Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail newspaper writes some good op-eds. But like a lot of commentators he seems to go completely off the rails when the subject of Russia comes up. His latest piece entitled ‘Is Putin scoring political goals on an empty net?’ had me spluttering over my breakfast cereal this morning, and merits a detailed response.
Saunders writes that during the past week,
After his U.S. success, the Russian President appeared to launch a two-pronged assault on the stability of Europe. On its eastern front, it took a violent form. Starting Sunday, after Mr Putin’s very cordial phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian forces began attacking Eastern Ukraine … This, military observers said, was Mr Putin’s new push to destabilize and gain influence over Europe’s eastern flank. … On Wednesday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer, when asked about this apparent Russian invasion, declined to mention Russia.
Although I cannot prove it, I’m pretty sure that the Russian Federation has supplied most of the shells that the armed forces of the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic are using in current battles. I don’t see where else they could have come from, it being a long time since the rebels overran any Ukrainian supplies. But Saunders talks about ‘Russian forces … attacking Ukraine’, and an ‘apparent Russian invasion’. That implies that troops of the Russian Army have entered Ukraine in recent days and are leading the fighting around Donetsk. Not even the Ukrainian government has claimed that! Saunders is making this up.
Moreover, his claim that it was ‘Russian forces’ who ‘began’ the recent combat doesn’t fit the facts. As I pointed out in a recent post, even some very pro-Ukrainian sources admit that the Ukrainian army has been consistently breaking the ceasefire in order to conduct a ‘creeping offensive’ against the rebels in Donbass. Meanwhile, Ukrainska Pravda, which can be taken as reliably reflecting the official Ukrainian position, depicts a rather more nuanced story than that described by Saunders – namely that a minor clash between Ukrainian troops and a rebel reconnaissance unit escalated out of control. If that is the case, the current fighting isn’t the product of any grand strategic design at all. Saunders quotes a former deputy secretary-general of NATO as saying that Russia started the combat in order ‘to test’ the Trump administration. But he fails to point out this is mere speculation without any factual basis.
Next, Saunders continues:
On the Western front, the Moscow incursion took a now-familiar political form. France’s presidential election campaign was tripped up by the sudden leak of thousands of candidates’ private emails, the largest pile of them from conservative candidate Francois Fillon.
Saunders blames Russia for this leak. But why would Russia try to harm Francois Fillon? The international press repeatedly refers to him as ‘pro-Russian’. The main beneficiary of the leaks appears to be independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, the one serious contender for the French presidency who is not considered ‘pro-Russian’. Why on earth would the Kremlin manipulate the French election to help Macron? It doesn’t make any sense. But Saunders fails to mention this. Rather, alluding to potential Russian interference in other European elections, he says:
The chaos serves the interests of those political parties … that regularly express support for Mr Putin and his agendas. … Their leaders all model their political agendas on Mr Putin’s combination of ultranationalist militancy, racial intolerance directed at religious minorities and opposition to the liberal democratic institutions of international cooperation.
Putting aside the obvious objection that far-right political parties in Europe developed their own agendas by themselves and not by copying Putin, this statement reveals a stunning ignorance of what Putin has actually said about nationalism, racial tolerance, and international institutions. Far from preaching ‘ultranationalist militancy’ and ‘racial intolerance’, Putin has often denounced these things, stressing Russia’s multinational and multi-confessional nature. Take, for instance, a speech Putin once gave in Kazan, in which he said:
Without exaggeration the principle of toleration, both national and religious, was central to the formation of Russian statehood. … Thanks to its multiethnic unity our country withstood many trials … the preservation of social, interethnic, and inter-religious peace is the basic, fundamental condition of Russia’s successful development. … In opposing nationalism and extremism the state must rely on all the Federation’s subjects.
This is fairly typical of Putin’s rhetoric. Has Saunders ever read Putin’s speeches? Has he studied Russian nationality and immigration policy under Putin? If he had, he couldn’t possibly make these claims.
Of course, we all have our biases; we all weigh some evidence more heavily than others; we all interpret evidence in a subjective manner. But at the same time, we have an obligation to check the facts, and not to make them up. We also have an obligation not to stoke fears based on ignorance. Journalists writing for a prestigious newspaper ought to do a better job than this.