new ways to punish Russia. Some have called for Putin’s daughter, who is reportedly married to a Dutchman, to be expelled from the Netherlands. Britain’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, suggested that Russia be stripped of hosting duties for the 2018 World Cup. The idea was at once rejected by the football world governing body, FIFA, but that did not stop The Wire, a news blog affiliated with The Atlantic magazine, from posting an item headlined, “No One Wants Russia To Host the 2018 World Cup.”
Some of the rush to sanction carries particularly unpleasant undertones. After Britain criticized France for not canceling a lucrative deal to supply defense equipment to Russia, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius fired back, saying (according to Britain’s Telegraph), “David Cameron should start by cleaning up his own back yard,” apparently referring to Russian oligarchs who have sizable interests in Britain. Having to “clean up” implies that there is something dirty about these Russians, who have in fact invested huge sums in British sports, media, and culture. Some Russian audiences have complained about the connotation of ethnic cleansing.
It is important to ask ourselves now: is this language becoming racist? This is an issue the human rights groups need to look into. In the absence of any such examination, it is hard for Russians to not see most Western coverage as one-sided and biased.
I remember the fierce international criticism of Putin in 1999-2000 when he alleged that Alexander Nikitin, a former Russian naval officer, was a spy. Nikitin was facing treason charges after compiling a report for the Norwegian ecological organization Bellona about the environmental dangers posed by disused and semi-abandoned Russian nuclear submarines.
Putin was effectively prejudging Nikitin’s trial and his guilt. So the Western indignation at his comment was fully justified.
But I haven’t noticed much criticism of the Washington officials who, before any official investigation was held, said Russia was responsible, although indirectly. Importantly, while Russia is repeatedly blamed for secretly funding the separatists, Ukraine has received no condemnation from the U.S. government for using military force, including ballistic missiles, against civilians.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed to have overwhelming evidence of Russia's complicity in the downing of the plane, but no names or ranks of Russian officers allegedly involved were given, and the issue of the Ukrainians government’s responsibility for using serious military force against civilians was not raised.
I am no fan of Putin, who has harmed the cause of human rights in my country. But Putin's role in the downing of MH17, and the level of his responsibility, can be established only by an investigation.
Nonetheless, the unequivocal media barrage of condemnation continued, such as this statement in Canada’s Globe and Mail: “The tragic downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 on 17 July by Russian-armed troops provides another occasion for the West to use its superior power to bring Russia’s war in Ukraine to an end.”
Or this, from an article in the respected international affairs journal Foreign Policy titled, “How to Kneecap the Thug in the Kremlin”:
“Last week, Putin's wholly owned guerrilla subsidiary in Ukraine blew 298 civilians out of the sky, looted the belongings of the victims, let their cadavers rot for days in the hot summer sun, then violently obstructed OSCE monitors from inspecting the carnage.”
In my opinion, language like that is bent on inflaming feelings and encouraging hatred of Russians. The person who wrote them should examine his conscience.
The important question is, what does the West want to achieve? Are we after reconciliation or punishment? Justice or redemption? If the idea is that growing pressure from Washington and Brussels might make Putin change his policy, it does not appear to be working.
If anyone in the West expected public opinion to turn against Putin at home as Russia faced growing isolation, quite the opposite seems to be happening. A siege mentality is taking hold and, on this issue at least, Putin is winning new supporters.
One Russian expat in London spoke for others when he told the Guardian, “All this blaming Russians, I am Russian English. I have been living here for 25 years. I don’t quite like Putin's politics. But, unfortunately, all this has really pushed me over to the Russian side, which I haven’t been since the events started in the Ukraine.”
Svetlana, a reader of the BBC Russian Service’s website, commented as follows:
“I am from Belarus, and I always wanted from my country a European integration. But having turned for the Western media for the coverage of events, I have discovered such hatred – and perhaps, contempt? – that I now feel such an integration will never be possible.”
In the West there has been little criticism of Ukrainian government forces shelling civilians, even though Human Rights Watch says it has found evidence of noncombatants being killed by the Ukrainian army.
Journalists covering the war in Ukraine, or writing about it from a comfortable desk far from the conflict, should remember Aldous Huxley’s observation that “the propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.”
If, after reading a report, you begin to feel that either side is inhuman, take a step back and make sure you are not being targeted by propaganda. And, perhaps, listening to both sides of a conflict presents a more efficient solution to the drama than one-sided bullying, gone out of hand. Why not start with a careful look into the Odessa massacre?