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Zaporizhzhia and the danger of media blinders in war

Understandable sympathy for Ukraine shouldn’t supersede the need to be more circumspect about Kyiv's constant claims.

Analysis | Europe

The war in Ukraine is at a dangerous crossroads. The outcome on the battlefield is increasingly tied to the political survival and prestige of all principal warring parties, including president Joe Biden, who is on the verge of crossing more self-imposed lines on arms transfers. 

Kyiv, meanwhile, is in the middle of an underwhelming offensive that it’s been previously told may mark the end of U.S. military aid. All the while, a ceasefire is publicly rejected by leaders who cast it as unacceptable.

It’s in this context that top Ukrainian officials’ charges of Moscow orchestrating an impending nuclear catastrophe has reached a fever pitch. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently cited alleged intelligence to announce that Russia was “technically ready to provoke a local explosion” at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which has been controlled by Russian forces since March last year. 

Zelensky’s claim was uncritically broadcast in headlines from American news outlets like Reuters, the Guardian, New York Post, ABC and Newsweek, as well as foreign outlets like Al Jazeera, the Independent, the Australian Financial Review and the Jerusalem Post

This follows on from earlier, identical claims by the Ukrainian leader not only in these same outlets, but in major mainstream newspapers  like the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Much of this coverage not only puts Kyiv’s accusations in the headline, but frames the entire story around them, implicitly front-loading the charge with authority, while introducing countervailing facts only further down, if they’re mentioned at all. 

The average reader, as a result, is left with little reason to doubt his claims.

That’s despite International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi saying on June 29 that he “didn't see that kind of development,” referring to Zelensky’s claims that Moscow was planning an attack, when he and his team recently inspected the plant. Only two of the above outlets — ABC and Newsweek — bothered to mention Grossi’s remarks in their reports, many paragraphs in. 

Grossi weighed in again on July 5, saying that teams had inspected the facility “so far without observing any visible indications of mines or explosives,” according to an IAEA statement. 

In contrast to Zelensky’s charges, Grossi’s assessment has gone almost completely unreported, and has, with some notable exceptions, similarly been left out of coverage of Zelensky and others’ more recent accusations of Russian forces planting explosives, with stories once more tending to frame the charges uncritically. 

The New York Post, in fact, mentioned Grossi in its story only to paint him as ineffective, relying heavily on quotes from Zelensky adviser Mykhailo Podolyak. 

This mirrors earlier coverage. The culprit behind the nuclear plant’s shelling last year was treated as a mystery by the press, either ascribed to a mysterious force or outlets reporting that both sides blamed the other. The London Times eventually revealed Ukraine’s secret and “desperate attempt to retake the facility” at the time this past April. Journalists understandably sympathetic to the Ukrainian war effort may have been loath to give Ukrainian forces negative publicity or appear to give credence to Russian claims. 

But the war has now reached a point where the press must take greater care in how they treat Ukrainian officials’ claims, especially in cases like this. An explosion at the plant may not only cause a near-unprecedented environmental catastrophe, but could also be used by hawks to argue for direct U.S. or NATO involvement in the war. 

On July 4, in the midst of Kyiv’s headline-grabbing charges, former congressman and current CNN Senior Political Commentator Adam Kinzinger urged that “every single living Russia[n] solider or Russian piece of equipment in Ukraine becomes extremely destroyed by NATO” if Moscow causes an explosion at the plant. Indeed, Zelensky himself has called on world leaders to show Moscow “the world is ready to react” to such an attack.

Not only do Ukrainian officials, who have long called for NATO’s direct entry in the war, have a rational incentive to draw their military backers directly into the fighting, but there have already been numerous other examples of Kyiv falsely blaming Russia for attacks Ukraine itself was responsible for. Maybe most alarming was in November, after a stray air defense missile launched by Ukrainian forces accidentally killed two people in Poland. 

That incident, coupled with thinly sourced and ultimately erroneous reporting based on the word of an unnamed U.S. intelligence official, was quickly declared a deliberate Russian attack on NATO by both hawkish commentators and senior officials from Ukraine and NATO member states, some of whom called for the alliance to respond directly. Kyiv refused to admit fault for the incident despite NATO concluding Ukrainian-fired rockets were the culprit.

It was the most dangerous instance, but far from the only one. Kyiv also swiftly blamed Russia for the attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines last September, a charge repeated by European officials, print media, and countless talking heads on U.S. television, before Western officials all but  absolved Moscow and evidence emerged that Europe and the United States had had advance knowledge of a Ukrainian military plot for the attack. 

Ukrainian officials likewise accused Russians of responsibility for attacks on what Moscow considers its own soil, namely the October 2022 suicide bombing of the Kerch Strait Bridge and the May 2023 drone attack on the Kremlin, both of which U.S. intelligence ultimately concluded was Kyiv’s doing, and the latter of which was widely suggested to be a Kremlin false flag in the mainstream press.

Ukrainian officials similarly claimed no connection to the group of anti-Putin far right Russian extremists who carried out attacks in Russia’s Belgorod region earlier this year, even though they used NATO-provided arms and its leader admitted getting “a lot of encouragement” from Ukrainian authorities. Often, news of Ukrainian culpability came long after the initial claims of Russian guilt were widely disseminated.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that Russian forces could be responsible for any theoretical future explosion at the Zaporizhzhia plant, however strategically confounding it might seem, just as it was possible for Moscow to be behind attacks on its own pipeline, bridge, and government building. But given the track record of past claims and the stakes involved here, it would be irresponsible and imprudent in the extreme to simply assume Russian blame is the truth, or to immediately present it as such.

This is doubly so given that Kyiv has made a host of factually dubious statements throughout the war on other matters. As just one example, officials, including Zelensky, made repeated, conflicting statements early last month about whether or not their spring offensive had even begun, with Podolyak flatly contradicting himself in the space of two weeks. 

This is hardly scandalous. All government officials dissemble and deceive, particularly in wartime, and Ukraine’s proficiency at “information warfare” has been widely remarked upon in the West. Meanwhile, Russian officials have their own, very long list of dubious claims. The difference is, Moscow’s statements are treated in the West with appropriate skepticism and caution, the kind that should be applied to all government claims, particularly during war.

The Western press, government officials and other prominent voices have to be far more circumspect around reporting on claims from Ukrainian officials, particularly should another incident in the fog of war threaten to widen the conflict. Understandable sympathy for the Ukrainian war effort shouldn’t supersede the core, fundamental task of reporting, which is to tell the truth, not cheerlead. The stakes are simply too high.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Dmytro Larin/Shutterstock)
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