Udo Ulfkotte is a former editor for a major German daily newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. In 2014 he published a best-selling book claiming that “members of the German media are paid by the CIA in return for spinning the news in a way that supports U.S. interests,” and that “some German outlets are nothing more than PR appendages of NATO.”
Some critics have thrown doubts on Ulfkotte’s personality and background. But as I know from my own foreign affairs experience, the U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies do try to influence media reporting with what they themselves describe as black or gray information. Usually they operate on a “scratch my back” basis — you publish the information we give you and we will give you insider contacts and information.
But at times they are more direct, for example in the way they were able to plant a media story of a nonexistent massacre in China’s Tiananmen Square — “machine guns mowing down students in the hundreds or even thousands” — even as independent witnesses in the square insisted they saw nothing of the sort. (What they did see was wild revenge shootings in the streets after anti-regime crowds had fire-bombed and killed quite a few soldiers sent to clear the square.)
Today the target of the black information people has to be Russia. Some years back when President Vladimir Putin sought to brutally suppress pro-Muslim Chechen rebels seeking independence, their anti-Moscow efforts would have been most welcome. But since the U.S. and U.K. also condemned the rebels as terrorists, they remained fairly silent. Over eastern Ukraine and Crimea, however, that restraint has now gone. We are back to the Tiananmen follies, where you say whatever you like and an unthinking media will back you up.
Take Ukraine for example. We now have ample independent documentary coverage through YouTube and other channels showing that the large Russian-speaking majority in eastern Ukraine simply wants to have its own zone of self-government and that the Ukrainian forces sent to crush them are sometimes happy to fraternize with them. It is mainly the extreme Ukrainian nationalists, some pro-Nazi, who want to keep the fighting going. Moscow has confirmed in the 2015 Minsk agreement that it has no interest in taking over the disputed areas, that the border between Ukraine and Russia will remain the same.
All it wants — and all the other signatories to Minsk, including Kiev, agreed — is some form of autonomy for the Russian-speaking zone in the east. Yet we are told repeatedly by NATO and others that Moscow is bent on aggression. How can you be an aggressor if, in conformity with an international agreement, all you are doing is trying to protect a minority seeking the kind of autonomy or federation that we take for granted as a right for linguistic or other minorities in the West? If anything, Moscow’s support for the Russian-speaking separatists in Ukraine would now be justified by the newly born Western principle of R2P — responsibility to protect minority groups being suppressed by central governments. But that does not stop the hawks in NATO and elsewhere ranting on about Russian aggression.
Regarding Crimea, the hypocrisy is even greater. This originally Russian- and Tartar-speaking area was for administrative convenience included into Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. Like the rest of Ukraine, it was badly governed and Moscow together with the majority of its population took advantage of the 2014 Kiev uprising to have the territory returned to Russia with a minimum of force. Few of our Western hawks deny that the area is largely Russian-speaking. Instead, they insist that it was illegal to change an international frontier in this way, forgetting that in 1999 they bombed Belgrade savagely for three months to force it to change the status of its frontier with Kosovo.
Now we are beginning to hear NATO and other mutterings about Moscow plots against other former Soviet republics.
The Soviet Union was guilty of many sins, but one of them was not lack of consideration for the rights of the various ethnic minorities in its republics. Today, with those republics gaining independence, the ethnic majorities have begun to discriminate against Russian or pro-Russian minorities, and not just in eastern Ukraine. But when Moscow tries to protest against this discrimination, in the three Baltic states especially where language restrictions on local Russian populations are severe, its complaints are portrayed as provocations justifying a robust NATO response.
As with China over Tiananmen, the general Western ignorance of distant nations makes it easy for commentators to feed bias and inaccuracies into their Russian reports. During the recent Moscow parade to celebrate the 71st anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, we were told by one commentator that there were hundreds of Joseph Stalin’s portraits in the streets of Moscow. But in the ample TV and YouTube coverage of the parade you will not see a single Stalin memento, let alone portrait. In the speech by Putin (available in English if needed), you will not hear a single mention of Stalin. Incidentally, Putin did not view the parade from a pedestal like Stalin and other former leaders. He was down there with the crowds. Pro-Stalin sentiments do exist in Russia, but they were not on display that day.
We were also told that the crowds wore the black and orange ribbon from czarist days symbolizing support for Putin and Russian military power. But here too one needed only to look at the TV coverage to realize that only military-related personnel wore the ribbon, for the simple reason that the ribbon is a military award which by law can only be worn by the military. It was revived from czarist times by that pro-Western favorite, Boris Yeltsin.
Gregory Clark is a former Moscow-based Australian diplomat.
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