Europe’s mainstream media have been giving only scant attention recently to the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine. Their focus instead has been on the developments in Gaza and in northern Iraq. There are different explanations for this choice.
Today’s Europe has become a home to millions of Muslims. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has replaced in the popular mind the threat posed earlier by Al Qaeda. There are also very few Western reporters in eastern Ukraine, which is viewed (correctly) as a highly dangerous environment.
With Russia’s hand behind the rebels, as well as Moscow’s complicity in the downing four weeks ago of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 firmly imprinted in the Western readers’ and viewers’ minds, the media can safely move to other issues.
Yet, the toll of human suffering in eastern Ukraine continues to rise. To about 1,500, in terms of the lives lost—which compares to Gaza, even though spread over a period of four months rather than four weeks.
To about 800,000, in terms of refugees and internally displaced persons, which is about one-half of the figure for Iraq. Of that number, 700,000 have crossed the border into Russia. The city of Donetsk, with a normal population of a million people, stands half-deserted and fears being stormed. What is striking in this situation is that only Moscow seems to care.
To Kiev, there is officially no humanitarian catastrophe in the country’s east. To the international community at large, the situation is being adequately addressed as it is and needn’t be treated as a serious emergency. The geopolitics behind these humanitarian concerns or the lack thereof are clear.
Moscow calls for attention to the situation in Donbass in order to put Kiev on the spot for the massive suffering and damage the Ukrainian army and paramilitary forces are causing. The rebels whom Russia supports call for a cease-fire, on humanitarian grounds, to win a breathing space now that Kiev’s forces are on the offensive.
Once the cease-fire takes effect, they also hope to engage Kiev in negotiations about the future status of Donbass, which is anathema to the Ukrainian leadership. Under these circumstances, media spotlight would definitely help Moscow’s cause and hinder Kiev’s actions.
Of course, pretending that there is no humanitarian crisis and quietly letting Kiev to finish off the rebels and re-establish control over Donbass is a gamble. While the Western media are looking elsewhere, the Russian ones are heavily focused on what is going on in Donetsk and Lugansk and the many small towns in between.
When a certain level of suffering is reached, the situation may become intolerable, in President Putin’s view. As a result, a Russian humanitarian intervention, with some military backing, may ensue. If this were to happen, this would raise the stakes dramatically for everyone: Ukraine, Russia, and the West.
It is not clear at this point that the West has a strategy beyond sanctioning Russia and giving Kiev support to re-establish control over the country’s rebellious east. Luring Russia’s military into Ukraine and trapping them there, while bleeding and maiming them—what the Kremlin suspects is Washington’s hidden agenda—would be a highly risky proposition.
It is more likely that a grand strategy is simply missing—as it was six years ago during Georgia’s then U.S.-backed President Mikheil Saakashvili’s ill-fated operation to “liberate” South Ossetia.
It is thus not just ironic, but truly worrisome that precisely at the time when Europe’s dignitaries solemnly remember the Great War of a hundred years ago and vow not to repeat the mistakes that led their countries into that war, the European media’s gaze is far away from the place which might again disturb the peace in Europe, and do so in a big way. Silence in the air can end in a deafening blast.
By Dmitri Trenin, DIRECTOR, MOSCOW CENTER