I’m guessing that national newspapers have largely given up fact-checking their authors. It’s time consuming and costly, and it’s a competitive business and profit margins are slim. Who needs it? And so, our newspapers happily churn out story after story alleging Russian misinformation while themselves publishing blatant misinformation about the Russian Federation, its leaders, and its policies.
Take Canada’s own beloved National Post, excerpts from which are syndicated in local newspapers across the country, including our capital city’s Ottawa Citizen. The Post likes to publish the works of one Diane Francis, an American-born Canadian journalist whose political leanings can be surmised from the fact that she is said to be a ‘non-resident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.’ No doubt she’s done some great work through the years, to justify her many awards. But when it comes to Russia she has some serious problems getting her facts right.
This is clear from her latest gem, which appeared today with the headline ‘Putin is playing chess with the West – and he’s winning.’ Francis begins:
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has been very, very busy lately playing geopolitical chess, as America plays checkers.
Talk about cliché! Putin plays chess while we play checkers – how many times have I heard that one?! But I’m not interested in Francis’s lack of stylistic originality, so much as her tenuous grasp of reality. For this is what she has to say:
As the US election campaign dominated the headlines all summer and fall, millions more people were placed under the boot of Russia in Belarus and Nagorno-Karabakh … [In Belarus] Now Moscow controls its economy, media and police forces … [In Nagorno-Karabakh] Russian troops are nothing more than an occupying force executing a de facto takeover of territory.
Where does Francis get this stuff?? I’m damned if I know. How precisely does Russia now control the Belarusian economy?? Has Moscow bought out the Minsk Tractor Factory, the Belaruskali potash company, Belavia airlines, or anything else? If so, Diane Francis is apparently the only person in the world to know about it.
What about the other claims? Does Moscow now control the Belarusian media? A few weeks ago there was an allegation that after several hundred Belarusian TV workers walked off the job, a similar number of Russians were flown in to replace them. No solid evidence to back the allegation has ever been provided, and it seems somewhat improbable that Russian state TV has that many spare people lying around. As for Moscow controlling the Belarusian police, again that appears to be something entirely in Diane Francis’s imagination. Back in August, Russian president Vladimir Putin said that he could send police to Belarus if they were needed, but nothing ever came of it. The Belarusian police seem to be managing perfectly well on their own (as far as the authorities are concerned) and remain decidedly under the control of their own president, Alexander Lukashenko.
Which leaves us Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian peacekeepers there are ‘an occupying force executing a de facto takeover of territory’, Francis tells us, bringing ‘millions more under the boot of Russia’. I’m kind of wondering whose territory it is that she thinks Russia has taken over – Azerbaijan’s or Armenia’s?? I also wonder how she thinks that 1,960 soldiers, with no civilian administrators, can control a territory the size of Nagorno-Karabakh. The fact that they are there as a means of bringing peace to the region and preventing the inevitable bloodshed which would have resulted if the war had continued, passes Ms Francis by. So too does the fact that both the parties to the conflict – Azerbaijan and Armenia – consent to the Russians’ presence.
If that was all that this article got wrong, it would be bad enough, but sadly it isn’t. For Ms Francis tells us that,
Putin also expanded his presence in Syria, Libya and the Arctic, and will certainly do so in Afghanistan if Trump pulls American troops out.
I have to say that I’m not aware of a recent expansion of the Russian presence in Syria (the Arctic in question is in any case part of Russia – and as for Libya, it depends on whether you count the mercenaries of the Wagner Company). In reality, the Russian military footprint in Syria isn’t notably larger than it has been at any other point in the last five years. As for Russian troops storming into Afghanistan if the Americans leave, all I can say is that nothing is impossible but to say that this will ‘certainly’ happen is bizarre to say the least. One imagines that Russians have little appetite for a second Afghan war. Meanwhile, the Russian government has repeatedly made it clear that it would prefer if the Americans stayed in Afghanistan.
And then finally, Ms Francis comes out with this whopper of a falsehood. telling us that Russia’s ‘takeover’ of Nagorno-Karabakh
is similar to what the Kremlin did in Ukraine in 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea and killed tens of thousands of people.
Whoa, Whoa. Stop for a moment. Russia ‘killed tens of thousands of people’ in Crimea’??? Since when? The last time I looked into this, the death toll in the Russian annexation of Crimea was one person, not tens of thousands. But what’s the difference when there’s propaganda to be spread?
Methinks that Ms Francis is probably confusing the takeover of Crimea with the war in Donbass, but even if you accept that explanation for her curious statement, it is still far from the truth. So far about 13,000 people have been killed in Donbass. That’s bad, but it’s not ‘tens of thousands’. Ukrainian military deaths amount to 4,500. Rebel military deaths are somewhere in the same region, though possibly a bit higher. Of the 13,000 dead, it’s also reckoned that maybe around 3,500 are civilians, the vast mass of whom were on the rebel side of the frontline and so the victims of Ukrainian, not rebel or Russian, shelling. In other words, most of those killed in the war have been killed by the Ukrainian army. ‘Russia’ is not free of guilt, but ‘killed tens of thousands of people’ it most certainly has not.
Nor is Russia responsible, as Ms Francis claims late in her article, for the fact that ‘This fall, Ukraine’s anticorruption efforts came to a sudden halt’. Francis claims that this was ‘due to attacks by Russian-backed media outlets, politicians and oligarchs, as well as Russian-influenced judges.’ That would be Ukraine’s Constitutional Court. Where is the evidence that its judges are in the pay of the Kremlin?? Once again, I’m damned if I know. Ms Francis certainly isn’t telling.
Discussing such falsehoods before, I’ve noted that even though it’s one article it’s still worth pointing out its errors. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people read this junk. They take its claims as truth. But they’re not; they’re false, pure and simple. Publishing this stuff, without any effort to check its facts, is highly irresponsible, fanning fears and hatreds, and contributing to a worsening of international relations. Although it almost certainly won’t, the National Post, and other outlets like it, should consider this long and hard.
‘In recent weeks, Russia has stepped up its military and propaganda campaign around the world,’ Ms Francis tells us, warning also of the dangers of ‘Russian disinformation campaigns’. It strikes me that if she’s after propaganda and disinformation, she should start by looking a little closer to home.