How to fight Russian disinformation and lies of Putin’s regime on Ukraine? Instead of “dialoguing” with leaders who only swear by force, one should start by calling a spade a spade, and a murderer a murderer, advises one of the best Ukrainian political scientists.
In a recent Le Monde article, Dr. Marie Mendras has aptly reminded us that the much-talked “Ukraine crisis” is by no means “Ukrainian” but first and foremost “Russian”. It is ‘Russian’ not only in purely factual terms — insofar as it was instigated and amplified to its current disastrous scale by the Russian political leadership. It is ‘Russian’ also in philosophical terms — insofar as it reflects the profound crisis of Russian identity, its incompatibility with the modern post-imperial world and its inability to come to terms with Western-invoked modernity, post-Cold War international order, and sovereignty of Ukraine which still is imagined as a part of the Russian “self”.
Strictly speaking, the “Ukraine crisis” — to a degree we can consider it a “Ukrainian”, i.e. genuinely domestic phenomenon — has very clear and exact timeframe. It started on November 21, 2013, when the Ukrainian government succumbed to the Moscow arm-twisting and scrapped the Association Agreement with the EU that was already prepared for signing a week later. The government’s last-minute surrender to Russian blackmail was just too obvious and scandalous, so it evoked mass protests. They ran peacefully within a week, until the government employed brutal force to disperse protesters. This triggered a real crisis as the government intensified the pressure, and the protesters responded in kind. The violent stand-off culminated on February 22, when the president mysteriously disappeared from Kyiv and popped up a day later in Russia. The reasons and circumstances of his evacuation are still obscure since nobody ever attempted to storm his palace, nor were there any threats to his life. (Indeed, the protesters demanded only his resignation and early elections). The escape of the president was an extraordinary development but Ukrainian civil society and political class did its best in the unusual situation: they rapidly moved the politics back from the streets to the parliament.
On the same day of February 22, the constitutional majority of the MPs voted 328–0 in favor of impeaching the runaway president and scheduled new presidential elections for 25 May, the earliest day permitted by the Constitution (that required three months for the electoral campaign). They elected the new head of the parliament who assumed the role of the interim president (again, according to the Constitution) and formed the new government. On May 25, Ukrainians elected the new president from a bunch of candidates (including openly pro-Russian). That date (if not the earlier, on February 22) can be considered the end of the “Ukrainian crisis” — insofar as the full legitimacy of the state power was reestablished.
Since then, Ukraine has evolved as quite a “normal country” (in Timothy Snyder’s apt definition), — with competitive politics, free elections (2014 and 2019) and peaceful transfer of power to political rivals, with freedom of speech and assembly, with a modest economic growth (still remarkable in condition of a de-facto war and lack of foreign investments) and, of course, with multiple domestic tensions that are common to all the democracies but can be hardly defined as “crisis”.
The term, nonetheless, persists and we still read everywhere about ‘Ukraine crisis’, even though in reality it is less and less about Ukraine but more and more about Russia — the Russian war with Ukraine, with the West, with democracy and the international order. In fact, a subtle semantic difference between “Ukraine crisis” and “Ukrainian crisis” in most languages disappears; actually even in English (or French) the terms quite often are used interchangeably — either by speaker’s neglect, or convenience, or slip of the tongue. The formula ‘Ukraine crisis’ is really dubious, but the formula “Ukrainian crisis” is much worse: it distorts the reality nearly as much as the infamous description of Auschwitz as a “Polish concentration camp”. It supports the Moscow-baked narrative about the “civil war” in Ukraine and is usually embraced by pro-Russian authors who promote that narrative and deny any Kremlin complicity in that “crisis”.
The seemingly neutral formula “Ukraine crisis” that refers not necessarily to the crisis in Ukraine but also to the crisis around and “about” Ukraine, is not as flawed and harmful as the “Ukrainian crisis” but still quite ambiguous. Nonetheless, it became an established term in international media and academia. Even the reputable Foreign Policy holds today the permanent rubric Ukraine Border Crisis, while the Financial Times offers daily update under the title Ukraine conflict.1 It looks impartial but ambiguity reigns supreme. Nothing implies in those titles that some unspecified country assembled 150,000 troops and heavy weaponry at Ukraine’s border, and might be somehow involved in that “crisis”; or that the “conflict” might have one more participant besides Ukraine, and that the other, unnamed participant, runs not just a “conflict” but a de facto war.
It seems that the Western media, scholars, and politicians had overplayed their much-vaunted “correctness” and “impartiality”. They adopted a presumably neutral formula “Ukraine crisis” in 2014 when the Ukrainian political crisis of the past winter could have been at least evoked, the overall information about the conflict was presumably scarce and muddled, the Russian role was disputed, and the hopes for a peaceful settlement still warmed up the hearts of Western idealists (as well as pragmatists engaged with Moscow in a profitable business). But the formula from the very beginning obscured, silenced, and discursively marginalized Russia’s role in the process. It created an ambiguity, a grey zone, where all kinds of fake news and propagandistic messages disseminated by Kremlin got the same weight and attentions as the proved facts and real events. The traditional model of Western media to present information from both sides of the conflict, so that to provide an allegedly balanced view, fails completely as it encounters not two different interpretations of the same facts or events but, instead, encounters facts and reality on one side and blatant lie and unabashed chutzpah on the other. Mass media, but also, to a degree, academia and mainstream politicians, in their pursuit of “impartiality”, become in fact the laundering machines for Kremlin fake news and propagandistic distortions. And since all this is a key element of the “hybrid war”, non-resistance means in fact a tacit collaboration.
As a result, we find out ourselves in a screwed reality where the arguments of a rapist and of his victim are treated equally, and the truth is supposed to be found somewhere in between. As I am writing these words, the international media multiply information copycatted either from Reuters or, with minor differences, from DPA [Deutsche Presse-Agentur]: “Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces traded accusations on Thursday that each had fired across the ceasefire line in eastern Ukraine”. The competent readers may know that Ukrainian officials declared — many times and at various forums — that they had no desire to take the “separatist” regions by force, and that Ukrainian society at large has little appetite for a forcible, if any, takeover of those regions. They may also know that Russia amassed huge army at Ukraine’s border and is looking merely for a pretext for invasion along the 2008 Ossetian-Georgian (or the 1940 Soviet-Finnish, or 1939 German-Polish template), and therefore ‘mutual accusations’ are neither a ‘middle view’ of the situation nor a “half-truth” about it but a sheer lie from the Moscow side put on the equal foot with hard facts on the Ukrainian side — the facts that can be proved by both the satellite photos and OSCE observers on the ground.
Sure, respectable media — like Wall Street Journal, Jerusalem Post, or Turkish aNews — provide the due explanations but many readers get a sensational title and not necessarily go deeper into the text. They get the title that features the news about “separatists” and the government forces who “traded accusations” in the violation of ceasefire, but it’s unclear who started shooting (and why), so the readers are most likely to feel that the truth is uncertain if exists at all, that both sides are alike, both are not trustworthy and, ultimately, the readers may come to the “plague on their both houses” conclusion: the “crisis” is not our business, let’s stay further away from those barbarians. And this is exactly what Moscow needs: not to persuade that the Kremlin is right and holds the truth but to create a grey zone where “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible”. They lay ground for victory in the information warfare ahead of the military invasion, – as they meticulously did 14 years ago in Georgia and then, six years later, in the Crimea. And the West once again appears feckless and helpless against the challenge.
The rogue regime that we observe in Moscow today is not only a product of the peculiar Russian history, of complex social processes, or psychological complexes of the KGB elite. It is also a product of Western limited and often distorted knowledge of that country and the entire region, of wishful thinking that often accompanied it, and of a persistent reluctance to call the things by the proper names and take the adequate stance that can be based only upon the adequate naming. The collective “West” kept blind eyes in 1999 at the horrific explosions of the apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk — despite the abundant evidence of FSB involvement. It mildly condemned the Russian war crimes in Chechnya but reserved the label “genocide” for Milosevic. It softly reminded but never insisted that Moscow promised (and signed memorandum back in the 1990s) to withdraw troops from Moldova where they still stay illegally (in an officially neutral country, — with best regards to the today’s proponents of Ukraine’s neutral status). It expressed randomly some “concern” with the Kremlin crack down on opposition, independent mass media, persecution and even assassination of the political opponents but it had always been a marginal issue in the West-Russia relations. Even invasion of Georgia and occupation of its territory did not evoke any serious condemnation, let alone sanctions. The West happily bought the Moscow narrative about Georgia the aggressor who attacked Russia — though Georgia did it not in Rostov, not in Moscow, not even in the disputed Chechnya but, ironically, on its own territory. Period.
Putin learned all those lessons and invaded Crimea with due self-confidence. He still cannot probably understand why his move evoked such a condemnation and, worse, sanctions. Why the same politicians who met him with standing ovation in Bundestag after the Moscow explosions, who awarded him with the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur after mass killings in Chechnya, and initialed the ambitious Partnership for Modernization program after he carved up Georgia, — why, on earth, they remembered suddenly of some laws, agreements, and principles?
Putin may feel abused like a child who was suddenly reprimanded for the minor tricks and shenanigans that had usually been condoned or passed unnoticed. His eventual hybrid war with the West is a kind of revenge — not only for the “greatest catastrophe of the 20th century”, as he defines the end of the Soviet Union, and not only for the perceived ‘hijacking’ of Ukraine from his “privileged sphere of interests”, but also for the sudden change of the rules or, rather, their applicability.
The West seems to finally come to terms with the rogue essence of the Kremlin regime — after eight years of the de facto Russo-Ukrainian war deemed euphemistically a “crisis”, after Moscow interference into Western elections, hacker attacks, and spectacular assassinations of Kremlin opponents in their Western refuge, and finally after the crude blackmail of Ukraine and the West with a threat of military invasion. The wake-up yet is neither full nor certain; there are still too many “Putinverstehers” in different countries, and too many politicians let alone businessmen everywhere who prefer not to sacrifice their palpable benefits for the freedom or even lives of the remote people of whom they know nothing. They still do not dare to call a spade a spade, a killer a killer, and a rogue regime a rogue regime. “The West always seeks solutions and stability”, — Kurt Volker maintains, — and Putin perfectly knows this. He knows “the West’s constant preference to avoid confrontation and uses crises and instability to create points of influence”.
Putin plays skillfully his favorite game — “who blinks first”, — and raises the stakes by enhancing his image of a rogue guy who has gone crazy, probably even suicidal. It’s just a fake, an image, but it works. The Western leaders and diplomats are still trying to appease him – even though Putin himself along with his lackeys openly mock, insult and humiliate the Westerners. “Tragically”, Anne Applebaum concludes, “the Western leaders and diplomats… still think they live in a world where rules matter, where diplomatic protocol is useful, where polite speech is valued. All of them think that when they go to Russia, they are talking to people whose minds can be changed by argument or debate. They think the Russian elite cares about things like its ‘reputation’. It does not. In fact, they are talking to the people who aren’t interested in treaties and documents, people who only respect hard power”.
This does not bode well for Ukraine insofar as the Westerners still repeat the mantra on ‘dialogue’ and try to persuade the serial killers to stop killing and shift from raw meat to fruits and vegetables. There is, however, a silver lining in Applebaum’s rather pessimistic jeremiade. She reminds us that Russian leaders do not care much about the people and therefore about the sanctions that target the country. But they do care about the personal wealth and power. So hit them where it pains most. Target their illicit property and bank accounts in the West, their visas and, more generally, all the dolce vita in the despised “Gayropa” that most of them and their relatives are accustomed to enjoy. It is the highest time to call the crooks the crooks, and the bandits the bandits, and to treat them accordingly. This is a bitter remedy but, alas, the only remaining.
Ironically, even Le Monde that published Marie Mendras’ article (quoted in the beginning) featured it under the tag Crise Ukrainienne. ↩