On Sunday evening (6 March 2022) Radio Free Europe shared a video of a shelling in the humanitarian access road on the north-west outskirts of Kyiv in which Tatyana Perebeynos, an accountant, and her children Nikita, 18, and Alise, 9, were tragically killed. The targeting of civilians — especially unarmed civilians — fleeing conflict is a despicable act and a war crime, and it is perfectly understandable why the Ukrainian defenders of the city would want the world to see this footage. The video, ‘Russian Shelling Kills Ukrainian Civilians Fleeing Irpin’ (YouTube, 6 March 2022), is deeply distressing viewing and rightly comes with a viewer discretion notice. Russian military sources have denied the shelling, stating that it does not target civilians.
Naturally, the international media has picked up on this story. The British Mail Online, reporting the incident, describes ‘a devoted mother-of-two who was mercilessly killed alongside her young children by Russian shelling during a ceasefire.’ Yet, the video raises a number of questions about responsibility. There is no clearly discernible sound of an incoming shell, which does have a distinctive whoosh seconds before the blast. In this video this sound is either absent or unclear, leading to the possibility that the blast was produced by either a landmine or an IED. And it is not clear, regardless of what caused the explosion, who was responsible.
We cannot lose sight of the fact that this is a conflict situation. The developing war in Ukraine is a complex conflict involving not only two belligerent sides, but any number of covert operators. While it may appear obvious that the Russian army is the guilty party, and this may well be the case, this conflict is being watched closely around the world. It does not serve Russia well to be seen violating a ceasefire and shelling civilians in a humanitarian evacuation corridor. But the propaganda value of footage like this — 231,888 views in four days and intense international media coverage — is massive. Ukraine is looking for international support, and efforts are being made across Europe to pressure NATO into imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine; a move which would without question lead to an escalation of the conflict by bringing NATO into the war against Russia. It is very much, then, in Ukraine’s interests to share this kind of footage.
Does Ukraine or covert international forces acting on the side of Ukraine (that is, in their own interests) have a motive then to create an event like this and pass it off to the world as evidence of Russian aggression and criminality? It does of course, but — and we must be careful — this does not mean that this is in fact the case. In conflict situations, especially in conflicts like the war in Ukraine, bad actors — on all sides — do bad things. All we have are the known facts: there was an explosion which caused the deaths of three innocent people, this happened during a ceasefire on a humanitarian evacuation corridor, and each side is blaming the other.
We must then look more closely at this video for any signs of foul play, and indeed there are a number of factors that lead in this direction. Firstly, there is the fact of the video itself. There was a video journalist on the scene at the very moment of the explosion with his camera pointed almost directly at the place where the people were killed. There are conflict journalists and photographers who work their entire careers and never get this close to ‘the action.’ But it happens. Andriy Dubchak, reporting for Radio Free Europe, may just have been in the right place at the right time to capture what has become one of the defining moments of the early days of this war. But Dubchak is not exactly what one would call a neutral journalist.
Andriy Dubchak has been a correspondent and photojournalist for Radio Svoboda since 2003 and had a front row seat in Kyiv during the Maidan revolution of 2014; when the ultra-nationalist (Nazi) Svoboda Party — formed in 1991 under the name Social-National Party of Ukraine (a play on the German Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) — was instrumental, along with Nazi paramilitary groups, in ousting the democratically elected Yanukovych government. As a freelancer, he markets himself as the ‘Donbas Frontliner,’ and this is interesting for a whole host of reasons. The Donbas is the region in south-eastern Ukraine where in 2014 Donetsk and Luhansk declared their independence from Ukraine. The ‘frontline’ against the Donbas is the openly Nazi Azov battalion, a unit of the Ukrainian army that wears the insignia of the Waffen SS ‘Das Reich’ Panzer Division. And Dubchak does not exactly hide his partisan and nationalist sympathies.
Then we have the media outlet, Radio Free Europe (RFE) — probably the sketchiest news media organisation ever established. One does not need to dig much to get an idea of what Radio Free Europe is. Wikipedia introduces RFE as simply ‘a United States government-funded organization that broadcasts and reports news, information, and analysis.’ But ‘United States government-funded’ is a way of putting things that does a lot of heavy lifting. In a 2019 interview on C-SPAN, Kenneth Osgood, a professor of History and a specialist on US politics and diplomacy, while discussing the activities of the US Central Intelligence Agency (the CIA) during the Cold War, outlined the origins of the broadcaster:
One of [the CIA’s] earliest and most important initiatives was the creation of Radio Free Europe. This actually was the brainchild in some ways of George Kennan … he had in mind, we need to fight the Communists at their own game. We need to fight fire with fire. … In time it would become the most powerful radio station in the world…
Essentially, Radio Free Europe was in the business of advocating the overthrow of governments. Frank Wisner, one of the founding intelligence officers of the CIA, played a major role in the agency’s operations through the 1950s and it was him who was responsible for the creation of Radio Free Europe. Of course, this was not done by the CIA directly. It was set up by Wisner’s CIA shell operation, the OPC (the Office of Policy Coordination). US intelligence documents declassified in the early 1990s give us an idea of what the OPC was up to during the Cold War. These National Security Council memos include the coördination of guerrilla warfare and ‘black propaganda’ among the responsibilities of Wisner’s OPC.
Osgood fills in the blanks:
The US Central Intelligence Agency has also been part of waging campaigns of disinformation. One of its missions is to engage in ‘black propaganda.’ That’s different than say ‘white propaganda,’ means we know where it’s coming from and we know it’s authentic. We know at least the sponsor. Black propaganda means we don’t know the sponsor, and it may or may not be true. It’s meant to be disruptive and incriminating or to create problems. And that was a major focal point of CIA activities. … And now we have an administration that is in fact adopting and welcoming and embracing those same methods; the same methods put forward by Adolf Hitler in Germany, and the Nazis.
We do not know who was responsible for the shelling or explosion that killed Tatyana Perebeynos and her children. In the absence of a proper investigation, there is no way to say definitively who was responsible. While it would seem likely, given that this is an active war situation, that the Russian army is to blame, there are elements to this story which cast reasonable doubt on the official narrative. We know, for example, of the existence of ‘Ground Department;’ a CIA programme in the United States for the training of Ukrainian ultra-nationalist paramilitaries, and here we have another — dark — connection to the CIA in the shape of Radio Free Europe and its link to a right-wing partisan journalist who just happened to be at the right place at the right time and to have his camera pointing at the exact spot where the explosion happened.
Call it the fog of war, but we have a set of realities on the ground in which information is difficult to trust. Civilians get killed in war, and so this may well have been the Russians breaking the ceasefire and targeting civilians. But this would not be good for Russia. It would not be in Russia’s interests to do this. Breaking a ceasefire and targeting civilians gives the Russian army no strategic advantage and only worsens its already awful reputation abroad. Yet, this story does serve the interests of those who would like to see public opinion over Europe add to the pressure on NATO to intervene. Then we have a freelance right-wing journalist, accredited by a CIA ‘media’ operation, at the scene. Well, if that’s not very convenient — nothing is.
Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.
C-SPAN, ‘Cold War, CIA and Radio Free Europe,’ 2019 American Historical Association Interviews (4 January 2019), accessed 11 March 2022: https://www.c-span.org/video/?456730-4/cold-war-cia-radio-free-europe
Zach Dorfman, ‘CIA-trained Ukrainian paramilitaries may take central role if Russia invades,’ YahooNews! (13 January 2022), accessed 8 March 2022: https://news.yahoo.com/cia-trained-ukrainian-paramilitaries-may-take-central-role-if-russia-invades-185258008.html
Andriy Dubchak, ‘Russian Shelling Kills Ukrainian Civilians Fleeing Irpin (6 March 2022), accessed 11 March 2022: https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-ukraine-irpin-civilians-shelled/31739089.html
Kenneth Osgood, ‘The C.I.A.’s Fake News Campaign,’ The New York Times (13 October 2017), accessed 11 March 2022: https://archive.ph/KE0GO#selection-1891.0-1891.31
Andrei Tapalaga, ‘CIA Secretly Training Ukrainians on “How To Kill Russians,”’ Medium (18 January 2022), accessed 11 March 2022: https://medium.com/my-reality-check/cia-secretly-training-ukrainians-on-how-to-kill-russians-b06b51c7346a
Jacob Thorburn, ‘Murdered as they fled: First pictures of mother, son, 18, and daughter, nine, who were all wiped out by Putin’s bombs as they tried to flee city of Irpin during sham ‘ceasefire’ in photo that sickened the world,’ Mail Online (9 March 2022), accessed 11 March 2022: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10592485/Tatyana-Perebeynos-cut-alongside-two-children-Russian-ceasefire-shelling-Irpin.html
Documents of the National Security Council – sixth supplement, Edited by Paul Kesaris (1993), University Publications of America: https://www.bsb-muenchen.de/mikro/lit2857.pdf
‘Russian Shelling Kills Ukrainian Civilians Fleeing Irpin,’ Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (6 March 2022), accessed 11 March 2022: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XH34SIk6yIo&ab_channel=RadioFreeEurope%2FRadioLiberty