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Ted Rall: What Media Won’t Tell You About the Russian Ukraine Invasion

aNewDomain.net — After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, alarmists quickly spun up tales about how it could spark World War III and the return of what U.S. President Ronald Reagan once called “the Evil Empire.” But the real four horsemen of the apocalypse are members of the fourth estate. Here’s what our Ted Rall says American journalists can’t or won’t tell you about the reasons why Russia invaded Ukraine. Commentary.

In the United States, the media is often called the fourth branch of government (or “fourth estate”). But U.S. foreign correspondents are, as usual, falling asleep on the job. By and large, American journalists’ stories about Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine are devoid of historical context. Most cast the invasion as a naked act of neo-Soviet aggression.

The omission is inexcusable. The relevant history around the invasion is just two decades old.

American journalists are reporting en masse that the spark leading to the Crimea takeover was the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich.

It isn’t. The spark lit up a full day afterward.

According to laws passed in 2012, the Russian language is the official language in Ukraine regions where Russians comprise more than 10 percent of the population. That means most of the eastern Ukraine and especially Crimea, where 59 percent are ethnic Russians, have Russian as the official language.

A week ago, Ukraine’s rump parliament took advantage of the situation. They took advantage of Yanukovich’s downfall to overturn the language law. American journalists missed the subtlety. The Russians did not.

Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s human rights commissioner, tweeted this: “Attack on the Russian language in Ukraine is a brutal violation of ethnic minority rights.”

Does this sound over the top to you?

Sure.

But if you didn’t know that millions of ethnic Russians in the former Soviet Republics have been suffering widespread discrimination ever since the 1991 collapse — and that those troubles began when laws eliminated Russian as an official language — you sure didn’t hear it from the U.S. press.

I mean laws like the one passed last week in Ukraine.

Without context, you perhaps didn’t already know that the demise of the Soviet Union left 25 million Russians stranded in 14 newly-independent states. These include such countries as Belarus, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Ukraine. And these new countries had to scramble hard to create the trappings of a national identity virtually overnight.

These countries rapidly had to design and produce flags, national anthems and print new currency.

And the governments of these newly-minted republics had nothing to resort to save rank nationalism to instill a sense of national loyalty and patriotism.

Nationalism isn’t just about what your country is. It also is about what it isn’t. And this requires defining some things — some people — as unwanted outsiders. Enemies of the state. Scapegoats.

Turkmenistan, a Central Asian dictatorship and former Soviet republic in Central Asia, is one example.

Turkmenistan instituted a policy of  so-called “Turkmenization” after 1991. Russians, a privileged group before independence, were now refused work permits. A few years later, a year-2000 decree banned the use of the Russian language in official business altogether. Turkmenistan is a totalitarian state and held that all business is legally governmental. So this reduced Russians who didn’t speak Turkmen to low-status jobs if not outright poverty and joblessness.

It didn’t take long for the Turkmen government to abolish dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship after that, which led to the mass exodus of panicked Russians in 2003.

Denaturalization — the stripping away of citizenship — followed.

As the UN reported:

Many people … were having to sell houses and apartments at far below market values in order to leave by the deadline … hundreds of thousands of people lost everything they owned.”

The UN report continues to say that “over the past decade Russians have been systematically discriminated against, and currently hold no positions in Turkmenistan’s government or state institutions.”

If you were a Russian who stuck around after 2003, you fared poorly. Continues the report:

On the streets of the eastern city of Turkmenabat, Russians appear to be rapidly becoming an underclass in a nation mired in poverty. Many scrape a living as taxi drivers, waitresses or in other low paying, insecure jobs.”

The harassment of Russians is rife all over the former USSR. Every other commonwealth of independent states nation has abolished dual citizenship, just as Turkmenistan did.

And in the former Soviet Union, it’s no secret. Everyone knows that the road to statelessness, unpersonhood and poverty begins with one step: the official elimination of Russian as an official language.

National language statutes targeted against Russian speakers are analogous to Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, which prevented Jews from holding jobs or even owning a radio. The Nuremberg Laws were the beginning of the end.

At the end of the Soviet period in 1989, the Tajik SSR passed a law establishing Tajik as the sole official language. Less than two decades later, 85 percent of ethnic Russians were gone. They’d fled the country.

In a 2008 report for the Woodrow Wilson Institute about the Central Asian republics, Seymour Peyrouse noted:

The linguistic nationalization carried out in each republic provided a strong impetus to emigrate…Even if schools systematically introduce children to the official language today, the [former Soviet] states have established no programs to train adults … it seems that the principal cause of emigration remains the absence of a future, or the perception of such, for the younger generations.”

If you knew this recent history — and U.S. journalists sure haven’t been informing anyone about the context of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine — it wouldn’t surprise anyone that ethnic Russians freaked out when one of the first official acts of Ukraine’s parliament turned out to be a linguistic nationalization law.

As for Russia’s response, you need to know two facts, facts that just aren’t getting reported for whatever reason.

First, Ukraine isn’t as independent of Russia as, say, Poland. None of the former Soviet republics are.

“Kiev is an ancient Russian city,” Masha Gessen writes in Vanity Fair.

Gessen continues:

It is an overnight train ride from Moscow — closer than 90 percent of Russia is to the Russian capital. Russian citizens haven’t needed visas or even foreign-travel passports to go to Ukraine — the way U.S. citizens can enter Canada with only a driver’s license. Every store clerk, waiter and taxi driver in Kiev speaks Russian.”

And then there’s the Black Sea Fleet.

Truly independent countries don’t have 11,000 foreign troops stationed on their soil. They just don’t.

If rational diplomats and demographers could have had the opportunity to manage the Soviet collapse, Crimea probably would have wound up in Russia after 1991.

That’s because, until just a half a century ago, Crimea was Russian.

Nikita Khrushchev “gifted Crimea to Ukraine as a gesture of goodwill to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with Tsarist Russia. Not surprisingly, it never occurred to anyone “that one day the Soviet Union might collapse and that Ukraine would again be an independent country,” writes The Moscow Times.

Taken in context, it’s easy to see why Vladimir Putin would invade Ukraine and why Russian public opinion mostly would support him. It also explains why neither side cares what America thinks at all.

Back in September, most Russians told pollsters they thought Crimea to be a part of Russia. Literally or metaphorically.

So ask yourself: Why are American reporters that are covering Crimea ignoring the big picture and focusing so hard on secondary distractions like how it makes Obama look and whether there’s a chance of a new Cold War? Or a World War III?

The reasons can be called the four horsemen of the journalism apocalypse. It’s impoverished overseas reporting, personified.

Journalism is no longer journalism — not in the United States. Not even among foreign correspondents. Instead, there’s a new field I’ll call “journalistic stenography.” Just attending a government press conference constitutes research for these guys. That’s the first horseman.

The second horseman of the journalistic apocalypse is, quite simply, kneejerk patriotism, where reporters identify with their government and are therefore less likely to question its actions. Such reporters reflexively assume that any U.S. rival is automatically ill-intentioned.

Third, there’s the deadly jack-of-all-trades journalism. Here, the same writers cover too many different beats. They don’t know what’s going on. A few decades ago, there would have been a bureau chief, or at least a stringer, who knew Ukraine and/or the former Soviet Union because he or she lived there. They’d know it inside and out. But those jobs are long gone.

And the fourth horseman is ignorance, grounded in a sense of American ahistoricism. It’s a widespread and widely-acceptable ignorance of politics and history — especially those of other countries.

All four horsemen are pulling the Crimea story, but the fourth one — emblematic of journalists who willingly or unwillingly report the news with an ignorance of Ukraine and Russia’s politics and history — is by far the most embarrassing. 

For aNewDomain.net, I’m Ted Rall.

Based in New York, Ted Rall is a nationally-syndicated columnist, editorial cartoonist and war correspondent who specializes in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The author of 17 books, most-recently published The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt, Rall is twice the winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Follow him @TedRall, check out his Facebook fan page and definitely follow his Google+ stream here. Ted’s upcoming book After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan is due out in 2014.

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  • Gina Smith

    Excellent commentary, Ted

  • kmansfield

    good piece, could do with the reference to the nuremberg laws.

  • Mac McCarthy

    Valuable insights, plus very valid criticism of contemporary journalism…

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