In 2014, the West was faced with several major international crises, the most notable of which are the spread of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the Moscow-backed insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, which eventually escalated into a full-blown aggression. Yet while the ISIS threat is met with a firm response, both militarily and diplomatically (air strikes and official designations as terrorists), the response to separatists fighting the Ukrainian government has been incomparably milder, going as far as appeals for a peaceful resolution of the conflict issued by world leaders. Even though the exact naming of the armed separatist groups differs significantly in Western media, the tendency is to call gunmen in Ukraine “rebels,” rather than the more negative “militants,” left to ISIS. However, there are facts that suggest that the two groups have a lot more in common than the world would like to believe.
We are not aiming to prove the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics and the Islamic state are the same thing. There is obviously a difference in the scale of atrocities, yet the similarities suggest that a change of Western attitude may be in order.
Execution and torture videos
Probably the most shocking development in the ISIS crisis was the beheading of as many as five people, proudly videotaped and posted on the Internet. Those videos have sparked international outrage. An attempt to emulate such medieval atrocity was undertaken in the east Ukrainian town of Horlivka. The local “rebel” commander and suspected Russian intelligence operative Igor Bezler posted a video of alleged execution of two Ukrainian POWs with a threat to execute more each hour, unless Kyiv released captured separatist militants. This attempt at propaganda was later debunked by multiple sources. However, later Bezler at least once threatened to execute a British journalist attempting to interview him. Photos and videos with evidence of torture have appeared during the 6-month conflict.
However, the video channels of the militants feature videos of tortured Ukrainian POWs quite often, one of the particularly gruesome being an interrogation of a dying Aidar fighter (warning, 18+).
Humiliating prisoners on video is also widespread, as seen in the recent video published by The “Republic of Novorossiya” channel – a presumed Ukrainian volunteer fighter being tied to a lamp post in the East Ukrainian town of Zuhres.
Human rights abuse
While the “rebels” in Ukraine don’t have a habit of taping the worst of their atrocities, that doesn’t mean they do not happen. Human Rights Watch has documented widespread detainment and torture of civilians and members of the press by separatists. Evidence of executions has also surfaced with the discovery of a mass grave in the town of Sloviansk weeks after Ukrainian government reestablished control over the area. This widespread persecution of dissenting voices and journalists echoes ISIS activities in the captured regions of Iraq, if lacking in scale. Various evidence also suggests the separatists use human shields by establishing firing positions in residential buildings and shell residential areas to shift the blame on Ukrainian forces.
Recently, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) began the process of identifying locations of concentration camps and mass graves created by the militants in Donbas and even placing them on a map. The advisor to the SBU drew a parallel with the events of twenty years ago in mass concentration camps in Srebrenica (Bosnia and Herzegovina), where violent and inhumane treatment was also performed, noting that the judiciary system has been replaced by retaliatory troikas that imprison people without charge or trial, torture them in basement cellars, and execute prisoners by shooting. Former POWs tell gruesome stories of their imprisonment, and militants themselves tell of terror, racketeering, rapes during interrogations.
ISIS, like many other terrorist organizations, is motivated by a radical religious doctrine, attracting followers from all over the world. While ISIS’s particular brand of Islam has been condemned by Muslim clerics all over the world, they consider their religion the only true one and will not hesitate to brutally persecute followers of others. Again, we find striking similarities in the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, where one unit is actually called Russian Orthodox Army, bearing disturbing ties with ultra-orthodox nationalists in Russia-proper and being obsessed with “reconquering” of Ukraine. This fundamentalism, condemned by the Ukrainian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, goes beyond rhetoric, with widespread evictions, kidnappings, murders and denial of worship against Protestants, Catholics and Ukrainian Orthodox worshippers independent from Moscow. According to New York Times, the rebels view “Orthodox Christianity as a force to unite these now divided Slavic lands and also their own fractured movement”.
Redrawing national borders
One of the striking things about ISIS is their blatant disregard of nation’s borders agreed by international law, their immediate aim being to unite Sunni-inhabited lands across Iraq and Syria. Even more outrageous are ISIS claims of the whole Muslim world evidenced by their propaganda. Likewise, the separatists in East Ukraine stretch their claims to the entirety of the historical regions of Novorossiya, currently the South-eastern regions of Ukraine, despite the population of the area being cold to the idea at best. This dismemberment of Ukraine is a part of a broader vision of a “Russian World from Vladivostok to Brest,” implying violating the territorial integrity of many post-Soviet states (including Belarus, the Baltics, and Kazakhstan) to unite all the Russian-speaking territories under one banner.
Reign of terror
The few reports that emerge from ISIS-occupied territories bring stories of strict Sharia law and lack of basic services like electricity and running water, the locals scared into submission. Likewise, the large swaths of eastern Ukraine under “rebel” control see an emerging police state turning life into a nightmare for the few remaining pro-Ukrainians there. Recently, Luhansk separatist authorities reportedly criminalized homosexuality in defense of “Christian values.” Life for separatist supporters isn’t easy either – shortages of running water, power, and even food are widespread. The humanitarian aid may not be much help, with sources reporting it being stolen and then sold in local stores.
Essentially, 2014 saw the rise of two religious fundamentalist groups aiming to redraw national borders and impose a regime of fear and persecution against minorities, characteristic with violent propaganda and threats towards the integrity of multiple countries. However, while ISIS faces a broad military coalition of European and Middle Eastern states, Ukraine is denied as much as defensive weapons to counter the threat and is expected to conduct a peace process with the very “rebels” that have been abusing and killing Ukrainians for half a year. Changing this strikingly different attitude requires more than one article, but at least the readers would be doing Ukraine a favor if they at least stop calling the terrorists “rebels.”