The fog of war reporting: how the truth gets lost in Ukraine

If Crimea is re-annexed to Moscow, the numbers fleeing could create a humanitarian crisis

Column LAST UPDATED AT 08:56 ON Fri 7 Mar 2014

THE FOG enveloping Kiev for much of this week has proved a gift of a metaphor for the script and cliché writers of the international media now camped out there. Of all the Carl Von Clausewitz concepts, the notion of the fog of war is about the most abused and misused.

Behind the fog of diplomacy and journalism now blanketing Ukraine and all points east, there is a tangle of fact, half-truth, myth and real and deepening fears. Surely, it is time to puncture the clichés – whether from Vladimir Putin's Greater Russia script, or the empty threats and promises of the EU leadership – and get into talking realities, before the fear explodes into even more violence, and even full-scale war.

There is an awful lot being lost in translation, literally, in the reports now hitting our screens. The loss is not just in language, but in the lack of understanding of the extraordinary ethnic and political complexity of the crisis.      

Among the best corrective reality checks have been the contributions from local academics and intellectuals in the opinion pages of the New York Times – pieces from the city of Lviv in the west of Ukraine, from the Crimea, and from Moscow itself.

Olga Dukhnich, a political scientist writing from Simferopol in the Crimea, seeks to dispel the myth that the majority of her Russian neighbours yearn to throw off the ‘fascist’ yoke of Kiev to be ruled by Moscow instead.

“I am an ethnic Ukrainian (and native speaker of Ukrainian and Russian) but I live and work alongside many ethnic Russians. They never asked for a Russian invasion and do not need the 'protection' that is being offered."

It is true, says Dukhnich, that Russians in Crimea and in southeastern Ukraine were angered by the "clumsy and reckless law" removing Russian as one of the two national languages of Ukraine. But this was a law passed in the heat of Yanukovych's overthrow and the interim government in Kiev has already rescinded it.

The Crimean parliament may have voted to join Russia, but according to Dukhnich the Crimean MPs are not as representative as they claim, while even ethnic Russians in Crimea fear Moscow. The referendum now slated for 16 March could be the trigger for more serious trouble than anything seen yet.

If Crimea is detached and re-annexed to Russia, all sides lose, Dukhnich argues. Crimea needs Ukraine for electricity, grain and tourism. And what Russia does not need is the humanitarian crisis that will doubtless ensue as Crimea refugees seek to escape into the rest of Ukraine or abroad – a disaster that would surely "backfire on Mr. Putin’s regime back home".

Even more fascinating is the despatch from Natalka Sniadanko, a journalist in Lviv in the west of Ukraine. Fluent in German and Polish, she has been interpreting for German Green party activists and journalists reporting on the crisis.

“I was appalled," writes Sniadanko, "to hear what many Germans thought of the Maidan protests in Kiev – that they were nationalist extremists and anti-Semites, and that all those victims they had heard about were merely collateral damage in a legitimate government attempt to stabilise the situation. In other words the Moscow line.”

One of those pushing the Moscow line this week was a Russian academic ranting at Matt Frei on Channel 4 News that he knew "for a fact" that the killings in Kiev's Maidan square were the work of agents provocateurs in the pay of the protesters to create martyrs in their ranks.

He also "knew" – again, for a fact - that they were now backed up by sharpshooters from the US Blackwater private security company.

Frei, broadcasting live from Maidan square, was stunned by the tirade of mangled fact and paranoia from Moscow. But what he missed was this: in such a fevered atmosphere the wraiths and myths of historical paranoia quickly become facts in their own right – and drive extreme actions.

The problem, as Natalka Sniadanko gently stresses, is that Ukraine has suffered from too much history. Since 1654 it has been pulled to bits by Lithuania, Poland, Russia, France and Germany. In the last hundred years there has been a cycle of disruption, starvation, liquidation, expulsion, massacre and oppression from both Nazi and Soviet empires.

And what of those who get left out, or left behind? The only indigenous population group of the Crimean peninsula - the Tatars - were only allowed back in 1954 after Stalin’s purges and enforced exile. I have not heard President Putin refer to their existence, let alone their rights to self-determination.

As Sniadanko so elegantly pitches it, “Those myths are collapsing; that is what the protests of 2014 were all about. Both western and eastern camps had a chance of ruling, and both failed. In doing so, they showed Ukrainians that the challenge was not between region or another, but between the corrupt at the top and the people, whatever region they are from.”

Reactions from the West have been mixed. Obama has been playing a poker hand, in the knowledge that with American oil shale he can always drive down the world price for gas and threaten meltdown for the share price of Gazprom, which Putin wouldn’t survive.

Sympathy must go to Chancellor Merkel, who has more experience of reality on the eastern marches of Europe than the rest of the western leadership together. Naturally concerned about German and EU dependence on Putin’s gas, she has lately wondered openly about what planet the Russian leader is living upon.

Almost beyond caricature is the posturing of David Cameron and his government. The briefing note caught by the eagle-lensed photographer in Downing Street said it all: there should be no sanctions on Russian investors currently pouring billions of dollars worth of funds, some distinctly dodgy, into the City of London. From Napoleon’s nation of shopkeepers, the British are now ruled by the norms and ethics of hedge funders.

“How many divisions has the Pope?” Joe Stalin famously remarked. The problem for Britain is that it can no longer back its soft power and negotiations with the threat of hard power - the essence of diplomacy since it was invented in the modern form in the era of Machiavelli.

This week's Commons Defence Committee report on how the Cameron government is running down the Army means Britain's voice on Ukraine has less credibility and substance than the Cheshire Cat’s smile in Alice in Wonderland.

If you apply Stalin’s question of "how many divisions" to the forces of Her Britannic Majesty, the answer would currently be one-and-a-half. But it could well be below one by the time we get anywhere near the resolution of Ukraine’s crisis. · 

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...what a mess! This all distils down to two distinct problems, particularly among the Western "leaders" - the first is naivety and second is utter inexperience in a crisis.

Cameron and Hague should hang their heads in shame - Cameron, AGAIN!, makes preposterous pledges of "action" (for which, of course, read "inaction and mendacity") while his boy-blunder stooge, William Hague, proceeds to make a complete idiot of himself and, by extension, us in Britain, by his fruitless, pointless and posturing visit to Kiev last week.

Cameron would sooner heed those warnings that he WANTS to hear, re the paucity of Armed Forces now at our disposal - he takes comfort from those sycophants around him who claim, from a position of reckless optimism and total ignorance and inexperience, that we have "highly capable and motivated Armed Forces" in Britain.

The sooner Cameron, Hague and Hammond actually start to take defence of this realm seriously, the better. With vastly diminished military capabilities Britain has NOW become an irrelevant laughing stock on the world stage.

One and a half? Really? Is that "ready to go troops" that are not in other theatres or is it really that F*****d up?

'fraid you're right Vim - we could possibly field one or two fresh battalions at best - even then, we couldn't get anywhere near Ukraine without the necessary troop transport facilities - I suppose we could always ask Putin for the loan of a few choppers!? After all, we have been considering purchasing AK47 assault rifles from Russia, to replace our ageing SA 80's for our "Army"..

If we ran out of ammunition in Ukraine we could possibly ask the opposing Russian troops to flog (or, preferably, donate) some of theirs.

Such is the crazy "logic" of our defence "planners"!

Fox seems to have been delving deep into his shoebox of clippings but has come up woefully ill informed, even within his own text. He would be well advised to stop believing whatever Langley, Va tells him along with all the other "useful idiots".

Why would he believe that what two residents of in Lviv in the west of Ukraine claim about the Ukraine as a whole? That is not even dumb, it is culpable stupidity.

Just an example - if the US is so replete with gas that they can beggar Putin, why would Merkel be worried about the pipeline being shutdown, as he opines? Non sequitor, among others.

For those with short memories and no historical understanding, let's just nip back to the Arab Spring. Nobody with half a brain thought that it was gonna be democracy & magic ponies but that's what the bien pissants of the stripey pants & mirror shades brigade told the brain dead meeja who relayed such drivel, holus bolus, to the public.

Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. The US trained, financed & armed Egyptian army had to intervene to protect western interests after that distressing interregnum and the only beneficiary was Israel.

If the West (read US & EU satraps) continues playing similar silly buggers in the Ukraine, we will need a new Tennyson for an update, perhaps "the Charge of the Credit Card brigade"?