Secrets and lies

The Ukrainian government’s reaction to the New York Times investigation of the Kostyantynivka tragedy contains worrying echoes of Russian state propaganda in its indifference to the truth

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Secrets and lies

Kostyantynivka. Photo: Ukraine’s Interior Ministry

On the same day that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky began an official visit to the US, The New York Times published the findings of its investigation into the Kostyantynivka tragedy which claimed the lives of 15 civilians on 6 September.

Calling the strike a “tragic mishap”, the investigation concluded that the missile that struck a busy market in Ukraine’s Donetsk region in the middle of the day had most likely been fired by a Ukrainian Buk launch system.

Shortly after the attack, military experts Julian Röpcke and Ruslan Leviev of the Conflict Intelligence Team had reached the same conclusion after analysing video footage of the attack shared by Zelensky, though their assessment was met with fury from the Ukrainian authorities, followed by accusations that they were working for Russia.

The Ukrainian government blamed the attack on Russia and refused to open an investigation into what it portrayed as an open-and-shut case. That stance could have been related to the strike coinciding with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Ukraine. Zelensky cited the tragedy as an egregious example of Russia terrorising Ukraine’s civilian population, the kind of statement that’s very hard to walk back, especially in the fog of war.

In many ways, the latest findings change very little. In modern wars, up to 2.6% of soldier deaths are caused by friendly fire, and the person who started the war must bear ultimate responsibility for any deaths caused by technical errors over its duration, as long as there was no negligence involved.

As there has been no suggestion of that in this case, let us consider it a fatal accident by default. In both Russia and Ukraine, where ageing missiles are kept in subpar conditions, such incidents happen regularly. Look online and you’ll find any number of videos showing Russian surface-to-air missiles exploding during their launch sequences.

Far worse mishaps have occurred over the years. In 1974, the Turkish Air Force sank one of its own navy’s warships off the coast of Cyprus and then blamed the incident on a Greek naval squadron.

However, when a small number of survivors were picked up the next day, it quickly became apparent who had been responsible for the attack.

In 1994, the US military in Iraq scrambled F-15s to shoot down two US Black Hawks after mistaking them for Iraqi Mi-24s, killing 26 people in the process.

Sadly, friendly fire during wartime is an inevitability.

Ukraine’s response

“According to the investigation, the enemy used a S-300 missile system to fire at this civilian facility, which is evidenced, in particular, by identified missile debris collected on the scene,” Ukraine’s Security Service said in a statement on Tuesday. “Today, The New York Times published an article with a manipulated message alleging that the missile that struck Kostyantynivka was Ukrainian. The report was authored by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a man who has promoted the Russian agenda on multiple occasions. This is the fourth New York Times article in which he has attempted to discredit Ukraine and its army. He previously claimed that Ukraine had been using cluster munitions in residential areas and that Ukrainian servicemen have been selling tanks and weapons, while also accusing US volunteers in Ukraine of being wasteful. His Ukrainian Armed Forces press card has been revoked twice for his violation of war zone working rules.”

So far during the war, Putin has launched over 6,000 missiles at Ukrainian targets, and the fact that the missile that hit Kostyantynivka was fired from a Ukrainian Buk instead of a Russian S-300 system doesn’t change anything.

However, what is significant here is the Ukrainian government’s decision to stick to its guns and to continue to deny playing any role in Kostyantynivka. This is a serious mistake on Kyiv’s part, as it smacks more of something one of Russia’s propagandist state media channels would do rather than a government committed to fact-based transparency.

The Ukrainian government’s attitude has only provided ammunition to those who advocate ending Western military support for Ukraine, enabling them to use the case to argue that the war is between two nations with similarly low levels of commitment to the truth where the needs of state propaganda always take precedence over the facts.

There have been many peculiarities to this war, but a particularly fatal one for Putin is the fact that Russian state propaganda is built almost entirely on lies. When a Russian Buk hit a Malaysia Airlines flight in 2014, Russian propagandists insisted again and again that it had been a Ukrainian tactical bomber instead.

When a Russian missile hit a block of flats in Ukraine, Russia’s Defence Ministry said it had in actual fact been a military facility. 

These terrible lies will ultimately be responsible for more deaths, as Russian military commanders come to learn that they don’t even have to hit their targets, that it’s enough simply to hit something and then claim that it was a military target afterwards. It’s precisely this type of repulsive behaviour that has united so much of the international community against Russia.

In this case, Ukraine should clearly demonstrate to the world just how much its values differ to those exhibited by Russian propagandists by not blindly insisting on the veracity of its first declared version of events in Kostyantynivka. Instead, Kyiv must accept the fact that what at the time was the most obvious and plausible explanation nevertheless turned out to be incorrect. Differentiating oneself from Russian propaganda means telling the truth.

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