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Sifting Ukrainian Fact From Ukrainian Fiction

FEB. 13, 2015

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    Video of Senator James Inhofe presenting photographs to the Senate on Wednesday of what he said were Russian tanks in Ukraine. Two of the images were in fact taken in 2008 during Russia's war with Georgia. Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story

    Open Source

    By ROBERT MACKEY

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    When Senator James Inhofe took the floor of the Senate on Wednesday to argue for arming the Ukrainian military, he brought with him what he called indisputable proof of Moscow’s support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine — a poster with three large photographs of “Russian tanks entering Ukrainian territory.”

    In his prepared remarks, Mr. Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, said the images of “Russian troops in T-72 tanks, B.T.R. armored personnel carriers, and B.M.P. infantry fighting vehicles entering eastern Ukraine” constituted evidence of “an invasion of the Ukraine by Russia.”

    While none of his colleagues saw anything amiss with the presentation, The Washington Free Beacon, a friendly conservative news outlet Mr. Inhofe’s staff provided the same images to, acknowledged on Thursday that “serious questions have been raised about the authenticity of some of the photographs” by bloggers with access to Google Image search.

    As Gawker reported, just hours after they were posted online by the Beacon, a group effort to vet the photographs had revealed that one of the images, taken in October, actually showed separatists in Ukraine, while the other two did show Russian troops, but driving near Russia’s border with Georgia more than six years ago during the brief conflict in South Ossetia.

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    .@GrahamWJenkins Also from Russo-Georgian War. You can see structures in other photographs: http://t.co/GxTVhzAA1o

    — Dan Trombly (@stcolumbia) Feb. 11, 2015

    In a news release posted online in advance of his speech, Mr. Inhofe said that the photographs “were given to me by Lt. Col. Semen Semenchenko, the commander of Donbas Volunteer Assault Battalion and newly elected member of the parliament of Ukraine, during our meeting on 13 Nov. last year” in Washington.

    Asked by Rosie Gray of BuzzFeed to explain how the error had come about, Senator Inhofe’s office said that the images were provided during a meeting with a large delegation of Ukrainian commanders and officials who were in Washington last year when he was the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. A list of the participants in the meeting showed that it included three members of Ukraine’s Parliament and a former Pentagon official, Phillip Karber.

    Mr. Karber, who has advocated better equipping Ukraine’s military since early in the conflict, told BuzzFeed that he had only meant to confirm to Mr. Inhofe’s aides that a second set of images, showing the badly mangled corpses of Ukrainian fighters, were authentic.

    As questions were being asked about why the senator’s office did not vet the images online itself, Mr. Inhofe — who is perhaps best-known for calling global warming “a hoax” that can be refuted with “biblical evidence” — revealed some apparent confusion about the mechanics of digital photography. He said in a statement that the Ukrainians “gave us these photos in print form, as if” they “came directly from a camera.”

    The debunking of the senator’s evidence, which came as the State Department accused Russia on Friday of deploying artillery and rocket systems around a contested town in eastern Ukraine, was quickly seized upon by Kremlin-run news sites which argue that all proof of Moscow’s involvement is fabricated.

    While there appears to be much more compelling evidence of Russian military involvement in Ukraine, this is also not the first time that Ukraine’s government has presented photographic evidence that was later revealed to be false. In fact, one of the images showing Russian tanks in South Ossetia in 2008 that was provided to Mr. Inhofe was posted on the website of Ukraine’s foreign ministry on Aug. 1 as supposed proof that “a long convoy of armored vehicles and several KAMAZ with armed men crossed Ukrainian-Russian border” one day earlier.

    Sifting fact from fiction in Ukraine remains a challenge nearly a year after the conflict erupted after weeks of peaceful demonstrations in the capital, Kiev.

    Earlier this week, a BBC News investigation of a pivotal moment in the transformation of last year’s peaceful protest movement in Kiev into deadly violence — the killing of dozens of protesters on Feb. 20 — suggested that the security forces might not have used deadly force until after they were first shot at by armed supporters of the pro-Western demonstrators.

    “Snipers at Maidan: The Untold Ukraine Story,” an investigative report on the events of Feb. 20, 2014, in Kiev. BBC Newsnight, via YouTube Correction: February 14, 2015

    An earlier version of this column misstated the day that old photographs of Russian tanks were published by The Washington Free Beacon. The images were posted online on Thursday, not Wednesday.

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