The War on Truth in Ukraine

For a moment last week, war seemed imminent. A day after Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, warned Ukraine’s leaders against using force in the crisis there, the Ukrainian military attacked a checkpoint outside the separatist-held town of Slovyansk. Russian forces across the border responded with maneuvers labeled “exercises,” coupled with statements from the Kremlin that amounted to “you were warned.” Russian television made Slovyansk look like Guernica; Ukrainian news media reported that separatist militants were using kindergartners as human shields.

As each side revved up its propaganda, the world got another taste of the confusion, uncertainty and distortion of information that have brought this conflict to the brink. An absence of legitimate authority in eastern Ukraine has left an absence of transparent, agreed-upon facts — a breeding ground for suspicion and manipulative diplomatic games on the margins of the truth that may yet carry the region to war.

Consider the armed “green men” who seize towns and whose photos circulated in the media this month. Do they work for the Russians? The United States has said Russian culpability is beyond “a shadow of a doubt.” The Russians have issued categorical denials. The Ukrainian government’s photo evidence of involvement of Russian special forces has been undermined by apparent errors of location and misidentification, but not before the images were submitted to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, endorsed by the United States State Department and headlined in American news media.

Doubt’s shadow has not left Ukraine. Instead, the failure to agree on facts — to share a basic reality — has become the norm. Who distributed leaflets ordering Jews to register with authorities? Was it the anti-Semitic new “government” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic, as the Ukrainian government claims, or was it a provocation designed to discredit the pro-Russian separatists? And who killed three men at a checkpoint in Slovyansk last week, Russian military intelligence or Ukrainian nationalists?

Even deeper questions, which would have one answer in a healthy body politic with trusted sources of information, have many in Ukraine: Who killed the people on Independence Square in Kiev last winter? Is the current government legitimate, or just another armed group required to vacate public buildings under the Geneva agreement?

It depends on whom you ask — and where. In accounts from western Ukraine, behind every unfortunate event lies a Russian agent. In the east and south, Ukrainian nationalist militants with Western backing are thought to pull the strings.

The elusiveness of truth is a symptom and an accelerant of Ukraine’s descent into uncertainty. Legitimate authority — governmental, factual, legal, moral — is unrelentingly being effaced, and with it the chances of a peaceful outcome.

It is hard to pinpoint when this slide began: In November 2013, when President Viktor F. Yanukovych repressed protests; in January, when repressive laws were answered with protesters’ violence; or in February, when snipers killed more than 100 protesters and police. By the time Mr. Yanukovych was ousted, on Feb. 21, division was clear. His removal from office was hailed in western Ukraine as a revolution, but in the historically pro-Russian regions, it was angrily labeled a coup.

It wasn’t simply that the new government was drawn heavily from the west. For the first time in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history, power had changed hands outside an election. And deviating from a predictable institutional path unleashes forces hard to contain. Thomas Hobbes wrote eloquently about life in the absence of political authority, but he couldn’t foresee the modern fracturing of facts and narratives that accompanies its collapse.

Today, as authority in all its forms is degraded, life becomes not only “nasty, brutish and short”; it becomes so riddled with disinformation and lies that there is no clear path to settlement. And the void in trust invites armed action.

We have seen this world before: in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s; in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria today; and on the eve of virtually every major European pogrom in previous centuries, when the assassination of a czar or the loss of a war allowed cynical leaders to use rumor and propaganda to turn longstanding, often latent, divisions into bright lines and slaughter. That’s what was so unsettling about the (probably faked) anti-Semitic edict circulated in eastern Ukraine.

Healthy political systems have facts to turn to, because they have trusted sources of authority. A president’s birth records can be requested; news media, individuals and experts can validate them. Conflicts get resolved peacefully.

That is what is missing in Ukraine. The fragmentation of consensus about critical events and the degradation of legitimate political authority are like two apocalyptic horsemen riding together.

If there is a hope of escaping this condition, Ukraine must restore legitimacy to its leadership and its facts. It is hard to see how to do this on the brink of civil war, Russian intervention or both.

The O.S.C.E. has observers in Ukraine. But the Kiev government’s forces and the pro-Russian separatists restrict its movements. Russia, the United States, Ukraine and Europe should give it more resources and authority to provide a neutral accounting of facts. Ultimately, though, the ability to restore legitimate authority lies in the Kiev government’s hands. Kiev seems set on doing so through force of arms, but legitimacy does not grow from the barrel of a gun. It comes through fair elections. Elections are scheduled May 25. For them to be seen as fair, Kiev’s leaders must better incorporate the country’s south and east into the government before the voting begins.

If they don’t, Russia might incorporate them first — at the point of its own guns.

Keith A. Darden, an associate professor at American University, is the author of the forthcoming book Resisting Occupation in Eurasia.

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