As Ukraine and Russia grapple for the moral high ground in the global court of public opinion, Israel has aimed unusually undiplomatic language at Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany.
Last week, in an interview, Kiev’s top envoy in Berlin Andriy Melnyk compared World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera to Robin Hood and stated that he “was not a mass murderer of Jews and Poles.”
In Ukraine, Bandera is a hugely divisive figure but the ambassador’s opinion clashes with the mainstream historical narrative – that Bandera’s organization, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which sided with the Nazis – did exactly that.
“The statements of the Ukrainian ambassador are a distortion of historical facts, a belittling of the Holocaust and an insult to those who were murdered by Bandera and his people,” the Israeli Embassy fumed in comments reported by German media Die Welt.
“The statements not only undermine the values we all cherish and believe in, but also undermine the courageous struggle of the Ukrainian people to live by democratic values and in peace,” it said according to the report.
Melnyk had previously courted controversy by visiting Bandera’s grave, but he is not alone in his admiration. A statue to Bandera stands in Lviv and some Ukrainian troops idolize him so much they bear tattoos of his likeness.
Amid the far mightier sturm und drang of the current war ravaging Ukraine, the verbal brouhaha in Berlin received minimal coverage in English-language media.
This should not surprise. An intra-West divide is becoming apparent over support for Ukraine. The Anglosphere, Eastern Europe and the Baltics have emerged as enthusiastic backers of Ukraine. Core Western Europe – France, Germany and Italy – while supportive, is more restrained.
This presents a challenge for Kiev. Maintaining and increasing Western support is critical – indeed, existential – to Ukraine.
Wars are won not simply by killing and destroying but also by breaking the other side’s will to fight. While both Moscow and Kiev must sustain respective national wills, Ukraine has an added vulnerability for it lacks Russia’s vast resources and military-industrial base.
As its stock of Soviet-bloc munitions and weapons runs dry, Kiev is desperately courting Western support for arms and modern munitions. The most visible aid has been seen in equipment for its forces, but training is also at a premium given that the ranks of its professional army are being decimated by pulverizing combat in the Donbas.
The recent fall of the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk means all of Luhansk Oblast has been lost. Yet Kiev had been blessed with some recent good news: Western-delivered long-range, precision weapons have made a strategic, rather than tactical, impact.
The information war being fought in the court of public opinion is also critical. While battlefield combat is fluid, Ukraine has so far been winning the narrative struggle that keeps Western polities on-side.
It is an ongoing struggle: It needs to keep mercurial Western public opinion engaged. In this light, Melnyk’s comments mark a rare misstep by Kiev.
But they are not the only disturbing signals coming from Ukraine, which by most Western media accounts are portrayed as the “good guys.” But actual war crimes, widely documented on Russia’s side, are not just also being committed by Kiev’s forces – they are being filmed and distributed on social media.
Bad deeds, bad reputations
Asia Times has reviewed seemingly credible footage of bound Russian prisoners of war being shot through their legs by Ukrainian soldiers.
Even more disturbing video shows Russian troops lying in a road with long streams of blood running from their slashed throats, being finished off with bursts fired into their twitching bodies while Ukrainian soldiers laugh and congratulate each other.
Asia Times cannot independently confirm the legitimacy of the footage but senior combat veterans who have viewed it are convinced of its authenticity.
The alleged perpetrators of this ISIS-style atrocity have been identified by Russian-language sources as Georgians serving with the Azov Regiment. The unit first appeared as a far-right paramilitary and was subsequently incorporated into Ukraine’s armed forces – where it was declared persona non grata by NATO trainers.
During the Donbas fighting that ignited in 2014, and during the current war, Azov proved to be effective fighters – notably as the backbone of the doomed defense of Mariupol.
The controversies surrounding Azov and a related unit, Kraken, have been noted by Western media but often downplayed. Typically, an article in the US Armed Forces newspaper, Stars and Stripes, references them, but largely admiringly: Kraken is becoming “Ukraine’s most famous band of volunteers.”
Russian footage taken after that the fall of Mariupol shows surrendered members of Azov bearing tattoos featuring Bandera, as well as Nazi symbology.
Even within the unit, there may be an understanding that this will not play well in the West. Likely in consideration of the ammunition it offers Russian propagandists, Azov last month ditched its “Wolfsangel” insignia – a design used by, among other wartime Nazi units, the 2nd SS Panzer Division.
Debate still simmers over what proportion of Azov members are hard rightists. And Asia Times cannot confirm that the videoed throat slitters are Azov members.
But the footage looks entirely legitimate, and has been circulated online in military and veteran circles. A former US officer who served multiple combat tours was appalled.
“As US Army officers, we are indoctrinated to prevent, stop, report and punish any acts of war crime against civilians and enemy combatants,” former US officer David Park told Asia Times. “This is not just a matter of morality and ethics, but serves a practical purpose: Wartime atrocities tend to be reciprocated very fast, and with interest, by both sides.”
However, a recent article on war crimes that appeared on these pages makes the point that “…atrocities, far from being aberrations, are likely outcomes of warfare.”
Indeed, some fighters see an upside to barbarity.
One of Nazi Germany’s most notorious combat officers, Joachim Peiper – Heinrich Himmler’s adjutant and a colonel in the Nazi Germany’s Waffen SS – wrote home, in a letter from the front, “A bad reputation has its uses.”
Peiper himself was implicated in war crimes in Ukraine, Italy and Belgium, while the Waffen SS consistently undertook reprisals against civilian populations as a shock tactic to discourage partisan activity.
More recently, gruesome atrocities have been undertaken, filmed and disseminated by ISIS as it deployed terror as a psychological weapon.
Troublingly for Western citizens, combat zone barbarity is not confined to the SS or Islamic fundamentalist terrorists.
Individuals from units that are at the pinnacle of their respective nations’ militaries – the US Navy SEALs and Australia’s SAS Regiment – have been tried for unlawful killings during the “War on Terror.” While the Azov Regiment is not a per se special operations unit, it enjoys a reputation in Ukraine as a crack formation.
Scant moral high ground
Holocaust denial by any government official is disturbing. The existence of formed units with neo-Nazi sympathies within any democratic nation’s army is shocking – as are filmed atrocities.
Still, how much moral freight these issues carry compared to the the colossal scale of death and destruction visited upon Ukraine by revanchist Russian invaders fighting a war of choice is questionable.
As of June 26, the United Nations had recorded 4,731 dead civilians and 5,900 injured. That is verified data: the actual numbers, the UN said, are “considerably higher.”
The cost of physical damage to Ukraine is being calculated by Kiev: Relief organizations quote these figures as already being north of US$100 billion. According to the UN, over 5.4 million Ukrainians have registered in Europe as refugees.
A recent commentary by military think tank the Royal United Services Institute points out that what is at stake is more fundamental than what some Western leaders frame as a duel between democracy and authoritarianism: “This is a war instigated by the ‘mighty’ against a neighboring ‘weak’ country…what is fundamentally at stake is how the international community should respond to such an attempt to change the status quo by force.”
And atrocities are not simply on one side: Captured Russian troops in Ukrainian courts have pleaded guilty to war crimes.
These facts and analyses provide data-based grist to Kiev’s information war mill as it formulates and delivers its narrative to the West. Unsurprisingly, these macro cruelties of big war are outweighing the micro cruelties of some Ukrainian troops.
And Ukraine has a star communicator at the national helm. Derided by Russians as a comedy actor, President Volodymr Zelenksy has marshaled his dramatic talents, donned khaki and taken on the role of embattled, passionate defender.
It has been an effective transition. Western leaders and celebrities have flocked to his capital for photo opps; no leader in modern times has been invited to video conference with so many legislatures.
As an information warrior, Zelensky has beaten his opponent bloody. That is remarkable, as President Vladimir Putin has two decades of geopolitical nous under his belt – and is no slouch when it comes to messaging.
Geopolitically, one of his key casus belli – the threat NATO expansion poses to Russia – has been regurgitated by none other than Pope Francis. Public relations-wise, he won tub-thumping populist approval when he was filmed humiliating a corrupt oligarch, while his shirtless machismo has won kudos among those who admire testosterone-driven politicians.
But in the Ukraine War, when it comes to Western public opinion, none of this has availed.
Even when Putin has put forward the case for his emotive “de-Nazification” narrative – stating that while many nations, including Russia, suffer from neo-Nazi groups and individuals, only in Ukraine do such groups hold public parades and incorporate into state armed forces – Putin appears defensive, angry and snarling.
Thoughtful Russians are disturbed at their information war failures. A Russian journalist told this writer during the war’s early phase that Moscow was erring by not putting more effort into promoting its narrative in English.
That may be changing. A recent Sky News report notes that Russia, this weekend, swiftly distributed English-subtitled footage of the capture of Lysychansk.
It matters, for the “soft power” information war directly impacts the “hard power” battlefield in terms of intel, arms supply and training aid.
Info war to shooting war
In the first phase of the war, Western-supplied arms were critical in Ukraine’s successful defense of its capital – a phase of combat demarcated by Russian operational errors that Ukrainian troops maximally leveraged.
Apparently anticipating a decapitation operation followed by an occupation, Russian vehicles deployed, non-tactically, on tarmac due to the spring thaw, which made off-road maneuver near-impossible. Russian columns were easily ambushed by Ukrainians armed with Western-supplied anti-armor weapons.
That phase of the war is now over. In the ongoing second phase, Moscow is bulldozing through the Donbas – a key terrain objective for Russia. It is simultaneously pursuing Putin’s “demilitarization” aim by decimating Ukraine’s best troops with massed firepower.
Though withdrawal while in contact with the enemy is the riskiest operation in war, and the Ukrainians are in a strategically vulnerable position, they are handling it masterfully.
Russian troops are not only failing to exploit the vulnerability of the Ukrainian frontage – surrounded on three sides – they are being forced to fight in cities where their artillery advantage is partly invalidated.
But unquestionably, Russia is winning the war at present. This is partly because the West has been slow to grant Ukraine the advanced weaponry it needs now.
One reason is practical. Many of the shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons sent in the war’s first months – British NLAWs, US LAWs, German panzerfaust – were small and easy to transport, relatively cheap and easy to use, requiring minimal training.
Artillery systems on the other hand, are huge, hard to transport and expensive, and require specialist troops to operate.
The issue is thus two-fold: How effectively can the West deploy big guns and train Ukraine’s soldiers in their use?
More and better guns combined with the targeting data the West is providing would erode Russia’s firepower advantage. Effective training could switch the manpower advantage from Russia’s professional army to Ukraine’s mobilized mass.
And amid recent bad news for Ukraine, with mounting defeats in the Donbas, there have been recent rays of hope. While Russia uses its gunnery tactically, Ukraine has used recently delivered long-range, precision artillery to strategic effect.
Reportedly, a strike from a long-range, US-delivered HIMARS rocket artillery system destroyed the Russian command post overseeing the critical district of Izium. And a reported combination of drones and French-supplied long-range artillery have made Snake Island untenable, forcing Russian units to abandon it.
As the island off Odessa has been in contention since the war’s earliest hours, the latter development holds major significance. Russia has stated its intention to seize a Black Sea corridor to Transnistria. That would spell disaster for Ukraine, which would lose all sea access.
However, stubborn resistance in the Donbas is closing the Kremlin’s window of opportunity. In autumn, the campaign season ends until the ground again hardens with the Winter frosts.
If Kiev’s forces can reoccupy and weaponize Snake Island with anti-shipping missiles, it is questionable whether Russia’s Black Sea fleet can join the fight for Ukraine’s littoral.
The war’s outcome depends on the struggle for time and resources, material and manpower. With Ukraine relying on the West for both weaponry and related training, it must keep winning the information war and keep Western publics and polities emotionally engaged.
Follow this writer on Twitter @ASalmonSeoul