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Katrina vanden Heuvel: With 100,000+ Displaced, Why Is U.S. Ignoring Ukraine’s Civil War?

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A high-level rebel commander has confirmed for the first time that pro-Russian separatists had an anti-aircraft missile of the kind the United States says was used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing all 298 on board. He blamed Ukrainian authorities for provoking the strike, saying they deliberately launched airstrikes in the area, even though they knew the missile system was in place and rebels would fight back. Meanwhile, the area near the Russian border continues to see heavy fighting between government forces and Russian-backed separatists. On Wednesday, two Ukrainian fighter jets were shot down not far from where the Malaysian airliner was hit. “The tragedy of the downing of the plane occurred in the context of this virtually unreported civil war,” says Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, who has reported on Russia for decades. “Americans have been done a disservice by one-sided media coverage [of the conflict].” Vanden Heuvel notes more than 110,000 refugees from eastern Ukraine have fled to Russia, and 56,000 are internally displaced in Ukraine.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Ukraine, where on Wednesday a rebel leader confirmed for the first time pro-Russian separatists had an anti-aircraft missile of the kind the United States [says] was used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. The high-level commander blamed Ukrainian authorities for provoking the strike that killed all 298 on board. He said Kiev had deliberately launched airstrikes in the area even though it knew the BUK missile system was in place and rebels would fight back.

ALEXANDER KHODAKOVSKY: [translated] They provoked the usage of the BUK missile system, for example, by starting to attack the object that they don’t need at all, Saur Mogila, that hadn’t been attacked by planes for a week before that. And on that day, they pushed so hard. And at the moment of attack, at the moment of the civilian plane flying, they were attacking Saur Mogila. So even if there was a BUK missile system, and even if it has been used, Ukraine did everything for the civilian plane to be shot down.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as two Ukrainian fighter jets were shot down in eastern Ukraine Wednesday, not far from where the Malaysian airliner was hit. The area near the Russian border continues to see heavy fighting between government forces and Russian-backed separatists. Also on Wednesday, lawmakers in Ukraine’s Parliament broke into a fistfight after a decree passed that would enlist male citizens under 50 to combat Russian forces on the border.

And coffins carrying 40 of the 193 Dutch victims on the downed flight arrived in the Netherlands, as the government declared a day of national mourning. Crowds gathered on bridges along the 65-mile route to throw flowers onto the convoy of hearses.

For more, we’re joined by Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation. She has reported on Russia for decades and blogs at TheNation.com, is also a columnist for the WashingtonPost.com. Her latest column is headlined “Downing of Flight 17 Should Trigger Talks, Not More Violence.”

Talk about the latest, what people understand about Ukraine, what you feel is being missed.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I think the big story that has gone unreported in the kind of one-sided media narrative that Americans have been given in these last months is the unreported war in the southeast of Ukraine. The Nation published a story a few weeks ago called “The Silence of [American] Hawks [About] Kiev’s Atrocities,” and we’re seeing in the downing of the plane—the tragedy of the downing of the plane occurred in the context of this virtually unreported civil war. Today, there are stories that Kiev has used four Grad rockets—these are missile launcher rockets—in Luhansk. The OSCE, the Organization [for] Security and Co-operation in Europe, is alleging civilian deaths in these parts. So I think, Amy, it’s the context that is needed. My column—

AMY GOODMAN: How many people have died in this war?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: You know, they’re reporting—I have figures here. They’re reporting 250 people have been killed in Luhansk, one of the major cities in the eastern part of Ukraine, 800 injured since the war began; 432, including 36 women, six children, died in Donetsk since April; 110,000 refugees from southeastern Ukraine have fled to Russia. There are 56,000 displaced people in Ukraine.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you call this a civil war?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I would call this a civil war. And the tragedy, Amy, is that Ukraine has been a deeply divided country through time—language, religion, part of the country pro-Russian, ethnically Russian. This did not need to become a military civil war. There was the possibility—and this is what I tried to address in the column—in the wake of this tragedy of the downing of the plane. There should be a renewed effort, not to trigger more violence, but to trigger ceasefire, to trigger talks that could end the humanitarian catastrophe I’m describing in the southeast of Ukraine.

And another unreported story, Amy, is that there were ceasefire talks in June with Russia, France, Germany, Ukraine, the United States and Kiev. Poroshenko, the president, pulled out after two days. The United States acceded, if not supported or egged on, that decision, and the military offensive began anew. There must be an end to the violence.

And think just commonsense common sense. Ukraine, if it is to recover, if it is to emerge as a financially stable country with some elements of democracy, needs to be a bridge between East and West, between Russia and the West. The IMF, just months after agreeing to a $17 billion loan program, just yesterday acknowledged what is known, which is that there is a terribly sharp economic downturn in Ukraine. The costs of rebuilding this country are going to be enormous. And the oligarchs, Amy, the oligarchical control of this country, I think remains unreported, as well. You know, the protesters, the good protesters in Maidan, in the square, in last year, so much of their protest was about oligarchical kleptocracy. And that grip on the country remains.

So I think it’s a very—I think Americans have been done a disservice by the one-sided media coverage. I will say, and I hope in this case that The Nation's coverage, others' coverage—Robert Parry has been doing interesting coverage—has pushed The New York Times and The Washington Post, for example, in these last days to cover the civilian casualties and the assaults on cities like Donetsk, which has become a virtual ghost town.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the U.S. role?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: The U.S. role—I don’t understand the U.S. role, to be honest. I mean, it is not in the national security interest of the United States to make Ukraine a Cold War proxy, but it is becoming that. This is a regional civil war that has been internationalized. John Kerry often sounds like he’s the secretary of war, not the secretary of state. We have allied ourselves, tethered ourselves to the Kiev government in a way that may make it very difficult to find a way beyond a new Cold War, if not a hot war. And, Amy, a Cold War will warp both countries’ politics and international relations. I’m thinking of Russia and the United States. And think of what this has done in terms of diverting our attention and resources from the real security, the real threats, the real possibilities of providing and building a new world.

So I think America—it’s also unreported, underreported, you know, America sent advisers to Ukraine to embed with its military. America has put forward a package of night goggles and other military equipment. John Brennan, the head of the CIA—finally reported—headed off to Kiev. So, but I don’t—it is not in the U.S.'s interest. It is not in the world's interest. It is not in Ukraine’s interest. Yet, there is not a peep out of Congress. There is not a peep. And the media is so one-sided that we are not having a debate that is also deserving of America’s people. The wisdom, though, of America’s people, the disconnect we see between the Beltway establishment, the elite and the media elite, is very telling. America’s people are not interested in sending weapons. They weren’t interested in sending weapons to Syria. They’re not interested in sending weapons to Ukraine. They’re not interested in a war.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] We are being called on to use our influence with the separatists in southeastern Ukraine. Of course we will do everything in our power, but that is not nearly enough. Ultimately, there is a need to call on the authorities in Kiev to respect basic norms of decency and, at least for a short time, implement a ceasefire for the investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Vladimir Putin. Can you talk about Putin’s role and then how the U.S. actions compare to Europe—I mean, and the Dutch, in particular?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: That’s, I think, very important. I think the Dutch—and I have family in Holland. And I think the Dutch, in the way they have grieved in this tragic moment, are a model of dignity and a model of saying, “We’re not going to rush to judgment or use this as a political game, that is a disservice that did not honor those we have lost,” as opposed to the United States, I have to say, where John Kerry, Secretary of State Kerry, rushed quickly, as did Samantha Power, someone whose work I admire but who’s supremely unsuited to be our ambassador to the United Nations at this moment. They rushed to judgment and said Russia played a role. And now the intelligence community is saying, “We don’t know. This was a mistake. We don’t know who actually played a role.”

On sanctions, the United States, again, has led the way. The European Community, much of it, the key member being Germany here and France, have resisted. There is a tendency in this country to say it’s because of their trading ties. I think that’s true, but I think it underestimates the fact that they have in their DNA a history that understands that to have a sullen, angry Russia on their border is not in anyone’s interest.

On Putin, where do I begin? Putin is an authoritarian leader. On the other hand—he has done repressive things in his country, things I abhor, in terms of gay rights, in terms of women’s rights. It will become more repressive if this goes on in the way it is. The hawks of both sides always become more powerful when this happens. But Putin has a politics in his country, just as we have in ours. He has a right wing, a nationalist right wing, which has been pushing him to be far more assertive. I have friends, journalists who report on the right in Russia, and the right has been in a fury in these last weeks. “Our people,” and again, that’s very complicated because Russia should not say “our people,” but pro-Russian, ethnic Russians in Ukraine being bombarded and pounded, and where is Putin?

I do think Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov—again, not reported—have been calling for a ceasefire since April. The other day, Tuesday, in his speech, Putin said that he would do what he could to restrain the rebels. I think there are no question there are ties, but there is no question that what we’ve seen emerge in southeastern Ukraine, whenever you have a war like this, a civil war, the good guys don’t often emerge. I’m not talking, obviously, about the civilians who have been under assault, but you have the Rambos of Russia, those who fought in Chechnya or in Afghanistan. But Putin cannot do everything, but he can restrain these forces, some of them, but in the context of a real ceasefire, real negotiations, and in the context of the United States not playing games, as it has since the end of the first Cold War in expanding its economic, political and other influence to the doors of Russia, and the whole NATO question, Amy, again unreported.

Last November, when this whole EU offer triggered, in many ways, this conflict, what was unreported was there was a clause in that which was a kind of secret entry door for Ukraine to enter NATO. This is a Russian red line. There’s no reason, first of all, that we should have NATO in these times. It’s a military alliance. It’s not a tea party—that used to have more, different resonance. But anyway, so I think Putin is as—listen, the media in this country has so demonized Putin. As I said, he is an authoritarian. But I hate to quote—I will quote someone I know we have very mixed feelings about: Henry Kissinger. Putin—he has said, “Demonizing Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for not having a policy.” And I think we need a policy, America needs a policy, not an attitude, as it engages Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Katrina vanden Heuvel, I want to thank you for being with us, editor and publisher of The Nation. We will link to her column, “Downing of Flight 17 Should Trigger Talks, Not More Violence.”

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