Russia, Ukraine, the Prostitution of Media Coverage and the Dangers of Ultimatums

If you have been following the situation in Eastern Europe, you’re probably aware that some pretty crazy things have been happening the past few days. If you haven’t been following the situation here’s a quick rundown.

Shortly after the ouster of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin deployed a number of troops and tanks to the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine. Crimea is an important strategic position for Russia, which is why they have a naval base there.

Cities of the Crimean Peninsula

Whether or not the Crimeans want Russia’s involvement is up for debate. Some sources say they don’t, others say they do. It’s difficult to really get a sense of what is true and false in this conflict, since so much of the coverage is hinged on the attitudes of the citizens involved.

Both the pro-Russian and anti-Russian factions know this and will use their media outlets to paint a picture of the situation that is most favorable to them. Also, in tense situations like this, media outlets tend to be way more concerned with being the first to cover a story than they are with actually checking the factual accuracy behind it.

Remember, news channels are businesses too, so take everything you read about this situation with multiple grains of salt, and ask yourself who stands to gain from a particular story, both from an economic standpoint (ie. making money off breaking a big story), and a geopolitical standpoint (justifying certain military/political moves based on a story).

A comparison of Russia and Ukraine's militaries
A comparison of Russia and Ukraine’s militaries

This murkiness of truth was evidenced perfectly today. Early this morning, a report from Russia’s Interfax agency came out that Alexander Vitko, commander of Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet (which has a base in Crimea), gave the following ultimatum to Ukrainian forces in Crimea:

“If they do not surrender before 5am (3am UK time) tomorrow, a real assault will be started against units and divisions of the armed forces across Crimea.”

Naturally, the internet freaked out. Within hours, this story was plastered all over the front pages of major news outlets across the world. A few hours later, however, the very same Interfax agency quoted Russia’s Defense Minister as saying the report about the ultimatum was “total nonsense”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin observing war games (Photo: AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin observing war games (Photo: AP)

Then this evening, the EU followed with it’s own deadline, giving Russia 48 hours to withdraw their troops from Crimea. William Hague, Britain’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs was a part of that meeting. He said,

“In the absence of de-escalating steps by Russia, the EU shall decide about consequences for bilateral relations between the EU and Russia and will consider further targeted measures.”

It’s assumed that these “targeted measures” will mostly be harsh economic sanctions. Russia’s economy already took a huge hit today. The Moscow stock market fell almost 11%, costing Russian business more than $60 billion dollars (the Sochi Olympics, at $50 billion, were by far the most expensive Olympics ever).

The Russian currency, the ruble, also hit record lows today as its value dropped alongside the stock market.

Exchange rates for the ruble (Photo: Radio Free Europe)
Exchange rates for the ruble (Photo: Radio Free Europe)

The only thing that is certain in this situation is that nothing is certain. The more coverage there is on a situation this complicated, the easier it is for misinformation to become very real in its consequences; this is the biggest danger of sensationalized news coverage.

Also, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about politicians over the years it’s that their biggest fear is losing face. Too many times I’ve seen a President or Prime Minister make some arbitrary “red-line” or deadline to give off the impression that he or she is strong-willed or tough on [insert issue or country here].

While some may see this as a sign of strength, I see it as a sign of foolishness. These issues are usually extremely complex, and drawing a line basically says, “I don’t plan to take into consideration anything that happens after I make this speech.”

I think most of them don’t think that the line will ever be reached or crossed, but when it is, they find themselves trapped in a self-induced political corner. Either they don’t follow through and are lambasted as being weak (even if this choice makes much better sense), or they do follow through, usually taking a step that only escalates the situation further.

Russian troops entering Crimea (Photo: Reuters)
Russian troops entering Crimea (Photo: Reuters)

Real diplomacy is dying as geopolitics becomes more of a reality show than anything else. Politicians’ number one concern is their public image, and more often than not they make decisions that will maintain their image, even if they know the decision will have a negative effect in the grand scheme of things.

We can’t know exactly what’s going on in the streets of Russia, Ukraine and Crimea. But we can use what we know about politics and the media to put the situation in perspective.

Remember, there’s always more than one side to a story…and usually, there’s hundreds.

To read more, check out these stories:

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