Prachatai has fact-checked the statement given by Evgeny Tomikhin, Russian Ambassador to Thailand, at a Thai-only media conference on 15 March and found that among the facts, there were contested and misleading claims and baseless accusations regarding the invasion of Ukraine, which he consistently referred to as a “special military operation”.
The press briefing was held inside the Russian Embassy in Bangkok with about 50 reporters allowed entry, a restriction explained as a measure to prevent the spread of Covid-19 . Khaosod English, BBC Thai and Thai Enquirer reported that no foreign media outlets were allowed to attend the event.
Apart from Tomikhin’s statement of about 30 minutes and an hour of questions and answers, the Russian ambassador talked about the long-standing good relations between Thailand and Russia and the upcoming 155th anniversary of relations this year, Russia’s appreciation of Thailand’s diplomatic stance of impartiality, while expressing understanding of the heavy pressure from the United States and western countries to have Thailand and other developing countries join the United Nations resolution to denounce Russia on 2 March.
On the invasion of Ukraine, he explained that the war did not start two weeks ago, but was the result of a series of rejections by the west and the US of Russia’s attempts to prevent the expansion of NATO influence and of Ukrainian hostilities against Russian people in the Donbas region.
The Russian ambassador also accused Ukraine of possessing biological research facilities that are sponsored by the US. He claimed the one of the laboratories in Ukraine, of 200 located along the Russian and Chinese borders, has been testing a project codenamed UB4 that aims to send infected migrating birds into Russia as biological weapons.
Despite being asked by media to address the difference between a ‘special military operation’ and war, the crackdown on independent media, and civilian casualties, especially among children, Tomikhin insisted that Russia’s top priority is to demilitarise the Ukrainian armed forces, minimising civilian casualties, to protect people in Donbas region and to provide humanitarian assistance to the civilians escaping conflict.
He used a ‘whatabout’ kind of argument with a statement that Ukrainian media have also been shut down after opposing the government’s stance, and the impunity enjoyed by extremist armed forces in Luhansk and Donetsk who have killed civilians and reporters in the past 8 years of conflict, the deaths and disappearance of Russian reporters during the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia, and US attacks against civilian targets in the invasion of Iraq.
Prachatai has checked the Ambassador’s claims.
Tomikhin: No western media ever mentioned the tragedy in Donbas, where the Ukrainian armed forces have been shelling for the past 8 years, causing 13,000 civilian deaths
Check result: False
Media under Kremlin’s control often report that the Ukrainian military have killed 13,000 citizens in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine.
However, a report from UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which maintains a Human Rights Monitoring Mission on the ground, found that the war in Eastern Ukraine had claimed 13,000-14,000 lives since 2014. Among them, 3,000 were civilians, 5,600 were Russian-sponsored rebels and 4,100 were the Ukrainian soldiers.
Tomikhin: The US Department of State said there were biological research facilities in Ukraine.
Check result: Correct, but misleading
For a few days, the Russian authorities have repeatedly accused Ukraine of having a biological weapons development programme, based on a statement by the US State Department that Ukraine has biological and pathogen research facilities.
However, having biological and pathogen research facilities is not equivalent to having a biological weapons development programme. Many countries have facilities that conduct research on pathogens, pandemics and other biological materials.
Moreover, Russia has never shown any evidence to prove their claim, other than the accusations from the Russian government. The UN has also stated that they had never been “made aware” of any biological weapons programme in Ukraine.
Tomikhin: Ukraine aims to send infected migratory birds into Russia as biological weapons , a scheme that endangers Russia and other countries.
Check result: Baseless
On 10 March, the Russian permanent representative to the UN claimed that Ukraine has a secret plan to use migratory birds as way of spreading biological weapons in Russia. The United Nations high representative for disarmament immediately said the UN was “not aware of any biological weapons programmes” in Ukraine. Derided in the international media as ‘insane’, ‘wild’ and ‘crazy’, the unfounded accusations were widely seen as a possible pretext for a retaliatory chemical or biological attack by Russia.
There is also information stating that the US had abandoned a programme to use birds to guide bombs in 1953.
Tomikhin: An orchestra in the west was prohibited from playing music composed by the Russian Tchaikovsky, as a form of sanction against Russia
Check result: Misleading
This accusation is based on the decision by the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra in the United Kingdom to cancel a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” scheduled for 18 March 2022.
The orchestra’s director explained that the decision was made by orchestra members themselves because of the way the music glorifies Russian military action against Napoleon. Traditionally, performances include cannon fire, a feature that the orchestra and venue staff found improper.
The Cardiff Philharmonic confirmed that they will still perform 3 other pieces of Russian music soon and that there had been no intention to ban all Russian music.
Tomikhin: Where were UNICEF and other organisations in the past 8 year of Ukraine's operation in Donbas?
Check result: False
Tomikhin’s rhetorical question is intended to be interpreted as claiming that the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and other international organisations have taken no role since the conflict in Donbas broke out in 2014. In fact, UNICEF has long been working on fact-checking and calling for children’s wellbeing to be protected.
A report from UNICEF in 2020 warned that 500,000 children were at risk from the fighting, especially from explosive devices and landmines deployed by both sides.
Beside UNICEF, other international organisations have also addressed issues in the conflict area. For example, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has provided services to refugees and Amnesty International (AI) has denounced torture and human rights violations by both sides in Donbas.
Tomikhin: Russia never attacked civilian infrastructure, never shelled cities.
Check result: False
There are numerous reports from witnesses and observers of Russian attacks on civilian targets, killing many civilians, such as repeated artillery and missile attacks on residential areas in Kiev and other cities, an ariel attack on a maternity hospital in Mariupol on 10 March, mortar shelling of fleeing refugees in Irpin on 6 March, etc.
The UN has reported that at least 691 civilians have died in Ukraine, 48 of whom were children, as of 15 March. The real figure is expected to be much higher.
Tomikhin: People may not know that the Ukrainian armed forces have been hiding weapons inside kindergartens and civilian areas.
Check result: Baseless
This accusation originates from the Russian Ministry of Defence and has circulated in Russian state-controlled media without any proof being shown.
The Russian authorities also made allegations that the Ukrainian military were hiding inside the hospital that was bombed in Mariupol. No proof of this has been shown either.
In any case, the bombing of civilian targets, even if they include military targets, is a war crime.
Tomikhin: In the past 8 years, Ukrainian journalists were killed with impunity.
Check result: True
A report from the Committee to Protect Journalists records 3 journalists murdered between 2014 and 2022, with a strong presumption that they were killed because of their reporting of government corruption and crime. There were at least 6 who died during reporting from battle areas. In none of the cases have the perpetrators been brought to justice.
Tomikhin: Ukrainian media has also been shut down for taking a different stance from the government.
Check result: True
As soon as Russian troops invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainian government suspended the licences of 3 media outlets for “supporting Russia”. The Kiev government accused the three of circulating propaganda.
The spokesperson of European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said such a suspension restricts the free press. The UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif had mentioned about the Kiev government crackdown on activists, journalists and opposition parties for challenging it or investigating corruptions since 2021, around the time the Russia-Ukraine tension began to rise.
Tomikhin: Russian media licences have been suspended for violating the conditions of their registration for reporting news against Russia.
Check result: False
Russian media has been censored by a new law that criminalizes “false information” such as using the word “war” instead of “special military operation”. This has led to some opposition media outlets shutting down.
The Russian police arrested many reporters for reporting the anti-war protests in Russia.
Tomikhin: The UN General Assembly approved a resolution condemning the glorification of Nazism with only 2 countries voting against it, the US and Ukraine.
Check result: True, but misleading
Tomikhin’s statement was made without providing context of the decisions of the US and Ukraine.
The US had explained that the 2020 resolution includes a clause that require states to pass laws to prohibit the glorification of Nazism, but any such law would contradict the constitutional right to free speech. The US courts have adjudicated that although Nazism is despised in American society, Americans have the right to express their ideas either in favour or against Nazism.
The Ukrainian government stated that in its judgement, the resolution was a political ploy by the Russian government. Previously, Russia had attempted to delegitimise the Ukrainian government by accusing it of being controlled by radical Nazis.
This claim was eventually used by Russia as one of the justifications for invading Ukraine in February.