By James Kirchick | April 18, 2014 | New York Daily News
In the struggle over Ukraine, it's not just territory that's at stake, but the allegiance of the country's Jews.
Earlier this week, Jewish residents in the contested eastern city of Donetsk reported that they had been handed fliers ordering them to "register" with local pro-Russian separatists, pay a fee of "50 American dollars," and hand over proof of any property they owned. Immediately, the story went viral.
That's because Jews have become pawns in the media war over Ukraine. Soon after corrupt former President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown by pro-Western protestors and fled to Russia in February, Moscow's propaganda machine went into high gear. President Vladimir Putin accused the revolutionaries of being "anti-Semites" and "fascists," a line that has since been taken up ad infinitum by the Kremlin's Western stooges to discredit the country's new government.
Yet when I visited Kyiv last month and interviewed members of the Jewish community, I discovered scant concern about rising fascism. While it's true that the post-Yanukovych government includes some members from a nationalist party that traces its origins to World War II-era Nazi collaborators, to categorize the new government tout court as being composed of Nazis is a reckless smear. Ukrainian Jewish leaders have said so themselves, publishing an open letter to Putin last month in major newspapers stating that his claim of rampant anti-Semitism in Ukraine, "does not correspond to the actual facts."
The fliers, which bore the signature of a separatist leader, are clearly meant to impugn those ethnic Russians seeking annexation by Moscow. Whoever printed them knows that allegations of anti-Semitism will raise eyebrows in the West, especially among political leaders in influential countries like the United States and Germany.
Yet not only is there no evidence whatsoever that Donetsk's Jews are being made to "register" (as reporters on the ground soon discovered for themselves), the flyers are most likely not what they seem. According to TIME's Simon Shuster, currently reporting from Donetsk, they were most likely printed either by Ukrainians loyal to the central government hoping to shame the rebels, or rival separatists looking to make an easy buck. "It's quite possible that some of the more entrepreneurial goons among them just felt like making a bit of extortion money on the side," he writes.
Such tactics - known as "provocations" - are par for the course in the former Soviet Union; think Nixonian dirty tricks but on a far more combustible scale. Anyone remotely familiar with that part of the world should have suspected this gambit to be such a ploy; the language in the flyers is too incendiary and crude, too evocative of the Nuremburg Laws, to be genuine. Which is why it is so alarming that America's top diplomat took them at face value.
"In the year 2014, after all of the miles traveled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable, it's grotesque. It is beyond unacceptable," intoned Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva, where he was meeting his Russian, Ukrainian and European counterparts to hammer out an agreement on resolving the crisis in the country's east. Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, tweeted, "reports of Jews being forced to register by pro-Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine are chilling, outrageous and must be universally condemned."
Rhodes might consider altering his job title to Advisor for Strategic Miscommunication, so hasty was this righteous pronouncement.
The administration's injudicious response needs to be understood within the broader context of Russian black PR. Moscow lies about practically everything when it comes to Ukraine and does so with an impressive degree of effortlessness. For instance, on Thursday, Vladimir Putin finally acknowledged that the "little green men" who had invaded the Crimean peninsula last month were indeed Russian soldiers, not indigenous "self-defense units," as he and other Russian officials had implausibly claimed they were for weeks on end.
Given the relentless and cynical propaganda offensive by the Russians, it is understandable how the administration would eagerly seize upon news of pro-Russian elements demanding the "registration" of Jews, so desperate is Washington to win quick public relations points. But this quickness to accept dubious information as authentic will merely make it easier for the Russians to claim that, no matter how skeptical one may be of Moscow's motives, Washington is equally untrustworthy.
When it comes to Ukraine and Russia's blatant violation of its sovereignty, America and its western allies have the truth on their side. They should stick to telling it.