Western Journalists in Ukraine
Russophiles and crazy-shit chasers
In early August 2014 I traveled to Donetsk, the capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. By this point in the war the city was under siege by Ukrainian forces, and the airport (held by the Ukrainians) was in ruins, but the train station had not yet been shelled, and you could get on an evening train in Kyiv and arrive in Donetsk by early morning. That is what I did. I was scared. Back in Kyiv I had been warned that I might get pulled off the train and interrogated by rebel soldiers, or at the very least stopped at the station. Luckily, this didn’t happen. Most of the fighters were in the city center, where the fledgling government had set up shop, or on the outskirts of the city, which constituted the “front.” The train station was a few miles from the city center, and there were no gunmen or police there (as it later turned out, there were no police anywhere); my hostel was right in the city center and I got stopped by some watchful rebels with Kalashnikovs on my way there, but they merely checked that I wasn’t carrying any weapons in my bag and then let me go.
At the hostel — actually a clean two-bedroom apartment in a Soviet-era residential block — I met a young American named Patrick. He was from Kentucky and had a dramatic mane of curly red hair. He had big blue eyes that seemed to exist in a state of perpetual excitement. Patrick knew no Russian or Ukrainian, nor did he have any particular interest in the history of these two countries. But he wanted to become a famous video journalist, like the guys from Vice, and since Ukraine was where a war was happening, here he was. A few nights later we were sitting in the hostel when we heard a bomb drop a few miles from us. I am no munitions expert, but it was pretty unmistakable: you heard a kind of swoosh far away, then the ground shook. Without looking up from his laptop, Patrick said: “Shit is going to pop off tonight in Donetsk!” We were both drinking from two-liter plastic containers of beer.
That was at night. During the day Patrick monitored social media and the news for signs of fighting near Donetsk, then hired a cab and zoomed to wherever the fighting might be taking place. The very first day I showed up at the hostel, he and the other resident, an Italian anti-imperialist named Christian, were about to set off for the outskirts of the city, which was apparently being shelled. Did I want to come along? I did. Did I speak Russian? I did. “Great!” said Patrick. “You can translate!”
The car that came to pick us up was driven by a friendly guy in his mid-30s who enjoyed the idea of taking around some foreign “journalists.” Traffic lights in Donetsk still worked, but the traffic police, like the regular police, had melted away, and the cab driver zoomed his rickety old Toyota down the two-lane road out of town at about eighty miles an hour. I was thinking it would be sad to die in a car crash when I had come to see a war. Patrick apparently had a similar thought, though in a different key, because he turned around from the front seat and said, “I like this driver. He doesn’t give a fuck!” On the edge of town we passed a wrecked blue Russian-made car that had apparently crashed into a chunk of road that had risen from the earth, like in some kind of disaster movie. (It was hard to tell what had actually happened to this car, but amazingly a few days later on an American website devoted to weird videos I saw the dash-cam recording: the car was driving along when a shell landed maybe fifty feet in front of it and tore up the asphalt; before the driver could react, he had crashed into the mangled road. I assume, perhaps naively, that because someone extracted and posted the dash-cam video, the driver was OK.) Eventually we reached the edge of Donetsk and the rebel line — a dozen guys with Kalashnikovs and a Grad rocket launcher. The Ukrainian line was a few miles farther along the same road; it also consisted of a dozen guys with a Grad rocket launcher. That was the war, at this point: the Ukrainians trying to hit the rebel checkpoints with a Grad, and the rebels trying to hit the Ukrainians. If the Ukrainians had managed to hit a checkpoint, they would theoretically have been able to walk into town. In any case, at least on this day, they had missed the checkpoint, and the rockets had instead hit a few houses in the so-called private sector, small one-story houses serviced by dirt roads. This was good enough for Patrick. He spent the next couple of hours filming smoking craters and then interviewing people, through me, whose homes had been hit.
Patrick had been doing this, in various parts of eastern Ukraine, for three months. During that time he’d been in cities that were under serious shelling, mostly by the Ukrainian army; been detained overnight by the Ukrainians; and been punched in the face by a rebel commander. He’d shot many hours of video and edited it and sent it off to various news channels; unlike Christian, the anti-imperialist, Patrick did not have a settled view on the conflict but referred to himself as a “Truth journalist.” As we made our way through the rocket landing sites in the private sector, he told me he had contacts at CNN and the BBC, but that the only place that consistently took his stuff was a web channel called Ruptly, a division of Russia Today (or RT, as of a 2009 rebranding). I asked him if he knew that Russia Today was a Kremlin propaganda channel.
This story was not untrue. The trouble was that it left out a lot of other not-untrue stories.Tweet
“I know,” said Patrick. “I send my stuff to the BBC first. But they’ve only taken one video of mine. Russia Today takes a lot.”
We finished filming smoking craters and crying grandmothers whose sheds had been destroyed and got back in our cab and returned to town. The total cost of the four-hour trip had been just $20. Prices in Ukraine have always been low, but the hryvnia had lost 50 percent of its value in the previous few months, and now they were even lower. We went home, and Patrick started editing his video and sending it out. Russia Today took some of the smoking-crater footage, though none of the interviews I had done such a good job facilitating.
Had this sort of person always existed, before digital video allowed anyone to become a one-man television crew? I guess so. Christian the Italian anti-imperialist, for example, had come to write a book about the war. But the new media had opened up new possibilities. There was another videographer in eastern Ukraine at this time, a kind of more successful version of Patrick, named Graham Phillips. He was a thin, pale, fine-featured British guy with a shaved head who had first come to Ukraine in 2009 to watch the England national soccer team play in Dnipropetrovsk. He’d had a great time. The beer was cheap and the girls were friendly. And also cheap. Even more than that, as he later explained to BuzzFeed’s Max Seddon, to a guy stuck in a dead-end government job back home, the place was full of possibilities. Phillips decided to come back to Ukraine, live among its people, and reinvent himself as a journalist. On “Brit in Ukraine,” the blog he started, and in occasional articles for English-language papers and websites, he wrote about hookers, urban decay, and his romantic conquests in the infectious style of someone who had never been allowed out of the house. A typical post began: “As is my proclivity, last night I titivated myself before heading to the local discoteque [sic] . . .”
Then came Maidan. Phillips was skeptical. He was put off by the presence of ultranationalists, he said, and also perhaps by the enthusiasm for Maidan of his ex-girlfriend Irina, who had recently dumped him for cheating on her. In any case Phillips’s criticisms of Maidan, expressed on his blog, were eventually noticed by Russia Today, which is always on the lookout for English speakers who share its views. The channel interviewed Phillips on-air as a Maidan-skeptical Westerner. This TV appearance led Irina to denounce him on social media once and for all, but Phillips, having tasted the power of television, wanted more. When Sloviansk, a small city seventy miles north of Donetsk, was taken by rebels in April 2014, he made his way there. Phillips was no scholar of Russian culture, and he refused on principle to learn Ukrainian, but he had developed over time a rough approximation of Russian and could basically make himself understood. Nonetheless it was perhaps his demented Russian that caused one overzealous rebel in Sloviansk to conclude that Phillips was a drug addict; the rebel forced him into a car and drove Phillips around, threatening him, for an entire day. In the end, Phillips was released and wrote a lively account of the incident on his blog, and then for Newsweek (“A Journalist Recalls Being Kidnapped in East Ukraine”). Instead of scaring him off, the adventure seemed to attach Phillips to Sloviansk, and also made of him a local celebrity. Rebels started greeting him by name, and Phillips’s nascent video blog got some traction online.
By the time I reached Donetsk in August 2014, Phillips had become practically a household name. He had been opposed to Maidan; now he was an avowed supporter of the rebel cause, and a defender of the rebels against what he believed were Western media libels. He would approach people in the street. “CNN says this place is full of Russian agents. Are you Russian agents?” “No, Graham, we’re not.” QED.
Phillips’s Russian was comical. So were his political interventions, until they weren’t. He was warned by the British Embassy in Kyiv that several of his stunts, like firing a machine gun under the watchful eye of a rebel commander, were putting him in danger of being taken for a combatant. Phillips didn’t care. He had developed a large and devoted following. One of his videos had more than a million views, and he was making good money selling clips to Russia Today. He had also become something of a hero to the rebels. They enjoyed talking to him and showing him their equipment. Some people on the Ukrainian internet even began wondering if Phillips wasn’t running afoul of British law. In one particularly unsettling video, he interviewed a gruesomely wounded Ukrainian POW, demanding to know, in his awful Russian, whether the Ukrainian had shelled civilian areas; this interview would seem to have violated the Geneva Conventions, which afford prisoners of war “protection from public curiosity.” Phillips apparently didn’t think so — during the winter he was back in the UK, doing a fund-raiser “for Donbass” and voicing his support for the right-wing, Euroskeptical UKIP. Then he returned again to eastern Ukraine.
Patrick was a great admirer of Phillips. When Phillips retweeted something Patrick had said, it was a major event. Nonetheless it seemed to me that Patrick had a slightly healthier attitude toward the situation, and was trying to “show both sides.” This didn’t last. I left Donetsk a week after I came, having seen more than enough, and lost track of Patrick for a little while. But one evening not long ago, checking out Phillips’s latest videos, I saw a familiar face. “I want to take this opportunity to say a massive thanks to this guy here,” Phillips was saying. He was talking about his cameraman. “All the filming you see of me, all those pieces that I’m running about, and all that sort of stuff, Patrick is the one filming it, and in fact in many cases is in an even more dangerous situation than me.” And there he was, my old roommate Patrick, mugging for the camera.
Patrick and Phillips—I find myself thinking about them. What the fuck did they think they were doing? They had no background in the country, no preparation as journalists, and their product was, objectively, bad. Most of it was just raw footage, without context or explanation. You can watch all of Phillips’s hundreds of videos on YouTube and still end up without a good understanding of what exactly happened in Ukraine in 2014 and 2015.
And yet Patrick and Phillips had a point. It wasn’t just the poor quality that kept their videos from being screened by the BBC and CNN. There was a truly stunning uniformity to the English-language reporting on Ukraine, and Patrick and Phillips’s perspective didn’t fit. The story being told was that a democratic revolution had struck down an evil, pro-Russian regime by braving the elements and bullets on Maidan; in response, Russia had seized Crimea and then fomented a fake rebellion in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainians were victims of Russian aggression. This was pretty much the story that I reproduced during my initial reporting trip to Ukraine in March 2014.
There may have been lots of stories to tell about Ukraine, but for the moment there was one main story, and that story was Russian aggression.Tweet
This story was not untrue. The trouble was that it left out a lot of other not-untrue stories. One not-untrue story would be about the Ukrainian national project as it’s been interpreted by the pro-Western forces in the country since at least the Orange Revolution—a national project that posits the rejection of Russia as a foundational act for Ukrainian statehood. Another not-untrue story is that Western-oriented Ukrainians, who are for the most part better-educated and better-employed than their Russian-oriented fellow citizens, harbor a bitter contempt for the pro-Russians that often takes the form of what one sociologist I talked to called “social racism.” Another not-untrue story is about the social devastation caused by twenty-five years of corrupt postcommunist rule, a devastation that was particularly acute in the industrialized east of the country, many of whose Soviet-era industries could not withstand global competition. And yet another not-untrue story, the story that Patrick and Phillips were trying to tell, is that in the summer of 2014 the Ukrainian armed forces, having gotten their act together somewhat, were taking back territory seized during the spring by the rebels. They were doing so in a slow but also fairly brutal way, firing highly inaccurate Grad rockets at the outskirts of town, then launching mortar shells farther into the town, then farther still. Many residents of these towns did not see Russian aggression. They saw Ukrainian aggression.
What I think Patrick and Phillips experienced, what caused Patrick to start calling himself a “Truth journalist,” was a kind of disenchantment. They’d been told the first story, about the Ukrainian struggle against Russia. But contact with eastern Ukraine showed them that the story was not entirely true. For them, rather than complicating the story, it exploded it. If the story being told in the Western media was not entirely true, then maybe the exact opposite of it was true? As a Truth journalist, you were obligated to find out.
The people telling the first story, the one in the Western media, could not have been more different from Patrick and Phillips. Most of them were based in Moscow and had studied Russian history and literature at elite American and British universities. They had come to Russia not to see a war but to learn more about the land of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. They were sophisticated, intelligent people, and they were aware of some of the other stories that could have been told about Ukraine in 2014–15. But they had limited time and limited space, and so they had to choose. There may have been lots of stories to tell about Ukraine, but for the moment there was one main story, and that story was Russian aggression. That was the story they told.
Which would have been fine had it not been for the fact that there was a bigger story still. That was the story of Western expansion into Eastern Europe. That story began at least as far back as 1991, with the fall of the USSR, then the acceptance of the first Eastern European countries into NATO in 1999, followed by the second tranche of countries, including the Baltics, in 2004. The process had suffered setbacks, like the Russian defeat of Georgia in a short war in 2008, and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the process was also inexorable. It was a process, measured in decades if not centuries, that involved the spread of Western ideas through Western technology, Western media, and only afterward Western institutions and Western military alliances. Putin’s aggression, like the rise of armed religious fundamentalisms in the Middle East and the United States and the appearance of ethno-nationalist reactions in places as disparate as Hungary and India, was part of this story too: the story of a particular form of modernity that views itself as a reaction against modernity. The story of Western expansion was an even bigger story than the story of the reactions against it, but in part because it was so big it was much less often reported on, when at all.
In other words, when reporting on Ukraine, in addition to one’s ideological predisposition there was also the size of the frame one chose. If you were being shelled by the Ukrainian army, it was hard to take a broader view and accept the argument that you were being shelled, in effect, by the Russians. And, conversely, if your country was being invaded by the Russians, it was hard to take the view that this was the fault of a relentlessly expansionist West.
But what was the US/UK media’s excuse? It was coming from the West: why couldn’t it see what the West was doing? And even if it couldn’t see it right away, why wasn’t it more interested in figuring it out?
I think there are several answers. One of them is just an ordinary response to the available incentives: a new revelation about the depredations of Vladimir Putin is more likely to make the front page of the newspaper you write for than a critique of US foreign policy. There is furthermore a kind of ideological indoctrination one undergoes just by living in the US. I was struck by the fact that my Donetsk roommate Christian, the Italian anti-imperialist, always said that if things got really bad in Donetsk he would head east, for Russia. For me it was just as obvious that, whatever criticisms I may have had of the Ukrainian army and of the post-Maidan government that stood behind that army, I would head west toward government-controlled Ukraine. I had an instinctive sense, as an American, that I’d be safer in Ukraine than in Russia. Christian had the opposite sense. (He eventually moved so far east that he ended up in the chilly Siberian city of Yakutsk, where, just the other day, I saw on Facebook that he got married.)
The question needs to become, which truth are they telling, and for whom?Tweet
So there is self-interest and a kind of ideological predisposition that lives in one’s bones. There is also the fact, as I’ve said, that the best Russia correspondents go there because they are interested in Russia. They want to know more. And because Russia is what interests them, that is what they end up writing about. Even if they were inclined to look into the ways in which American foreign policy shapes the landscape in which they’ve found themselves, they would have trouble doing so. American foreign policy is made in Washington by policy professionals; our foreign correspondents are in Moscow, and Kyiv, and occasionally Donetsk. The result is a great deal of journalistic work aimed at Russia. It was a reporter for the Guardian, Shaun Walker, who first produced documentary evidence of Russian equipment entering Ukraine, in a photograph he took on his cell phone and then immediately Tweeted in August 2014. It was reporters for the Financial Times and BuzzFeed, Courtney Weaver and Max Seddon, who met a group of (supposedly nonexistent) Russian soldiers in a café in eastern Ukraine and got them to talk about how they ended up here. “No one sent us here. We’re volunteers,” one of the soldiers said. “They gave us an order: who wants to go volunteer? And we put our hands up like this.” The soldier showed himself meekly putting up his hand. This was great and brave and useful reporting. And yet there was hardly any American reporting on the CIA presence in Kyiv in the summer of 2014; on the role (whatever it was) of US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland and US ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt in the Maidan protests and their aftermath; on the arrival of US military trainers in western Ukraine. These stories were left, instead, to Kremlin-propaganda outlets like Russia Today.
Is it possible that the profound ideological conformity of the Western media, rather than its failure to adapt quickly enough to technological change, has created the space for the kind of reporting that Patrick and Phillips are doing?
One of the most popular media projects to emerge from the Ukraine crisis was the video reportage of Vice. Though working in the same vein as Patrick and Phillips, Vice’s Simon Ostrovsky and Henry Langston both knew Russian and had a fairly nuanced sense of the political situation. Ostrovsky and Langston were also a dozen times more professional; working with incredible speed, they put together short narratives that illuminated some aspect or incident within the conflict. And you would not exactly call the Vice reports politically biased. Their criterion of interest was, basically, crazy shit. Wherever crazy shit transpired, there Vice was. Were people standing out in the cold of Maidan, throwing Molotov cocktails at the Berkut? That was some crazy shit! Was a ragtag group of pro-Russian rebels (possibly with the help of Russian special forces — on this question Vice wasn’t much help) taking over government and police buildings in eastern Ukraine, throwing their occupants violently out into the street? That was some crazy shit! Were people fleeing the conflict zone, stuffing their belongings into a few canvas bags and then boarding buses in one of two directions — east toward Russia, or west toward unoccupied Ukraine? Well, that too was some crazy shit. And all of this made for excellent YouTube. Academics loved the Vice reports. The crazy-shit filter let a lot of interesting stuff through.
Still, I think the difference between Patrick and Phillips on the one hand and Ostrovsky and Langston on the other was less great than you’d think. Patrick and Phillips were not knowledgeable or skilled enough to resist the pro-rebel narrative of events, once they’d adopted it; for its part Vice, at the end of the day, did little to complicate the narrative being told about Ukraine in the West. Most revealing to me was an interview Ostrovsky did in July 2014 with Ambassador Pyatt. Pyatt was in the ambassadorial seat throughout Maidan and its aftermath; he had become famous, in a way, for being the man on the phone with Victoria Nuland in a leaked audio recording, receiving instructions from her on what kind of post-Maidan government the US should push for. “I don’t think Klitsch should go into the government,” Nuland tells him, of opposition politician and former WBC and WBO world heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko. “I don’t think it’s necessary, I don’t think it’s a good idea.” “Yeah,” Pyatt agrees, “just let him stay out and do his political homework and stuff.” Pyatt then wonders how he should involve their partners in the EU. “Fuck the EU,” says Nuland. “No, exactly,” says Pyatt. This conversation was presented by the Kremlin as proof that the US was running Maidan; though it hardly was that, it would nonetheless seem like a worthwhile topic to address with the ambassador. But Ostrovsky, looking mildly uncomfortable in a dress shirt with all the buttons done and a jacket, his characteristic two-day growth of beard intact, did not mention this phone conversation in his interview with Pyatt, nor did he ask about what sort of pressure the US had been exerting on the Kyiv government and why. The toughest question he asked was not a tough question at all. “The Russians are giving arms to the separatists,” said Ostrovsky. “Why isn’t the United States giving the same kind of support to its ally, to the Ukrainian military?” This was not a tough question for Pyatt because it was not up to Pyatt whether to send weapons, and it wasn’t a tough question because Pyatt probably supported weapons shipments. Nuland certainly did. The question revealed that Ostrovsky, like most reporters, despite his courage in moving around rebel territory, when faced with a representative of US power turned immediately into a friendly little elf.
Vice takes its cue from the gonzo journalists of the 1960s. But gonzo as practiced by, for example, Hunter S. Thompson had ideological commitments. It was not pious about them, and it did not wear them on its sleeve, but they were there nonetheless. To practice gonzo without ideological commitments, to practice what my colleague Tony Wood has dubbed “pomo gonzo,” is merely to make good television.
A couple of months ago Graham Phillips also managed to land a big interview: with Igor Strelkov, the legendary leader of the initial invasion of eastern Ukraine and for a time the defense minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Phillips, wearing a tight black Je Suis Donbass T-shirt, sat down with Strelkov in Moscow for a heart-to-heart. Like Ostrovsky with Pyatt, Phillips did not ask any tough questions.
Under any circumstances, the truth is complicated. When you have American journalists writing about Russia (a traditional rival) and Ukraine (the enemy of our traditional rival), it becomes more complicated still. Vladimir Putin is a villain who lies to, steals from, and bullies his own people. That is the truth. But in the absence of similar reporting on American politicians or leaders of American-allied countries who also lie to, steal from, and bully their own people, one could get the idea that Putin is uniquely deceptive, uniquely thieving, uniquely evil. Maidan was filled with courageous people willing to risk their lives for a better political system for themselves and their children. That is also the truth. But in the absence of some explanation of the history of the political divisions within Ukraine since independence; of the catastrophic presidential administration that came to power after the Orange Revolution; of the fears in eastern Ukraine, only partly unfounded, stoked by the presence of Ukrainian ultranationalists at Maidan, you might come to think that only a total brainwashed zombie or, alternately, a fanatical Putinist, could oppose Maidan. The truth, spoken in a vacuum, can become something different from the truth.
If these words that we write are going to have some effect on the world, we need to ask what that effect is going to be.Tweet
For a journalist or writer or intellectual—for anyone who is trying to speak in public—the question needs to become, which truth are they telling, and for whom? The journalists we admire are the Russian ones who in the past two years have attempted to disclose the activities of their government in Ukraine, thereby risking not only their lives but their livelihoods and professional reputations; or the Ukrainian journalists and activists who’ve called for an end to the Anti-Terrorist Operation (for doing so, one journalist has been charged with treason). If you compare the Western press with the journalists who have actively opposed and exposed the activities of their own governments (as opposed to other people’s governments), you begin to see the problem we now have.
In the past three years, since Putin returned to office as president and then, eventually, invaded Ukraine, we have witnessed a remarkable consensus emerge in the American and British media. It is that since Putin is the incarnation of evil, and the Obama Administration occasionally (though not very often) treats him as something other than evil, Obama is soft on Putin. This is a long way from the American press corps’s (eventual) opposition to the war in Vietnam; it is even a long way from the US media’s occasionally strong coverage of the Russian carnage in Chechnya. In pointing to Russian atrocities in Chechnya, the Western media was urging its governments to prioritize human rights over their other interests in Russia (they refused); in urging a tougher line on Putin (as they once urged a tougher line on Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi), they are merely supporting the hawkish wing of the American political class. But aren’t they merely telling the truth in both cases? The answer, one somewhat reluctantly concludes, is no. If these words that we write are going to have some effect on the world, we need to ask what that effect is going to be.
In September of this year, Russia began a military buildup in northern Syria; it subsequently began flying sorties against rebel positions in the west and north of the country in an effort to prop up the Assad regime.
The American press went nuts. It pointed out that Russia was bombing people just so that it could influence events in the Middle East. It pointed out that Russian bombs caused collateral damage. Finally it pointed out that Russia was bombing rebels who had been covertly funded by the CIA — that is to say, our guys! It apparently escaped the notice of these journalists that the United States had done all these things, or things very much like them, not just in other places and long ago, but in Syria and very recently. A telling moment came during a grotesque press conference, early in the crisis, in which journalists berated the Defense Department spokesman (himself until recently a Bloomberg correspondent) for the insufficiently robust US response. “Some people at home,” one of the journalists posited, “would say that the Russians are giving the middle finger to the United States. How do you respond?” It was, on the one hand, a fair question; it was, on the other hand, an American journalist urging the Pentagon — the Pentagon! — to adopt a more warlike stance. Which is interesting and indicative. We do still live in a democracy, after all. Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but these journalists will eventually get their war.
Meanwhile Patrick recently announced on his Facebook page that he was heading to Syria, so as to report the truth from there. On Twitter, his partner, Phillips, wished Patrick a good journey. Always the shrewder of the two, he was staying put in Moscow.