Article 1 of the UN Charter says that one of the purposes of the UN is “to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.” However, what “self-determination” means in specific international legal cases is far from a settled debate. Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute explains that
contemporary notions of self-determination usually distinguish between “internal” and “external” self-determination, suggesting that “self-determination” exists on a spectrum. Internal self-determination may refer to various political and social rights; by contrast, external self-determination refers to full legal independence/secession for the given “people” from the larger politico-legal state.
Donbas seeks self-rule
This question is germane to the war in Ukraine. The most intense fighting in the country is currently in the Donbas, a region in Ukraine’s east that largely consists of Russian speakers. Immediately before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the Russian government announced it was recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk, the Donbas’ two major regions, as independent states. They have been warzones since 2014, when Russia-aligned separatists began fighting Ukraine’s central government after the success of the US-backed overthrow of Ukraine’s elected government.
In April 2014, separatist leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk declared the territories’ independence. The next month, they held a referendum on self-rule. The Washington Post (5/11/14) reported that people voted more than once at a polling station in Mariupol, and that the way the referendum was administered allowed for the possibility of further fraud; at the same time, the paper also noted that Donetsk and Luhansk residents “turned out in significant numbers…to vote in support of self-rule.” Here “self-rule” could mean the regions having greater autonomy within Ukraine, becoming independent countries on their own, or joining Russia.
Ukraine’s government and its Western backers saw the vote as illegal. Ukraine’s military
generally allowed balloting to proceed…. But Ukrainian national guardsmen shut down the voting in the eastern city of Krasnoarmeysk and later fired into a crowd outside the town hall, wire services reported. The Associated Press said one of its photographers saw two people lying motionless on the ground after the clash.
The Post noted that despite the flawed voting process,
many people here—at least those who voted—will see it as a powerful expression of popular will. At the very least, the lines of voters appeared to reflect a significant protest vote against the central government in Kiev….
It did appear that turnout was relatively high. Journalists from several Western news organizations interviewed 186 residents in the Donetsk region, away from polling stations, and found that 116 had cast ballots or intended to. A total of 122 favored self-determination. The results were not scientific, but reflected the level of interest in the referendum.
The Kosovo precedent
Non-Western media outlets (Asia Times, 2/28/22; Balkan Insight, 3/9/22) have identified a precedent for Russia citing Donetsk and Luhansk’s right to self-determination as a rationale for attacking Ukraine: the Kosovo War. In 1999, NATO conducted a 78-day war that helped to dismember Yugoslavia and create a new state, Kosovo, a Serbian province whose population was 90% ethnic Albanians. Sarang Shidore (Responsible Statecraft, 2/22/22) summarized the Kosovo/Donbas parallel thusly:
Kosovo [was] repressed in the past by Milosevic’s Serbia. NATO’s war resulted in major atrocities and ethnic cleansing of the minority Serb and Roma populations by the US-backed Kosovo Liberation Army, as well as persecution of the Serbs who inhabit the sliver of a territory in the border region of Mitrovica. Yet the demands of the Serb population in Mitrovica to secede from Kosovo and merge their tiny region into neighboring Serbia is seen as an unacceptable transgression.
Why is there one…standard for Kosovar Albanians and another for Kosovar Serbs?… Should it be a surprise that Ukrainian Russians are just the latest subjects of this list?…
Ethnic Russians in Ukraine mostly support Moscow, and their cultural and linguistic rights have been increasingly violated by a nationalistic government in Kyiv. This has been used by Russia as a means to intervene and create new facts on the ground.
The linguistic discrimination to which Shidore points is a January 2021 law that mandated using Ukrainian in the service industry—obligating, for example, shops and restaurants “to engage customers in Ukrainian unless clients specifically ask to switch.” This law followed 2019 legislation that required middle schools that taught in Russian and other minority languages switch to Ukrainian (France 24, 4/1/21).
In addition, Donbas residents endured violence and bigotry from the Ukrainian government following the start of the 2014 war. James Carden of The Nation (4/6/15) reported that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko cut Donbas residents off from social services and benefits. He also blocked them from using the banking system, preventing them from accessing credit “or even the most rudimentary banking services,” such that commerce “ground to a standstill.” According to Carden, the Ukrainian state shelled Donbas civilians and deployed snipers, while “the Kiev government and its representatives in Kiev have repeatedly attempted to dehumanize [Donbas residents] by referring to them as ‘terrorists’ and as ‘subhumans.’”
While Russia is the only country that formally recognizes Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, 117 of the 195 countries in the world recognize Kosovo—which means that 78 countries do not, including major world powers like Russia and China, as well as Western European nations like Spain and Greece (Deutsche Welle, 6/10/22).
Crucial difference: US backing
The Kosovo/Donbas parallel may be inexact, but it has merit. In each case, residents were subjected to violence and discrimination, and a substantial portion of them expressed a desire to exercise their right to self-determination; in both Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia, an outside power attempted to justify a military assault by saying that it needed to rescue a minority population from persecution.
One crucial difference, of course, is that the Ukrainian government is supported by the US, while Donbas residents seeking self-determination are allied with Russia and Russia did the invading in the name of supposed humanitarianism; in contrast, the Yugoslavian government was backed by Russia, whereas Kosovars seeking self-determination were supported by the US, which invaded Yugoslavia allegedly for humanitarian reasons.
My purpose here is not to adjudicate the self-determination or independence claims of the people of Kosovo or the Donbas (though I see pro-independence arguments as highly questionable in both cases, and think neither of the related military interventions was just). Rather, my aim is to investigate whether there were significant differences in how corporate media covered the Kosovo and Donbas cases despite their similarities.
As a barometer of possible US media bias in favor of the home team, I examined how often Kosovars’ right to self-determination was cited in New York Times and Washington Post coverage of Kosovans’ independence claims, and compared it to the frequency with which self-determination was considered in the context of Donetsk and Luhansk’s independence claims. Invoking a peoples’ right to self-determination can function as a way of legitimizing their independence claims: Doing so suggests that those who are attempting to create an independent state are merely trying to shape their own destiny. (Even mentioning the term “self-determination” arguably carries the message that those who are seeking to create their own state have a plausible claim, even if that claim is not explicitly endorsed.)
I looked at how the Kosovo and Donbas independence claims were handled in the coverage of the years leading up to and during the wars in both places. To gauge how often the media have discussed the possibility that Donetsk and Luhansk have the right to self-determination in the years immediately preceding and since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, I examined the last five years of coverage. One New York Times piece in that period—an article in the New York Times Magazine (1/16/22)—included the word “self-determination.” However, it was not used in reference to Donetsk and Luhansk: It was used to describe the motive of a Russian fighting on the Ukrainian side in the Donbas who wanted to protect Ukrainian independence from Russia.
‘Pretext’ and ‘sham’
My search of the Post yielded similar results. Three Post articles in the last five years mentioned Donetsk, Luhansk and “self-determination,” but not to consider the territories’ assertation that they have this right. One piece (3/18/22) said that Ukraine “aspir[es] to prosperity and self-determination through memberships in NATO and the European Union.” Another (2/25/22) said that in 2014,
there was the pretext of the Crimean “declaration of independence” and subsequent deployment of a self-determination justification for Crimea’s becoming part of Russia. Likewise, by recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk, Russia is setting itself up to use a (sham) vote to justify irredentism—claiming these territories based on historical and ethnic ties.
The referendum may have been flawed but, as the Post reported at the time, people in the Donbas “turned out in significant numbers…to vote in support of self-rule,” and leaving that out makes the notion of people in the Donbas region exercising their right to self-determination sound less plausible than might otherwise be the case.
The third Post article (2/26/22) said that
the [UN] Security Council remains a critical venue for smaller countries to affirm and argue directly for the UN Charter’s core principles of sovereign nonintervention and the equal self-determination of peoples.
It went on to describe Kenyan ambassador Martin Kimani “decr[ying] Russia’s recognition of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions as independent states.”
‘In the interests of the West’
In sum, both the Times and the Post declined to present readers with any information that might encourage them to have an open mind about Donetsk and Luhansk’s self-determination claims. In fact, the papers failed to even mention that there are “significant numbers” of people in these territories saying that they have a right to self-determination that they wish to exercise. Here we have a case of a self-determination claim that accords with Russian interests, and diverges from the US position, being concealed from the public.
Kosovars’ self-determination and independence claims, which lined up with US interests and contradicted Russia’s, received far more of a hearing. From 1995–99, the five years leading up to and including NATO bombing campaign, the Times published 22 articles with the words “self-determination” and “Kosovo,” “Kosovar” or related variations. The Post ran 32.
That’s not to say that every piece necessarily offered the view that Kosovo had a right to exercise self-determination, up to and including statehood. However, the idea that it did was treated as legitimate and worthy of debate, in a way that has not happened with Donetsk and Luhansk. Many of the articles did, in fact, back Kosovars’ self-determination claims.
Noel Malcolm wrote in the Times (6/9/99) that Kosovo becoming independent is
in the interests of the West. It is certainly the strong preference of the Kosovo Albanians themselves, who voted overwhelmingly for independence as long ago as 1991. It is what the volunteer soldiers of the Kosovo Liberation Army were fighting for; without some assurance on eventual self-determination, they will be very reluctant to give up their weapons.
The Post’s Charles Krauthammer (6/17/99) contended that
the case for [Kosovo’s] independence is not just practical but principled. If the overwhelming Albanian majority wants self-determination, democratic principles . . . should allow them to have what they want.
Only part of the story
Thus the coverage that I studied evinced a willingness to treat the notion of Kosovar self-determination seriously, and to explicitly support independence in some instances, and did not present the possibility of Donetsk and Luhansk’s having self-determination rights as something that readers should consider when formulating their perspectives on the present war in Ukraine. Articles outright endorsing Kosovar independence carry the added message, stated or unstated, that the US had at least a reasonable case for militarily intervening in the former Yugoslavia in the name of the Kosovars’ cause.
On the other hand, failing to draw readers’ attention to Donbas residents’ self-determination arguments means offering audiences a one-dimensional view of the war in Ukraine: It presents it solely as an illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine, rather than as also an internal Ukrainian conflict in which eastern Ukrainians have legitimate grievances against Kyiv. This omission is significant, considering that the US discouraged negotiations that could have resolved outstanding issues surrounding the Donbas’ position in Ukraine before Russia’s February intervention (Canadian Dimension, 3/18/22).
Another period of coverage is also revealing. Kosovo declared its independence on February 17, 2008. That month, the New York Times published four articles containing some versions of the word “Kosovo” and the word “self-determination.” The Washington Post also ran a 2008 article (2/17/08) containing both terms, though it did not explicitly state whether it believed that Kosovars have that right. In April 2014, the month that separatist leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence, 11 Times articles mentioned the territories, but none said anything about “self-determination.” The Post published 12 articles on the matter, without mentioning “self-determination” in any.
As people go on dying in eastern Ukraine and the region is leveled, an American public that the corporate media have given only part of the story is more likely to acquiesce to Washington inundating Ukraine with weapons to keep the war going (Bloomberg, 6/23/22; FAIR.org, 3/22/22) than to press for a diplomatic approach to ending the death and destruction as quickly as possible.