Kiev’s Atrocities and the Silence of the Hawks

Kiev’s Atrocities and the Silence of the Hawks

Kiev’s Atrocities and the Silence of the Hawks

We may honorably disagree about how to resolve the crisis—but not about deeds that are rising to the level of war crimes.


For weeks, the US-backed regime in Kiev has been committing atrocities against its own citizens in southeastern Ukraine, a region heavily populated by Russian-speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians. While victimizing a growing number of innocent people, including children, and degrading America’s reputation, these military assaults against cities, captured on video, are generating intense pressure in Russia on President Vladimir Putin to “save our compatriots.” Both the atrocities and the pressure on Putin have increased since July 1, when Kiev, after a brief cease-fire, intensified its artillery and air attacks on eastern cities defenseless against such weapons.

The reaction of the Obama administration, as well as the new Cold War hawks in Congress and the establishment media, has been twofold: silence, interrupted only by occasional statements excusing and thus encouraging more atrocities by Kiev. Very few Americans have protested this shameful complicity. We may honorably disagree about the causes and resolution of the Ukrainian crisis, the worst US-Russian confrontation in decades, but not about deeds that are rising to the level of war crimes, if they have not done so already.

In mid-April, the new Kiev government, predominantly western Ukrainian in composition and outlook, declared an “anti-terrorist operation” against a growing political rebellion in the southeast. At that time, the rebels were mostly mimicking the initial 2013 protests in Kiev—demonstrating, issuing defiant proclamations, occupying public buildings and erecting defensive barricades—before Maidan turned ragingly violent and, in February, overthrew Ukraine’s corrupt but legitimately elected president, Viktor Yanukovych. Indeed, the precedent for seizing official buildings and demanding the allegiance of local authorities, even declaring “independence,” had been set earlier, in January, in central and western Ukraine—by pro-Maidan, anti-Yanukovych protesters. Reports suggest that some cities in these regions, almost ignored by the international media, are still controlled by extreme nationalists, not Kiev.

Considering those preceding events—but above all the country’s profound historical divisions, particularly between its western and eastern regions—the rebellion in the southeast was not surprising. Nor were its protests against the unconstitutional way (in effect, a coup) that the new government had come to power; the southeast’s sudden loss of effective political representation in the capital; and the real prospect of official discrimination. But by declaring an “anti-terrorist operation” against the new protesters, Kiev signaled its intention to “destroy” them, not negotiate.

On May 2, in this incendiary atmosphere, a horrific event occurred in the southern city of Odessa, awakening memories of Nazi German extermination squads in Ukraine and other Soviet republics during World War II. An organized pro-Kiev mob chased protesters into a building, set it on fire and tried to block the exits. Some forty people, perhaps many more, perished in the flames or were murdered as they fled the inferno.

Members of the infamous Right Sector, a far-right paramilitary organization ideologically aligned with the ultranationalist Svoboda party—itself a constituent part of Kiev’s coalition government—led the mob. Both are frequently characterized by knowledgeable observers as “neofascist” movements. Kiev alleged that the victims had themselves accidentally started the fire, but eyewitnesses, television footage and social-media videos told the true story, as they have about subsequent atrocities.

Instead of interpreting the Odessa massacre as an imperative for restraint, Kiev intensified its “anti-terrorist operation.” Since May, the regime has sent a growing number of armored personnel carriers, tanks, artillery, helicopter gunships and warplanes to southeastern cities. When its regular military units and local police forces turned out to be less than effective, willing or loyal, Kiev hastily mobilized Right Sector and other radical nationalist militias responsible for much of the violence at Maidan into a National Guard to accompany regular detachments. Zealous, barely trained, and drawn mostly from the central and western regions, Kiev’s new recruits have escalated the ethnic warfare and killing of innocent civilians.

Initially, the “anti-terrorist” campaign was limited primarily to rebel checkpoints on the outskirts of cities. Since May, however, Kiev has repeatedly carried out artillery and air attacks on city centers. More and more urban areas, neighboring towns, and even villages now look and sound like agonized war zones. Conflicting information makes it impossible to estimate the number of dead and wounded noncombatants, but Kiev’s figure of nearly 2,000 is almost certainly too low. The number continues to grow due also to Kiev’s blockade of cities where essential medicines, food, water, fuel and electricity are scarce. The result is an emerging humanitarian catastrophe.

Another effect is clear: Kiev’s “anti-terrorist” tactics have created a reign of terror in the targeted cities. Even The New York Times, which like the mainstream American media in general has deleted the atrocities from its coverage, described the survivors in Slovyansk living “as if…in the Middle Ages.” An ever-growing number of refugees, disproportionately women and traumatized children, have been desperately fleeing the carnage. In late June, the United Nations estimated that as many as 110,000 Ukrainians had fled across the border to Russia—where authorities said the number was much larger—and about half that many to other Ukrainian sanctuaries. By mid-July, roads and trains were filled with refugees from newly besieged Luhansk and Donetsk, a city of 1 million and already ”a ghostly shell.”

It is true, of course, that the anti-Kiev rebels in these regions, though lacking the government’s arsenal of heavy and airborne weapons, are aggressive, organized and well armed—no doubt with some Russian assistance, whether officially sanctioned or not. But calling themselves “self-defense” fighters is not wrong. They did not begin the combat; their land is being invaded and assaulted by a government whose political legitimacy is arguably no greater than their own, two of their large regions having voted overwhelmingly for autonomy referendums; and, unlike actual terrorists, they have not committed acts of war outside their own communities.

* * *

Among the crucial questions rarely discussed in the US political-media establishment: What is the role of the “neofascist” factor in Kiev’s “anti-terrorist” ideology and military operations? Putin’s position, at least until recently—that the entire Ukrainian government is a “neofascist junta”—is incorrect. Many members of the ruling coalition and its parliamentary majority are aspiring European-style democrats or moderate nationalists. This may also be true of Ukraine’s newly elected president, the oligarch Petro Poroshenko, though his increasingly extreme words and deeds since being inaugurated on June 7—he has called resisters in the bombarded cities “gangs of animals” and vowed to take “hundreds of their lives for each life of our servicemen”—collide with his conciliatory image, drafted by Washington and Brussels. Equally untrue, however, are claims by Kiev’s US apologists that Ukraine’s neofascists are merely agitated nationalists or “garden-variety Euro-populists,” or a “distraction” that lacks enough popular support to be significant.

Independent Western scholars have documented the fascist origins, contemporary ideology, and declarative symbols of Svoboda and its fellow-traveling Right Sector. Both movements glorify Ukraine’s murderous Nazi collaborators in World War II as inspirational ancestors. Both, to quote Svoboda’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, call for an ethnically pure nation purged of the “Moscow-Jewish mafia” and “other scum,” including gays, feminists and political leftists. On the website of Dmytro Yarosh, Right Sector’s leader, he and a Svoboda leader even hailed the Odessa massacre as “another bright day in our national history,” with the latter adding, “Bravo, Odessa…. Let the Devils burn in hell.” If more evidence is needed, in December 2012, the European Parliament decried Svoboda’s “racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic views [that] go against the EU’s fundamental values and principles.” In 2013, the World Jewish Congress denounced Svoboda as “neo-Nazi.” Observers agree that Right Sector is even more extremist.

Svoboda and Right Sector already command power and influence far exceeding their popular vote: less than 2 percent in the May presidential election. “Moderates” in the US-backed Kiev government—obliged to both movements for their violence-driven ascent to power, and perhaps for their personal safety—rewarded Svoboda and Right Sector with some five to eight (depending on shifting affiliations) top ministry positions, including ones overseeing national security, military, prosecutorial and educational affairs. Still more, according to the research of Pietro Shakarian, a remarkable graduate student at the University of Michigan, Svoboda was given five governorships, covering about 20 percent of the country. And this does not take into account the role of Right Sector in the “anti-terrorist operation.”

Nor does it consider the political mainstreaming of fascism’s dehumanizing ethos. In 2012, a Svoboda leader anathematized the Ukrainian-born American actress Mila Kunis as a “dirty kike.” Since 2013, pro-Kiev mobs and militias have routinely denigrated ethnic Russians as insects. On May 9, at the annual commemoration of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, a regional governor praised Hitler for his “slogan of liberating the people” in occupied Ukraine. More recently, the US-picked prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, referred to resisters in the southeast as “subhumans.” His defense minister proposed putting them in “filtration camps” pending deportation, raising fears of ethnic cleansing. Yulia Tymoshenko—a former prime minister, titular head of Yatsenyuk’s party and runner-up in the May presidential election—was overheard wishing she could “exterminate them all [Ukrainian Russians] with atomic weapons.” “Sterilization” can be counted among the less apocalyptic official musings on the pursuit of a purified Ukraine.

Confronted with such facts, Kiev’s American apologists have conjured up another rationalization. Any neo-fascists in Ukraine, they assure us, are far less dangerous than Putinism’s “clear aspects of fascism.” The allegation is unworthy of serious analysis: however authoritarian Putin may be, there is nothing authentically fascist in his rulership or personal conduct.

Indeed, equating Putin with Hitler, as eminent Americans from Hillary Clinton to Zbigniew Brzezinski to George Will have done, is another example of how our new cold warriors are recklessly damaging US national security in vital areas where Putin’s cooperation is essential. 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.

* * *

And yet, the Obama administration reacts with silence, and worse. Washington’s role in the current crisis has been deeply complicit. As the Maidan protest against President Yanukovych developed last November and December, Senator John McCain, high-level State Department policymaker Victoria Nuland, and a crew of other US politicians and officials arrived to stand with its leaders—Svoboda’s Tyahnybok in the forefront—and declare, “America is with you!” Nuland was then caught on tape plotting with US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt to oust Yanukovych’s government and replace him with Yatsenyuk, who soon became, and remains, prime minister.

Meanwhile, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry warned Yanukovych “not to resort to violence.” But when violent street riots deposed him—only hours after a European-brokered, White House–backed compromise that would have left Yanukovych as president of a reconciliation government until new elections this December, possibly averting the subsequent bloodshed—the administration made a fateful decision: it eagerly embraced the outcome. Obama personally legitimized the coup as a “constitutional process,” inviting Yatsenyuk to the White House. Washington has been at least tacitly complicit in what followed, from Putin’s hesitant annexation of Crimea in March and the rebellion in southeastern Ukraine, to the ongoing civil war and Kiev’s innocent victims.

Before and after Kiev’s “anti-terror operation” began in earnest, Kerry, CIA director John Brennan and Vice President Biden (twice) visited Kiev—followed, it is reported, by a continuing flow of “senior US defense officials,” military equipment and financial assistance to the bankrupt government. Indeed, American “advisers” are now “embedded” in the Ukrainian defense ministry. Despite this essential support, the White House has not compelled Kiev to investigate either the Odessa massacre or the fateful sniper killings of scores of Maidan protesters and policemen on February 18–20, which precipitated Yanukovych’s ouster. (The snipers were initially said to be his, but evidence later appeared pointing to opposition extremists.)

* * *

As atrocities and humanitarian disaster grow in Ukraine, both Obama and Kerry have all but vanished as statesmen, leaving most responses to lesser US officials. All have told the same Manichaean story. The State Department’s Nuland, who spent several days at Maidan, for example, assured a congressional committee that she had no evidence of fascist-like elements playing any role there. Ambassador Pyatt, who earlier voiced the same opinion about the Odessa massacre, was even more dismissive, telling obliging New Republic editors that the entire question was “laughable.”

Still more shameful, no US official at any level appears to have issued a meaningful statement of sympathy for the civilian victims of the Kiev government, not even those in Odessa. When asked if her superiors had “any concerns” about the casualties of Kiev’s military campaign, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki repeatedly answered no. Even worse, Poroshenko’s decision to intensify Kiev’s military campaign was clearly taken with the encouragement or support of the Obama administration, against the wishes of NATO allies Germany and France.

Indeed, at the UN Security Council on May 2, Ambassador Samantha Power, referring explicitly to the “counterterrorism initiative,” gave Kiev’s leaders a US license to kill. Lauding their “remarkable, almost unimaginable, restraint” (as Obama himself did after Odessa), she continued: “Their response is reasonable, it is proportional, and frankly it is what any one of our countries would have done.”

Contrary to the incessant administration and media demonizing of Putin and his “agents” in Ukraine, the “anti-terrorist operation” can end only where it began: in Washington and Kiev. Leaving aside how much power the new president really has in Kiev (or over Right Sector militias in the field), Poroshenko’s “peace plan” and June 21 cease-fire may have seemed such an opportunity, except for their two core conditions: fighters in the southeast first had to “lay down their arms,” and Poroshenko alone would decide with whom to negotiate peace. The terms seemed more akin to conditions of surrender and were probably the real reason Poroshenko unilaterally ended the cease-fire on July 1 and intensified Kiev’s assault on eastern cities.

The Obama administration continues to make the situation worse. Despite opposition by several NATO allies and even American corporate heads, the president and his secretary of state have constantly threatened Russia with harsher economic sanctions unless Putin meets one condition or another, most of them improbable. On June 26, Kerry even demanded (“literally”) that Putin “in the next few hours…help disarm” resisters in the southeast, as though they were not motivated by any of Ukraine’s indigenous conflicts but were merely his private militias.

In fact, from the onset of this crisis, the administration’s actual goal has been unclear. 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? Or is it to provoke Russia into a war with the United States and NATO in Ukraine?

Inadvertent or not, the latter outcome remains all too possible. Since Russia annexed, or “reunified” with, Crimea, Putin—not Kiev or Washington—has demonstrated “remarkable restraint.” But events are making it increasingly difficult for him to do so. Russian state media, particularly television, have regularly featured vivid accounts of Kiev’s military assaults on Ukraine’s eastern cities. The result has been, both in elite and public opinion, widespread indignation and mounting perplexity—even anger—over Putin’s failure to intervene militarily.

An influential ideologist of Russia’s own ultranationalists has declared: “Putin betrays not just [Donetsk and Lugansk] but himself, Russia and all of us.” An article in the mainstream, pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia, while charging the leadership with “ignoring the cries for help,” asks: “Is Russia abandoning the Donbass?” If so, the author warns, the result will be “Russia’s worst nightmare,” relegating it to “the position of a vanquished country.” Just as significant are similar exhortations by Gennady Zyuganov, leader of Russia’s Communist Party, the second-largest in the country and in Parliament. Even one of Putin’s own aides has publicly urged him to impose a “no-fly zone” and destroy Kiev’s approaching aircraft and land forces. If that happens, US and NATO forces, now being built up in Eastern Europe, might well intervene in response. As a former Russian foreign minister admired in the West reminds us, there are “hawks on both sides.”

More recently, Kiev’s stepped-up assaults on eastern Ukrainian citizens, the fall of Slovyansk and other small shattered cities, and the repeated shelling of Russia’s own bordering territory, which killed a resident on July 13, have fueled more outrage in Putin’s own establishment over his military inaction. The dean of Moscow State University’s School of Television even suggested the Kremlin was part of “a strange conspiracy of silence” with Western governments to conceal the number of Kiev’s victims. The leading news network demanded that the Kremlin take military action, including imposing a “no-fly zone.”

Little of this is noted in the United States. In a democratic political system, the media are expected to pierce the official fog of war. In the Ukrainian crisis, however, mainstream American newspaper and television coverage has been almost as slanted and elliptical as the statements from the White House and State Department, obscuring the atrocities (if reporting them at all) and generally relying on information from Washington and Kiev. Why, for example, have The New York Times, The Washington Post and major television networks not reported regularly from Ukraine’s war-ravaged cities, instead of from Moscow and Kiev? Most Americans are thereby being shamed, unknowingly, by the Obama administration’s role. Those who do know but remain silent—in the government, media, think tanks and universities—share its complicity.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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