A US scandal on the international stage

A crash-course on geopolitics necessary for making this inquiry digestible for the US?

Welcome back to “From Russia With Mila,” where I cover Eastern Europe through the lens of journalism and the media industry.

The last of the scheduled televised hearings in the impeachment inquiry wrapped up last week, and in the midst of what is a seemingly chaotic and tangled web of scandals, the public grapples with following all the facts.

CNN’s senior media correspondent and host of Reliable Sources, Brian Stelter, pointed out in a tweet before the televised public hearings:

Referencing my newsletter from a few weeks ago, it is a real challenge when a country that is not as well known to many Americans is in the news right at the center of an impeachment inquiry.

Fox host Jesse Watters illustrated this when he said that no one can find Ukraine on a map. However, just as Stelter says in his tweet above, that’s where journalists and news networks must step in and provide context — for example, by putting a map on the screen. 🌏

The complexity of following the scandal opens the door to spreading conspiracy theories, and BuzzFeed’s 2020 reporter Miriam Elder points out those theories are meant to make you doubt the truth really exists:

CNN’s Daniel Dale, a reporter who fact-checks the president, noted 45 different ways Trump has been dishonest about Ukraine and the impeachment scandal.

News organizations are attempting to educate about the impeachment inquiry through multiple newsletters, podcasts, and live blogs, such as this NBC News one, and WaPo’s, and “ultimate guides” ➡️ Check out how Vox lays it out (with a helpful list of all the characters involved):

The story of President Donald Trump and impeachment is difficult to follow: It moves fast and our understanding of the facts changes as witnesses testify. We get it. (Vox)

What’s interesting about this Vox piece is that it asks readers to submit questions so that it can be more tailored to what people are actually having difficulty following. Also, it is divided into sections explaining the Ukraine element, how the actual process of impeachment works, and the political implications of the impeachment inquiry (how does all this stuff affect the polls, etc). Vox also has a podcast for those who’d rather listen to in-depth updates about the impeachment inquiry.

While news organizations are publishing digestible blogs, podcasts, summaries (NYT) and timelines (Forbes) to help sift through the “noise,” are people actually taking advantage of it? The average American likely does not have time to read through pages of testimonies, so the hope is that they’d find a reliable summary to consume related to the impeachment inquiry.

🇺🇦 BTW… How do Ukrainians feel about all this?

Quartz displayed the results of a survey conducted with a sample of 2,000 Ukrainians over 18 that asked what they thought the president of Ukraine should do in the light of a ‘quid pro quo’:

No consensus among Ukrainians.

The article says: “Ukraine is a divided society with major regional and ethnic differences, and these divisions are reflected in how these opinions vary by region.”

The piece, which expressed concern that “Trump’s alleged attempt to pressure Zelenskiy could further amplify these widespread false narratives among the people of Ukraine,” also surveyed Ukrainians on their favorability toward President Trump:

  • 37% have an unfavorable opinion

  • 44% have a neutral opinion

  • 21% have a favorable opinion

“By comparison, 66% of Ukrainians report a favorable opinion of President Zelenskiy.”

Ukrainians' belief in false narratives

Narratives depicting the Ukrainian government as a puppet of the United States and its allies are commonly promoted by Russian propaganda outlets throughout Ukraine.

Delaying the aid had real impacts on Ukrainian soldiers fighting Russian forces in eastern Ukraine:

“While they were playing with our aid, I wonder, did they know we were dying out here?”

Kyiv-based American journalist Christopher Miller looked into the impact the impeachment inquiry is having on these Ukrainians in this BuzzFeed piece. He talks to soldiers, one of whom brushes up on his English by watching US political satire and found out through American TV that “Trump had frozen $391 million in US security aid meant for the Ukrainian armed forces over the summer. The news made him angry.”

According to statistics from the Ukrainian military, at least 46 soldiers have been killed since July 18, when word spread throughout the Trump administration that the president had secretly frozen aid for Ukraine. Around 19 of those deaths came during the window of time in which the aid was delayed. While there’s no way of tying those deaths directly to the lack of new US aid at the front line, more than two dozen Ukrainian soldiers — located at four fighting positions, a tank base, and a military hospital — told me they were disappointed by the news. Their morale suffered, and they felt vulnerable and abandoned by their biggest supporter.

Miller said Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine, which has been going on for more than five years now and has killed more than 14,000 people (and has occupied a chunk of territory larger than New Jersey), “had largely been forgotten before it was catapulted into the headlines amid the House impeachment inquiry against Trump,” even though it’s been “fought with $1.6 billion of US help in the form of military aid and training since 2014.

The aid freeze was overturned in September, but the damage had already been done. For Moscow, it had signaled that it still has the upper hand in the war and in peace negotiations being pushed by Zelensky. For Kyiv, it had a chilling effect that spread through the Ukrainian capital, where stunned officials began questioning their longtime ally’s commitment.

🇷🇺 And how does Russia view all this?

CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen looks at how Russian media has been covering the impeachment inquiry in this video piece.

Matthew Chance reports in this CNN piece on the tone Russian state TV uses when addressing Trump ⤵️

"Have you lost your minds that you want to remove OUR Donald Ivanovich," bawls Vladimir Soloviev, host of "Evening," a pro-Kremlin current affairs program which has been focusing on the US impeachment proceedings.

The affectionate, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, Russification of Trump's name reminds viewers that this US President is seen here as being more positive for Russia than any other Western leader, even as that has been at the expense of his own country's interests.

As this NYT piece points out, “In a briefing that closely aligned with Dr. [Fiona] Hill’s testimony, American intelligence officials informed senators and their aides in recent weeks that Russia had engaged in a yearslong campaign to essentially frame Ukraine as responsible for Moscow’s own hacking of the 2016 election, according to three American officials. The briefing came as Republicans stepped up their defenses of Mr. Trump in the Ukraine affair.” (Fiona Hill is a respected Russia scholar and former senior White House official who testified in the impeachment hearings last week.)

The talking point that Trump reiterated in his Friday phone call on Fox & Friends, that it was Ukraine that meddled in the 2016 elections, has been echoed by Republican lawmakers and Russia itself ➡️ “During a news conference in February 2017, Mr. Putin accused the Ukrainian government of supporting Hillary Clinton during the previous American election and funding her candidacy with friendly oligarchs.” (NYT)

Also ➡️On Sunday, Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy said to Fox News’ Chris Wallace that he didn’t know whether Russia or Ukraine was responsible for meddling in the 2016 elections, even though the US intelligence community concluded that it was Russia. On Monday night, he walked back his statements from this earlier interview: "I was wrong," Kennedy said. "The only evidence I have, and I think it's overwhelming, it was Russia who tried to hack the DNC computer. I've seen no indication that Ukraine tried to do it."

That’s all for now! Reach out with any questions or comments, connect on Twitter for the latest, and stop back for more on media and Eastern Europe.

— Мила (Mila)

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