Interview by Harrison Samphir with Roger Annis, published on Canadian Dimension, Feb. 22, 2015
Long time trade union activist, former aerospace worker and writer Roger Annis spoke with Canadian Dimension editorial assistant Harrison Samphir about the war in Ukraine, threats to European stability, and the complicity of the Canadian media and federal government in aggressive military policies. His website, NewColdWar.org “aims to provide accurate factual information about the Ukraine conflict and its rapidly-widening consequences”. This interview took place on Thursday, February 19, 2015.
Your latest web project, NewColdWar.org, is a helpful resource for those interested in seeking a greater understanding of events in Ukraine. How did it come about?
It was a project largely of Canadian delegates who went to Yalta, Crimea in July for an anti-war conference. The conference was convened by several academic and social institutes, one in Moscow and several in Ukraine. The conference drew about 110 people, about half of whom were from Ukraine, a smaller number from Russia. There were three of us there from Canada and one from the United States.
One of the projects that came out of discussions at the conference was to create a website, because at the time it was very difficult to easily get information about what was going on in Ukraine, including translations from Russian- and Ukrainian-language newspapers. Things have really improved since then, and one of the useful purposes NewColdWar creates is to direct people to websites like Russia-Insider and FortRuss where people can read very detailed information. We’re focusing on publishing our own writings, but also drawing attention to key writings by others that really help people to understand the situation in Ukraine.
How has Canada’s mainstream press handled its coverage of Ukraine?
I think mainstream Canadian media has been among the worst in the world, or at least among the wealthier countries. It’s pretty much homogenous, a very uniform groupthink, which is a term U.S. journalist Robert Parry has aptly coined. A groupthink on the origin of the conflict in Ukraine and why it continues. And the groupthink says that everything is a result of Russian aggression, even military intervention, in the east of Ukraine. That message has been universal, both in the print media in Canada but also in the public and private television broadcasters including the CBC. It’s really problematic, and not only that, but what accompanies that explanation of events is a great deal of what I would call censorship. The most egregious example is that you have a government in Kiev that’s bombing and shelling towns and cities of eastern Ukraine. By any measure, these are war crimes and they’re also something no normal government would be expected to do against its population. This should be causing outrage. Of course, [media companies] could never justify such events, so they simply exclude it from the news. So the ordinary mortal trying to understand events in Ukraine goes to the Globe and Mail, or the Winnipeg Free Press, or the Vancouver Sun, and they’ll read the language of obscurity; the language says what is happening in Ukraine is “conflict” or “fighting”, and this would be described as fighting between Ukrainians and pro-Russian separatists. These terms that are neutral ascribe no responsibility and provide no explanation for events. The bombing of a government of its own civilians just disappears from the landscape. And so many other aspects are similar. The reader is totally disarmed, because they’re not provided with the basic information. The result is they simply turn away. Well, how do you hold media to account? How do you hold government to account, when an issue is presented in such a way that an ordinary person can’t understand it? I don’t think this is the result of some diabolical conspiracy, but it is a mechanism by which mainstream media seizes on an issue and then proceeds with it.
I’ve devoted quite a bit of attention to writing about this, and I’ve focused a lot of that on the Toronto Star, because it’s the worst example of all that’s gone on. The reason it’s the worst example is the Star has actually been printing articles promoting the very fundraising causes of the extreme right in Ukraine. Again, the ordinary mortal reading the articles won’t know that, they’ll read about something called SOS Army, which is a direct fundraising arm of the extreme right in Ukraine. But the Star presents this as a humanitarian effort to provide medical — but also direct military equipment — to the brave fighters of Ukraine, who are never described, standing up against Russian aggression. It’s a horrible media portrait.
And there is a similar complicity evident among Parliamentarians in the Canadian government.
The media is just picking up the message and the policy of the government, and they also happen to agree. The media is very ideological about this. They are very firm, very strident, and very pro-war. The Canadian government has been one of the most uncritical supporters of the regime in Kiev. Unfortunately, we don’t see any evidence of any divergence whatsoever from government policy and the media from any of the parties in Ottawa. Considering the humanitarian scale of the disaster in eastern Ukraine, and the arguably outrageous conduct by the government in Ukraine that Canada is supporting, it’s remarkable to think not a single question about this would be raised. It’s gotten so bad, as I reported back in December, a well-respected member of parliament for the NDP shared a speaking platform on November 29 in Toronto — this was a large public event sponsored by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress [UCC] to mark the one year anniversary of the Maidan movement. MP Peggy Nash shared the platform with the guest speaker of the UCC, a representative of the Right Sector fascist party, brought all the way over from Ukraine specifically for this event. Nash comes from a long trade union background. Did she know who she was sharing a platform with, or did she not care? Either way, it’s beyond belief, but this is how bad the situation is today with the NDP, who we might hope and expect to have some critical view of what’s going on. But I’m afraid we’re not hearing a whisper of dissent from the party or in Ottawa.
With the impending collapse of the Second Minsk Agreement, increased Western sanctioning of Russia and the further encroachment of NATO in Eastern Europe, how do you anticipate the next few months will evolve?
It’s a very complicated mix, it’s been so and will continue to be so. The events of the last week represent, once again, a very dramatic turn. The Ukraine army has once again suffered a terrible defeat, in the town of Debaltseve. This is a defeat they probably could have avoided, but their stubbornness and refusal to recognize reality, and to admit their military effort in the east has gone badly, meant that they were incapable of backing any form of strategic withdrawal. The pocket around Debaltseve lies behind the demarcation line that the second ceasefire agreement recognized. Kiev wouldn’t react to that because they thought their army would be invincible in the area. Now they’ve been driven out at a very high human and material cost, rather than accept the offer for their soldiers to lay down their weapons and walk to freedom. We don’t know the exact numbers, but it seems as though hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers have needlessly died to maintain a presence in the pocket. It’s early yet to determine if this will cause the unravelling of the second ceasefire agreement that was reached in Minsk on February 11. I think it won’t. I think this is a terrible setback for the Ukraine government and, frankly, they are in no position anyway to be resuming any military activity. Barring any other large-scale military action in the coming weeks, this ceasefire will hold. But it’s the holding of an entirely unsatisfactory political circumstance and conditions. There are two real obstacles here: first, the Ukraine government is not recognizing the right of the people of eastern Ukraine to have a voice in their future. They people have been demanding what they call federalization, that is, a decentralization of power from Kiev, where regions of the country could have a say in matters of economics, social policy and even matters of foreign policy. There are huge questions hanging over Ukraine regarding the future of its relationship with Russia, on the one hand, and to Europe on the other.
These are very complicated issues that require very serious national dialogue to resolve. Kiev has said all along that it won’t devolve powers to eastern Ukraine. They’re stuck to that, and as long as they continue to stick to that the possibility of a political settlement is excluded. So there can be a temporary ceasefire, but it can only hold for so long. We also have the complicated situation where about half the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, which together roughly correspond to the region called Donbas, are still occupied by the Ukrainian army and the right-wing militias with which it’s allied. They have refused to withdraw back to the historical border of these regions. That’s an even more immediately compromising situation. The ceasefire will hold simply because the Ukrainian government doesn’t have much it can do about it, but how this longstanding political issue of self-determination for eastern Ukraine will be resolved is unknown. There is also the complication of how particularly warlike allies of Ukraine such as the United States and Canada act. They are threatening to escalate the provision of weapons to Ukraine; if that starts happening, all bets are off.
The other thing that will determine a long term agreement is if Ukraine and its foreign allies accept the new reality that exists in Crimea. The Crimean people, last year, looked at the events that were happening in Kiev in February. They saw the ascendance of the extreme right-wing — one could say the extreme neoconservative right-wing — that rose through the Maidan movement and eventually came to power in Kiev. They said, “We don’t want to be any part of this.” Now, what’s never been told in all the mainstream hysteria about the cessation of Crimea from Ukraine is that Crimea has longstanding grievances of its situation in Ukraine. First of all, the Crimean people never went into Ukraine voluntarily, that was an administrative decision of the Society Union in 1954, which had to do with post-WWII reconstruction. It may have made sense at the time, but it was never a voluntary association at the time. After Ukrainian independence, the Crimean people wanted their own vote on their future. There was a referendum vote in Ukraine that voted in favour of independence in 1991. The Crimean people wanted the same thing but never received it. They did achieve what was called an ‘autonomous republic’ in Ukraine, but they were always the economic backwater of the country. When they saw the extreme rightwing protests erupt in Kiev, they said they wanted out; they did not want a civil war to come to Ukraine. That’s what Western media call the “annexation” of Crimea by Russia, because Russia happened to have interests that coincided with the will of the majority of the Crimean people. This, more than anything, lies at the heart of the very aggressive NATO policies against Russia. They have never accepted this decision by the Crimean people, and they hold a great grudge against Russia for what the Crimean people decided. This is a very critical issue that Ukraine will have to accept—the secession of Crimea–if it’s ever to live in peace with its neighbours.
The events in Crimea were the real turning point in Western media coverage, because during the months of February and March of 2014 there was a degree of objective reporting. But once the Crimean people made that decision to secede, the narrative shifted to “annexation by Russia,” “aggression by Russia”, “military intervention by Russia,” and those ideas were transposed to the situation in eastern Ukraine.
This campaign of demonization has certainly glossed-over the extent to which actual human lives are affected on both sides of the conflict, especially civilians.
Oh, terribly. There are historical and all kinds of family ties that go across the Russia-Ukraine border. People on both sides are intensely distraught by this conflict. There are more than one million Ukrainians that have fled to Russia to be safe. It has profoundly affected people on all sides. Certainly in Ukraine, there is rising opposition to the war policies of the Kiev government, and also toward the austerity policies which are the flip-side of the same coin. There isn’t enough opposition yet to fundamentally change the course of the government in Kiev, even with the terrible defeat the Ukrainian army has suffered in Debaltseve. We may see that President Poroshenko may not be able to survive as leader of the country because of the terrible debacle that his policies caused at Debaltseve. But I don’t see a big change in the pro-austerity, pro-war policies yet, because there’s a great deal of illusions among the Ukrainian people of what a future associated with Europe could provide. However, opposition to the government has been on the rise dramatically. This gives hope that there may be a reconciliation in Ukraine, or at the very least a willingness to seek political solutions instead of military ones.
In Russia, the people have many reasons to be critical of their government, and it’s a shame that the war in Ukraine has taken a lot of focus off of the kinds of political and economic progress that is needed in Russia today. The fact is, the policies of the Russian government vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine and the military and political offensive by NATO have massively increased its popularity at home. Vladimir Putin enjoys results in popularity polls that leaders in Europe or North America could only dream of. Rightly so, I think, because this war in Ukraine and the support it’s getting from NATO countries is indirectly a war against Russia itself. The economic sanctions on Russia are definitely acts of economic aggression with the threat of military aggression lying behind them, and so the response of the Russia people has been to support the policies of its government. To its credit, that government has stood up against this NATO offensive bravely. If Russia had allowed the rejection of the Crimean referendum or to not support the people in eastern Ukraine, the government would be massively unpopular.
Some discussions of the Ukraine crisis have suggested the increasing threat of nuclear war and the intrinsic corollary of mutually assured destruction. What do you make of this?
I think that’s a real and serious concern that’s not getting the attention it needs. I don’t follow issues of nuclear weapons or nuclear energy that closely and I wasn’t aware until just recently that the United States under President Obama has embarked on a program of modernization of its nuclear weapons arsenal. That’s a remarkable thing to be happening in today’s world. I think we’ve all been lulled by the threat of ‘mutually assured destruction’ to think the days of nuclear war are over. It was bad enough to read about such an endeavour undertaken by the U.S. government, but then I read more recently — and we shared it on the NewColdWar website — about a weapons programme in development in the U.S. that could potentially get around this longstanding ‘problem’ for the lunatic, militarist fringe of first-strike capacity. So now the U.S. is developing new generations of missiles that can fly faster, that can manoeuvre at lower altitudes, and can get around the traditional defences whereby a nuclear strike would always be met with a counterstrike. Now Russia is scrambling to catch up on this.
All of this is happening in a world of a climate emergency where every possible resource should be turned to reducing the burning of fossil fuels and the resulting generation of greenhouse gasses. It’s unbelievable that this is going on, but this what the events in Ukraine help to show us: how destructive militarism is on the world, and how austerity leads to war. It’s all a big wakeup called for the world. I’m hopeful, I’m optimistic, the call will be heard and people will react, but it’s happening a lot slower than it should.
Ukraine: Many of those analyzing the events of the past year in Ukraine ignore or overlook what an audacious act it was for the people of Crimea to secede from Ukraine. The autonomous government of the region held a referendum vote on March 16, 2014 and a large majority voted ‘yes’. The United States and other NATO powers warned of consequences if the vote were held. And true to their word, they have imposed punishing economic sanctions on Crimea as a result of the secession. But there is not a hint in Crimea today of looking back.
The Crimea vote was a political slap in the face to the big imperialist powers. These powers are not accustomed to being rebuffed. They have long and spiteful memories. Think of France’s two centuries of punishing Haiti for the astonishing uprising against slavery and declaration of independence in 1804. Think of the 60-plus years of economic embargo by the United States against socialist Cuba.
(By the way, the idea that the Crimea vote came out of the blue is a tale of ignorance or deliberate obfuscation. Crimea was treated as a poor cousin by independent Ukraine. Its grievances are documented and long-standing. It was the only region of Ukraine in which a majority did not vote for independence from the successor to Soviet Union in the December 1991 referendum.)
Russia: The issue of what, exactly, Russia constitutes today is a major source of confusion on the international left. That makes it also a major barrier to developing antiwar solidarity against NATO’s aggression in eastern Europe.
If Russia is an equivalent ‘imperialist’ country to the big countries of NATO, or an even more aggressive one, as some on the left would have it, then there is nothing to be done about the war in Ukraine. The appropriate response is to wish a ‘plague on both their houses’ and, I suppose, pray that a political miracle will save the people from the horror of civil war.
If, on the other hand, as I have written and argued, Russia is a lesser capitalist power without the kind of imperialist features that propel it into the same kind of aggressive, economic and political venturing abroad as characterizes imperialist countries proper, then Russia’s resistance to NATO creates important political space for independent political action by antiwar and other progressive movements. It doesn’t particularly matter what Russia’s motivations and intentions are in such a scenario, although the fact that it has resisted NATO aggression rather successfully so far is a boon.
Think of Latin America. Only dogmatists would think that the assertion of national and economic independence by large capitalist countries of the continent in the past several decades (Brazil, Argentina, etc) is unimportant. The new circumstances in Latin America create space for the likes of Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia to survive, to find new allies and to move forward on a path of social development. The process is mutually reinforcing–each side is strengthened by the other in a delicate and fascinating police dance.
Now that Syriza is elected in Greece and Podemos is surging in Spain, I hope we will see similar dancing in Europe.
Roger Annis is a socialist and union activist. A retired aerospace worker living in Vancouver, he writes regularly on topics of social justice and peace. Visit his personal website, ‘A Socialsit in Canada, and NewColdWar.org on the web.