My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
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Western Media on Russia and Ukraine: A Brief Case Study in Propaganda, Deflection, Laziness, and Fog of War
NOTE: I made this post one week before Russia formally recognized Donetsk and Luhansk. I doubt I would have said what I did about the possibility of a Russian invasion once that recognition occurred. Nevertheless, I keep this blog up despite my being wrong about the possibility of a Russian invasion partly to keep me humble but also partly to show just how things change and how all estimates of potential actions are always in flux and need to adapt on the basis of new information. That said, I think my comments about how Russia sees Western and NATO actions are still correct.
One of the difficulties of determining if a military conflict fits within the classic “just war criteria” is that it is tough knowing what is actually going on in any hot spot. Current reporting on the supposed looming Russian invasion of Ukraine is a case in point – something that makes for an informed opinion very difficult indeed.
I have previously blogged on news media and war, and my recently published book goes into more detail on problems associated with ascertaining whether or not a war is “just.” This blog is my brief musing on how we in the West are getting what I think is a skewed view of what is taking place in eastern Europe.
If Western news reports are correct, Comrade Putin and the resurrected Soviet Empire is about to steamroll through Ukraine any day now – and then on to Warsaw and beyond! But is that really the case?
Of course, I do not have access to secret government intelligence or have my own spy satellites, so I am willing to acknowledge that I may be entirely off in my musing. However, how I think about what is really going on is tainted by much of Western media’s propaganda, deflection, laziness, and the reality of the fog of war. (Full disclosure – I am not a Russian shill, nor am I an anti-western critic. Rather, I am interested in getting an accurate assessment of the situation so that I can make an intelligent decision about the justice of a war my country may be called on to participate in.)
Consider the following counter narrative to the familiar refrain of Western papers.
The common Western media narrative is that Putin has been rebuilding the Russian military for nefarious purposes, such as for recent military incursions in Georgia (2008), Syria (2015-present), and the Crimea (2014). But consider the following. First, every nation upgrades its military, especially if it has a hostile alliance encroaching on its borders (such as the case of NATO towards Russia). Second, the conflict in Georgia was started by Georgia. Third, Russians were invited by the Syrian government to provide assistance in a civil war (whereas the Western presence in Syria is a violation of international law). To not take these factors into account is either laziness on behalf of reporters, or just an anti-Russian bias.
As for the Crimea, it was taken by Russia partly to reunite the Russian-speaking region with Russia, but it was also an opportunistic act of revenge against the West for an anti-Russian coup in Ukraine. My point is not to defend Russia’s actions in Crimea, but to provide context to understand Russian actions and its distrust of and disdain for the West.
The above-mentioned coup in Ukraine is a reference to when the democratically elected pro-Russian president of Ukraine, President Yanukovych, was ousted in a Western-sponsored coup in 2014. A pro-Western president was put in place. Again, to punish Western hubris and hypocrisy after the coup, as well as to protect ethnic Russians, Putin supported the unrest in the Donbass region. Again, my point is not to defend Putin’s moves, but to provide context to understand Russian actions.
Another reason for Putin’s disdain and distrust of the West is that at the end of the Cold War Western leaders promised that NATO would not advance further east if Soviet troops withdrew back to Russia. But hubris and anti-Russian sentiment at a time of Russian weakness led to NATO adding 14 countries to the alliance – all in the east, getting closer and closer to Russia every decade. What is Russia to think about the alliance’s motives? And from Russia’s perspective, who is acting aggressively?
The ultimate and central strategic concern of Russia is the advance of NATO towards Russia. The heart of Putin’s strategic chess moves is to ensure that Ukraine (and to a lesser degree Georgia) does not become part of NATO. That explains why Putin is supportive of the slow burn in Donbass, for, as long as that unrest continues, odds are Ukraine will not be able to join NATO. But the grand picture is that to have a hostile alliance on the doorstep of Russia would be a strategic disaster for Russia, and Putin will do everything he can – except for war with NATO – to ensure that does not happen.
Of course, there are domestic considerations of Western politicians. Raising the stakes in Ukraine certainly deflects people from looking at scandals (UK) or plummeting approval ratings (US). Acting tough makes leaders appear competent, and, when war does not break out, it will provide them with what appears to be a foreign policy “victory” (even though Russia never intended to go to war in the first place). In my country, there are also many votes to be gained among the large Ukrainian population. As for NATO, it needs an enemy and what better to justify its existence than a resurrected evil Soviet threat.
But what about outright war? Putin is no dummy. He could “win the war” against Ukraine, but his economy would eventually be devastated by sanctions and loss of natural gas and oil revenue, his nation would be seen as a pariah, and its military become burdened with a costly occupation. Simply not worth it.
So, what will happen? Remember the primary strategic aim of Putin is to keep NATO out of Ukraine, and everything he does has that issue in mind. Unless NATO and the West recognize Russia’s concern for NATO’s encroachment into a vital sphere of Russian influence and promises to stop advancing eastward to Russia’s border, the coming months will be more of the same. The foreseeable future will see Russia continuing to support in Donbass a slow burning conflict to guarantee a buffer between it and NATO. Is that ethical? Of course not, but that – in my opinion – is what is really going on. Everything else is just propaganda, deflection, laziness, and fog of war.
And that, my friends, is what makes discerning what is “just” in international conflicts so difficult.
So what is to be done? Read this blog for what I think is a way forward when the war drums start beating and the way of justice seems unclear. (click here)
 Of course, both Russia and NATO know that a war between the two would be a disaster for both sides – a lose-lose scenario that both right now seem willing to avoid. Nevertheless, both sides are seeing who will blink first and concede something that satisfies strategic aims, national pride, and the ego of politicians.
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