What is really going on in Eastern Ukraine? Assessment of the state of the media
Immediately after the elections, the new president of Ukraine stated that the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) was in its final, decisive stage. The Ukrainian media report success after success. Meanwhile the Russian media talk of the slaughter of civilians committed by a fascist junta from Kiev.
I have already learnt that when it comes to Eastern Ukraine, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It is closer to the Ukrainian accounts than it is to the Russian reports, but still. The Ukrainian media often feel they need to “lift people’s spirits”, so they share one (patriotic) perspective. I have talked about it with Ukrainian journalists who are working in the east. Some of them believed that telling “the naked truth” could be more harmful than the one-sided, “pro-Ukrainian” news from the frontline. For them it is essential to present to the public, the image of a heroic Ukrainian soldier who, willing to give his life, defends the nation form Russian aggression.
This is why they emphasise all sorts of evidence (and often deliberations) that some citizens of Russian Federation have sided with the separatists, and recently - that there were mercenaries from Russia involved. An average inhabitant of the west of Ukraine gets the picture of heroic Ukrainian army clashing with Russia out there in the east.
An accurate and credible image is not helped by news such as “near Lugansk so-and-so many armored personnel carriers have crossed the border”, which are based on rumours that - even though later exposed - still remain in the memories of those who are following events, but not too closely. All this is compounded by the fact that the idea of a struggle against an external enemy is easier to accept than the complexity of a conflict lurking within. And the Ukrainian government has enough support going forward.
Recently, one of the favorite subjects for the Ukrainian media is the atrocities committed by the already notorious, "Chechens" - Russian mercenaries from the Caucasus. I happened to be in the Priazovye, when they landed on a beach in Mariupol. Then in Donestk, where they were transported. They did act arrogantly, but remained calm. Waiting for orders. They were there as support: the last resort in the battle with Ukrainian army. According to the latest reports, now even the separatists want rid of them - the "Chechens", instead of fighting for the cause, tend to ravage the ground that they manage to take control of. Today the Ukrainian media report that nine armed and uniform-clad separatists showed at a Ukrainian military post. They refused to give up their weapons but declared themselves ready to fight the "Chechens", as they felt responsible for bringing them here in the first place.
This information was classified as “partially confirmed”. It sounds a little like propaganda, but it doesn’t seem to me all that unlikely. I remember my meetings with separatists in Slovyansk: These were mostly simple people, who didn’t analyse the logic (or its absence) of the conflict or the ideaology they chose to give their lives for. Their belief that Kiev was overtaken by fascists and that they were fighting a just cause trying to defend their local community - despite the Ukrainian media repeating that all separatists were “paid” - it all seemed genuine to me. I also think that this same belief could have guided them to side with ATO when things changed, and they didn’t necessarily see it as a dishonourable move.
It seems that all this complexity remains unacknowledged by the Ukrainian media - most of those who support local separatists do so… out of patriotism. Their understanding of the motherland was shaped and forged during the Soviet era and is based on the idea of eternal affinity with the “brotherly Russian nation”. The mentality of Western Ukrainians is alien to them, while the red-and-black symbolism is simply scary. Meanwhile, the language used by Russian media is what they understand. Also, as I wrote at the beginning, all this is not in the least helped by the “patriotic” but not always factual reports presented by the Ukrainian media (even in Lugansk there are “separatists” who still watch Ukrainian television!). They feel that Kiev has been unrightfully taken over by the junta and they need to fight to bring back order. Therefore, when their land is invaded by troops that start ravaging their territory - like "Chechens", they are ready to fight against them.
And this way, the “separatists” can become part of the anti-terrorist operation, which is aimed at separatists themselves. I hear that, according to UA Info, separatists were sent to the frontline to “wash away shame with blood”…
To me, there are true heroes among the Ukrainian troops in the east. I know this because I had the chance to talk to many of them, some I befriended. I am not saying that their courage and sacrifice should not be celebrated by the media. They genuinely deserve to be praised and I want to be one of the people who report their achievements. But at the same time, this one-sidedness, embellishment of the truth and exaggeration of ATO’s success make the message unpalatable for most people in Eastern Ukraine.