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Ukrainian Disinformation

Ukraine is quite prepared to trash Americans.

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(Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

Kentucky’s Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Republican who nominally represents an American state and serves the American people, recently said that Ukraine was Washington’s top priority. He evidently is confused about where his loyalties should lie and should consider running for election in Ukraine, perhaps in the oblast surrounding the capital of Kiev.

Ukrainian officials have no such doubts. They serve Ukraine and are quite prepared to trash Americans and even drag the U.S. into war if doing so serves Kiev’s interests. Why? Because, in contrast to McConnell, the Ukrainian leadership prioritizes its nation’s interest.

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Given Kiev’s belief in Ukraine Uber Alles, Ukrainian officials are very unhappy with Americans who have the temerity to argue that Washington’s policy should reflect American interests first. For instance, while I support aid for Kiev and sanctions on Russia, I believe the imperative for Washington is to keep Americans safe, secure, free, and prosperous: That means limiting chances of the conflict’s escalation and expansion and reducing America’s future financial obligations. Washington also should insist on shifting defense responsibilities to the freeloading Europeans, who even now are backing away from the promises they made regarding increased military efforts a few months ago.

As a result, I’ve ended up on a hate list from Ukraine’s propaganda operation, the so-called Center for Countering Disinformation, apparently funded in part by American taxpayers. Kiev’s operatives make no attempt to contest the arguments made by those who decline to put Ukraine first. Rather, the CCD accuses refuseniks of promoting Russian, as opposed to Ukrainian, propaganda. Although “not Russian propagandists,” declared CCD, they “promote narratives consistent with Russian propaganda.” It is not enough for Congress to open wide the Treasury’s vaults and the Pentagon’s armories for Kiev. All Americans are supposed to speak in one voice, sing hosannas in praise of the Zelensky government, and unite behind Ukraine’s war aims.

At least I’m not alone on CCD’s naughty list. Other accused Putin shills include, naturally, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson and, less obviously, the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, who famously detailed U.S. and allied misbehavior in causing the current crisis. Also named, improbably, is economist Steve Hanke, with whom I worked way back in the Reagan administration. Journalist Glenn Greenwald and economist Jeffrey Sachs, among other Americans, are also on the hate list.

Despite the Zelensky government’s ad hominem screed, I still believe brutal aggression is brutal aggression — but the CCD’s hit piece suggests that Kiev fears rational debate as well as rational policy. 

As noted earlier, I believe Moscow to be in the far wrong with its unjustified invasion. However, if Kiev is going to pour sewage over those who don’t go to bed humming “Ukraine the beautiful” and “God save Zelensky,” it seems only fair to return the favor. Consider Kiev’s shortcomings, and how many American politicians, like McConnell, analysts, and journalists have turned into unashamed Ukrainian propagandists.

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Ukraine is freer than Russia but is hardly a representative of the democratic ideal. Even before Moscow’s invasion, Freedom House rated Ukraine as only “partly free.” The group’s assessment: “Corruption remains endemic, and the government’s initiatives to combat it have met resistance and experienced setbacks. Attacks against journalists, civil society activists, and members of minority groups are frequent, and police responses are often inadequate.” My Cato Institute colleague Ted Galen Carpenter cites “efforts to smother domestic critics” and other authoritarian tendencies. In 2019, only nine percent of Ukrainians had confidence in their government and 12 percent in Ukraine’s elections.

Ukraine suffered a political transition in 2014 that was undemocratic, but widely praised in the West. The Maidan Revolution was driven by the street, not the ballot. Yanukovich, although corrupt, was elected in what was widely regarded as a free election, but the electorate was badly divided, with the east tied to Russia and the west oriented toward Europe and America. He was terribly corrupt, but followed the disastrous presidency of Viktor Yushchenko, who came in fifth in the initial electoral round with just 5.5 percent of the vote. Kiev was located in opposition territory and naturally attracted anti-Yanukovich demonstrators. Polls at the time showed the opposition backed by about half the population, while Yanukovich retained support levels in the 40s against what amounted to a street putsch against a bad but validly elected leader. Those in the east also favored economic ties with Russia over those with Europe. Four years later, the country remained sharply divided, with those in western Ukraine calling Maidan a fight for “rights and European values” and those in the east calling it “a coup orchestrated by the West.” 

Zelensky is less pure than the driven snow. Before Russia’s invasion, he was prosecuting former president and potential future opponent Petro Poroshenko for treason. This prosecution looked a lot like the disgraced Yanukovich’s jailing of his perennial opponent Yulia Tymoshenko. Further, Freedom House noted:

Zelensky and two close associates were implicated in offshore financial activity in October with the release of the Pandora Papers, a cache of documents revealing the offshore activities of political leaders and other prominent individuals worldwide. That month, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) reported that Zelensky formed offshore companies before becoming president but continued to profit from them after taking office.

Notwithstanding claims of personal corruption, Zelensky has apparently sought to lie the US and NATO into the war, claiming that the Ukrainian missile strike on Poland was from Russia. If the West could easily identify the missile’s provenance and trajectory, so could the Ukrainian military. Either the latter lied to Zelensky or he lied to the West, which is underwriting his war. In either case, it should be obvious that Washington and Brussels cannot trust Kiev. A foreign leader who believes it is in his interest to involve America in a great power and potential nuclear war is no friend and, frankly, is more dangerous than Russia.

Ukraine and its allies have routinely played Moscow false. The West has consistently lied to Moscow about NATO expansion — while also misleading Ukraine about bringing it into the transatlantic alliance. Poroshenko, Zelensky’s predecessor, admitted that the European-backed Minsk accord between Kiev and Moscow was never meant to be implemented; former German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently did the same. The allies understandably say they cannot trust Moscow. However, why should Russia take any Ukrainian or allied promises seriously?

The U.S. would never have accepted the equivalent behavior by Russia. Imagine that Moscow had expanded the Warsaw Pact to South America, encouraged the overthrow of the duly elected, pro-America government in Mexico, and then invited the new authorities to join the Warsaw Pact. Mass hysteria in Washington would have been punctuated by demands for a tough response, including war. Even as Washington preens morally, it is actively strangling Cuba and Venezuela economically to install friendlier governments. After all, they are in the U.S. sphere of influence, as set two centuries ago by the Monroe Doctrine.

None of these factors change the fact that Russia’s invasion is criminal and the U.S. should aid Ukraine in defending its independence. Yet the Ukrainian attack on Americans for putting the U.S. first offers a stark reminder that Americans must defend their interest from all threats, including false friends like Kiev. Else Washington risks finding itself manipulated into a bitter, brutal war not its own. Perhaps it is time for the U.S. to establish its own Center for Countering Disinformation, focused on Ukraine.

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