Propaganda ministers, all of them: Our pathetic, spoon-fed media pushes half-truths, again

You can't separate MH-17 debate from Ukraine debate. Washington wants to, and a compliant media helps — as always

Published July 22, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)

Wolf Blitzer, Brian Williams, David Gregory    (AP/Chris Pizzello/Peter Kramer/Salon)
Wolf Blitzer, Brian Williams, David Gregory (AP/Chris Pizzello/Peter Kramer/Salon)

I would like to meet Anastasia Lukina. No, not because of the elegant name. I have two better reasons.

Lukina is described as a 30-year-old sales manager in Moscow. In Tuesday’s editions, a New York Times correspondent, Neil MacFarquhar, quoted her as saying this regarding responsibility for the downing of Malaysia Flight MH-17 over Ukrainian territory last week:

“So the West says it wants a full investigation, but they’ve already accused us of killing those people? We all know what the conclusion to that investigation will be. So why even bother pretending? Russia is the world’s scapegoat.”

Sure, I am always good for a drink with a plain speaker, no matter the stripe.

The other reason to meet Anastasia Lukina is more straightforward. I would like her to know that we Americans are not all mendacious xenophobes with lynch-mob prejudices and a hankering for frontier justice.

For once, Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to say something wise as he got the official line out on the Sunday talk shows. MH-17 lying in a Ukrainian wheat field produces “a moment of truth,” he said. He went on to punt it, per usual, by adding “for Russia.” This is a moment of truth for all of us — for Russia, yes, but maybe even more for Americans and the ever less promising new government in Kiev.

MH-17 went down Thursday afternoon, local time. It took less than a day for Washington, by way of the military and intelligence officials who customarily spoon-feed the media, to begin the innuendo intended to “corral public opinion” (Zbigniew Brzezinski’s unforgettable phrase) toward a nice, plump case for Russian guilt. A day later we had the conviction by way of “a series of indicators of Russian involvement,” in Times terminology.

And in the course of the next day or so, we had the ad hominem case against Vladimir Putin. As Anastasia Lukina astutely called it, we demand an investigation and Putin damn well better clear the ground for it. In the meantime, we claim certainty that Russia, in the person of Putin, bears “direct responsibility” (Obama’s phrase) by way of Moscow’s straight-line control of the anti-Kiev, “Russian-backed” rebels.

This is not a truthful way through the Ukraine crisis now that MH-17 has transformed it.

The best things said since the tragedy have come from Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Liow Tiong Lai, Malaysia’s transport minister. “A geopolitical issue,” as Liow put it over the weekend, has now become “a human tragedy.” It is an obscenity, they suggested without using the term, to make gains on this tragedy.

That is what the Dutch and the Malaysians say. Putin said this in a video released late Sunday afternoon East Coast time: “No one should and no one has the right to use this tragedy to pursue their own political goals.”

I may have missed something, but I have seen no such statements coming from either Kiev or Washington. It is a matter of interpretation, but mine is that seizing on this tragedy for advantage is precisely what these two allies are doing. It looks to me as if Washington sees this as its chance to go for the jugular.

There is a lot to sort out at this critical moment in the Ukraine crisis. I continue to insist this is possible, but only if the posturing and propaganda cease, as in instantly. Over the weekend my mind drifted to Gavrilo Princip, the Yugoslav nationalist who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand a century ago last month. Matches can ignite global conflagrations, and we do not want to find that the man who fired the fatal missile at MH-17 lit one.

To begin with, we need a ceasefire all sides respect. This includes Petro Poroshenko’s government in Kiev, the insurgents, those Russians supporting the insurgents, and the Americans. We are not even this far yet.

At this writing, the Ukraine army has intensified its offensive in the eastern region, adding to the civilian casualty count by most accounts other than Kiev’s. This, to me, deserves the term obscenity. Rockets fired at men, women and children in Donetsk apartments are different from a rocket fired at a civilian aircraft in only one respect: The former are not launched mistakenly.

As to Russians on the ground in Ukraine, a ceasefire is essential for any demand that they desist. Ditto the insurgents themselves, of course. As to the Americans, sanctions are hostile, arguably surrogate acts of war, and to demand Moscow’s cooperation while simultaneously preparing more of them — well, you tell me how under the sun this is conducive of resolution.

Let us say we have our ceasefire, if only for the sake of argument. Then, certainly, we need the investigation of MH-17 that all sides clamor for. This would require spotless surgical detachment. How do we achieve this?

The problem here is interests. Russia has interests, as do the two belligerents in Ukraine. So they are out. In the moment-of-truth file, it is no good pretending any longer that the Americans, along with the Europeans, do not have their own. Coming clean on the history of this conflict, including the hidden history, is important in this respect.

Answer: Comprise the investigators of U.N. professionals with proven credentials and in filling the ranks draw evenly from the Group of 20. Key point: You have to have a well-balanced component of non-Westerners in this operation.

These are kites, admittedly. It is highly unlikely, given the current drift of things, that any kind of clinical, rubber-gloves investigation will take place. Anastasia Lukina will probably be proven right in her cynicism.

Russia, and, indeed, Putin, have work to do now, about which more in a minute. But this is not the point of impasse now. The primary problem now lies between the truth of the Ukraine crisis and the American version of it, most notably its role in precipitating it. MH-17, and who would have imagined, has crystallized this antagonism.

The project now is to avoid that moment of truth Kerry mentioned, but for the Russian share of it. This is the fight going on in all the he-said, we-say of official statements and the media that record them. Taking the longer view, this is a real-time fight for history.

This is why the propaganda machinery, far from being silenced so as to get something done, has been so swiftly marshaled. It is why we are treated to the crudest personal attacks on Putin to date. The MH-17 moment puts all the subterfuge of the past many months to the test. If the American account is to hold, it has to hold now.

A big part of this crisis turns on the question of responsibility, and not only for MH-17. Key to the case for Russian responsibility across the Ukraine crisis is Moscow’s relations with the rebels and its ability to direct them.

Washington pretends to know all about this. The rebels are “pro-Moscow,” they are “Russian-backed,” Putin can bring them to heel if he wants to, and now he must. This is the line, successfully implanted, and with little shading, in the American conversation, if not the conversations of many others.

In truth we have little idea what we are talking about in these regards, at least not by the evidence to date presented. In this Putin must do more: Get out there with another video and put the klieg lights on these cross-border ties, whatever their nature.

My own take is this. It is almost certain that there are Russians active in Ukraine, driven by fraternal sentiments we Westerners cannot fathom or maybe sheer adventure. Many appear to be veterans with knowledge of weaponry. It is equally near to certain they operate autonomously, not officially. Their presence on Ukrainian soil seems to prove nothing.

The weaponry. Now that MH-17 ups the ante, this requires clarity, too, and Putin would do well to provide it. Again, there is almost certainly Russian-made ordnance deployed in Ukraine. And again, it is not clear what this proves.

On this point, none other than Ron Paul weighed in usefully in a television interview broadcast late last week. Addressing the question of the fatal rocket’s probable origin, he remarked:

“That may well be true, but guess what, ISIS has a lot of American weapons…. It doesn’t mean that our American government and Obama deliberately wanted ISIS to get American weapons. So who gets the weapons is a big difference between how they got them and what happened and what the motivations were. So even if it was a Russian weapon — doesn’t mean a lot.”

Friends everywhere, it sometimes seems.

Here is my saver in the case of Moscow’s role and responsibility. Were the rebels to turn out to be straight-ahead Russian proxies and Putin to have been having us on all along, I wonder who among us could credibly blame him.

Do not, once more, forget your history. Any American administration during the Cold War — witness Kennedy in 1962 — would have brought the world to the brink of war were the Soviets to activate as close to America’s borders as the Americans are now to Russia’s. Do not forget the American pilots flying over Indochina with no uniforms or dogtags, or all the other covert ops that feature in our repertoire abroad.

As to Putin, the ad hominem bit has gone very infra-dig these past days. It serves a purpose, and it is important to understand this. This is what those who buy in are buying: Personalizing the Ukraine crisis in one man relieves us of the obligation to recognize an alternative perspective. It is all the fault of an irrational, hyper-nationalist strongman — who need not be otherwise understood and who must be stopped by the forces of reason and good.

The anti-Putin rhetoric springs right from the top. But a couple of examples in the media, post-MH-17, are irresistible.

One is the work of Timothy Garton Ash, a celebrated Oxford don who made a name on our end of the ocean commenting on Eastern Europe after the Soviet collapse. In a piece called “Putin’s Deadly Doctrine,” published in last Sunday’s Times, Garton Ash has Putin down as “a threat to the whole post-1945 international order” (which, if true, would not be too bad, in my view). The Putin Doctrine, since you asked, seems to be some kind of blood-and-soil notion of the Russian “volk,” a loaded word to invoke.

Garton Ash gets it all dressed up with a reference to Henri Bergson and dexterous hair-splits over translations from German and Russian. Take it apart. It is crapulous, intellectual vaudeville intended primarily to show off, lend intellectual weight, and then to cancel all thought of politics, authentic history and Western provocation.

And do not miss the truly juvenile references to Putin’s physiology and manner, for these betray the weakness of the argument: “a short, thickset man with a rather ratlike face… this irritating little man… uncrowned czar of all Russians.” Goodness, Timbo. From you? Why leave out the ill-fitting suit common in Cold War typecasting?

More in the same vein emits from the aforementioned Neil MacFarquhar, of the Times’ Moscow bureau (as linked above). This guy did have a tough assignment Monday for Tuesday’s paper, fair enough: Explain Putin’s video overnight while maintaining the irrational-aggressor theme and report on the widely held view among Russians that the West has opened a kangaroo court on the MH-17 question without lending the Russian perspective credibility.

The video seems to have been a real headache for MacFarquhar. Putin urged a credible, complete investigation of the aircraft tragedy, argued against opportunism in its wake (as quoted above), and committed to getting the rebels, best he could (and we do not know what best is), to cooperate on the plane tragedy and go to the bargaining table. All good, one would think.

“But at the same time, Moscow did not admit that it was at fault,” MacFarquhar counters with faux-objectivity. The sentence has no logic to it whatsoever, so far as I can make out.

As Putin spoke, the rebels had already begun cooperating in releasing the bodies of MH-17’s victims and allowing investigators onto the site. But never mind. Even if he appears to do what he says, the theme cannot change: It is mere words, without action.  Following the administration as it will, the Times is going to nail Putin in this way whether he is coming or going. This has been the pattern for months.

As to Putin’s perfectly decent, ordinary appreciation of MH-17 as human tragedy, an editorial accompanying MacFarquhar’s report takes care of this. “Sanctimonious,” it said in dismissing it. Do you get what that term means here? I do not. It comes over as no more than a cheap shot.

Worse from those Russians, MacFarquhar readers. Putin may have “appeared” conciliatory, but elsewhere in the video this was belied when “two senior military officers demanded that the United States show publicly any proof that the rebels fired the fatal missile.” An out-and-out affront. How dare they ask for evidence at a moment like this? Nobody gets to see our evidence of anything.

There is more in this unusually compromised piece of work, but I leave it to interested readers to follow the link. To entice, these predictable bits on Putin’s person: He “seethes with distrust and anger at the United States.” (Understandably, in my view.) Instead of “his usual swagger,” he was “pasty and unsure.” He did not look at the camera and “leaned on his desk.” (He looked altogether game to me.)

I would have thought a correspondent promoted to the Times’ Moscow bureau could do better than this. But maybe not in our day and age.

As to the views of Russians, the report gave us the thinking of Anastasia Lukina. Full credit for this, and for attempting no discrediting comment. What is there to say in response to a truth such as hers, even as the piece reporting on her is evidence of her point?

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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