SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Four Horsemen of the American Apocalypse!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/527604029.jpg


What the Media Can’t/Won’t Tell You About Why Russia Invaded Ukraine

As usual, America’s foreign correspondents are falling down on the job.

Stories devoid of historical context cast Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a naked act of neo-Soviet aggression. Considering that the relevant history begins a mere two decades ago, its omission is inexcusable.

The spark that led to the takeover of Crimea was not the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich. It is what happened the day after.

A 2012 law gave the Russian language official status in regions where Russians comprise more than 10% of the population. This is the case in most of eastern Ukraine and particularly in Crimea, where 59% are ethnic Russians.

One week ago, Ukraine’s rump parliament (members of Yanukovich’s party, hiding from opposition forces and in fear for their lives, didn’t show up) took advantage of Yanukovich’s downfall to overturn the language law. Americans didn’t notice, but Russians did.

            Attack on the Russian language in Ukraine is a brutal violation of ethnic minority rights,” Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s commissioner for human rights, tweeted that day.

Seems a little over-the-top, right?

Sure, but only if you don’t know that millions of ethnic Russians in former Soviet Republics have suffered widespread discrimination and harassment since the 1991 collapse — and that their troubles began with laws eliminating Russian as an official language.

Laws like the one passed last week in Ukraine.

The demise of the Soviet Union left 25 million Russians stranded in 14 newly independent states, in such countries as Belarus, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Ukraine. These new countries had to scramble in order to create the trappings of national identity virtually overnight. They designed new flags, composed national anthems and printed new currency.

To instill a sense of loyalty and patriotism, the governments of many of the freshly-minted republics resorted to rank nationalism.

Nationalism isn’t just about what your country is. It’s also about what it isn’t. This requires defining some things — some people — as outsiders. Unwanted. Scapegoats. Enemies of the state.

Turkmenistan, a Central Asian dictatorship and former Soviet republic in Central Asia, is one example. It instituted a policy of “Turkmenization” after 1991. Russians, a privileged group before independence, were now refused work permits. A 2000 decree banned the use of the Russian language in official business; since Turkmenistan is a totalitarian state and all business is legally governmental, this reduced Russians who didn’t speak Turkmen to poverty and low-status jobs.

The Turkmen government abolished dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship, leading to the mass exodus of panicked Russians in 2003. Denaturalization — the stripping away of citizenship — followed. “Many people…were having to sell houses and apartments at far below market values in order to leave by the deadline,” reported the UN. Hundreds of thousands of people lost everything they owned.

“Over the past decade Russians have been systematically discriminated against, and currently hold no positions in Turkmenistan’s government or state institutions,” says the report.

Russians who remained behind after 2003 fared poorly. “On the streets of the eastern city of Turkmenabat, Russians appear to be rapidly becoming an underclass in a nation mired in poverty. Many scrape a living as taxi drivers, waitresses or in other low paying, insecure jobs.”

Harassment of Russians is rife throughout the former USSR. Every other Commonwealth of Independent States nation has abolished dual citizenship.

In the former Soviet Union, everyone knows that the road to statelessness, unpersonhood and poverty begins with the official elimination of Russian as an official language.

National language statutes targeted against Russian speakers are analogous to Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, which prevented Jews from holding jobs or even owning a radio: the beginning of the end. At the end of the Soviet period in 1989, the Tajik SSR passed a law establishing Tajik as the sole official language. Less than two decades later, 85% of ethnic Russians had left the country.

“The linguistic nationalization carried out in each republic provided a strong impetus to emigrate…Even if schools systematically introduce children to the official language today, the [former Soviet] states have established no programs to train adults,” Seymour Peyrouse noted in a 2008 report for the Woodrow Wilson Institute about the Central Asian republics. “It seems that the principal cause of emigration remains the absence of a future, or the perception of such, for the younger generations.”

Given recent history, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that ethnic Russians freaked out when one of the first official acts of Ukraine’s parliament was a linguistic nationalization law.

As for Russia’s response, you need to know two facts. First, Ukraine isn’t as independent of Russia as, say, Poland. None of the former Soviet republics are. “Kiev is an ancient Russian city,” Masha Gessen writes in Vanity Fair. “It is an overnight train ride from Moscow — closer than 90% of Russia is to the Russian capital. Russian citizens haven’t needed visas or even foreign-travel passports to go to Ukraine — the way U.S. citizens can enter Canada with only a driver’s license. Every store clerk, waiter, and taxi driver in Kiev speaks Russian.” And of course there’s the Black Sea Fleet. Really really independent countries don’t have 11,000 foreign troops stationed on their soil.

Had it been possible for rational diplomats and demographers to manage the Soviet collapse, Crimea probably would have wound up in Russia.

Until half a century ago, after all, Crimea was Russian. Nikita Khrushchev “gifted Crimea to Ukraine as a gesture of goodwill to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with tsarist Russia. Not surprisingly, at the time, it did not occur to anyone that one day the Soviet Union might collapse and that Ukraine would again be an independent country,” writes The Moscow Times.

It’s easy to see why Vladimir Putin would invade, why Russian public opinion would support him, and why neither cares what America thinks. Back in September, after all, most Russians told pollsters Crimea is part of Russia.

Why are American reporters covering Crimea ignoring the big picture, and instead so focused on secondary distractions like how it makes Obama look and whether there’s a chance of a new Cold War?

Four horsemen of the journalism apocalypse afflict overseas reporting:

Journalistic stenography, in which attending a government press conference constitutes research.

Kneejerk patriotism, where reporters identify with their government and are therefore less likely to question its actions, while reflexively assuming that rivals of the U.S. are ill-intentioned.

Jack-of-all-trades journalism, in which the same writers cover too many different beats. A few decades ago, there would have been a bureau chief, or at least a stringer, who knew Ukraine and/or the former Soviet Union because he or she lived there.

American ahistoricism, the widespread and widely acceptable ignorance of politics and history — especially those of other countries.

All four horsemen are pulling the Crimea story, but the fourth — not being aware of stuff that happened just one generation ago — is the most embarrassing.

(Support independent journalism and political commentary. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)



  • Thank you for your broader perspective. It is one of many different perspectives. Uncle Vlad has no shortage of reasonable excuses to do this, the least of which is we 1) don’t have moral grounds to stop him given the west’s actions in Serbia and the US actions in the middle east, and 2) we can’t really stop him…we don’t really have the resources right now, and we certainly don’t have competent leadership. The most competent European leadership has a vested interest in just letting Russia reassert.

    The news coverage of this in the American media has been ridiculously and embarrassingly Busch League, but ultimately we probably aren’t going to do jack about this. My interpretation is that if we let Putin get away with this, next he’ll reassert himself in Central Asia for roughly the same reasons as you least, those will be the expressed reasons.

    I’m not really stressed out about this whole thing though, I just wish we had better information and deeper context. Thanks for your input, Ted

  • Susan Stark
    March 3, 2014 7:41 PM

    You don’t have to know what happened to the Russians in the former Soviet Republics to figure out why Russians are reacting the way they are:

    Neo-Nazis running around the place? Check.

    Banning Russian language? Check.

    It shouldn’t be hard to put two and two together, yet the US media can’t hire competent journalists.

    • I wouldn’t necessarily blame the journalists themselves, or at least not alone. People want to keep their jobs.

      • That’s right.

        Whether selling lies, selling lying candidates, or selling your little sister, it is important to remember that if it’s only business, its OK.

        Money is always worth more than truth on any given day.

  • Excellent observations and facts – imagine that, real facts! I live in Lithuania, one of the former republics under the domination of the old Soviet Union. Still, Lithuania is not as harsh to Russians and other non-Lithuanians as some of the other republics, but they did over react in a nationalistic way that pretty much plunged the country to a lower level than it should have. The Lithuanian government and its patriotic cronies almost immediately destroyed the Single Largest Money-making Industry in the country. Russia had created a Fishing Fleet and all the infrastructure and supporting industries for it. They immediately sold off much of the fishing fleet and its cannery boats to anyone they could find for cents on the dollar. Where did all this money go? Not to an economy that was trying to refind itself – instead, to a handful of mini-oligarchs and self-serving patriots. The Klaipeda port area was plunged into poverty and crime was rampart for several years as thousand and thousands of people lost their jobs and all the industries that supported it collapsed. Their titular leader, Landsbergis announce that the ‘new Lithuania’ would become a tourist hot spot, and that this would supplant the lost income. At the same time, they banned the use of any signage in the Russian language and relegated the non-Lithuanian population to the second-class citizens. Most of the infrastructure that was built for heating and the provision of cold and hot water to the mostly soviet-built apartment blocks is still doing its job, but the Lithuanian government turns its head from this fact and continues to enjoy the shipping opportunites and industries that the Russian creation of its ice-free port and its status because of this. You might think that after 20 years or so, that the powers that be here would realize that you “catch more flies with honey than salt”, but they continues to por salt into the wounds left over from the occupation and are constantly bickering with and insulting Russia and anyone who disagrees with this. This has resulted in high prices for buying badly needed gas and energy from Russia, and the winter heating bills here are now staggering. Along with this, Lithuania has lost about 15% of its population to the emigration of some of best tradesmen and people looking for somewhere else to live that will provide a higher standard. The trend is still negative, as more of them leave. If you look at its medical system, postal system and many other of the things that support a civilized society – you will also see that they are mostly remnants of what the Soviet Union built here. Don’t get me wrong, I know that what the Soviet Union did here when they occupied Lithuania killed off many of its people and repressed them, but this is the same this the Soviet Union did with all the places they occupied – they tried to Russify them and repressed the local culture and native language. But the Soviet Union is now broken and for the most part, gone now, and it is debatable as to what Lithuania’s infrastructure might look like now if they had never been occupied. Lithuania is a beautiful country with lots of water, forests and rolling countrysides, and it sure would be a more positive thing if they could back off all the recriminations and instead, forge more positive relationships with their neighbors, including Latvia and Poland. The future for Lithuania lies in its ability to begin to pull itself up by its own bootstraps, and to stop whining a crying to the EU for more and more support funds while the EU finds itself with plenty of crises to deal with. Lithuania has lots of natural resources that could be turned into business opportunities, but you won’t find many Lithuanian entrepreneurs doing much about this – it’s easier to beg the Scandinavian countries to invest and take over industries that they could have created themselves – almost all of the national Supermarket chains drain off their income and provide very poor-paying jobs to the Lithuanian employees. All the flag-waving, conspicuous nationalism and misleading rhetoric that can be found here doesn’t translate into a more independent Lithuania with a better economy – instead, it has kept them in a limbo where some of their best people are slowly leaving and the population is aging.

  • alex_the_tired
    March 4, 2014 6:23 AM

    Ted (et al.),

    “Kneejerk patriotism, where reporters identify with their government and are therefore less likely to question its actions, while reflexively assuming that rivals of the U.S. are ill-intentioned.”

    I think Ted has this one wrong, but not by a lot. The reporters “on the ground” are, regrettably, fearful. Not of the Russians or the Ukrainians or the store clerks in Kiev. They aren’t even afraid of losing their jobs. Not exactly. What they’re afraid of is being marked bad in all the books, of not being “team” players. That is, of being unable to find a job after they lose their current one by trying to report something no one else has. I’ll explain …

    The old journalism method was for the reporter to look for things no one else had covered. By doing this, the paper sold more copies. Circulation rates increased. Ad rates stayed high. The papers that were divorced from reality stood out as dingbat publications (poor production values, sloppy delivery schedules, lots of typos, etc.) and the public might read them once in a while, but mostly knew that these people were kidding themselves.

    Then a curious phenomenon occurred: the Internet. (Yes, another of old fart Alex’s screeds.) The Internet provided one-seat shopping for every single individual out there to find his or her own viewpoint reinforced. Do you think Martin Luther King Jr. was a communist who raped white women? Don’t worry: there’s a “truther” site that will reinforce that notion. Are you convinced that Obama is perfect and Ted is a racist piece of shit? Surf right on over to DK. You will be surrounded by thousands of dysfunctional, scared (and scarred) hysterics who think exactly like you do. The apotheosis of this form, of course, is Fox, which reassures its audience that what it already thought was exactly right, 24/7.

    Oh, Alex, it was always like that. No. Not quite. Take a look in the news lately for outbreaks of diseases for which vaccines are available. The numbers are on the rise. Why? Because uninformed people who are not interested in doing actual research conclude from pamphlets they’ve read and anecdotal reports that they’ve heard, that vaccines are really dangerous. Before the Internet, these people would stick to their cheapass mimeosheets and would be recognized for what they are: deluded.

    Now, how does all this tie back in to the main point? Bias reinforcement. Because of ALL the “news” sources now available, the only way for a publication to draw a large audience is to reinforce what the audience already believes. The New York Times reports an unemployment rate of about 7% because that’s what its audience believes. Were the Times to start reporting the real unemployment rate of about 15%, the readership would look for other publications that would reinforce the 7% rate. Why? Because 15% means there is a big, big problem out there. If I don’t go to the doctor, I don’t have to find out whether the lump is cancer.

    All the reporters realize that if they start reporting on these things the audience doesn’t want to hear, their publications will start losing audience (even faster than they already are). When you’re on a “team,” the last thing you want is someone who will, for an ethical point, cause you all to lose your jobs. So when such a person pops his head up, you kick him off the team. Once that happens, the other publications can find out — “Why’d you fire Smith? What? He was trying to report what the actual unemployment figures were? Shit. Thanks. I was gonna offer him a job. I owe you one.” — and they will, also, be sure not to put Smith on the team.

    It’s like we built the cage from the inside and are frantically trying to finish all the welding as fast as we can.

    • I always appreciate the way you put things even if I already knew them. I do think Ted is just as correct though. Glenn Greenwald wrote last year about how he casually said something that implied government could not be trusted, and his BBC interviewer was incredulous. This BBC guy really thought Greenwald couldn’t be serious and that officials are, of course, good.

    • Oh, and I have to add MSNBC and Stewart and Colbert to Fox News as media that will constantly reinforce existing audience beliefs. It is staggering how colored and wrong their worldviews can be. One of my favorite examples: they seem to believe that any Democrat is better than any Republican in every way, always.

  • alex_the_tired
    March 4, 2014 8:14 AM

    Even floating the idea is codespeak. When some politician runs a bill “in defense of marriage” what he’s telling his cluster of fanatics is “hey, go ahead. Kick that fag’s head in. Lots of people think like you!! We might fail today, but don’t worry, soon we’ll be roundin’ ’em up and tattooin’ ’em.”

    • A real law in defense of marriage would end no-fault divorce for example, but I suppose Jesus wouldn’t want them to honor their sacred vows if it meant they’d be “unhappy.”

  • exkiodexian
    March 4, 2014 9:58 AM

    Excellent piece Ted — one of your recent best. When you write like this, you should be writing full time for the NYTimes. Of course, they’re too busy funding that asshole Friedman. Pity.

  • Obama has a ready-made solution to the language problem in the Ukraine: Obama is the leading deporter in USA history of “foreigners” from conquered Mexican territory.

    He need only do in Ukraine what is now being done to “foreigners” seeking to occupy territory annexed, post-conquest, from Mexico.

    I’m sure the Ukrainian putsch will have no problem installing American-style democracy, complete with American-style deportations. Or rival America’s per-capita leadership in prison population in its freedom quest.

  • I realize we all like a good conspiracy theory, but this is article is poorly research and just a regurgitation of Putin’s anti-Ukraine propaganda. Allow me to offer a few arguments:

    – The author is panicked by the “removal of the official status of the Russian language” as the beginning of ghettoization of Russian speakers. FACT: since it’s independence in 1991, Ukraine has had only ONE official language: UKRAINIAN! Now, let’s test the author’s theory: in those 23 years, have the Russian speakers in Ukraine been oppressed and ghettoized? NO! In fact, the Russian speaking part of the country tends to be the wealthier part! Ex-president of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovich, passed a NEW law just about a year ago, allowing for multiple “official” languages in oblasts (like states) where there was over 10% of the the population speaking another native language. This was a new law meant to do NOTHING socially or economically (since there was no problem and people continued to speak Russian freely and prosper for the last 23 years), but rather the law was set the stage for the political annexation which you see Russia attempting now.

    Turkmenistan has nothing to do with Ukraine. Yes, they were both former Soviet republics, but that’s where the similarity ends. Turkmenistan is a severe dictatorship and has one of the worst human rights records on the planet. On the flip side, Ukraine is striving for democracy and roundly considered to be much more free and democratic than Russia. This comparison is without basis in reality and meant simply to tarnish Ukraine. This is yellow journalism.

    Let’s deal with this theory for a second: “Really really independent countries don’t have 11,000 foreign troops stationed on their soil.” This is, of course, not referring to the current Russian invasion, but to the regularly stationed troops at the naval base that Russia rents from Ukraine in Crimea. Under this logic, Germany, South Korea and Japan are also not “independent countries” because they each have over 30,000 US troops on bases in their countries. It seems the authority to rent territory to other governments should be seen as a sign of independence, not the lack of it. This is an absurd hypothesis.

    I did think it ironic that the put this at the end: “Jack-of-all-trades journalism, in which the same writers cover too many different beats. A few decades ago, there would have been a bureau chief, or at least a stringer, who knew Ukraine and/or the former Soviet Union because he or she lived there.” This leads to the obvious question, has the author lived in Ukraine or is he especially qualified on the topic? Is he not the same “jack of all trades” he writes against? In fact, he is guilty of the other accusations he makes as well. Copying Russian propaganda is also journalistic stenography. I’ve already mentioned the ahistorical approach in not studying the language situation in Ukraine before this point. And the kneejerk reaction seems to simply be against the fact that America is supporting Ukraine. But do some more research. ALL of the EU, Canada – even China for God’s sake! – are condemning the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops. Btw, I am an American who has lived in Ukraine for 12 years, I have studied its history on the ground, speak both Russian and Ukrainian and witnessed both major revolutions here. Please stop being a parrot for Putin. Thanks.

    • Obama calls Putin on the phone:

      Obama: So, we need to talk about this crisis
      Putin: Knock Knock
      Obama: Who’s there?
      Putin: Crimea
      Obama: Crimea who?
      Putin: Crimea River
      Putin: *Click*
      Obama: Facepalm

      • I spent a long time studying international relations, before it wore me out and I got cynical and went into studying agricultural systems (you know, to escape politics!)….Ted just hit this nail on the head. In fact, the only times Ted is more on target than in this article is when he’s paying me to troll his detractors.

        But aside from that, we have neither the competence or political will in our political classes to seriously tackle this issue. Thus, what we SHOULD do is nothing…this is Russia’s issue, let’s just butt the heck out.

      • Funny! 🙂 What we should do is keep our international agreements if we value the rule of law and want the US to retain any shred of integrity on the international scene. Google the Budapest memorandum of 1994. The US is obligated to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Therefore, it is NOT just Russia’s issue. Again, people need to do some research in the historical background (ironically lacking from the author) before speaking out of their… ignorance. 😉

        BTW, NOT providing the promised protection to nations to agree to de-nuclearize will have the effect of restarting the global nuclear arms race. You think Iran is a problem, just see what happens if the US does nothing (and thankfully, it IS doing something.)

        BTW, however much Ted is paying you to defend this poor excuse for journalism, it’s probably less than Putin paid him to write it. 🙂

    • Benjamin is telling the complete, unadulterated truth. Now he had better keep away from the Eastern Ukraine, or the observable facts will have the unspeakable temerity to impale his irrefutable arguments.

      • dear michaelwme – sorry to burst your bubble, but i am in eastern ukraine. 😉 but i guess trying to be witty is easier than engaging with arguments. good luck with that.

      • Oh yeah. And, I’m sure it’s just a massive co-incidence that all of Russian Government-owned Gazprom’s facilities are right where all these poor oppressed Russian speakers live.

        As for the Russian speakers themselves. Tough. It’s like feeling sorry for Brits stuck in India post-independence. The reason they were there in the first place was to cement Russian control of the Soviet Union.

      • As much as I understand the impulse toward ethnic vengeance, it really is a road to perdition and should be avoided by thoughtful people. Once you go down that road, for example, the entire non-Native American population of the United States should be expelled. Where would we all go?

        I am an idealist, but I’m also practical. Those Russian speakers are no more familiar with Russia than the kids who grew up in United States deported by Obama because they were brought here as young children are familiar with their “home” countries.

  • Susan Stark
    March 6, 2014 2:57 AM


    First you say that you’ve lived in Ukraine for years and speak both Ukrainian and Russian. When Michael calls you out on that you say you live in eastern Ukraine. And to top that off, you assert that Ted is being paid by Putin.

    There is a saying that human beings are not very good liars because they have such terrible memories. If you ARE lying, make sure to keep your facts in order so that you’re not called out on them.

    Also, could you tell your bosses not to start World War Three? They almost did back in September off the coast of Syria, and we don’t want to see a repeat of that. Thanks.

  • All I can say is: Thank you for the information, Ted. Anyone who read this knows more than 99% of all Americans about the situation in the Ukraine.

    And the American media and elected officials make larger-than-life jackasses of themselves abusing this story for clicks, cable tee vee eyeballs and corporate media profits…

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