A few years ago we published an article called “How to write about Russia”, in which we compiled a list of the omnipresent and obligatory cliches that are employed when Western journalists write anything about Russia. Some thought it was satire. Some just did not take this too well. Journalists tend to be, for whatever reason, people that get offended rather easily and easily pull the outrage card. But today we are talking about a different story.
Surely, we must have been wrong when we dared to doubt the sincerity of Western established journalism about Russia. How could we possibly have doubted the professionalism of people working for some of the largest and most respected media outlets in the world? After all who was behind the fake news and the massive disinformation campaign that led in Britain led to Brexit and to the terrifying election of the disgusting Donald Trump? These horrible things would never have happened without Russia’s blatant interference through social media, would they? How could we possibly dare to question the quality of Western journalism, this most sacred of things?
Somehow, we could. It is not that we are conspiracy theorists, or a disinformation outlet paid by the Kremlin. But let’s just take what has been in the headlines of most established media worldwide for the past few weeks. Since at least the beginning of November we have heard and read innumerable times, day in, day out, that Russia is going to invade Ukraine – yet again.
We have heard and read that NATO has expressed concern about Russian troops amassed “on the Ukrainian border”, and satellite pictures of military equipment 260 km from Ukraine have been published to support this claim. Some influential policy paradigm setters, like many of most influential think tanks, have already called for harsher actions against Russia that must be punished for her aggressive posture: tougher sanctions, exclusion from the payments system SWIFT, etc. The Russian threat to Ukraine have even led some to think of the not so unthinkable anymore, a nuclear war against Russia. Hyperexcited minds in Ukraine had already been fantasizing about a Third World War to save Ukraine from Russia, in a sort of redemption against Russian evil, at least since 2014.
You don’t have to believe us. East and West is an obscure media resource like billions of other pages on the internet. Certainly respectable media professionals and the public cannot take us seriously. Fine. Let’s just take a couple of stories from the past few days then.
“Russia will attack Ukraine if it joins Nato, warns Kremlin adviser”
wrote Nataliya Vasilyeva for the UK newspaper “The Telegraph” on 24 November. The headline suggests in the most unmistakable manner that some Kremlin adviser allegedly said that Russia will attack Ukraine. A simple Google search reveals a plethora of similar headlines.
“ON THE WARPATH Russia sparks WW3 fears after vowing to attack Ukraine unless Nato agrees to BAN Kiev from alliance”
titles “THE SUN”.
“Putin plot to ‘attack Ukraine’ if it joins NATO – new conflict fears erupt.
RUSSIA will attack Ukraine if it joins NATO, an expert with links to the Kremlin has said.”
echoes the Daily Express.
This story goes a step ahead and does not mention an advisor but speaks, without mincing words, of a plot by Putin.
The question here of course is: what is this particular alarming story based on? Did a Russian Kremlin adviser really say that Russia is going to attack Ukraine? Did the authors of the pieces published in major Western media outlets bother read the original article from which this latest scare originated? Or did they just replicate content produced by others, in search for a nice and catchy headline?
The Kremlin adviser quoted in the article is Fyorod Lukyanov. On 24 November he published a column with the headline “NATO’s Mistake Is That It Still Thinks It’s Dealing with the Weakened Russia of the 1990s”. What did he write in it exactly? The articles focus on a particular passage in Mr Lukyanov’s essay.
“The gambit that led to the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia could well be replicated. The absence of formal guarantees from NATO, but the constant presence of warm words, ideological assurances and even military support, creates a boundless ‘gray area.’
When Putin talks about maintaining ‘tension’ with Ukraine, he means that Moscow must make it abundantly clear that stepping out into this gray area will have grave consequences.
This recent round of escalation in Eastern Europe showed that the old principles of security on the continent are no longer working. NATO expansion has created a new military and political landscape. Keeping things as they are could lead to new conflicts, while abandoning the belief that the bloc calls all the shots will require a drastic revision of all approaches. Russia will have to change the system and draw new “red lines.” We could, for example, redefine ‘Finlandization’ – the Cold War idea whereby countries retain their sovereignty but stay out of the geopolitical fray – as something positive. The term has become pejorative since then, but everything changes.”
Read again the excerpt from the article above. Did the author write that Russia is going to attack? He does evoke the specter of the 5 days war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, saying this “gambit” could be replicated. In August 2008 Russia did wage a short war against Georgia after the latter tried to launch an attack on South Ossetia, an area that while de jure part of Georgia and recognized so by most countries, has never been under the control of the independent state of Georgia, following a civil war after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Finally, saying that a war could happen, does not mean that Russia will attack.
Russia indeed has made clear that any attempt by Ukraine to retake the Donbass by force would be met with severe consequences. That does not mean that Russia is going to attack Ukraine if this decides to join NATO. Ukraine publicly denies that it wants to use military force. The internal discourse, however, suggests otherwise. The Croatian scenario, which saw Croatia take in rapid military operation an area that was inhabited by ethnic Serbs and led to the expulsion of 200,000 people in 1995, is often cited as a viable option in Ukraine. Recently President Zelensky declared that he would soon be signing a document agreed with Ukraine’s partners about this. The Ukrainian army new gear like the anti-tank Javelin missiles and the Turkish drones Bayraktar gave Ukraine a confidence boost.
The author then speaks of “Finlandization”. This word stands for a policy of neutrality that Finland adopted towards the Soviet Union after WWII. Does Finlandization mean that Russia attacked Finland? Or is it too much from Russia to wish to have a not rabidly hostile state on her borders? Russia, however, as the eternal villain of international relations, is not allowed to have any sort of security interest. This is exactly the entire root of the problem, widely known as the security dilemma, and could lead to dangerous consequences indeed.
We have already written about the speculations on the invasion that Russia is allegedly planning. In short, US intelligence does not know whether Putin wants to join Ukraine or not, but satellite pictures showing Russian equipment hundreds of miles from the Ukrainian border has led the US to believe that could mount an invasion in early 2022. However, even if admittedly “Putin has not made up his mind”, and “we do not know what Russia is up to”, like the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken put it, constant and alarming repetition of headlines and stories every single day has created an atmosphere where the vast majority of the public already feels that Putin wants to attack and cannot do anything but attack Ukraine, that most defenseless and pure of countries whose only fault is to want to be friends with the West. This kind of argumentations should strike for the childish naivety, but these are the sort of talking points that have been spread over the past few years and have penetrated people’s consciousness. It does not matter whether Russia will invade next year or not. In the minds of most people, Russia has already invaded Ukraine.
One final word on journalism again. Journalists need to manage the difficult trick of posing as common people (because they are of course always on the side of democracy, that is ultimately the citizens, the voters) and being close enough to power to obtain access to information that the common citizen does not have access to. At the same time, journalists are used to be pride themselves immensely of the theoretical function journalism has of “holding power to account”. Where exactly does that “holding power to account” go when all journalists all over the world can do seem to quote some anonymous US intelligence source that based on a couple a satellite pictures purport to show that they have incontrovertible proof that Russia is going to start another war yet again? Isn’t a journalist supposedly to critically question and filter their sources? Or are journalists today too busy chasing clicks and views to engage in such basic tasks? Didn’t the Iraq war and Colin Powell famous sample of Saddam’s chemical weapon teach people anything?