Journalist says it’s too soon to accuse Russia of war crimes

On Balance with Leland Vittert

CHICAGO (NewsNation) — President Joe Biden and other world leaders have called for Russian President Vladimir Putin to be put on trial for war crimes over his forces’ actions after images of civilians massacred on the streets of Kyiv suburb Bucha circulated around the world Tuesday.

One American journalist, however, has been reluctant to echo such sentiments and even called out a New York Times’ article on their editorial coverage of the discovery in Bucha, citing inconsistencies on Twitter.

“Conclusions being drawn from this story far exceed what it proves,” Aaron Maté wrote. “Some bodies were next to ‘what appears to be an impact crater’ — aka shelling during battle, not execution by gunshot. Hence why NYT also acknowledges that the “causes of death are unclear.”

Wednesday evening, Maté — who is a contributor to The Nation and the host of Pushback, airing on The Grayzone — debated both his reluctance in determining the events in Bucha as war crimes as well as his critique of the NYT article during an episode of “On Balance with Leland Vittert”.

Leland Vittert: Do you believe that there were horrific crimes committed against the Ukrainian people? Or is that still up for debate?

Aaron Maté: No, I think this is a war. It’s pretty obvious that there are atrocities being committed by Russia inside Ukraine. Absolutely.

Vittert: When say atrocities, do you mean war crimes per se?

Maté: That’s up for a court to decide, but I wouldn’t be surprised if war crimes have been committed. Yes.

Part of the problem is — as the Washington Post reported last week — Ukraine has militarized its cities, it’s putting soldiers inside residential neighborhoods, which, then, makes, technically, a war crimes prosecution difficult to prove.

But if I were to bet, has Russia committed war crimes you could prove in court? I would bet Yes.

Vittert: We can all agree that if people have their hands tied behind the back their back and a bullet hole in their head that there’s no justification for that?

Maté: Absolutely.

Vittert: This was your tweet … if you believe that war crimes are being committed, why selectively edit The New York Times story to call it into question?

Maté: How did I selectively edit the NYT story?

Vittert: Because it went on to say that there were other bodies that had their hands tied behind their back and shot.

Maté: Absolutely. But the problem there is we don’t know who shot those people. That’s why I also called in that tweet thread for a full investigation. The best thing you can do is get forensic pathologists on the ground to examine the bodies. That can help determine the manner of death and the causes.

Maté: It’s funny you raised that example, because I’ve covered a very infamous case where, if you want to talk about Syria, in April 2018, Syria was accused of committing a chemical attack in the town of Duma where dozens of people were found dead.

And the U.S. — along with U.K. and France without waiting for UN authorization or an independent investigation — bombed Syria in retaliation.

A year later, the (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) OPCW, after a long investigation, came out with a report that basically aligned with the U.S. narrative that Syria was guilty.

But then came an extraordinary series of leaks — and I’ve spent two plus years covering — where the OPCW’s actual investigators, who went to Duma, wrote up a report saying there was no evidence at all (of) the chemical attack, and their findings were doctored and then censored.

So actually when it comes to Syria and an investigation that was done, there was a major cover up being done to falsely blame Syria, and whitewash — who I think with the who the real culprits were — which are sectarian death squads on the ground.

Vittert: What I’m interested in is, why you’re so interested in calling into question, say, something that happened in Syria on one side but your Twitter account is pretty void of the bad things that Vladimir Putin’s army has did?

Maté: I’m not here to debate the contents of my Twitter account.

Vittert: You seem very interested in the couple of things that might be good for the Kremlin, and not the mass of things that aren’t.

Maté: Well, look, when it comes to the serious story, I’m concerned with a massive cover up of a massacre of civilians that was falsely blamed on Syria — if you believe the inspectors whose findings were censored. That has huge geopolitical implications that a international watchdogs such as the OPCW is being compromised to basically justify U.S. airstrikes and U.S. sanctions.

When it comes to Russia, I, again, I’ll be very clear, I would not be surprised at all if you can prove that Russia committed war crimes inside inside Ukraine.

My specific objection here was a New York Times story that is now being used by advocates for military intervention in Ukraine — something that I think threatens a nuclear holocaust — and I’m concerned about specific points from that story being overblown, which often happens in stories like this.

Vittert: Do you worry at all that as a really influential person in America and in the American ecosystem of media, that when you amplify the concerns and the questions that are the same talking points that we hear out of Russia, that it gives them fuel and that they then feed that back into their propaganda machine?

Maté: I’m concerned by putting out factual information and the test of that is whether I’m being accurate or not. If I’m not being accurate, which is the job of a journalist, then I’ll happily correct myself.

Vittert: Isn’t part of accuracy giving the whole story — not just questioning three lines?

Maté: Part of the problem is this: there’s no shortage of reporting on Russian atrocities. There’s no shortage of that.

The U.S. media outlets have done a good job documenting Russian atrocities. I’m concerned, though, by a U.S. media that is constantly taking … Ukrainian government claims on faith — many of which … turned out to be false — when the aim of the Ukrainian government is very clear: they want to draw the world into a world war. That’s obvious from what they’re doing. They want more weapons.

And so, it’s all the more important in these situations to be cautious. And that’s why I began this conversation by saying we need an independent investigation in places like Bucha.

And by the way, if you mentioned the AP, there’s an article by my colleagues at the Grayzone that was recently posted that raises questions about some of the AP reporters who were embedding with the Azov battalion.

Vittert: I’ll end on something that you and I can agree with: there’s been a lot of underreporting of some of the war crimes that have been captured on video created by the … Ukrainians. We’ve talked about it on this program, but many others don’t, which goes to your point about really who we are supporting and why.

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