Yesterday, Ukrainian fighters besieged in the Azovstal steelworks surrendered to Russian forces, after a battle lasting almost three months. There’s no doubt this was a surrender: the Ukrainian fighters – who belong to the Azov regiment – were taken in buses to Russian-held territory in Eastern Ukraine (as shown above).
However, that’s not the impression you’d get scanning Western media outlets like the BBC, CNN and the New York Times. These outlets described what happened as an “evacuation” marking an “end to the combat mission”. Here are the headlines:
• ‘Mariupol: Hundreds of besieged Ukrainian soldiers evacuated’ – The BBC
• ‘Hundreds of Ukrainian troops evacuated from Mariupol steelworks after 82-day assault’ – The Guardian
• ‘Azovstal steelworks evacuated as Ukraine ends combat mission in Mariupol’ – The Times
• ‘The battle for Mariupol nears end as Ukraine declares ‘combat mission’ over’ – CNN
• ‘Ukraine ends bloody battle for Mariupol; Azovstal fighters evacuated’ – The Washington Post
• ‘Ukrainian authorities declare an end to the combat mission in Mariupol after weeks of Russian siege’ – The New York Times
In war, an “evacuation” is when you send boats, planes or vehicles to transport your own troops away from a hostile location. Dunkirk was an evacuation. It is not when the enemy transports your troops to a location under his control after those troops have surrendered. That’s called a “surrender”.
Despite reporting where the Ukrainian fighters were taken (Russian-held territory), some of the articles above don’t even use the word ‘surrender’. One is reminded of Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf – nicknamed “Comical Ali” – who became known for his preposterous claims about U.S. losses during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Note: this has nothing to do with being ‘pro-Russia’. This is about journalists using language that actually corresponds with reality. Which prompts the question of why? Why are they going around describing things in transparently misleading terms?
I can think of two possible reasons. One is they don’t want to hurt Ukrainian morale. Perhaps Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines read Western media, or at least read what is written about Western media, and there was a concern that if they saw the headline ‘Mariupol Garrison Surrenders’, they might become dispirited.
The second possible reason is they don’t want Western audiences to believe that Ukraine is faltering, as they might then become less willing to support military aid or sanctions. (Note: I’m not saying that Ukraine is faltering – I have no idea who has the upper hand – only that news of a surrender might lead Western audiences to believe that it’s faltering.)
Of the two reasons, I’d suggest the first is more plausible. Maybe every outlet received the same press release with notes like: ‘Keep ‘surrender’ out of the headline. Use ‘evacuation’ instead.’ This is pure speculation, of course, but I don’t know how else to explain why so many outlets used such bizarre language.
Now, I could perhaps understand if it was British troops surrendering. But it wasn’t: the fighters who surrendered were Ukrainian – and from a regiment that just a few years ago Western media outlets were describing as “far-right” and even “neo-Nazi”.
Not only are the media giving us an inaccurate picture of the most serious armed conflict since the Cold War; they’re doing so despite the fact that it’s not even our troops fighting. They’re running interference for a foreign government – and regardless of how just that government’s cause may be, this puts us in very thorny territory.
We’re not dealing with celebrity gossip here. Western audiences have a right to be accurately informed about this war.