BBG Watch Commentary

VOA Video Report from CrimeaBBG Watch has noticed some, although still sporadic and small, improvements in Voice of America (VOA) English news coverage of developments in Ukraine and Russia, which our sources attribute to VOA correspondents asserting themselves against neglectful and hostile executives.

BBG Watch sources also give credit for recent improvements to BBG Watch reporting, its criticism and advice as a remote managing editor, as well as to statements by BBG Chairman Jeff Shell on importance of respect for the agency’s employees, and to sharp public questioning of VOA Director David Ensor by BBG member Matt Armstrong about failures in news reporting.

Sources told BBG Watch that the combination of these factors and the embarrassing inability of VOA executives to organize proper Ukraine and Russia news coverage even as late as this week, made VOA reporters and broadcasters less fearful and more willing to take the initiative into their own hands.

Witnesses reported that one veteran VOA broadcaster had told VOA executives that they should all be suspended and reapply for their positions. When a VOA executive reportedly screamed at him, VOA employee shouted back, sources told BBG Watch.

Senior management announced this week several managerial position changes, which our sources describe as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” Sources point out that the reshuffling of positions is not likely to result in any further improvements unless senior executives responsible for the destruction of news reporting and employee morale are removed from all positions of responsibility.

Sources also point out that these executives were responsible for posting dozens of reports on the British royal family and Justin Biebier while significant U.S. and international news developments were not being reported, even some statements by President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry, and key members of Congress.

Sources also point out that these senior executives are responsible for positing and bragging about a video with North Korean anti-American propaganda without any effective challenge and showing well-stocked stores and well-fed children of the North Korean elite in a country known for experiencing starvation. VOA executives are also believed to be responsible for the production of a promotional video for Pakistan which shows a zombie dressed as Uncle Sam attacking an Urdu-looking individual. The VOA video was intended to be humorous, but it looks like an embarrassing high-school production and may very well end up in Al Quaeda terrorist training videos.

According to BBG Watch sources, VOA correspondents and others began to assert themselves much more in recent days, which has resulted in more substantive reporting about Ukraine and Russia actually appearing rather promptly on the VOA English news website. As to other aspects of management, over which employees still have little control, such as live streaming of important presidential statements and use of multimedia content on the English website, there are still glitches that VOA executives seem unable to address.

Here is an example of an excellent VOA news reports produced by experienced VOA correspondents that in the past would not have much of a chance to appear on the VOA website. When VOA correspondents had complained repeatedly in the past to VOA senior executives that such reporting is no longer possible and VOA websites are badly managed, their complaints were ignored and some reported threats and retaliation. A few veteran correspondents had decided to retire. Only in recent days, some of those who remained are fighting back, sources told BBG Watch. It appears, however, that executives who have done the most damage to the organization are not departing.

What Voice of America reporting can look like when VOA correspondents are allowed to do their job.

We are happy to see that the VOA report mentions the visit to Kyiv of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper — the first G7 leader to visit Ukraine.

Will President Obama make an unannounced visit to Kyiv next week during his European trip?

In Crimea, Russian Forces Storm Ukraine Bases

VIDEO: Ukraine handed over its former Soviet nuclear arsenal to Russia in the 1990s. Now, as VOA’s Kent Klein reports, some experts are asking whether Russia’s maneuvers in Ukraine might undermine efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear arms.

Daniel Schearf, Steve Herman

March 22, 2014

KYIV — Russian soldiers and militiamen have stormed a Ukrainian air force base in Crimea, firing shots and smashing through gates and walls with armored vehicles, bringing a days-long standoff with Ukrainian soldiers to an end.

Ukrainian troops on the base had been resisting Russian pressure to lay down their arms and leave after Moscow declared the annexation of Crimea Friday following a controversial referendum.

Ukraine and Russia had agreed to a truce on military actions with a Friday deadline. Kyiv then agreed to withdraw all its military forces from Crimea, but Russia apparently preferred to take action.

Russian soldiers without insignias broke into Belbek airbase facing no apparent resistance from Ukrainian troops, many of whom turned their backs on the Russian forces and sang the Ukrainian national anthem as events unfolded.

For days, Ukrainian soldiers at Belbek had refused to abandon their posts, saying they had received no orders from the interim government in Kyiv.

Ukrainian defense officials say at least one Ukrainian soldier was wounded. Some reporters and cameramen covering the takeover were roughed up by Russian solders and had their equipment seized, including those working for VOA.

Belbek was the last major military holdout against the Russian takeover of Crimea, as most Ukrainian defenses across the peninsula had already been overrun. Many troops had already vacated their posts or joined up with Russian forces.

The siege followed an ultimatum issued by Russian forces earlier in the day that called for Ukrainian troops at the base to surrender. Belbek also shares facilities with the international airport in Sevastopol, where Russia has a large naval base.

Just hours before the raid, the commander of the base, Colonel Yuliy Manchur, told VOA he and his troops would never join the Russian military.

Russian soldiers later took him away for questioning.

In the evening, Russian soldiers and militia stormed Ukraine’s last navy ship in Sevastopol bay. Also on Saturday, a pro-Russian crowd tried to storm a Ukrainian naval base in Novofedorovka. The Ukrainians responded with smoke bombs, but it is not clear if the mob took over the base.

Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian military bases and warships in Crimea comes as officials in the Kremlin finalize the country’s annexation of the strategic peninsula. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law Friday that recognizes his parliament’s approval of a referendum by Crimeans on breaking away from Ukraine.

With Russia’s takeover of the peninsula nearly complete, some western diplomats are converging on Kyiv, where, a day after the interim government leaders signed a political alignment pact with the European Union, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeir accused Russian of attempting once again to divide Europe between East and West.

“It contradicts what we have experienced for decades,” Steinmeir said. “We cannot accept this situation, cannot allow bloodshed again.”

Moscow, which denies its soldiers are involved, says its actions in Crimea are necessary to protect ethnic Russians from persecution by a fascist government in Kyiv. Though some right-wing nationalists are involved in the interim leadership, there is more evidence of attacks on Ukrainians by those loyal to Moscow.

OSCE mission

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has expressed hope that a Friday decision to deploy civilian monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will relax tensions in the region. However, the ministry rejects any talk of the monitors entering the recently annexed peninsula.

OSCE says up to 500 monitors will gather information on the security situation in Ukraine, including human rights.

U.S. chief envoy to the OSCE, Daniel Baer, says the mission should have access to Crimea because the rest of the world still recognizes it as Ukrainian territory.

Separately, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Ukraine’s new Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, for his “real leadership” on the second day of a visit to Ukraine. Ban also said he admired the prime minister’s call for “inclusiveness and reconciliation” at a time when many Ukrainian citizens are angry and frustrated about developments in their country.

Three months of anti-government rallies in Ukraine, in which more than 100 people died, recently prompted President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country. The interim government has been appointed with elections scheduled for May 25.

During his stop in Kyiv, Ban also said direct dialogue between Kyiv and Moscow is critical to reducing current tensions.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also arrived in Kyiv Saturday — the first G7 leader to visit Yatsenyuk in Ukraine. Harper said Canadians are also impressed by the restraint Ukraine is showing despite what he calls Russia’s “obvious provocations.”

Donetsk demonstration

However, there is no indication of that occurring any time soon.

In the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Saturday, thousands took to the streets to demand a chance to vote hold their own referendum on whether to break away from Ukraine and become part of Russia.

Among those in the region who want to keep Ukrainian sovereignty, there are fears that at any time the Russian military could move across the border and occupy Ukrainian territory, as it did in Crimea.

According to some Kyiv-based officials, not only is Ukraine losing territory to Russia, but its eastward-dependent trade relationship with Moscow.

The interim government is moving quickly to work on a trade agreement with the European Union to transform Ukraine’s economy, which has been hobbled by decades of corruption and political upheaval.

If such a pact with the EU is to become a reality, Ukraine’s commissioner for European integration, Valery Pyatnytsky, says there is a need for action on comprehensive economic changes, not just more promises from the country’s political leaders.

“Not to declare the fight with corruption, not to declare the rules of law, not to declare the other values with European Union,” Pyatnytsky said. “Not to declare [what] we would like to be, but to be.”

Ukraine’s 45 million residents live on rich agricultural land that is also home to a large industrial base, yet the nation is considered the poorest in Eastern Europe.

Obama to G7

The U.S. says no one in the international community will recognize Crimea as part of Russia.

White House officials say the situation in Ukraine will be “front and center” during President Barack Obama’s trip to Europe in the coming week, during which he will attend a G-7 summit in The Hague — a meeting that probably would have included Russia as an eighth member.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice told reporters Friday that the common theme to the president’s trip is the fundamental strength of U.S. partnerships and alliances, including NATO, the European Union and the G7.

Rice said Ukraine and the Russian takeover of Crimea are prompting a fundamental reassessment of U.S.-Russian relations. She said the world will clearly see that Russia is more and more isolated.

Also on President Obama’s European schedule is a nuclear security summit with more than 50 other countries, including Russia.

Rice says the United States has every interest in continuing to cooperate with Russia on this issue, which she calls a pillar of the Obama national security policy — making it harder for terrorists to get their hands on nuclear materials.

Daniel Schearf contributed to this report from Sevastopol, Crimea.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.