In late March, the United Nations issued a new report on war crimes being committed by both Russian and Ukrainian forces. The document provides a shocking litany of brutal behavior on the part of both militaries, although the investigators concluded that Russian units have committed the majority of offenses. Given the extent of Western pressure and the UN’s own biases, it is hard to determine the accuracy of that conclusion. However, the evidence cited of Ukrainian abuses is far from trivial.
Yet if one examines accounts about the report in Western news media outlets, the inescapable conclusion would be that Russian troops were responsible for virtually all of the atrocities. Unfortunately, such journalistic malfeasance has typified press coverage of the war since the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022. Western publications have systematically buried evidence of misconduct on the part of Ukraine’s government.
Headlines in the Western press about the new UN report were almost uniformly inflammatory and one-sided. The Associated Press headline was "UN-backed inquiry accuses Russia of war crimes in Ukraine." The sole mention of Ukraine war crimes in a 15-paragraph news story was one very brief comment far down in the text that "the report’s authors had noted a small number of apparent violations" by Ukrainian forces.
The headline in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s coverage was "Russia has committed ‘wide range’ of war crimes in Ukraine." As in the case of the AP story, the CBC’s account barely mentioned evidence of Ukrainian war crimes and used language nearly identical to the bland phrasing that AP utilized. Again, the description was of a "small number" of "apparent" human rights violations. Even that biased analysis was better than the BBC’s performance, which managed to avoid any mention of Ukrainian war crimes contained in the UN report.
BuzzFeed’s account of the report was the epitome of bias as well, starting with the headline "A nightmarish new report has detailed Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine." The sole acknowledgment of Kyiv’s misconduct was a brief passage buried in the middle of the story that UN investigators had found a "few instances" of Ukrainians violating international law.
The New York Times avoided the use of a biased headline, but the substance of the article exhibited that characteristic thoroughly. The only example of Ukrainian forces committing war crimes cited in a lengthy article was minimized as "Two cases of ill-treatment of Russian soldiers by Ukrainian forces were also documented." As noted below, the actual number appeared to be much larger, but the Times failed to disclose that detail.
Some foreign news outlets provided more balanced coverage than did their Western counterparts. Al Jazeera’s headline, for example, was "UN decries torture, killing of Ukrainian and Russian POWs." The story subsequently quoted Matilda Bogner the head of the UN monitoring mission that "We are deeply concerned about the summary execution of up to 25 Russian prisoners of war and persons ordered to combat by Ukrainian armed forces, which we have documented." Al Jazeera did not hold back on concluding that there had been an even greater number of such executions of Ukrainian POWs, (the UN report put the figure at 68), but unlike many of its competitors, it did not whitewash Kyiv’s war crimes.
One of the rare analyses in the U.S. press that didn’t exhibit flagrant bias and cherry-picking of data in the UN report was an account by Stephen Neukam in The Hill. Despite a typically one-sided, anti-Russian headline, Neukam’s article mentioned early on that the "new U.N. report released this week said both Russia and Ukraine had committed war crimes." He described in detail the evidence of Russian crimes that the UN investigators discovered, but he didn’t ignore passages that confirmed Ukrainian violations and abuses. Among other offenses, the report "found that the Ukrainian military has likely used cluster munitions and anti-personnel landmines in Russian-controlled areas, leading to ‘grave civilian injuries’ and deaths."
Once again, most Western media outlets have failed to provide even a tolerably balanced picture of developments in the Russia-Ukraine war. Instead, they have served as conduits for pro-Ukrainian, anti-Russian propaganda. There is no dispute that Russian forces in Ukraine have behaved brutally, and that serious violations of international norms have taken place. However, it is irresponsible journalism to downplay Ukraine’s human rights abuses or to pretend that many of Russia’s actions (e.g., bombing civilian areas) the UN report documents are qualitatively different from what the United States and its allies have done in Serbia, Iraq, Libya, and other arenas. It’s entirely possible to rightly condemn Moscow’s conduct without exhibiting shameless bias. Yet the Western news media have failed that test once again.
Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior Fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. Dr. Carpenter held various senior policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato institute. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).