Wars are complex issues with blame shared albeit not equally distributed among all sides. They are unpredictable and can lead to perverse, including lose-lose outcomes. In a war with the world’s biggest nuclear power, a dispassionate analysis of costs (of victory and defeat), risks and constraints is especially advisable. Yet this is mostly missing in the one-eyed mainstream media (MSM) framing of the Ukraine war: Russia bad, West good; Putin evil, Zelensky superhero. Almost all coverage falls into one of three categories: the heroism and valour of Ukrainians; a Russian column, tank or ship destroyed; and Russian atrocities. Although all true, this is not the whole truth. There is a Russian side to the story, and it is wrong in principle and risky in practice to insist otherwise.
‘The first casualty when war comes is truth’, said US senator Hiram Johnson in 1917. Churchill cautioned: ‘A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on’. But he conceded: ‘In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies’. While Russian propaganda on Ukraine is expected and crude, it’s been evident also in the MSM narrative. They would have us believe that Putin is sick, heavily medicated, mad and fed falsehoods by frightened sycophants while Biden is mentally and physically fit and in full command.
Let’s take a detour back in time. On 10 October 1990, 15-year ‘Nayirah’ testified to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus that in a Kuwaiti hospital where she was as a volunteer nurse, she had witnessed 15 babies being taken from incubators by Iraqi soldiers and left ‘on the cold floor to die’. The story, validated by Amnesty International, quickly circled the world and swayed public and political opinion. The Senate resolution authorising war against Saddam Hussein was approved on 12 January 1991 by just six votes. On 15 March, immediately after Kuwait’s liberation, the ABC’s John Martin’s on the ground report proved the story false, concocted by a government-financed group lobbying, with the help of a public relations firm, for US military intervention. On 6 January 1992, the NY Times identified Nayirah (real name) as the daughter of Kuwait’s US ambassador.
The lack of investigative curiosity by the MSM for such a startling and consequential ‘big lie’ was a troubling reminder of the power of atrocity propaganda to breach reporting standards with the right emotional triggers. Its four-stage template (crisis, demonisation of enemy leader, dehumanisation of enemy individuals, alleged atrocities), followed by leading public intellectuals urging forceful military assistance and action, was repeated in Kosovo in 1999, rinsed and repeated in Iraq in 2002–03 and is being repeated again in Ukraine. At least in the lead-up to Iraq, there were several sceptical voices. Thus on 6 September 2002, Tom Regan wrote in the The Christian Science Monitor: ‘When contemplating war, beware of babies in incubators’. Dissenting voices are fewer today and seem to be more easily dismissed. J.D. Vance’s triumph in the Ohio Republican primary despite opposing US assistance to Ukraine to focus instead on domestic problems is a rarity in the current hysteria.
As late as 30 April, The Australian repeated the story of 29-year old Major Stepan Tarabalka, reputedly ‘The Ghost of Kyiv’ who had destroyed more than 40 Russian planes before being shot down on 13 March – an improbable story on the face of it. On 1 May the Ukrainian Air Command admitted the ‘“Ghost of Kyiv” is a superhero-legend … created by Ukrainians’, ‘a collective image of pilots … who defend the sky over the capital’.
Familiar tropes in the atrocity template include allegations of babies being ripped from wombs and women and children raped in the presence of family. It’s rarely possible to establish the truth amidst the confusion, lack of site access and counter-claims. False flag operations, staged video footage and the strategic placement of one’s fighters in dense civilian dwellings are also part of the propaganda armoury. In the meantime rumours run amok, deepening hatred and inciting counter atrocities against captured soldiers and civilians of the Other.
In responding to atrocity charges against Russia in Ukraine, the veteran weapons inspector Scott Ritter urged that the ‘crime scene’ must first be secured against contamination, forensic experts brought in, victims identified (are they Ukrainian or Russian speaking – an important clue in itself? locals or outsiders?), establish the manner, place and date/time of death (during or following Russian occupation?), and the weaponry used. Without any of this, in Bucha the instant conclusion by Western media was the Russians did it. As with the WMD story in Iraq, convict and punish first and provide evidence later and if none is forthcoming, well, that’s history and best move on.
In general, but not always as we know from Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Kashmir and Sri Lanka, professional soldiers are less prone to commit stomach-churning atrocities than terrorists, militias and vigilantes. We hope that democracies with firmly established civilian control over the military are less likely to go down these dark paths. Western media have been almost completely silent on the plight of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the Donbas region. Jacques Baud is a former colonel in Swiss strategic intelligence who specialised on Eastern Europe and has extensive field experience with UN peace operations and NATO. In a lengthy analysis, he dissects how the Donbas people’s quest for autonomy was met with violent oppression by ‘fanatical and brutal’ paramilitary militias, abolition of Russian as an official language and non-implementation of the 2014/2015 Minsk accords by Kyiv. Just before Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, there was a massive increase in shelling against the civilian populations of Donbas. Drawing on UN data, he tabulates that over 80% of Donbas casualties in the last four years were victims of shelling by Ukrainian forces.
Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said on 25 April that the US objective is ‘to see Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine’. In other words, Ukraine is the battleground and Ukrainians are the human sacrifice in the US-NATO geopolitical proxy war to militarily degrade a great power rival. In the process, Putin’s choice may be narrowing between surrender or escalation. Prominent commentaries in the Washington Post and NY Times, including by Tom Friedman, are expressing disquiet at Biden getting into dangerous uncharted waters. Although Russian victory or defeat is still possible, the more likely outcome is a mutually hurting stalemate. Since only negotiations can end a high-risk war of attrition, the media must do better at explaining, without justifying, Russian motivations and goals in the war.
A PS from Tom Woods:
Excerpts from Tom Woods Newsletter, 16 May:
In our day it is Russians who are demonised, and about whom no story is considered too ridiculous.
In March the New York Times reported, “Russian restaurants in New York City are being hit by cancellations, social media campaigns and bad reviews online after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite most owners being openly antiwar and many coming from Ukraine” (emphasis added).
Gabriel Weinberg, CEO of the search engine DuckDuckGo, made a special announcement: “Like so many others I am sickened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the gigantic humanitarian crisis it continues to create. #StandWithUkraine️ At DuckDuckGo, we’ve been rolling out search updates that down-rank sites associated with Russian disinformation.”
Had he done such a thing when the alleged disinformation was coming from the U.S. regime? Ah, my dear reader, you surely know the answer.
Then Texas governor Greg Abbott was far from alone in this kind of nonsense: “I’ve asked the members of the Texas Restaurant Association, Texas Package Stores Association & all Texas retailers to voluntarily remove all Russian products from their shelves. Texas stands with Ukraine.”
National Hockey League agent Dan Milstein reported: “At 3pm EST the Canadian Junior Hockey League (CHL) will announce that Russian and Belorussian 16 and 17-year-old children would be banned from the upcoming draft. I am Ukrainian born and want peace. I do not believe banning teenagers for something they do not control is the answer.”
Journalist Danny Armstrong likewise reported, “Ukrainian sisters and chess grandmasters Maria & Anna Muzychuk will be suspended and excluded from competition by Lviv Chess Federation for refusing to sign an open letter calling for the International Chess Federation (FIDE) to ban Russian & Belarusian athletes.”