The Backlash of Moral Equivalency on Ukraine

March 11, 2014
A Euromaidan supporter holds an Israeli flag in Kiev on March 4, 2014

With strong statements from the US State Department countering Kremlin propaganda like “President Putin’s Fiction: 10 False Claims About Ukraine” and “Setting the Record Straight on Ukraine” coming from the US Embassy in Kiev, it didn’t take long for some commentators to appear with a “plague on both their houses.”

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an article 6 March by Ariel Danieli headlined “From Washington to Moscow, Everyone is Lying about What’s Happening in Ukraine.” Danieli rejected the State Department’s simple counterfactual to Putin’s persistent claim that “the opposition did not implement the February 21 agreement with former President Viktor Yanukovych” — that Yanukovych fled the country.

Instead, Danieli vaguely cites “chaos in the Ukrainian capital” and claims that “a substantial percentage of the anti-Russian opposition demonstrators rejected the agreement formulated by the warring parties with the mediation of the European Union.” He fails to mention that it was in fact pro-Russian factions who objected to the deal, and the reason Ukrainian radicals were cited for lack of support –they wanted to oust Yanukovych – was taken care of by Yanukovych himself when he fled.

Danieli then contends that developments from the moment of the signing until Yanukovych’s flight and his ouster by parliament were “not entirely clear” — although the deposed president’s rush to Moscow and then re-appearance in Rostov-on-Don could not have been more obviously coordinated by the Kremlin. Danieli also curiously rejects the idea that the Yanukovych government’s massive corruption involving theft of billions of dollars from the state coffers is relevant to the question of removing him by force. He concludes by lamely claiming the opposition “still recognized him as president on February 25, and only said that he ‘is not actively leading the country as of now’” — although the stark issue of his flight after discoveries that he ordered the shooting of demonstrators and had robbed state coffers should have settled that issue.

The State Department also discounts the Russian reports that there were mass attacks against churches and synagogues. The Interpreter has also steadily countered the Kremlin’s propaganda with statements to the contrary from credible sources in Ukraine. Yet Danieli cites Haaretz’s own reporter, Anshel Pfeffer, that “Jews were beaten in Kiev and a synagogue was destroyed there,” and “similar incidents occurred in the city of Zaporozhe…and Simferopol.”

Yet we can find no evidence that Anshel Pfeffer or any other journalist reported the destruction of an entire synagogue in Kiev, although we also reported concerns that Jews had been beaten there. In fact, on March 3, Pfeffer interviewed Rabbi Mikhail Kapustin of Simferopol, whose synagogue suffered a graffiti attack but who nevertheless noted that “talk of anti-semitism is exaggerated,” and added that he had started a petition against the Russian occupation.

And on 6 March, Pfeffer reported “so far the net sum of anti-Semitic attacks in Crimea has been one incident of graffiti sprayed on a synagogue here in Simferopol.” As the rabbis of the synagogues in both Zaporozhe and Simferopol reported themselves, damage to their buildings was slight, no one was injured, and they believed the attacks were deliberate provocations.

While many share concerns about the Ukrainian group Right Sector, which is known for its ultra-nationalist views and provocative statements, no attacks by this group on Jews or any other minority have been confirmed since the new government took power in Ukraine; indeed, to build confidence, Right Sector Dmytro Jarosz met with the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine.

Danieli claimed that the Ukrainian parliament had supposedly approved a law limiting the use of the Russian language in Ukraine, but the law wasn’t passed; instead, a law that endorsed Russian as a state language was revoked.

On 10 March, Pfeffer followed up with Rabbi Kapustin. He said that the graffiti attack was organized, because a man arrived carrying the spray paint in a back pack, although he could not be identified from video surveillance. He added that although no further attacks had been reported, he felt more afraid. “I didn’t feel any anti-Semitism previously in Crimea. Now I am being attacked on Crimean websites which are pointing out that I’m Jewish. There’s suddenly a feeling we are sitting on a keg of gunpowder surrounded by fire.”

These stories all indicate the importance of keeping a careful watch on the situation in Ukraine as it changes daily, but reporting accurately that there have been no attacks on people.

The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland also reached for the moral equivalency meme in responding to the American counterpropaganda efforts against the Kremlin in a piece titled “As the Ukraine Debate Rages, Both Sides Are Getting it Wrong.”

But his example of the US “getting it wrong” is a citation of a Haaretz piece 22 February quoting Moshe Reuven Azman, the Chabad chief Rabbi of Ukraine as telling his congregation to flee Ukraine. However, as we reported on 26 February , the same rabbi several days later urged the media to get in touch with him directly, as a number of distortions of his statements had appeared, and he said that there was no surge in anti-Semitism. No call for departures from Ukraine was made on his web site. Other Jewish leaders also cautioned that reports of anti-Semitism were exaggerated.

Leslie Gelb, former New York Times national security correspondent and deputy editor, and Pentagon official in the Vietnam era, has also vigorously weighed in at the Daily Beast with an article titled “Cut the Baloney on Ukraine.” Leave aside the fact that the pejorative “the Ukraine” in his headline sat there for a whole day before finally being changed by editors to “Ukraine” – the term most people have used in the 22 years since independence to avoid perceiving the country as an extension of Russian territory. Gelb’s call on all countries to “stop their lies and self-destructive posturing or pay costs they’re loath to admit” is also based on flawed information.

Among Gelb’s key arguments for “stopping lies” is this contention: “And the truth of the matter is that no one has come forward with proof of whether the snipers were from Yanukovych’s security forces or from rightwing Ukrainian groups or both.”

This statement is based on the leaked conversation between the Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, and a Ukrainian doctor, Olga Bogomolets. But as we reported, Bogomolets has since explained in an interview with the Telegraph that she never made any such claims about the perpetrators, since it would be hard to tell from examination of the wounds alone. She also never even examined the bodies of police killed – the authorities have custody of them. Instead, she has called for a forensic investigation. And Paet, while confirming the call took place, has explained that he was inquiring about a version of the story he heard in Kiev to check it, not affirm it. Indeed, the rumor about the Ukrainian opposition willing to shoot at 100 of their own people to pin it on Yanukovych has the Kremlin’s fingerprints on it, given that there is no basis in numerous eye-witness reports.

Gelb also cites a purported discriminatory law against the Russian language, but in fact the law revoking the official status of Russian – not a move to prevent its use — has been undone by the new Crimean leader, who has made Russian and Tatar the official languages (and not Ukrainian). That ought to reveal what language laws are really about – unenforceable markers for affiliation with governments in Moscow or Kiev.

Gelb purports to debunk Moscow’s claim of “the occasional harassment of Russian speakers in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine” by noting that “[s]ure, there were excesses against the Russian speakers, but there is no evidence of this being widespread.” In fact, there isn’t any evidence of all of any attacks on Russian speakers; the opposite is true. Russian nationalists bussed in from Russia attacked pro-EuroMaidan activists in Kharkiv, and two died later of their wounds.

All of these cases indicate how important it is to get the story directly from the scene, and not through the prism of past fears.