West's propaganda war

The downing of flight MH17 is being cynically used as an opportunity to step up sanctions against Russia, says Eddie Ford

According to senior American intelligence officials on July 22, all the evidence points to the fact that Russian separatists shot down Malaysia flight MH17 “by mistake” and there was no “direct link” to Moscow. Rather, everything indicates that a single Buk missile hit the aircraft at an altitude of some 10,000 metres. Some local residents in Torez, a small city in the Donetsk oblast, report seeing a missile launcher on the day of the appalling incident. Having already shot down two Antonov military transport aircraft, separatists boasted on Facebook about shooting down another plane - only to delete the posts when it became apparent that it was a civilian airliner.

Furthermore, an Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, carries a more than plausible account of a separatist from Torez being told by his commanders that they had “hit a plane of the fascists from Kiev” - and how he thought “we’d be fighting Ukrainian pilots landing in parachutes”. But instead, he says, “we came across the corpses of civilians”, including the body of a little girl not more than five years old - “it was terrible”.

Yes, the US officials did go on to accuse the Kremlin of “creating the conditions” for the deaths of the 298 people aboard the plane - that is, by arming the rebels. Yet this charge is transparently disingenuous. You could just as easily argue, if not more so, that the Kiev government and its western backers are responsible for “creating the conditions” for the tragedy by launching a military offensive in eastern Ukraine. After all, who benefited from the downing of MH17? Definitely not Vladimir Putin, who now finds himself in a very awkward position - having to distance the Kremlin from the separatists’ terrible blunder whilst continuing to lend them general political support. A tricky act to pull off. Nor, quite obviously, was it in the interests of the separatists - now facing international opprobrium. On the other hand, if you happen to be the Kiev government (or associated forces) then you benefit significantly - so long as you can blame it on the others.

None of which is to suggest that the Kiev government was actually responsible for shooting down the jet - which looks incredibly unlikely. The real point, however, is that the downing of MH17 was the result of cock-up and not conspiracy - the sort of thing that happens in a war zone, especially when you are dealing with an irregular army that operates according to a fuzzy command structure.


Irrespective of the true facts and motivations behind the attack on the plane, western politicians and the media have lost no time in cynically using it as an opportunity to step up the propaganda war against Moscow - truth be damned. Typically, the front page of The Sun proclaimed: “Putin’s missiles” (July 18) - the unsubtle message being that the Kremlin is guilty of bringing down MH17. Indecently, the 298 who died on that day have been recruited to the western offensive.

David Cameron, naturally, is at the forefront of the campaign to vilify Russia, calling the MH17 disaster a “defining moment”. He urged European Union foreign ministers to impose tougher, US-style sanctions on Russia, which involve targeting members of Putin’s inner circle and their businesses. Cameron has complained that there is a “reluctance” among some European countries to take more decisive action, attacking the sale of two French-built Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia. When asked about the Mistral deal, the French president, François Hollande, said the first of two ships is “almost finished and must be delivered in October” - though the rest of the contract would depend on Russia’s “attitude” to Ukraine, he added.

American and British demands to enforce harsher EU sanctions have been agreed - though it is clear why there are calls for a delay in implementing them. Many EU countries, but especially Germany and Italy, are heavily reliant on Russian gas. Indeed, there are fears in some EU countries that a move against Russian energy exports could undermine the fragile recovery in the euro zone.

Frustrated, Cameron on July 21 called on the EU leaders to “consider” an arms embargo - and the next day the new foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said such a move was “under consideration” following a meeting of foreign ministers. Unfortunately for them, this attempt to secure the moral high ground was scuppered by a cross-party parliamentary committee report, which disclosed that the value of arms licences to Russia rocketed by more than half in the last year from £86 million to £131.5 million. In fact, only 31 UK licences had been halted or suspended. Permits covering sniper rifles, night sights, small arms ammunition, gun mountings, body armour, military communications equipment and “equipment employing cryptography” remained in force, the report revealed. Sir John Stanley, the Conservative MP heading the committee, said the relatively small number of licences which had been withdrawn reflected the “circumscribed” nature of the UK’s moratorium which applied merely to equipment that could be deployed against Ukraine and did not cover Russia’s “wider” defence needs (the committee also strongly criticised the award of licences for the export of chemicals).

Perhaps with some justification, France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, acerbically suggested at the beginning of the week that Britain should look at the number of Russian oligarchs residing in London before criticising his country. Similarly, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, the first secretary of the Parti Socialiste, denounced the UK stance as a “false debate led by hypocrites”. He advised Cameron to start “cleaning up his own backyard” - just look at the Russian money swirling around London. Paris is squeaky-clean, of course.

Provocatively, at least if you are Vladimir Putin, the British government has announced that it will “re-examine” the death of the former KGB officer, Alexander Litvinenko - who died in 2006 in a London hospital after he was poisoned with radioactive polonium, a favourite assassination tool of the Russian secret services. The inquiry will be chaired by Sir Robert Owen, a high court judge, who has stated that the material available to him does “establish a prima facie case as to the culpability of the Russian state”. But the decision represents a significant governmental U-turn. Theresa May had previously resisted calls for a public inquiry, later admitting “international relations” had been a “factor in the government’s decision-making” on this matter. Now “international relations” will be a factor again, only this time the objective is to discredit Putin, not appease him.

Just like with the recent Gaza ground invasion, we have seen a massively disproportionate response to the Ukrainian crisis. In the case of Gaza, this has taken the form of an excessive concentration on the tiny number of Israeli casualties - perversely betraying a nuclear-armed regional superpower as the victim. With regards to Ukraine, there is the ridiculous implication - posing as moral outrage - that Putin is virtually another Adolf Hitler (how many is that now?) embarked on a campaign of aggressive expansionism; portraying the Crimean referendum as a sinister Anschluss, if not a prelude to World War III. All total nonsense, of course, shamefully parroted by some on the left, such as the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Still, what else do you expect from social-imperialists?

In reality, quite the opposite is true. What has essentially taken place in the Ukraine is a western power grab - with both the EU/Nato and the US attempting to expand their sphere of influence considerably to the east. The sudden and forced removal of the elected president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, represented a direct threat to Moscow’s interests - which were already threatened by the growing western presence in the former Soviet republics to its south. Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Peter Hitchins - brother to the deceased socialist-cum-neocon, Christopher - argued that the “aggressor” in the current war was the EU, “backed by the USA”, as they “sought to bring Ukraine into its orbit” through “violence and illegality”, “an armed mob” and the “overthrow of an elected president” (July 20). Hitchens may be a reactionary British nationalist, but here he does have a point.

Near abroad

Except for the wilfully blind, there is a clear western plan to gobble up the ‘near abroad’ piece by piece. Salami tactics. From the Russian point of view, what was the EU/US - and, by extension, Nato - doing at all in Ukraine, especially Crimea? The latter has always been viewed by Moscow as an highly valuable geopolitical asset: its direct route to the Mediterranean and hence status as a genuine global power. To have lost its Crimean military base would have denied Russia easy access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean - something that the Kremlin would never allow to happen, no matter who was president.

Then you have to ask the larger question: what caused the outbreak of Russian separatism in Ukraine? For an answer, all you have to do is look at the political forces involved in the Maidan ‘revolution’ - not just the billionaire ‘chocolate king’ president, but the actual fighting forces on the ground. Independence Square was organised and policed by various far-right militia forces associated with a virulently anti-Russian world outlook, embracing an ideology of Ukrainian nationalism that in the 1930s looked to Hitler and the Nazis. The Kiev government itself has open fascists in its ranks and one of the very first actions of the reconstituted parliament was to pass a vote stripping the Russian language of its ‘official’ status - a deliberate provocation directed against the ethnic Russian population.

Another vitally important aspect is the economic question. Integration with the EU and the opening up of Ukraine to western competition would decimate the Soviet-era heavy industries of the Russian-speaking east of the country - it is no exaggeration to say that up to nine out of 10 jobs could go. When you consider all these factors, it is not an act of irrationality to rebel against Kiev’s fiat, let alone imagine that Russian separatism is a movement that has been conjured out of nothing by a Machiavellian Vladimir Putin. The fighting formations in the east have grown in a soil of fear and uncertainty.

For communists, the big worry with Ukraine is that one thing will lead to another. First it starts with tougher sanctions against Moscow, which will then lead to the supply of military ordnance to the Kiev government - then next it will be ‘advisors’ and finally, perhaps, boots on the ground. A fearful prospect, given that Russia, like the US, is a nuclear power.