The UN mission to Ukraine recently announced that 4300 people have been killed since the war started in Eastern Ukraine last spring. That figure is more than 1000 higher, than its previous report of September 5, when Ukrainian officials and representatives of LPR and DPR (Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic respectively) signed the Minsk peace agreement. The jump in deaths clearly shows the fragility of the trilateral agreement that was supposed to bring peace to Eastern Ukraine and encourage refugees to return home. So far, more and more people are indeed coming back to their homes, particularly to Luhansk but the conflict is far from over. The situation is so desperate there that citizens of both cities are pleading with the UN to send peacekeepers to restore peace and stability.
So, if “peace” has been declared, why have so many been killed since the agreement was signed a scant three month ago? And why is there so very little official information regarding the killing of civilians in Eastern Ukraine? Indeed, Ukrainian, Russian and mainstream Western media are all keeping silent about the renewed hostilities that have seen people driven from their homes, industries rendered inoperable because of heavy bombing, villages destroyed, and a banking system teetering on insolvency. Judging from the little coverage the conflict receives from mainstream western media – especially in Canada – one might never know the Ukraine crisis has reached a new level of ferocity, where both sides have ramped up their bombing campaigns and more and more civilians are being killed.
Why the media silence? We think it’s because the crisis has entered a much more delicate stage of negotiation where negative news could have a disastrous ripple effect for everyone involved. Recall the international dynamic in September of this year. Several key events quickly followed the Minsk peace agreement signed that month. First on September 12, 2014 during the trilateral talks in Brussels Ukraine, Russia, and the EU all agreed, that Ukraine’s integration into Europe’s trade orbit would begin no earlier than January 1, 2016. Then, a few days later, on September 16, 2014 the Ukrainian Parliament or Verkhovna Rada ratified the political and economic parts of the Ukraine – EU Association Agreement. Although fuller economic cooperation with the EU has been postponed until the end of 2015, the EU Association Agreement stands out as a key episode in Ukraine’s gradual movement toward Europe.
No doubt the ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement was on the minds of Ukrainian parliamentarians, when they approved sweeping reform laws on the special status for Donetsk and Luhansk Regions, as well as approving an amnesty for those participating in the hostilities. Among other things, these new laws guarantee the right to use and study Russian or any other language in Ukraine. They also provide for local elections to take place in Eastern Ukraine on December 7 (although regional separatists already administrated elections on November 2 that most western states refused to recognize).
Just days later, in advance of elections that would see his party consolidated in parliament, President Poroshenko began his visit to North America. Before going to Washington to address Congress, he stopped in Canada on September 18. His visit to Ottawa elicited a wave of enthusiasm among Canada’s Ukraine’s supporters and his speech to parliament was accompanied by standing ovations. But despite heavy lobbying from Canada’s Ukrainian Congress, President Poroshenko didn’t get the substantial military support he desired and asked for. Instead, he got reiterations of prior commitments for financial support that the Harper government had made back in early spring of 2014. Under these agreements, Canada would allocate $200 million for loans to Ukraine to “help restore its economy and ensure the country’s social stability.”
So if the media is silent on the killings and the high death toll in Eastern Ukraine there appears to be a reason for that. It is because Western governments, including Canada, are very leery of investing in a country that is in open conflict, especially one that has a long, thirty year, history of political cronyism and corruption. A country whose economy is on the brink of collapse and whose military has proved incapable of reclaiming lost territory from separatists.
For these reasons, even though Ukraine is the only European nation on Canada’s official development assistance recipients list it remains a tough sell in Ottawa’s political circles where concerns about the money falling into the wrong hands or being used for war fighting cannot be underestimated. As their country is desperate for external funding, Ukrainian officials have no choice but to tone down their war rhetoric and downplay media coverage of the war. Unfortunately this strategy may change slightly, following the parliamentary elections held earlier this month, making it even more difficult to attract international investors. That is because although the elections were supposed to bring to power a new generation of Ukrainian politicians, it in fact secured about 60 seats of a total of 450 for those parliamentarians deeply involved with the former Yanukovich regime. These politicians are strongly opposed to Ukraine’s handling of the crisis and want the situation in eastern Ukraine to be a matter of public debate.
And what about Russia’s media coverage? Surely it has a vested interested in making public the plight of Eastern Ukraine? To be sure, Russian media was incredibly active and outspoken during the conflict this past summer. But its war rhetoric has changed over the last few months. There are now no images of “Ukrainian Fascists in Kiev” or descriptions of a right wing “Junta” on Russian TV anymore. Moreover the LPR and DNR are now called “Luganskaya oblast’” and “Donetskaya oblast’” which indicates their status as a part of Ukraine. Russia knows how to play the media game too it seems. With the possibility of further sanctions bearing down on them Russia’s game of “realpolitik” and pragmatism towards the West appears to have been somewhat restored.
Yet despite all this, a silent deadly war continues in Ukraine, as all parties jockey for position. It is not the kind of war you are likely to read about on the front pages of western newspapers, but one that is just as lethal and just as destructive nevertheless.
Dr. Milana Nikolko is an Adjunct Research Professor at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (EURUS), Carleton University, a research associate at the Centre for Security and Defence Studies (CSDS) at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA), and a research associate with the Country Indicators for Foreign Policy project (CIFP).
Dr. David Carment is currently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research in Germany. He is also a Professor of International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA), Carleton University, a Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI), a NATO Fellow and listed in the Who’s Who in International Affairs. In addition Professor Carment serves as the principal investigator for the Country Indicators for Foreign Policy project (CIFP).
Featured Photo from Wikipedia creative commons.