Truth, as the saying goes, is the first casualty of war. There is no war in Ukraine yet, but the potentially violent standoff has been accompanied by an inflated war of words, which includes no small measure of hypocrisy on all sides. In Canada, both Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have compared Russia President Vladimir Putin to Adolph Hitler. Baird even compared the Russian action in Crimea to that of the Nazis’ invasion of Sudetenland in 1938. If that’s the case, then why hasn’t Canada pulled its athletes from the Paralympic Games in Sochi, as one Canadian newspaper columnist has asked.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton also indulged in a Putin-as-Hitler reference — this coming from someone whose country has invaded Cuba, the Philippines, Nicaragua (twice), Panama, Grenada, and Vietnam in the 20th century. You can add to this list America’s engineered overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954), and its placement of compliant dictators in these countries. There was also the invasion of Iraq in 2003 based on the fabricated allegation that then-President Saddam Hussein amassed and intended to use weapons of mass destruction. Interestingly, the West compared Hussein to Hitler, too.
Propaganda works best when it takes a dollop of truth before distorting it. The West once celebrated Putin as a liberal reformer but has come to understand that he is no such thing. He exists somewhere on a continuum running from schoolyard bully to authoritarian dictator. But he is neither a Hitler nor a Stalin.
Although Viktor Yanukovych won Ukraine’s presidency in a 2010 election widely considered to be fair, he quickly showed himself to be incredibly corrupt. Still, it was his turning his back on a promised free trade agreement with the European Union that led to massive demonstrations in recent months and his ouster more recently.
But the Russians suspect, with some justification, that demonstrations in Ukraine were partly the work of right-wing Ukrainian nationalists assisted by the West. This claim strikes a deep chord among Russians because of the great sacrifices that were made fighting fascists in the Second World War. And if the West indeed orchestrated the ouster of an elected president based on his own corruption, it is certainly on thin ice. After all, it has supported its fair share of corrupt dictators in the past.
For his part, Putin persists in the big lie that Crimea is Russian in character because they are the dominant ethic group and he says they have defended the territory with their blood against all invaders. The problem with this narrative, according to University of Toronto professor Victor Ostapchuk, is that Crimea had for much longer been the home land of the Tatars, who are also Muslims.
After the Russians conquered Crimea in the 19th century, they forced two-thirds of the Tatar population to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire and replaced then with Slavic colonists. Then in 1944 Joseph Stalin loaded almost the entire remaining Tatar population onto cattle cars and deposited them in Central Asia, where about half of them perished. That was accompanied by another round of colonization in Crimea, mainly by Russians.
When many of the Tatars began to return to Crimea in the late 1980s, they found their homes and lands had been expropriated by others. Crimea, whose population in 2001 was 58% Russian, is now considered by most Russian speakers living there to be territory that belongs to them – but they ignore their own brutal banishment of the Tatars.
We are mostly spectators in the propaganda games being played in Ukraine. But we owe it to ourselves to read, watch and listen to what is being said by players on all sides — and to do so with critical discernment.
This article appeared in shorter form, in my United Church Observer blog on March 13, 2014.