A little over one year ago the world was given a foundational lesson in how an impartial press can unknowingly construct a partial opinion. The consequences of that lesson are still being heard today and much to the detriment of the Russian Federation.
March 16, 2014 marked the day when the people of Crimea went to the voting booths to decide whether they would be part of Ukraine or part of Russia. While the referendum was no doubt important to people living in Crimea, I for one remained highly skeptical that the results would actually be the ultimate arbiter on the territorial decisions made about Crimea. The outside players, namely Ukraine, Russia, the United States, NATO, and the European Union, were simply too big and too influential to let this small peninsula play an independent role far beyond the geopolitical football that it represented. I felt deeply for the people of Crimea, but the bitter reality and perhaps even more bitter truth was that high politics on the global stage will still come off in such a blunt manner. Unfortunately, this type of cynical maneuvering has been going on for literally thousands of years and will likely not end with the current crisis between Russia and the West over Ukraine. We have seen this fact by potential American military initiatives today involving the Baltics and recent egregiously reckless comments made by US representative to the UN Samantha Powers about Russia and Ukraine.
Ending crises such as the one in Crimea is not only the work of governments, diplomats, and militaries. Reporters play a crucial role as well. While Western journalists as a whole tend to be a conscientious lot, simply pursuing an interesting story and often putting themselves in harm’s way in order to get it, the Cold War residue that remains between the United States and Russia has put a grimy film over more than just political actors. It often affects the way in which stories are told, the lens through which ‘impartial observers’ focus their attention. Unfortunately, this happens usually at a subconscious level, resulting in news stories that were meant to be ‘fair, free, and impartial’ instead having a decidedly biased perspective snaking its way from reporter to reader.
Look no further than the first reporting on referendum day from the highly respected and august news organization, Reuters. It reported how, ‘thousands of Russian troops have taken control of the Black Sea peninsula and Crimea’s pro-Russian leaders have sought to ensure the vote is tilted in Moscow’s favor. That, along with an ethnic Russian majority, is expected to result in a comfortable ‘YES’ vote to leave Ukraine.’ These are actually two very different perspectives conflated into a single position. On the one hand, readers were given the distinct understanding that the referendum was basically rigged, commandeered by Crimean leaders, who were nothing but sycophants to the Kremlin. But the very next sentence also accurately mentioned that Crimea was majority ethnic Russian, which should have indicated to a reader that a free and fair referendum might end up producing the very result the reporters told us could not be genuine. So which was it? Was Crimea manipulated by local leaders and the Russian military or was its majority Russian population voting its free and voluntary will? By writing the piece so that the suspicious manipulation theory was conflated with the demographically true statistic, a reader was either left confused or pushed into thinking the referendum itself was irrelevant and that Russia was rather, well, evil.
The piece further reported, ‘the majority of Crimea’s 1.5 million electorate support leaving Ukraine and becoming part of Russia, citing expectations of better pay and the prospect of joining a country capable of asserting itself on the world stage. But others see the referendum as nothing more than a geopolitical land grab by the Kremlin…Ethnic Tatars, Sunni Muslims of Turkic origin who make up 12 percent of Crimea’s population, said they would boycott the referendum, despite promises by the authorities to give them financial aid and proper land rights.’ Again, this deftly presented evidence in a manner that delegitimized the ethnic Russian majority by highlighting a small minority group, ethnic Tatars, and how it would boycott the referendum. This is playing a bit fast and loose with the complex ethnic makeup of the former Soviet Union, portraying a picture that is not entirely accurate: ethnic Tatars have a long and rich history WITHIN the Russian Federation. One of the most powerful ethnic republics and richest regions in Russia today is Tatarstan. The idea that ethnic Tatars in Crimea were protesting the referendum because they were somehow worried or fearful of being part of Russia was simply fallacious. Much more likely, given the present environment of political turmoil and open discussions about autonomy and self-rule (let us not forget that Crimea was itself a semi-autonomous region within Ukraine under the Ukrainian Constitution), was that the ethnic Tatars saw what Crimean leaders were doing and hoped to also earn their own piece of newly acquired political and economic power. Rejecting the Crimean offer of financial aid and proper land rights meant they weren’t arguing about principle anymore but just how big their piece of the pie would be. All of this background and subtle nuance would have made readers more informed and impressed at how complex and multi-layered the Crimean situation is. Instead, they were left with a picture that had Crimean authority mere puppets on Kremlin strings and oppressed minorities being politically stomped over in the process by Russian jackboots.
The Reuters piece continued to explain the situation, stating ‘the protests began when Yanukovich turned his back on a trade deal with the European Union and opted for a credit and cheap oil deal worth billions of dollars with Ukraine’s former Soviet overlord, Russia.’ I have written on this issue in the past and it continues to perplex me how the above transaction is only portrayed in Western media as Yanukovich simply being in the back pocket of Moscow. Entering into greater trade cooperation with the European Union, paving the way for closer relations, also means ultimately answering to European Union financial demands. Perhaps we could ask Greece, Italy, or Portugal how that goes at times? These realities, along with the inevitably cyclical and topsy-turvy nature of the global economy, mean not all paths to the EU are paved with gold. Given such, why did Western media portray acceptance for a credit, oil, and gas deal worth ‘billions of dollars’ for Ukraine RIGHT NOW as being akin to a Faustian bargain made with a ‘Soviet overlord?’ What was the impact on uninformed readers who did not know that the Russian credit deal basically meant Russia forgave a massive amount of oil and gas debt owed by Ukraine? If a country was truly looking to be an ‘evil overlord’ might it not be far easier to simply call in one’s chips without remorse, rather than offering deals that eliminate debt with no repayment?
Finally, the piece reported, ‘voters have two options to choose from – but both imply Russian control of the peninsula. On the surface, the second choice appears to offer the prospect of Crimea remaining with Ukraine. However, the 1992 constitution which it cites foresees giving the region effective independence within Ukraine, but with the right to determine its own path and choose relations with whom it wants – including with Russia.’ The problem I have highlighted is not that such journalists are unprofessional or have some anti-Russian personal agenda. I have no personal knowledge of the journalists who wrote and contributed to the above Reuters piece and I am sure they take their profession with the utmost seriousness and have high personal standards of integrity. The problem, as I mentioned, is a pervasive subconscious Cold War residue that has major influence on how uninformed readers around the world learn about the situation in Crimea and Russia’s subsequent larger image even today.
For example, the 1992 constitution mentioned above is the UKRAINIAN Constitution, not the Russian. It does indeed grant the Crimean region effective independence within Ukraine AND the right to determine its own path and relations with whomever it wants. Ukraine wrote those words in the immediate glowing aftermath of Soviet dissolution, when, quite frankly, most in the West felt the true political and economic prosperity path shone brightest for Ukraine and NOT Russia. Many seem to have forgotten this but any simple source search back to the time period will reveal massive Western enthusiasm for Ukraine’s prospects while Russia was deemed too large, too ethnically diverse, and too dependent on decrepit and degraded Soviet infrastructure. It is easy to grant ‘autonomy’ when authorities feel confident that said autonomous chicken will never come home to roost. But now, a generation after the fall of the Soviet Union, no one makes comparisons anymore between Ukraine and Russia where Ukraine is the golden-child and Russia the basket-case. So yes, it was quite true that the constitution recklessly gave Crimea the opportunity to pursue the very path it was pursuing a year ago. But the hands that wrote that problematic constitution were Ukrainian, not Russian. This was a reality not revealed to readers. Instead, they were fed an opposite impression of the referendum as not only being illegitimate but manipulatively engineered by Russia and forced on the local people.
Russia, no doubt, was not guiltless. No state is in complex geopolitics. It absolutely took advantage of the turmoil and instability of the Maidan revolution in Kiev. But it took advantage of this opportunity by maneuvering with a small peninsula that had always been militarily important to and, quite frankly, politically and culturally aligned with Russia. Was this maneuver ‘nice?’ No, it was not. But was it geopolitically strategic? Yes, it most certainly was. Which thought process do you think matters most to states on the global stage, the former or the latter?
What I wish to see more of is reporting that testifies to this inherent nature of geopolitics and the admission that most states, no, ALL states will be strategic before they choose to be nice. Be warned: this won’t make for light or fun reading, per se. But it would make for more informed and more accurate reading than the quasi-impartial pieces that clearly push a psychological caricature of one particular side to readers who do not have the background to know what is fact and what is farce. The consequence, of course, is the creation of a Russian demon that is not entirely deserved and most certainly does not serve anyone’s enlightenment or the amelioration of conflict. There are enough real demons in the political world without the free media creating more absent-mindedly.