Gerald Sussman – Russia-Ukraine conflict: The propaganda war

Jul 31, 2022
President of Russia Vladimir Putin at the 2022 Victory Parade in Red Square, Moscow,
Image: Wikimedia Commons

“We must remember that in time of war what is said on the enemy’s side of the front is always propaganda, and what is said on our side of the front is truth and righteousness, the cause of humanity and a crusade for peace”

– Walter Lippmann, cited in Shah 2005

What the mainstream media fail to see in the coverage of the current Ukraine crisis is that there is no text (narrative) without context. Long before the mainstream US (and UK) media launched a worldwide propaganda war against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, the CIA had laid the foundations of the conflict in the early years following the Second World War – the Cold War. Friends (Soviet Union) became enemies and enemies (Germany, Japan) became friends. The CIA used the Nazi sections of the Ukraine nationalist movement to “crack apart” (the CIA’s words) the USSR through efforts to sabotage, divide, and destabilise the Soviet Union. In this project, they worked most closely with the violently anti-semitic, anti-communist, and anti-Russian group, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists-B, led by Stepan Bandera.

During the early part of World War II, Bandera had been in charge of OUN’s more ruthless faction that collaborated with the Nazi occupation and actively participated in the slaughter of millions of Poles, Ukrainian Jews, and ethnically Russian communists in the region. A CIA clandestine operations chief in Berlin at the time, Peter Sichel, stated that “They [OUN] were Nazis, pure and simple,” and indeed, “Worse than that, because a lot of them did the Nazis’ dirty work for them.” More recently, under pressure from the extreme right-wing forces in the country, including the Azov Battalion, Bandera was proclaimed by the president, Viktor Yushchenko, as “Hero of Ukraine,” the country’s highest honour, a status that was later abrogated by his successor, Victor Yanukovych.

The award was condemned by the European Parliament and by Polish, Jewish, and Russian organisations representing the hundreds of thousands of their ancestors who were directly murdered under Bandera’s leadership. But the pro-fascists in Ukraine’s power complex would not be deterred. Under the US selectee for president in the post-coup government, Petro (“Chocolate King”) Poroshenko, previously an active informant at the US embassy in Kiev, Bandera was again restored to the highest status and his birthday was made a national holiday. In Lviv, a startling Bandera monument and triumphal arch, stands next to a former Polish Catholic church, along with other monuments and renamed streets in western Ukraine in tribute to this wartime criminal.

As part of the CIA’s clandestine “stay-behind” operations (broadly known as “Operation Gladio”) in central and eastern Europe, Ukrainians recruited from OUN and other ultra-nationalist groups were used to start up an insurgency movement against the Soviet state that involved the smuggling of weapons, the uses of covert radio transmissions, spies, commandos, banditry, assassins, and sabotage. According to a declassified (originally “secret”) CIA history study, the Agency refused to extradite the murderous OUN leader to the Soviet Union in order to keep the underground movement and their destabilisation efforts in Ukraine intact. Instead, two branches of the CIA, the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) for covert operations and the Office of Special Operations (OSO) for clandestine projects in which the US government provided cover, both protected the OUN and worked closely with the anti-Soviet Ukraine Insurgent Army and engaged in “psychological warfare activities directed against [Communist] Polish, Czechoslovakian, and Romanian targets bordering Ukraine.” OPC and OSO “agrees that the Ukrainian organisation [Ukrainian Supreme Council of Liberation] offers unusual opportunities for penetration of the USSR, and assisting in the development of underground movements behind the Iron Curtain.”

As part of a relentless effort (to this day) of trying to “crack apart” the Soviet Union/Russia, the CIA has been at the forefront, joined by their obedient subaltern, MI6 (aka Secret Intelligence Service), in infiltrating central and eastern Europe during the Warsaw Pact and post-Soviet eras for the purpose of obliterating Moscow’s influence in the region and the sovereignty of Russia itself. Among its early Cold War allies were high-level Catholic Church officials in Vienna and anti-communist assets in the Vatican, which aided the Agency in collecting valuable intelligence in the region, particularly on Poland, Hungary, and Ukraine. In the same period, the CIA-launched “Operation Red Sox,” which was designed to stir up nationalist independence movements in the Soviet republics. American-trained commandos parachuted into Soviet Ukraine and linked up with anti-Soviet fighters. The CIA wound up sending 85 operatives, three-quarters of them captured, in what ended as a dismal communist “roll back” failure, a foretelling of the Bay of Pigs invasion a decade later.

With the Ukrainian insurgent movement crushed, many of the Banderites, including Mykola Lebed, one of the founders of OUN and a lieutenant of Bandera trained by the Gestapo in ruthless methods of torture, became émigrés. Lebed, who had served as OUN’s foreign minister and head of its notorious secret police, was then described by the US Army as a “well-known sadist and collaborator of the Germans.” He migrated to Munich after the war, where he played an important role in the newly formed and secretly CIA-run Radio Free Europe, the US-funded propaganda organ that transmitted to eastern Europe. During the World War II, Lebed was said to have been a favourite of the German SS.

When he fell out with the postwar OUN-B based in Germany, the CIA smuggled him, along with hundreds of German Nazis, including war criminals like SS officer Otto von Bolschwing (a leading organiser of the Final Solution), to the US. Lebed worked in New York City under a false name as an anti-Soviet intelligence asset. The Ukrainians then and now were regarded as instruments of a Cold War policy designed to take down the Soviet Union/Russia. “Former members of the Ukrainian underground now in the United States,” the CIA wrote in a top-secret document, “will be exploited to the fullest extent practicable.”

Ukraine’s struggle for statehood have been bound up in the ultra-nationalist efforts to de-Russify the country, which after the 2014 coup led to restrictions on the practice of Russian culture. A 2019 law, criticised by Human Rights Watch, required that all conversations carried out by public officials and all schooling beyond the primary grades be conducted in Ukrainian and that all foreign language media, with exemptions given to English and EU languages, but not Russian, provide a Ukrainian version. The law was shepherded through parliament by its chair (speaker) Andriy Parubiy, a co-founder of the Social-National Party (SNPU), which was modeled after Hitler’s National Socialist Party. Parubiy declared the SNPU to be the “last hope of the white race, of humankind as such.” In 2004, SNPU morphed into the fascist party Svoboda, whose leader Oleh Tyahnybok, a former member of parliament (Rada), gave a speech that year calling upon Ukraine to rid itself of the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia,” familiar words from the Third Reich.

Although the extreme right parties hold little power in the Rada, groups such as the Azov Battalion wield a great deal of power in Ukraine’s street militias, the national guard, the Kiev police, and the regular army. Initially, the US banned assistance to Azov in 2015 because of its neo-Nazi orientation and assaults on migrants and the Roma and LGBT communities, but lifted the ban the following year. Azov’s first commander and former member of parliament, Andriy Biletsky, declared that Ukraine’s national objective was to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen [subhumans].” And despite entreaties from at least 40 members of the US Congress to list Azov as a “foreign terrorist organisation,” the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations failed to respond.

Why do the American mainstream media (MSM) pay so little attention to the racist agenda and war crimes of Azov (as if only Russians commit war crimes), the leading military force attempting to crush the independence movements in the Donbas region? Could it be that many reporters in the mainstream media in the US, UK, and other western European countries share similar, indeed racist prejudices? Since the Russian attack in February, the briefly reported incidents of African and Asian nationals being blocked by Ukrainian officials from leaving the country during the early shelling of the Kiev revealed one side of the racial aspects of the conflict. But the MSM coverage of white Ukrainians fleeing war zones to other countries gave a more explicit understanding of how the US MSM treats “worthy” and “unworthy” victims based on race.

Multiple notable British, American and other Western journalists have focused on the Ukrainian flight within a narrative frame of racial supremacist ideology. An English TV anchor working for Al Jazeera, Peter Dobbie, for example, had this to say about Ukrainian war victims: “These are prosperous, middle-class people … not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to.” In Britain, an ITV correspondent, Lucy Watson, speaking from a Polish train station where Ukrainian immigrants had arrived, expressed shock at seeing white war refugees: “Now the unthinkable has happened to them. And this is not a developing, Third World nation. This is Europe!” Her American counterpart in Poland, NBC News reporter Kelly Cobiella, wept in white solidarity: “To put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from neighbouring Ukraine …. They’re Christians, they’re white. They’re very similar to people who live in Poland.” CBS news correspondent Charlie D’Agata offered a straightforward assessment that Ukrainians are “relatively” white and therefore more worthy than Arabs: “This isn’t a place – with all due respect – like Iraq or Afghanistan…. This is a relatively civilisedrelatively European – I have to choose those words carefully too – city [Kiev] where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen” (italics added). On France’s premier cable news channel, BFM TV, the journalist Phillipe Corbe also applied the racial hierarchy scoring of tragedy: “We’re not talking here about Syrians…. We’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives.”

There is an easy segue from racial to national prejudice, which is why the biased US mainstream media coverage of the invasion also showed a disinclination to analyse the nature, history, and causes of the conflict. The MSM also censor voices that question the dominant narrative so as not to populate the discourse with alternative ways of interpreting the crisis. No source in the MSM could be found focusing on the role of the US in inciting the war, on the recent and related history of America’s own invasions, or on the effects of sanctions on ordinary Russian citizens. At least half of the Russians selected for American news interviews were picked solely because of their opposition to the war, even though 80% of Russians two months into the war supported the invasion.

Apart from the anti-Russian prejudices that have infected mainstream media coverage of the Soviet Union/Russia since the Bolshevik Revolution (and for the imperialist-minded British, the Crimean War), there is a new coalition of neoconservative forces in the Democratic Party and its allies in the intelligence establishment, the IT industries, and major media institutions in the US and UK that have mobilised public opinion in the US. Since the G. W. Bush administration, broadcast and cable news channels have been packed with foreign policy analysts drawn from the community of retired intelligence officers, high-ranking military and defence officials, and politicians, many of them concurrently on the dole of defence industries, but without viewing audiences told about it. They include such figures as retired four-star general Jack Keane, General David Petraeus, and former secretaries of defence Leon Panetta and Condoleezza Rice. These conflicts of interest go largely unnoticed in the neoliberal boundary- and ethically-free and militarised US political culture.

The circuit of corporate state-MSM propaganda is constantly renewed within the echo chambers of Washington. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky noted in their classic study of news propaganda, few journalists who cover foreign policy are willing to jeopardise their privileged perches in the corporate media by seeking sources outside of the national power complex – the White House, State Department, DoD, CIA, and DC-area think tanks. Journalist Stephen Kinzer has said that the worst aspect of the closure of public debate on US policy in eastern Europe is that “the press is such an eager participant,” in its “over-the-top demonisation of Putin” and its “portrayal of Russia as a predatory enemy about to crush us.” This has led newspapers like his former employer, the New York Times “to become even more militant than the Pentagon.”

The Russia-Ukraine news coming out of the MSM leans heavily on a Manichaean depiction of the two heads of state. On the one hand, there is the evil spirited Putin with grand ambitions of restoring the Soviet Union by running over the former Warsaw Pact countries, which does not require any evidence, as there is no penalty for publishing or expressing falsehoods about Russia and Putin. In Joe Biden’s diplomatic descriptives, Putin is a “killer,” “war criminal,” “murderous dictator,” and “a pure thug,” and yet in Europe Biden is still treated as the preeminent world leader and statesman. And then there’s the modern-day Joan of Arc in the person of  Volodymyr Zelenskyy , the State Department’s heroic nationalist, with fawning admiration from the Western media. G.W. Bush called him “the Winston Churchill of our time.”

The MSM has failed to discuss his autocratic and repressive actions (far more than what’s occurring in Russia). In the past few months, Zelensky has banned all (11) opposition parties and encouraged “the disappearance, torture and even murder of an array of human rights activists, communist and leftist organisers, journalists and government officials accused of ‘pro-Russian’ sympathies.” Among those banned was the second largest party in Ukraine whose leader, Viktor Medvedchuk was arrested for “treason” – namely questioning the country’s integration efforts with the EU, which the president regards as siding with Russia.

In October 2021, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists exposed the Pandora Papers, a roster of world leaders, wealthy individuals, politicians, celebrities, and others who put their money in offshore accounts for the purpose of evading taxes. Ukraine had the most number of politicians cited in the exposé, consistent with the listing of the country as consistently the most corrupt in Europe, according to Transparency International, a US government- and corporate-funded “anti-corruption” organisation.

Opposing Zelenskyy’s nationalist and heroic image, the Pandora Papers revealed that he and his show business partners in a television production company, Kvartal 95, were invested in “a network of offshore firms dating back to at least 2012.” This was the year that his company began producing regular TV station content “owned by [Ukrainian–Israeli–Cypriot billionaire] Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch [and political patron of Zelenskyy] dogged by allegations of multi-billion-dollar fraud.” The offshore stashing of assets by Zelenskyy and his partners to avoid tax obligations also include “three prime properties in the center of London.” His business associates have been conveniently turned into government officials.

What has changed in US relations with Russia is not just the superpower’s aggressiveness – the  posting of NATO bases all the way to the perimeter of Moscow, enabling first strike capability – but as important, its abandonment of diplomacy. Even Ronald Reagan, who foamed about the “evil empire,” engaged in détente and military treaty-making with a far more formidable foe, compared to Russia that is, the Soviet Union. Trump and members of his inner-circle were accused by the Clinton Democrats of treason for merely talking to Russian officials. And in the ongoing Russiagate hysteria, the mainstream media have jettisoned all pretence of balanced and objective journalism.

A striking contrast is the political and MSM coverage of the January 6th assaults on the Capitol and the 2014 firebombing of government buildings and sniper murders of protesters and police by neo-Nazi and other extreme right-wing groups in Kiev’s Maidan (central square), which led to a coup d’état and to the Azov Battalion’s assault in Donbas, but which the American major media outlets chose to largely ignore. With the latest Gallup poll showing that the MSM are less trusted (16% confidence in newspapers, 11% in TV news) than at just about any previous time in history, journalists may want to reconsider their individual roles as crude propagandists for the US proxy war in Ukraine and the corporate state.

The organised US government efforts to destabilise Russia, which began with the Cold War era CIA, has never abated, and Ukraine remains the prime corridor for carrying out the dismemberment of Russian sovereignty. A Rand Corporation study for the US Army in 2019 makes very clear what has caused the conflict in Ukraine, and it’s not the one-sided narrative given by the New York Times and CNN. It’s about beggaring Russia. The report provides the Army (and presumably the White House) with the specific economic, geopolitical, and military tactics and strategy for bringing about this end:

+ Hinder Russia’s petroleum exports and the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline to Europe

+ Impose greater sanctions and encourage a Russian brain drain

+ Increase military intervention in Syria and “promote regime change in Belarus”

+ “Exploit tensions in the South Caucasus,” “reduce Russian influence in Central Asia” and “challenge Russian presence in Moldova”

+ Increase U.S. and NATO land forces and exercises in Europe”

+ “Withdraw from the INF Treaty”

+ “Invest in new capabilities to manipulate Russian risk”

+ “Provide lethal aid to Ukraine”

Multi-ethnic Ukraine is from the US standpoint little more than a pawn in a global power game by which the US seeks to retain a unipolar position in the world, one in which Russian, Chinese, and Indian assertions of balance of power principles will not be heard by the Empire. The mainstream media (with rare exceptions) refuse to bring up in their reporting these rather open and obvious rules of the game, and that’s because they themselves are invested in the perpetuation of Anglo-American global hegemony and white supremacy.

Gerald Sussman is professor of urban studies and international and global studies at Portland State University. He is the author and editor of several books, including The Propaganda Society: Promotional Culture and Politics in Global Context (2011).

Article first published in CounterPunch JULY 27, 2022

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