As the world’s largest security organization, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has long encouraged European cooperation and friendly relations in the fields of security, arms control, human rights, and other issues of importance. Emerging from the ‘Helsinki process’ of the 1970s, a series of trust-building and security negotiations between the West and the Communist Bloc, the OSCE has evolved into the continent’s premier transnational organization on matters related to human rights, environmental concerns, and other topics deserving trans-continental attention and multilateral engagement. The OSCE has played a mediating role in the Ukrainian crisis, observing the security situation on the ground in Donbas and elsewhere, as well as encouraging open dialogue and a cessation of hostilities. However, the Russian government’s media machine has increasingly seen the OSCE as a potential source of propaganda by distorting the organizations statements or taking them completely out of context.
If one is a regular watcher of Russian state television, you would have heard of a myriad of OSCE reports and official statements that may seem to outwardly support the Russian spin on the Ukrainian conflict. There are no Russian troops in Ukraine, the Ukrainian military is brutally suppressing the rights of Russian-speakers, the Ukrainian government is profiting from the illicit sale of humans, among other such alarming statements. In recent Russian media segments, an OSCE “expert” named Einars Graudins reported on discoveries of hundreds of graves of Donbas civilians murdered by Ukrainian military and police units. Similar media reports claimed that the OSCE monitoring mission had uncovered evidence of mass rapes and other human rights abuses and war crimes.
There’s only one problem. Einars Graudins has never been an employee of the OSCE, and the organization has never corroborated Moscow’s claims of mass executions committed by Ukrainian security forces. In reality, Graudins is a far-left Latvian activist and enthusiastic supporter of Russian-backed groups in eastern Ukraine. His profile picture on Twitter sports a hammer and sickle and red star, while his tweets on the media platform glorify the Soviet Union and Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad. On October 1, 2014 the office of the OSCE mission to Ukraine issued an official statement denying any connection between Graudins and the organization.
This hasn’t prevented the highest echelons of the Kremlin from repeating these falsified claims, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeating claims of an anti-Russian “genocide” in eastern Ukraine. Interestingly enough, even Russian-backed forces in Ukraine distanced themselves from the accusation. Pro-Russian separatist Andrei Purgin told reporters that Moscow had “misunderstood” their claims, and that only nine anonymous graves were discovered, not hundreds that Russian state media continue to repeat. Even following the militants’ denunciation of the claims, Russian media reports continued to repeat claims of mass civilian graves. An RT report from October 4, 2014 informed of OSCE investigations into mass graves in the Donbas, this time downgrading the number of suspected bodies in the graves from hundreds to only five.
The Russian propaganda machine’s manipulation of OSCE activities has not only been reserved to falsified and cynical claims of mass civilian graves and ethnic cleansing reports. In the midst of Russia’s direct intervention in eastern Ukraine in late August and early September, Russian media regularly quoted the head of the OSCE mission to Ukraine, Paul Picard, as denying that Russian troops were illegally entering the country. An RT report from August 28, 2014 stated:
“The OSCE was told there was no Russian presence spotted across the Ukraine border, refuting Thursday’s claims that a full-scale invasion was underway. Both the Ukrainian monitoring team head and Russia’s representative have given a firm ‘no’.”
In an unfortunate spin on the truth, Picard’s statements were taken completely out of context, ignoring both the OSCE’s actual statements and the organization’s capacity to monitor the situation on the Russia-Ukraine border. While it is true that Picard denied observing concrete evidence of a direct Russian intervention into Ukraine, such Russian media reports purposely and deceivingly omit key details on OSCE’s findings on the border. An excellent investigative report by German magazine Der Spiegel documented the absurdity of OSCE’s situation on the border:
“For weeks now, volunteer fighters, weapons and even heavy military equipment have been trickling into Ukraine through this segment of the border. The soldiers are coming to provide support to pro-Russian separatists in their battle against the Ukrainian military. They’re members of Vladimir Putin’s secret army in Ukraine. Picard, a Frenchman, is witness each day to the events taking shape along the border, but there’s little he can do to stop them.
“[…] But Picard can’t say such things – he needs clear proof first. His reports instead make frequent reference to “people in military uniforms crossing the border in both directions.”
When Russian media reports on the OSCE’s statements regarding its observations on the border, it fails to mention that the OSCE mission is constrained to a tiny sliver of borderland, only 40 meters long, out of a 2000 kilometer Russia-Ukraine border. Even on this miniscule strip of border, the evidence of Russian intervention is clear, even if not provable, as the mission has long seen uniformed men and unmarked trucks cross into Ukraine and back.
The Russian information campaign against the OSCE, of which it is a member, is damaging the credibility of the organization. Russian media, and by extension the Kremlin, are partaking in a well-orchestrated campaign to use the OSCE to legitimize its actions in Ukraine to the Russian people. Thus, the Russian government is simultaneously denying the reality of Russian involvement in Ukraine and making falsified statements about civilian casualties that ultimately undermines non-combatants’ access to justice. The Russian propaganda machine is undermining the credibility and trustworthiness of an important trans-national organization in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center