WASHINGTON — For weeks, Washington and Moscow have waged a bitter war of words over the fragile situation in Ukraine. But this week, the tenor of the discussion turned tantalizingly conspiratorial.
On the Russian side, Moscow accused the U.S. of plotting a fascist crackdown in eastern Ukraine with the help of an obscure American contractor and a far-right nationalist party.
On the American side, Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russian special agents of orchestrating riots in eastern Ukrainian as a pretext to war.
With no way to substantiate either claim, the press was left collecting denials from the various cast of characters ensnared in the two conspiracy theories — an effort that raised more questions than answers.
The verbal food fight began with Kerry’s fiery testimony at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week, which reflected the Obama administration’s growing concern that the unrest raging in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk could offer Russian President Vladimir Putin an excuse for an armed incursion there.
Pro-Russian demonstrators seized an array of government buildings in recent days and demanded the right to secede from Ukraine, leading Kiev to send troops to retake the compounds. This week, Kiev forces reclaimed a regional administration building in Kharkiv from pro-Russian forces while armed men retained control of a security-service building in Luhansk.
U.S. officials worry that Putin is trying to force Ukraine into a clash with the protesters so Moscow would be able to justify an invasion on humanitarian grounds. That was the same playbook the Russian strongman used before invading and annexing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula earlier this year.
"No one is fooled by what could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea," Kerry said. "These efforts are as ham-handed as they are transparent, and quite simply what we see from Russia is illegal and illegitimate effort to destabilize a sovereign state and create a contrived crisis with paid operatives across an international boundary."
The State Department did not offer evidence to back up Kerry’s claim. And Kerry’s counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, didn’t take the accusations sitting down.
In a retaliatory press conference in Moscow, the Russian Foreign Minister dismissed claims that Russia played a role in the disturbances in southeastern Ukraine. "One shouldn’t lay one’s own fault at somebody else’s door."
The Kremlin proceeded to propagate a separate conspiracy of its own: That the private American security contractor Greystone had joined forces with the far-right Ukrainian group Right Sector to neutralize pro-Russian residents in eastern Ukraine. The allegation came in the form of a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry, but "experts" in Russian media quickly began amplifying the allegation. "We are talking about the continuation of the U.S. policy of military intervention in Ukraine and a preparatory stage for a massacre in southeastern Ukraine," said Igor Korotchenko, the editor-in-chief of Russian National Defence Magazine, in an interview.
When contacted about the Greystone allegations, the Russian Embassy in Washington forwarded an article published by the Kremlin-run Voice of Russia news broadcaster. The article discusses a "buildup" of Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine "involving some 150 American mercenaries from Greystone, dressed in uniforms of the Ukrainian special task police unit Sokol."
But the Russians weren’t able to provide evidence for their allegations either.
In a phone call with Foreign Policy, a Greystone spokesperson said "the company does not currently nor do we have any plan to send employees to Ukraine." A State Department official, speaking on background, added that "we do not have any U.S. military units in Ukraine."
Greystone itself offers grist for Russian conspiracy theorists. The spokesperson would not give her name or provide basic details about the firm’s history. She also denied that the group was ever affiliated with the notorious private security firm Blackwater, despite contradicting claims on the firm’s own website.
With the level of tension in Ukraine as high as it is, it’s probably a good thing that the two superpowers are exchanging conspiracy theories as opposed to artillery shells. But with little credible evidence on the ground to bolster either side’s claims, it’s increasingly difficult to differentiate fact from fiction.