Tuesday, February 22, 2022

On propaganda and the Ukraine crisis

Current events in Ukraine are worrying in and of themselves. But they are doubly troubling in how they are being reported, bereft of historical context, full of unsupported assertions. This article will highlight certain evidence that challenges the dominant narrative.

Please note that this article was written in the week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Such state violence must be condemned in the strongest terms. The provocations of NATO and the West do not justify such actions. Nonetheless, it is important to understand a context that goes deeper than the simplistic equations Ukraine=good, Russia=evil. 

By way of introduction

In writing this summary, I am making no claims to having any special insights. I am not a historian or expert in political science. But I can at least bring to light information absent from the daily news.

My view is that the so-called news media in the West (by which I primarily mean Western Europe and North America) are propaganda and entertainment outlets, but not primarily purveyors of reportage. The BBC may be widely respected, but it’s the mouthpiece for the UK government, an institution run by a narcissistic, compulsive liar. It’s odd that anyone would default to believing emissions from that organisation. Their right-wing bias is obvious.

The differences between Western propaganda and Russian propaganda can readily be summarised. First, Western propaganda is less anchored in history, less cogently-argued, and less consistent. Short soundbites float free of any real-world signifiers or ethics, and are hence able to change from one moment to the next. Russian propaganda tends to be based on long-term geopolitical mythology, and hence requires a deep knowledge of history and context. It is not amenable to abbreviation, and requires the sort of patience that Western journalists largely do not have. 

The inability for the Western press to read longer essays results in Putin being labelled a madman, delusional, and immune to negotiation. Nor is it a progressive policy to compare your opponent to Hitler, as Hillary Clinton did in a particularly tone-deaf moment. (No wonder Putin preferred Trump!)

In fact, Putin has deeply-held beliefs on Ukraine that are cogently argued and consistently upheld. We may disagree with his mythological history... and we should, since it’s inherently racist and justifies state violence. But we cannot argue that his ideas don’t exist, that they don’t have roots in previous writers in Russia. I wonder where are the essays by Johnson and Biden explaining their world views? Nowhere to be found, of course, since Western audiences don’t read.

The second substantive difference in the propaganda is that few in Russia believe the government utterances as de facto truth. A healthy cynicism to any official utterance pervades the former Soviet countries. This doesn’t mean that the propaganda has no influence. If you are repeatedly told one thing this will, over time, colour your interpretation of further facts that come your way. This is how a distrust of the EU and NATO has been built up within Russia.

In the West we are more naive. No matter how many times we are lied to, we never seem to develop a critical faculty. We were fed disinformation about 9-11, misled into two Gulf Wars, and lied to about Syria. All of these deceptions were patently obvious, even at the time, but few voices rocked the boat. This bizarre state of affairs culminated with President Trump and all that hot air about “fake news.” But he was only the most obvious symptom of a long decay in critical thinking. This is particularly evident in the current crisis, where Western declarations are taken at face value, despite being run-through with half-truths and distortions

What to do in the face of this torrent of misinformation? My operating principle is to actively seek out multiple interpretations of the same event, and to be equally skeptical of all sides of the story. Facts can be evaluated by the empirical method: any new fact must be tested against the existing body of knowledge. 

I treat Wikipedia as a useful reference, despite the English-language version having a dominant Western bias. On many contentious issues, alternative viewpoints have a secondary presence, or are excised entirely. But with that taken under advisement, Wikipedia nonetheless contains much more detail than typical newspaper articles. Other links are provided to reports from Reuters and other news outlets, articles in Time Magazine, Jacobin, The AtlanticThe Guardian, etc. I don’t link to sources in Russia, even though some of these are helpful in getting a more nuanced appreciation of the situation. Even propaganda is based on facts, or perception of facts. 

By presenting something other than the dominant narrative, I fully realise that I risk being called an apologist for Russia. But this completely misinterprets my motives. As an anarchist, I believe that all state power is inherently corrupt and patriarchal. I condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine as I do the US invasions of Iraq, for example. 

It’s clear to me that in many so-called “democracies” day-to-day decisions are made by a minority of people, controlled by rich individuals and powerful corporations, with the results that are evident in a world of environmental degradation and societal fear. The mere presence of a voting system does not guarantee any sort of freedom or fairness, as is demonstrated repeatedly in the USA, UK, Russia, and Ukraine. Of these countries, we label only Russia a “plutocracy” as a matter of propaganda. And, yes, Putin is a powerful bully. But Obama bombed hospitals and assassinated innocent relatives alongside bin Laden, all while watching the drone coverage as if it was a football game. Putin and Obama, Biden and Johnson, and many others, all represent a system that is morally bankrupt. Continuing to praise one while demonising the other is to simply parrot a party line concocted by people who could, if they wished, remove you from the equation by sending a swat team or drone missile to your house.

It’s easy to point fingers and chant simplistic labels, to label one side “good” and the other “evil.” But that only furthers the divisions that lead, eventually, to armed conflict. To retreat to cartoonish sloganeering is to abandon hope for any better tomorrow. The alternative is to examine the actual motives of a government, which requires getting mired in a swamp of callous deceit and power-hungry operators. That’s never pleasant. But onwards!

Historical background on Ukraine

The current conflicts in Ukraine go back at least as far as World War II. Following that conflagration, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed by the USA and allies. The prime purpose was to act as a bulwark against Soviet aggression. West Germany joined NATO in 1955, impelling the Soviet bloc to form their own counterpart, the Warsaw Pact. This set the stage for the Cold War between the two associations and their member states.

Today the combined military spending of NATO member states exceeds 57% of the global total. It cannot be forgotten, as Western media is wont to do, that NATO is a war machine, in fact the largest on the planet. Reporting on NATO activities as though they are the happy-go-lucky activities of freedom-loving benefactors is counterfactual. NATO does not choose where to intervene based on any ethics or merit, but rather on geopolitical and military-economical realities. 

NATO is aggressively expansionist, having enlarged its membership eight times to date, to include Greece, Turkey, Germany, Spain, Eastern German (as a result of reunification), Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. Subsequently Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and Ukraine have moved for membership. Note how many of these are former Soviet Pact countries or border Russia. If Russia believes themselves to be surrounded by enemies, this is only a statement of fact. Consider also the number of overseas military bases operated by the USA. How many does Russia have? 

Although they didn’t strenuously object to many of these countries joining NATO, it’s long been clear that Russia would not tolerate this in the case of Ukraine. Putin views that country as being inextricably linked to Russian culture. In terms of simple geographical realities, Ukraine under NATO control would mean a military presence along a large stretch of their border. Disregarding this position, Ukrainian President Yushchenko applied to join the NATO Membership Action Plan in 2008, this being the first step in membership. This was the motivation for Russian actions to follow. These actions did not arise out of nowhere or without prior warning, as inept Western commentators claim. 

Ukraine is a large and complex country, with a population over 41 million. It’s impossible to speak of it as a whole, since different regions are distinct in their cultures and politics (much like the USA). Some citizens are sympathetic to Russia while others are eager for greater ties with the West. The elected government of President Yanukovych (2010-14) maintained a balance between different factions, in an environment rife with corruption and other irregularities.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Ukraine’s history is the continuing influence of fascism. Back in 1929 the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists was formed as a far-right ultranationalist organisation, infiltrating existing political parties. In 1942 the OUN splintered into the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) who, despite slaughtered 100,000 Poles, are regarded as heroes throughout Ukraine. The Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU), formed in 1995, claimed the UPA as their heritage. Not only was their name an obvious play on the National-Socialists of Germany, they had a similar ideology, going so far as to adopt the Nazi Wolfsangel symbol as their logo. In 2004 Oleh Tyahnybok became the leader, moderated the image, and changed the party’s name to the All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda.” But this is mere optics; the ideology has not changed. Tyahnybok has spoken out against Russia, communism, and the “Jewish Mafia,” celebrates OUN and UPA , and was even refused entry to the USA for his anti-Semitism (in 2013).

Euromaidan and the coup

In 2013, President Yanukovych decided not to sign an EU agreement, causing increasingly widespread protests in what was soon named Euromaidan (2013). While it’s impossible to disentangle the events of the protests, it’s clear that this was not a straightforward populist uprising. For one, the neo-Nazi Svoboda party had a large presence at many of the actions, including the occupations of government buildings.

A total of 130 deaths occurred during the Euromaidan protests. In some cases witnesses saw the police force acting as perpetrators, while in other cases unknown snipers were blamed, by both protestors and the police themselves. After a mass shooting on 20 February 2014, medical personnel reported attending to wounds from identical bullets on victims from both sides of the conflict. The most exhaustive report on this slaughter is by Ivan Katchanovski, a lecturer at the University of Ottawa. His document contains hundreds of notes and links to video footage. Those with less time might instead watch a German television program (includes graphic content). The essential theory of both investigations is that non-government forces were engaged as snipers, exacerbating an already chaotic situation.

A leaked phone conversation between EU foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton and Estonia’s foreign minister Urmas Paet sheds light on this (listen). In this call, confirmed as genuine by Estonia, Paet surprises Ashton by mentioning the snipers. This means that EU personnel have known of the possibility of third-party shooters from early 2014. Why has there been no investigation by the Ukrainian government? You would think that revolutionaries, once they had taken office, would want to know who had just been shooting their friends dead in the streets. Or perhaps they have no interest in implicating themselves (or their supporters outside Ukraine) in a scandal?

Some have claimed that it must have been the Russians who were behind the 2014 coup. This claim amounts to believing that Russia decided to violently overthrow a Russian-leaning president of Ukraine, by collaborating with a fascist party, one that traces its roots to the Nazis who brutally killed 27 million Russians during World War II. Once this coup was successful, the once-president fled to a safe haven in… Russia. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense.

Instead, its clear that this operation was coordinated by the USA, a country with a long history of fascist associations (Pinochet in Chile, Armas in Guatemala, Somoza in Nicaragua, etc.). They have the incentive: replace a Russian-friendly president with politicians more amenable to Western demands. Another leaked phone conversation, this time between Victoria Nuland, USA Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, and Geoffrey Pyatt, USA Ambassador in Ukraine, confirms this association, beyond doubt (listen). This call was actually reported in Western media, but only because of Nuland’s famous declaration of Usonian intent: “Fuck the EU.”

But this is only part of the conversation. Ignored in most news coverage (but not The Guardian link above) is the section where Nuland picks out Arseniy Yatsenyuk (“Yats”) as the US choice for new leader of Ukraine… 24 days before the 2014 coup. But the real shocker is that Tyahnybok’s far-right vitriol apparently made him, in the eyes of Obama’s agent, a perfect candidate for an alliance government. He is mentioned by name.

There is no doubt this leaked conversation is genuine. Nuland herself went so far as to commend whoever captured the call on the fine audio quality (link above)! She has also boasted that five billion dollars was invested in this project by the USA. 

So, the USA deeply invested itself in Ukrainian politics, turned a protest into a political coup, then chose the new power brokers of that country to include a neo-Nazi. Yet this doesn’t raise any eyebrows. But it does help explain the Russian point-of-view. Putin might be duplicitous, but he’s not crazy to think that Russia is being antagonised on their very borders by fascists. This gives him the motivation to exaggerate their influence in government, to build a picture of a full Nazi regime sitting right next to Russia. The fact that this paranoid vision is untrue does not mean that there are no facts to support it

We can ask why the USA and NATO are being so belligerent in the case of Ukraine. Maybe it has to do with oil pipelines. Maybe it has to do with distracting attention from problems at home. Perhaps it’s because, with other theatres of operation shut down (Afghanistan) the military-industrial complex needs a place to test (that is to say, waste) munitions. The USA is, after all, a military economy. Or perhaps it’s simple power, the need to feel like you are the active party controlling your world. This is a compulsion that NATO and Russia share. 

Response in Crimea and Donbas

The Russophile regions of Ukraine were obviously antagonistic to the coup and this new anti-Russian government. In Crimea, protests in favour of accession to the Russian Federation began on 23 February 2014. The ousted Ukrainian President called on Russia to act, a vote was held within Crimea, and approval from Russian parliament was confirmed. Russia then seized the territory, including the key port of Sevastopol. In fact, they already had control of much of this autonomous region, so no military action was required. The subsequent referendum among Crimeans resulted in a landslide for alliance with Russia.

Again, none of this happened suddenly. Russia went through their own “due process.” We might well critique this process, as we might also critique the fairness of decision-making in the US, UK, etc. But that’s to avoid the fact that this result shouldn’t surprise anyone. Crimea had been Russian since 1783, a part of the Ukrainian SSR starting in 1954, and operated as an Autonomous Republic within Ukraine since 1991. It is this long-standing historical context that is so often elided in Western accounts, in order to denature Russian actions of meaning. Their actions are not random, impulsive, or sudden. Quite the contrary, this bear is slow to move and slow to change. 

This brings us to Donbas, the region in south-eastern Ukraine comprised of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Pro-Russian demonstrations in this area escalated into military activity from April 2014. The rhetoric followed the usual lines. The central Ukraine government regarded the insurgents as terrorists while Russia praised them as federalists. Russia provided military and other aid, often crossing the border in moves condemned as “invasions,” but which they justified as a fight against terror. 

If horrific crimes have been committed in Donbas, it’s because the Ukraine operates not through an organised army, but through a web of over eighty different militias, powered by right-wing ideology. Key among these was the Azov Regiment, founded by a convicted murderer, sprung from jail during Euromaidan. Andriy Biletsky admires the Nazis. His project is a “crusade of the white nations of the world against the Semitic-led subhumans.” This militia was funded by the government and private donors, was granted state awards, and has even appeared on TV talk shows. 

Azov are now integrated with the formal army. According to a detailed Time Magazine story, the Regiment trains paramilitaries from around the world. In fact, “more than 17,000 foreign fighters have come to Ukraine over the past six years from 50 countries.” There are direct connections between Azov and terrorism in the USA, though it took until 2018 for the group to be disavowed by US Congress. The stated goal of the group is to dominate Europe, something that should be inconceivable. But in light of how Putin’s claims about neo-Nazis are dismissed as the ravings of a madman, one has to wonder how much the West is willing to overlook.

Numerous cease-fires have been attempted in Donbas, under the Minsk Protocol (September 2014) and Minsk II (February 2015) but none have been successful. The conflict slowly bogged down into a stalemate. Key among the provisions of the protocols are a devolution of power to the oblasts and the protection of certain rights, key among them language rights. Ukraine parliament made an attempt at granting special status for Donbas, but tied this to elections in the region (in which the “terrorists” would not be allowed to participate). This false attempt a fulfilling their obligations received the dismissal it deserved.

There was no subsequent attempt at progress on the part of the government. On the contrary, a law was passed mandating the use of Ukrainian throughout the entire country. This particularly targets Russian-speakers in areas where they are the majority. Since the preservation of language rights is known to be core to Putin’s position, this has to be interpreted as yet another deliberate provocation. (It matters not whether or how the law was implemented; the message was sent.)

Increasingly, Russia conducted military manoeuvres as shows of strength. These have been reported at length in our media, as though they are something strange. But NATO has of course done the same, on multiple occasions, including the largest operation since the Cold War. If Putin’s operations are seen as deliberately and irresponsibly aggressive, why are NATO’s operations not reported in the same way? It’s another double-standard.

Apologists of the far-right point to the fact that at times the President and Prime Minister of Ukraine have been Jewish, and rightly claim that no member of Svoboda holds a parliament seat. But this is not necessary for extremists to wield very real, day-to-day power. The Azov Regiment and other militias have attacked council meetings, LGBTQ activities, foreign students, Roma, and an International Women’s Day march. They do so with impunity. Militia members are installed in police departments and are employed as municipal guards. 

These acts can occur because Ukraine, like so many other states, is not a functioning democracy. It has a long history of both petty and grand corruption. According to the European Court of Auditors:

Petty corruption is widespread, and is accepted as almost inevitable by a large part of the population. [...] Experts have estimated that huge amounts – in the tens of billions of dollars – are lost annually as a result of corruption in Ukraine.

Grand corruption is defined as “abuse of high-level power that benefits the few at the expense of the many, and causes serious and widespread harm to individuals and society.” In Ukraine this is facilitated through a network of oligarchs and vested interests, including “government officials, members of parliament, prosecutors, judges, law enforcement agencies (LEAs), managers of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and politically connected individuals/companies.” There is not much to distinguish this scenario from that of Russia itself. 

In short, Ukraine is hardly a democracy worth idealising. Of course, this does not deny the citizens their right to self-determination. All nation states must be respected in international politics if there is to be any diplomatic solutions to conflict. That is one of the main points I am trying to make here. 

The current crisis and the solution

On 21 February 2022, Russia formally recognised Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics and dispatched troops on a “peacekeeping” mission. The brinkmanship on both sides was by then out of control. Unless common grounds for a dialogue is found, it’s the people on the ground who will suffer.

We can start by questioning the narratives we are fed, especially those that are patently designed to whip up hatred and division.

Is there a solution? Yes. It entails rewinding a number of actions, recognising the new status of several regions, and devolving power. NATO needs to withdraw all forces and military from Ukraine. NATO must declare that they will not ask or allow Ukraine to join their military alliance. (This says nothing about joining the EU, by the way.) Russia must withdraw its military to within its own national borders.

Donetsk and Lugansk need to be recognised as autonomous regions... not as Ukrainian provinces but not as Russia provinces either. This would provide a buffer zone between NATO and Russia. In Ukraine the rights of minorities, especially language rights, must be enshrined in law. The purging of fascists might be too much to hope for, but with fear reduced and military conflicts ceased, fascism would have less fertile soil on which to spread.

Unfortunately the West finds it impossible to take even the first tentative steps towards equity. Instead, the enemy must be demonised; the stakes must be raised ever-higher. This was starkly illustrated in Germany recently. Vice-admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach was forced to resign for merely saying that Putin deserved respect. Surely anyone with their hands on 4000 nuclear missiles deserves respect? Meanwhile, diplomats have been sent to negotiate with Russia, without even knowing which regions they are discussing are in which country. (Hilariously that linked article admits this fact, before blaming the Russian diplomat for his manners. Incompetence on the part of the West is reported as obstinacy on the part of Russia.)

Addendum

I wrote the above before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It will now become obvious that the citizens in that country are the victims of both sides. I find it extremely unlikely that NATO will come to their aid i any significant military manner. They’ve been set up, in order to encourage Putin into further extremism, so that he can be unequivocally demonised on the world stage. This suits the cartoon narrative of good guy / bad guy that far too many people are willing to accept. But by calling Putin a demon, worse than Hitler, insane, etc. people are setting up the very conditions for his success. 

Further reading

Stop The War has an excellent list of ten myths about the Ukraine crisis.

You can read Russian propaganda on sites like Strategic Culture. While I have not cited any such sources, they can make a refreshing change from NATO propaganda!

John Mearsheimer, Professor in Political Science at the University of Chicago, has a lecture on YouTube (from 2015) that examines “The Causes and Consequences of the Ukraine Crisis.” I wouldn’t agree with all his assertions, particularly his blind assertion that the USA spreads democracy around the globe. But it’s a perspective worth hearing for the historical context.

This article covers much of the same ground as the long post you have just patiently read. Had it been published before I started writing (some weeks ago), I might have been saved the time and effort!

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