photo hetmanate-emblem

By Gordon M. Hahn
[revised from original version published by the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation and reposted on Johnson’s Russia List, No. 94, 24 April 2014, http://russialist.org/russia-ukraine-jrl-2014-94-contents-with-links-thursday-24-april-2014/%5D

Much of the bias and emerging hard line against Russia in both the US government and media is driven by American domestic politics and the Ukraine Maidan provisional government’s disinformation rather than American, European or overall Ukrainian interests.

All sundry of Obama administration officials and other Democrats are hell bent on being suddenly ‘holier than the pope’ – that is, harder in their line towards Russia than Republicans.

On the other side, as a conservative-leaning libertarian much closer to the Republicans than the Democrats, I cannot help but be appalled at how much of the presently raging russophobia is being driven by the desire to pin the Obama administration with being soft on Russia. We hear claims by well-established analysts and talking heads about the Russian bear’s threat to all of Europe, and President Obama’s weak response. Never mind that the Bush administration did much less to punish Moscow for its incursion into Georgia in August 2008 than the Obama administration is doing with regard to Russia’s annexation/reunification of Crimea and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

At that time, the Washington dog ultimately avoided being wagged by the Tbilisi tail. Perhaps the Bush administration’s decisions not to intervene militarily and limit sanctions against Moscow originated on some suspicion about the information coming from Georgia. Recall the mass of disinformation Tbilisi proffered as the nationalist then Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili tried to draw the U.S. into his battle with North Ossetiya and then Russia. That disinformation was designed to assert that it was Russia that invaded South Ossetiya through the Roki Tunnel first and not as a response to Saakashvili breaking an hours’ long cease fire by lobbing thousands of inaccurate GRAD rockets on the the republic’s capitol, killing tens, if not hundreds of Ossetiyan civilians and 19 Russian peacekeepers.

I am still wondering why U.S. technical means were not employed to expose the imminent Russian invasion of North Ossetiya, which should have been visible days if not weeks in advance despite the cover of Russian military exercises in the North Caucasus. And what ever happened to that promised NSA report on the veracity of those Georgian audiotapes highlighted in the U.S. mainstream media that purported to show Russian officers discussing the already progressing movement of Moscow’s forces through the Roki Tunnel before Saakashvili bombed Tskhinvali?

Now the White House, State Department, NATO Atlantic Counci, and even US European Command chief General Phillip Breedlove are touting ‘evidence’ of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. The Georgian episode should inform today’s U.S. response to information coming from the Maidan provisional government in Kiev; it should be taken with a large grain of salt. The ‘proof’ that Russian military and intelligence forces are participating in the oblast administration takeovers in eastern Ukraine is inconclusive and often shoddy – not to mention that it comes from the Ukrainian government and its Ukrainian Security Service or SBU. There is no shortage of former KGB men in the SBU, and just a few short months ago it was spying on the Maidan government. Indeed, the SBU might have been responsible for the phone tapping that exposed U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s ‘love’ for the EU and State’s expenditures on democracy promotion, which bled over, wittingly or unwittingly, to openly self-identified revolutionaries like Oleg Ryabchuk.

The information so far includes: photographs taken who knows when and who knows where; audio tapes made who knows where and who knows when, incorrect claims that the uniforms and equipment used by the pro-Russian groups in Donetsk and Lugansk are Russian army issue when in fact they can be purchased in army surplus, hunting, even souvenir stores and on the black market; and claims that those forces must be Russian soldiers and/or special forces because of their professional demeanor, ignoring the fact that interviews with them and journalist who have spoken with them indicate that they are former Afghan war veterans, former Ukrainian, Russian and Soviet servicemen, local police and private security guards.

One set of photos of alleged GRU agents ostensibly taken in Georgia, Russia, and eastern Ukraine purports to unmask a bearded GRU special forces operative who has been allegedly dispatched by Moscow to Georgia and now six years later to eastern Ukraine. First, it is immediately clear that the photos are anything but; they are hazy and could very well show possibly two different men. Second, does it seem strange that a special forces agent would consistently wear a tell-tale beard in a clandestine operation rather than shave it off or shorten it so as to avoid detection, given the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras and CCTV nowadays? Third, as Simon Saradzhyan of Harvard’s Belfer Center correctly notes, the photo labeled to have been taken in Georgia shows Khamzat Gairbekov, commander of the Chechen Vostok (East) Battalion controlled by Russian military intelligence (GRU) and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, sent to fight in Georgia in 2008, and since disbanded (http://saradzhyan.livejournal.com/34407.html). Fourth, the photographer of the photo ostensibly taken in Russia says the picture was used without his permission and was taken in Ukraine, and that the person in the photographs taken in Ukraine is not a GRU agent but a private Russian citizen named Alexander Mozhaev, who served in the Russian army in the 1990s and in fact looks different from Gairbekov, because he is a differnt person (http://time.com/74405/exclusive-pro-russian-separatists-eastern-ukraine/).

Does it not seem even stranger that high-ranking U.S. and European civilian and military officials are touting this as evidence of a ‘Russian operation’ and a ‘repeat of the Crimea scenario’, but the ‘green men’ in Crimea had absolutely identical uniforms and equipment, but in eastern Ukraine the pro-Russian fighters’ uniforms and equipment vary from fighter to fighter.

The Ukrainian SBU claimed to have captured 20 GRU agents a few weeks ago, reduced the number in recent days to 10, and most recently to 3 in its report to NATO’s Atlantic Council. However many there may (or may not) be, it seems they should be shown live to the world on television. So far this has not been done and it remains unclear why not. In that case it would be incumbent upon those who see this clear evidence to acknowledge that which is fully possible – though unlikely, in my view – that Putin has sent forces into Ukraine to orchestrate the east Ukrainian uprisings. Presenting conclusive evidence of a clandestine Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine therefore would help to mobilize support for a tougher military response.

To be sure, the fact that Putin denied that Russian forces had occupied locations in Crimea casts a heavy shadow of doubt over Russian denials this time around. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon the US government, military, and media figures who have been disseminating this information as fact to answer these questions and provide the full details. Until such time that is done, one should reserve and fully make use of one’s right to distrust and verify the claims being made by all parties in the conflict.

Otherwise, some will find themselves in the same situation they found themselves a year after the 2008 Georgian-Russian war: reading EU and Wikileak reports demonstrating that the truth, as I warned at the time, was nearly the exact opposite from that which the Georgian government was telling them. Of course, the Washington and Brussels have the option of continuing to assume that the only bad guys in the former Soviet space are in Russia. The Washington consensus certainly assumes that only the Russians – whether they live in Russia, Ukraine, Transdneistr or northern Kazakhstan – suffer from the post-Soviet syndrome of excessive nationalism, corruption, and criminality.

As Washington and Brussels perhaps continue to be wittingly or unwittingly misinformed and disinformed by their one-sided approach to the region, they can conveniently ignore their share of responsibility for such post-Soviet crises: NATO and EU expansion, the funding of opposition forces, and various Western politicians’ provocative support for a revolutionary movement that included a healthy contingent of neo-fascists. Washington is especially advantaged in this regard, as it is a long way to Slavyansk.

The New York Times published a major front-page article with the soon-to-be debunked photographs on its front page on 21 April 2014 (www.nytimes.com/2014/04/21/world/europe/photos-link-masked-men-in-east-ukraine-to-russia.html). When those ostensibly taken in Ukraine were exposed as fakes, rather than publishing a retraction or mea culpa it merely published an article buried deep in the paper describing the “scrutiny” that the photographs were undergoing. In fact, the article included comments from the photographer who took the photographs saying none of them taken of the GRU agent had been taken in Ukraine; rather, they had been takin in Georgia in 2008 and in Russia (www.nytimes.com/2014/04/23/world/europe/scrutiny-over-photos-said-to-tie-russia-units-to-ukraine.html?_r=0). Similarly, when Igor Girkin (Strelkov) emerged days later leading a portion of Donbass rebels in Slovansk, the U.S. media identified him as a GRU agent, when in fact he left the GRU more than a year earlier (www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/29/igor-strelkov-ukraine_n_5235368.html). In both cases the claims of active GRU agents being in Ukraine were passed by the SBU to Brussels and Washington, and Washington, the EU, and NATO publicized them as fact.

In sum, Americans should weigh the evidence and ask if it is possible that an U.S. administration short on national security successes consciously or unconsciously might rush to accept false intelligence that offers it a chance to redeem itself as congressional elections approach. The New York Times obviously has a similar interest in supporting the present US administration’s take on Ukraine and Russia’s role in the conflict, and readers should be cautious about what they read.