The war currently being waged in Eastern Ukraine is difficult for people who are not familiar with the history of Eastern Europe to understand. Of course, President Vladimir Putin of Russia would have you believe that this is a "civil" war between predominantly Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Eastern Ukraine fighting for independence from the predominantly Ukrainian-speaking natives of Central and Western Ukraine. His well-oiled and well-funded propaganda machine has also spent considerable time, money and effort trying to convince the Western world that Ukraine's government is dominated by ultra-nationalist fascist forces who seized power back in 2014 in an illegal coup. Muddying up the waters even further, he continues to claim that Russian forces were not involved in the takeover of Crimea, and that there are no Russian soldiers fighting in Eastern Ukraine.
Of course, anyone that takes the trouble to do any fact-checking soon realizes that this is utter nonsense. Worse than that, it clearly demonstrates that one of Putin's most potent forces in the various "hybrid wars" as they have come to be called, is disinformation, or the deliberate manipulation of media to create the big lie that masks his aggressive imperialistic ambitions and actions.
This manipulation comes in many forms. There are the overt Russian media channels such as Russia Today and Sputnik that provide "alternate" news as interpreted — or more likely created — by Russian propagandists. There is also a vast army of trolls and automated programs called bots that mask their Russian identities and flood the internet and social media channels with misinformation, defamation, unsubstantiated accusations and false protests. Most problematic of all are a network of so-called academic and political experts throughout the world, purported to be independent, but who are in fact either paid, pressured or otherwise manipulated into publishing material in the legitimate Western media that defends Putin's actions and perpetuates lies, distortions and slanders against Ukraine, its people and its government.
The scope of Putin's war of disinformation has become ever more clear over the past year as we learn the details of Moscow's involvement in the U.S. election campaign. The Russian intelligence services spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year planting false stories, rumours, "alternative facts" and outright fabrications in the Western press and on social media to achieve their political objectives. Virtually all of the media in Russia is tightly controlled by the government, and all too often, credulous Western media tends to accept the material they put out as legitimate journalism, when it is anything but.
Take the war in Eastern Ukraine. The official position spouted by the Kremlin is that these are native Ukrainian rebel or separatist forces fighting against an illegal fascist government in Kyiv.
This has been disproven countless times by the capture of active Russian army soldiers on Ukrainian soil, as well as incontrovertible pictures, intelligence data and other tangible proof of Russian army units and officers operating on the Ukrainian side of the border. Russian army troops are regularly found posting pictures and recounting their experiences of fighting on Ukrainian soil on social media.
There is similar incontrovertible evidence of the presence in Eastern Ukraine of a large number of tanks, armoured vehicles, missile launchers, anti-aircraft systems and other military technology that can only have come from Russia. In fact, recent western military intelligence has shown that the so-called "rebels" now possess as many if not more tanks than can be found in the arsenals of such major European NATO countries as England, France or Spain.
As for the continuing claims that Ukraine's government seized power through an illegal coup and is dominated by right wing ultra-nationalists, that, too, is Kremlin-produced fiction. Ukraine's previous president, Victor Yanukovich, was indeed removed from power in 2014 subsequent to his murderous and unconstitutional attempt to put down a popular peaceful protest in Kyiv. It was subsequently proven that he and his Moscow-supporting cronies had managed to steal hundreds of billions in state assets, and were implicated in corruption to a degree that is astounding by any standard. When Yanukovich finally realized he was losing control of the situation, he fled the country.
Subsequent democratic elections gave Ukraine a new government with a host of parties being represented in the country's Parliament, none of which can be deemed to be "ultra-nationalist." There were parties that did run on far-right platforms, but none of them succeeded in electing any members. It is a matter of fact that there are more far-right members of Parliament and supporters of ultra-nationalist movements in most Western European countries than there are in Ukraine.
It is incumbent on us in the West to treat anything that Putin, the Russian government or the Russian media says with deep suspicion and to not give it any undeserved credibility or legitimacy. It has become obvious that Putin is determined to recapture as much of the former Soviet empire as he can and to destabilize Europe and NATO as well. The free world should recognize this brutal fact and not allow it to happen.
By Volodymyr Kish, The Hamilton Spectator
Volodymyr Kish is a Canadian author and writer with Ukrainian roots. He writes a regular editorial column for The New Pathway, a national weekly Ukrainian newspaper published in Toronto. He is also the current president of the Ontario Provincial Council of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.