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Slander abounds in depictions of autonomy fighters in eastern Ukraine, while MH 17 investigation stalls and Kyiv’s war rages

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July 27, 2014—Imperialist governments and media as well as countless other commentators abound with portrayals of the pro-democracy, pro-autonomy forces in eastern Ukraine as “Russian-backed separatists” and worse. On the ‘worse’ range of the spectrum, terms such as ‘fanatics’, ‘thugs’ and even ‘fascists’ are tossed about.

It would take a work of encyclopedic scale to answer all the charges. Admittedly, such a study would include admissions that there are human rights violations taking place on both sides of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. But the vast majority of those violations are perpetrated by Ukraine armed forces and militias, while self-defense forces are aware of concerns over their treatment of opposing combatants and are taking measures to ensure the safety of prisoners they capture. Concerning the aforementioned portrayals, let us take one prominent example from recent days and see what it tells us.

Igor Strelkov would rank right up there as a prime example of a dastardly figure on the side of self-defense forces. He is the military commander of the self-defense forces of the Donetsk Peoples Republic.

The Donetsk republic is one of two autonomous republics created in May in southeast Ukraine. The other is the Luhansk Peoples Republic. They came into being following plebiscite votes that were hastily organized as a threat of civil way by Kyiv loomed. Both are coming under murderous attack by the armed forces of the central government of Ukraine and by extreme right militias that work in tandem with the military. (Read here the example of the ‘Azov Battalion’ militia of extreme rightists, which includes volunteers from western Europe and Canada.)

Kyiv’s war in eastern Ukraine during the past three months has killed several thousand people and forced more than 600,000 people into exile in Russia and central Ukraine. Among the most recent victims of the war are the 298 passengers on board Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Here is a short video of today's bombardment of the town of Horlovka, near Donetsk. And a close-up of what it wrought: Warning! Disturbing images.

An article two days ago in a UK publication called the International Business Times (IBT) is an example of the bizarre, ‘rush to judgment’ reporting in much of mainstream press over the crash of Flight MH 17 and Kyiv’s war overall. The article and others like it are getting lots of attention, and not only from followers of the political right. Some on the left, too, give credibility to such material.

In the article, the reporter says that Igor Strelkov is “suspected of downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17” and was “allegedly involved in the 1992 Serbian ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad”.

The article headline refers to the “massacre of 3,000 Bosnian Muslims in 1992” but makes no reference to this in the text. Presumably, the headline is referring to the tragedy in Visegrad.

The reporter reveals his own bias on the subject matter in an article on Ukraine one day earlier in which he writes, “US officials told the Wall Street Journal that the separatists who downed the commercial airliner over the Donetsk region used the Buk system…” His article dismisses a Russian government official’s use of the phrase “punitive operation” in describing Kyiv’s war in eastern Ukraine.

A scandalous, non-investigation of Flight MH 17

We don’t know if MH 17 was downed by a missile. If it was, we don’t know who was responsible. What is really bad is that those hoping for a vigorous investigation of the crash are seeing their hopes dashed by the actions of the Kyiv government. [1]

We are learning that ever since self-defense fighters turned the crash site over to the international investigators days ago, the site has more or less sat abandoned. Large numbers of investigators are residing in hotels in Donetsk city (some 40 km away). It’s not at clear why their work until today has been stalled.

As of today, we learn that the Kyiv government has decided to prioritize its war offensive over a crash investigation. As a result of its military operations against the city of Donetsk and neighbouring towns and villages, it is not safe for investigators to do their work. Mind you, yesterday, an Australian couple arrived on the site to lay a wreath to their 25-year old daughter who died in the crash.

A further complication is that foreign governments, with Australia and Holland in the lead, want to land armed police if not soldiers on the site. The Ukraine constitution prohibits foreign police or military on its soil. A special vote of the Rada (Parliament) could bypass that provision, but the country’s government coalition collapsed two days ago and the prime minister resigned.  Parliament is conflicted over how to proceed with the war and with the austerity economic program that the government has embraced in partnership with the European Union. The extreme right in the Parliament is pushing for a quick election. [2]

Speaking of the economy, there are divisions in the Parliament over whether to privatize the country’s publicly-owned energy distribution company. This as Ukraine accumulates a horrific bill for natural gas purchases from Russia (it now stands at $6 billion) and the country’s economy and state budget is near collapse. [3]

The hunt for “separatists” and other scoundrels

Anyway, back to Igor Strelkov. The IBT article adds that Strelkov “has been described” as a covert agent of Russia's GRU military intelligence. Described by whom? We don’t know.

The writer repeats the Internet hoax by which Strelkov is alleged to have admitted on Facebook (!) that his forces brought down MH17. Serious news outlets backed away from this and other hoaxes and false claims in the days following the disaster, though not U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. She told the UN Security Council on July 18:

Separatists initially claimed responsibility for shooting down a military transport plane and posted videos that are now being connected to the Malaysian airlines crash. Separatist leaders also boasted on social media about shooting down a plane, but later deleted these messages.

The Facebook account in question had nothing to do with Strelkov. Meanwhile, comments that have been made by outlets close to him consist of reports of downed aircraft of the Ukraine air force. It’s a well-known fact that Ukraine’s air force has lost many helicopters and fighter aircraft to low-altitude missile strikes by self-defense forces.

Further reported in the IBT story is a 20-plus year old report that Strelkov is said to have served as a volunteer Russian fighter in the war in Yugoslavia. That report consists of an alleged photo of Strelkov along with a claim by a Bosnian army officer that Strelkov took part in “Serbian aggression” in Bosnia.

The claim regarding the photo may be false. An article in a Russian website publication says the person depicted as Strelkov in the photo is instead a former Russian combatant named Alexander Mukharev.

Then we read ominously in the IBT story that Strelkov was “present” in Crimea earlier this year when the population there voted to secede from Ukraine. Russia facilitated that vote and welcomed its result.

As to who is the “real” Igor Strelkov, here is what a colleague in Russia has told me:

I really love these "was allegedly involved" types of arguments.

Strelkov was in the Balkans together with a few thousand Russian volunteers (not mercenaries). So far, not a single person among them is convicted of war crimes or even figured in any serious reports about that. Naturally, Serb militias' behavior in Bosnia was terrible, but for some strange reason, the Western press reported only the war crimes committed by Serbs while similar crimes of Muslims and Croats rarely attracted attention.

As for Strelkov-Girkins' career, he was an historian and he studied together with a comrade, a well-known specialist and member of the Russian Party of Left Socialist Revolutionaries (PLSR). Strelkov was unsuccessful in academia. His ideological sympathies are clearly with pre-revolutionary Russia and the White movement. He identifies with people like General Denikin who in 1941 declared solidarity with the USSR, seeing Stalin as a lesser evil compared with Hitler.

Recently, Strelkov made a very clear statement that he considers his role as a military commander is to stay out of politics. He stressed that the political views of opolcheniye (self-defense fighters) represent a very broad spectrum--from communist to monarchist. My personal encounters with opolchentsy show that most are not deeply engaged in politics.

Many will dismiss this portrayal of Strelkov as something written by a ‘Putin stooge’. Such epithets are in vogue these days to avoid serious discussion. The entire international left would benefit by some serious analysis of the Russian political landscape, including the precise characteristics and degree of support of Russian nationalism and similarly of both the political left and political right in Russia in all its complexity. We are still some distance from that, which is regrettable because of the dire and imminent threat of rising military conflict in eastern Europe. An escalating assault by NATO against Ukraine and Russia would have catastrophic consequences for the whole world.

The threat of escalation

There are very powerful interests that either do not want an inquiry into the MH17 disaster or who want it to finish by pinning the disaster on Igor Strelkov or some other fall guy. That would avoid the real reasons for the disaster, which go far beyond the immediate circumstances of the plane crash. Irrespective of who might have pushed a missile firing button if that was, indeed, how the plane came down, the full story of the crash is intricately woven into the web of Kyiv’s murderous war against the populations of eastern Ukraine. That war is backed by the NATO countries, with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott putting in a ‘me too’ performance as of July 17.

The urgency of all this is underlined by two circumstances. One, contrary to media claims in the past few days (such as the Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon on July 26), it appears that self-defense fighters in Luhansk and Donetsk are far from facing imminent defeat. Reports from Luhansk are saying the Ukraine army is facing a disastrous situation there. Large numbers of Ukraine soldiers are reportedly deserting and conscripts are refusing to answer the conscription call-up. (This July 27 story on Russia Today reports on 40 Ukraine soldiers who have sought refuge in Russia, saying they refuse to go on attacking their fellow citizens.)

Antiwar and anti-conscription protests by the families or neighbours of the men being conscripted into military service are on the rise in western Ukraine. Protesters are commonly saying their loved ones are facing “certain death” in combat for lack of training, weapons and vital supplies. This tends to confirm the other reports of the army’s and militias’ difficulties in the east. Meanwhile, representatives of the Kyiv government in Canada are saying that it is spending “all of its money” on the war in the east and that the well is running dry.

All of this may well explain the frenetic ‘rush to judgment’ and call to military intervention by NATO and others following the crash of MH17.

A steady drumbeat towards greater military intervention in Ukraine is being sounded n NATO capitals and in Canberra. This is grimly illustrated in yesterday’s edition of the Globe and Mail (Canada’s largest circulation daily newspaper). Like Canada’s government and its national broadcaster, the CBC, the Globe is on a forced march to deeper confrontation with Russia:

  • The Globe front page cover is a lurid, ghoulish image of Russian President Vladimir Putin with the words ‘Public enemy’ written beside it. The word ‘Putin’ or ‘Russia’ does not appear on the front page, suggesting an overwhelming message that doesn’t need explaining: ‘It’s Russia, stupid’. Inside the newspaper, we find:
  • A wire service story reporting that large numbers of Australian and Dutch police and possibly soldiers will soon be landing in eastern Ukraine in and around the MH17 crash site.
  • A column by the normally liberal Doug Saunders explaining that all of Europe is under “assault” from Russia. He laments, “the European response to this new threat, however, has been slow, uncertain and ambiguous”.
  • An article by seasoned journalist Mark MacKinnon arguing that self-defense forces in Luhansk and Donetsk are in rapid retreat and readying for a lengthy, destructive battle in the center of the cities of Luhansk or Donetsk. The image is of a looming Guernica or Stalingrad of the Kyiv regime.
  • A special column written by the hawkish Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada (!) titled, ‘It’s our duty to stand firm in the face of Russian aggression’.

The international left needs to rapidly mobilize in opposition to the war threat against Ukraine and Russia. We need to voice strong solidarity with the embattled people of southeast Ukraine. There is no time to lose.

Notes:

[1] Russian military leaders have on two occasions put ten probing questions each to Ukrainian authorities concerning the crash of Flight MH 17: on July 18 and on July 21.

[2] From Mediaua.com, translated by Google, edited for language and abridged:

The right sector demands to dissolve the Verkhovna Rada [‘Supreme Council’]

"Right Sector" believes that the current composition of the Parliament of Ukraine does not meet the demands of the people, reports the website ‘Dialogue’. The press service of the Right Sector said on July 26:

"Our party welcomes the dissolution of the current coalition as the only sure way to re-election of the Verkhovna Rada. Upon completion of the active phase of Ukrainian national liberation movement, a new president was elected, the old regime fell, and its main representatives shamefully fled to Russia, thus showing whose interests they served. But the system itself is built by the Yanukovych regime. The foundations of the Soviet government, despite many blows it took, remained afloat and successfully restored some people and structures. Unable to move forward, shackled by the old system, the old regime must be completely destroyed and a new system based on true democracy must be built."- said in a statement to the press service of the" right sector "on July 26.

The current Parliament, according to representatives of the "Right Sector" does not meet the modern demands of the people of Ukraine. “Significant numbers of deputies are state or even military traitors associated with the separatists. That is why, after the collapse of the coalition and Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s resignation from the post of Prime Minister, the current Parliament should be dissolved immediately.”

[3] From the Washington Post, July 26:

The IMF forecasts that Ukraine’s annual GDP will drop by 6.5% this year, while the government deficit is projected at 10.1% of GDP. This week, the government announced that it would need at least 800 million dollars to continue its counterinsurgency operation and asked the parliament to further increase taxes and cut public spending. The deputies’ refusal to appropriate needed funds yesterday triggered Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s resignation as he recognized that soldiers would receive no pay next month. The reconstruction of Donbas is even more uncertain as the government promised to turn to foreign donors for funds in the coming fall.

Prices to consumers of natural gas have risen 50 per cent this year and Ukraine’s currency has lost half its value in this same time. Kyiv is now totally dependent of loans from international financial institutions.

In the Globe and Mail on July 24, Ukraine’s envoy to Canada, Vadym Prystaiko, explained, “We are pouring all the money in our budget… into the anti-terrorism campaign.” (‘Anti-terrorism campaign’ is Kyiv’s code language for its war in the east of the country.)

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