How did global media respond to the tragic events in Eastern Ukraine and Odessa this weekend that killed more than 40 people?

One of the participants in the rally near Odessa's police office, who demand release of all anti-Maidan protesters detained after Friday's clashes on the city's Kulikovo Field. Photo: RIA Novosti / Anton Kruglov

Over the weekend, Russian and Western media rushed to put their own spin on the tragic events in Eastern Ukraine and, particularly, in Odessa, that saw more that 40 people killed as a result of clashes between Maidan supporters and their pro-Russian opponents on May 2.

The event provoking the greatest disagreement in the media involved a deadly fire in Odessa. While some Russian media blame the Right Sector activists, some of their Western counterparts accuse “Russian agents” of fuelling the tensions. Almost all the victims were trapped inside the local Trade Union House after a fire that, according to Russian media, was set by the ultranationalist Right Sector political party. Yet, according to some witnesses, there is no clarity what exactly started the clashes and brought about the fire.

The Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament, has called for an international commission to be set up to investigate the events in Odessa. Tensions remain high both in other cities of Eastern Ukraine – Slovyansk and Kramatorsk - with both pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian forces seemingly ready to engage in armed confrontation.

At first glance, Russian and Western media appear to have become more polarized than ever before. Yet a deeper look shows that the situation with the media is more complicated.

Russia’s media divided

Dmitry Bykov, a columnist with Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s leading opposition newspaper, sees the events in Odessa as a pretext for the Kremlin to step up state propaganda. He warns that the Kremlin might use the events in Odessa to blame Kiev’s current authorities and Maidan supporters and their aspiration for freedoms and “resistance” for the ongoing unrest in Ukraine.   

Meanwhile, Novaya Gazeta’s special correspondent in Odessa, Yulya Polukhina, presents the Odessa tragedy in a more complicated way, giving voice to all sides of the conflict: anti-Maidan and pro-Russian activists, Maidan supporters, ordinary witnesses as well as officials and police officers who describes the story from different angles.  

Polukhina argues there is a lack of clarity of who started the violent conflict. While an anti-Maidan campaigner claims that radicals, football fans and nationalists were throwing Molotov cocktails in Odessa’s Trade Union House, causing the fire and attacking pro-Russian activists, a Maidan supporter argues that both sides were too aggressive, with separatists responding with light grenades.       

“Nobody knows where the Molotov cocktails, baseball bats and weapons came from,” Polukhina writes. “No one even wants to comprehend that who is responsible for killing his fellow countrymen, no matter whether he attacks or defends… Two aggressive political forces were found in a huge face-off on the territory of Odessa – and the people of Odessa didn’t stand aside.”

Meanwhile, Russia’s opposition radio station Echo of Moscow gives a voice to Odessa mayor Eduard Gurvits, who makes no bones about blaming Russia for provoking unrest in Eastern Ukraine and, particularly, in Odessa.

In an interview with the radio station, Gurvits argues that provocateurs and militiamen from Transnistria and Russia fueled anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Odessa and orchestrated the scuffle between anti-Maidan activists and football fans.

“Russia made a very grave mistake and this mess will never end,” Gurvits said. “Russia is waging an unannounced war against Ukraine. And, obviously, Russia believes that it’s possible to seize Crimea and go further.” 

At the same time, Russian Internet media outlet published a column from Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine, who also expresses his concerns about the Ukraine crisis. In contrast to the Odessa mayor, he believes that Russia has no interest in invading Eastern Ukraine and “annexing” other regions, as some claim was the case with Crimea.

“For Russia, Crimea’s accession was a unique event that resulted from a peculiar historical and psychological motivation,” he wrote. “And this puts to an end Moscow’s search for new territorial acquisitions.”

According to Lukyanov, Moscow’s major goal is the transformation of Ukraine to prevent the country from turning into an anti-Russian state with membership in military alliances such as NATO.

At the same time, he admits that the Kremlin cannot distance itself from separatists in eastern and south Ukraine because their failure “will be seen as the failure of the Kremlin.” Lukyanov argues that Russia’s alleged support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine is in accordance with the logic of Russian foreign policy, which he sees as “symmetric to Maidan in this case.”     

At the same time, in response to the Odessa tragedy published a video reportage that describes Muscovites bringing flowers and expressing condolences to the Ukrainian embassy in Moscow. While some people came to the Embassy “just to bring flowers to victims from both sides,” reminding others that “the situation is out of control” and “will be getting worse,” others were calling for an “immediate and tough response from Russia” to “this concrete challenge.”

Participants in the rally near Odessa's police office, who demand release of all anti-Maidan protesters detained after Friday's clashes on the city's Kulikovo Field. Photo: RIA Novosti / Anton Kruglov

Meanwhile, Izvestia, a pro-Kremlin newspaper, accuses Kiev’s authorities for killing innocent people in a series of columns published in response to the events in Eastern Ukraine.

“For me, after the May 2 events in Novorossiya [Eastern and South Ukraine] – in Odessa, Slovyansk, and Kramatorsk – Ukraine doesn’t exist anymore,” wrote Alexander Chalenko, an Izvestia columnist.

He sees Ukraine’s current authorities as a U.S.-backed “junta in Kiev” that supports nationalists and radicals in their “punitive operation” against innocent people in Eastern Ukraine. In fact, the columnist told the story in the same way as the Kremlin uses to describe the Maidan interim government.

Chalenko – like his other colleagues from Izvestia – calls for a tougher response from Russia to the events in Eastern Ukraine. While some Izvestia columnists seek to end “the lawlessness of Fascist chasteners” others see the confrontation between Russia and the West as “the war of ideas” - “the war between good and the evil”. Yet all voice in unison in expressing their anti-Western sentiments.

How the Western media see the story

The Western media responded to increasing turmoil in Eastern Ukraine with a series of articles. The New York Times published at least three articles including reportages that depicted the clashes.  

One of the articles from the newspaper contains a more detailed account of the events, avoiding any mentions of unconfirmed information (“Amid the chaos, which included the lobbing of firebombs, it was not immediately clear who had started the blaze”) and presenting both sides of the conflict: pro-Russian and pro-Maidan. The story argues that the Kremlin may cite “the deaths of dozens of people in Odessa as proof that Ukraine could no longer protect its citizens.”

It sees the violence in Odessa as “a measure of how far events have spiraled out of the authorities’ control.”

“It also added to the pressure on Russia, which has long said it could intervene in Ukraine if it believed Russian-leaning residents were in danger,” it reads. “Odessa’s population includes many Russian speakers sympathetic to Moscow.”

Meanwhile, the other story from The New York Times gives a more complicated and thorough analysis of the situation in Eastern Ukraine while giving a well-balanced portrait of pro-Russian activists.

In contrast, The Washington Post highlights in its headlines that “Pro-Russian Demonstrators Attack Police Stations in Odessa” and that these demonstrators were responsible for stirring up all the trouble. 

According to the newspaper, it was “pro-Russian separatists, in masks and helmets, carrying sticks, shields and, in some cases, guns,” who first attacked a pro-Ukrainian rally attended by thousands of soccer fans.

The Washington Post views the violence in Odessa as “an ominous development in the unfolding turmoil in Ukraine,” because the city is on “a belt extending into Moldova that Russian President Vladimir Putin has noted was historically part of the Russian Empire.”

“The spate of violence prompted the Kremlin to warn that it was weighing how to respond, even as tens of thousands of Russian troops massed along the border,” the newspaper warns. “Putin has previously said he would be prepared to intervene if the interests of compatriots in Ukraine were under threat.”

Expert view: Does the media go too far?

Gordon Hahn, analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation and former expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), sees the coverage from some Western media as “criminal reporting.”

“How does this differ from Russian state media?” he said in his Facebook post in response to the coverage of FOX news and CNN that, according to him, mentioned the tragic events in Eastern Ukraine without objectively “reporting on the [Odessa] pogrom.”

“The Maidan government claims the Odessa pogrom carried out by Right Sector and Ukrainian football thugs burning 38 pro-Russian activists was the result of Molotov cocktails thrown by the latter, when videos clearly show PS [Right Sector] people throwing them and shooting,” he clarifies.

Likewise, he criticizes the coverage from The New York Times claiming that the media outlet didn’t mention in its coverage “numerous videos and eyewitness accounts showing that pro-Ukrainian thugs and Right Sector neo-fascists threw tens of Molotov cocktails into the building, blocked the exits, and shot at those on the roof,” as he puts it in another Facebook post.

Gregory Feifer, writer and former Moscow correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR), argues that, although foreign reporting in the American media is superficial, “no rational observer would equate its output with the dangerous fantasies spun by the Russian state propaganda machine about fascists having taken over the Kiev government and hunting down Russian speakers.”

Feifer assumes that the Russian authorities will use the Odessa violence “to crank out more propaganda about how Western-backed radical nationalist groups are taking over Ukraine.”