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Buried roots of war

We have not remembered all the relevant facts about the conflict in Ukraine

Artillery Row

In recent years, the public at large has been misled on a number of major issues. In the spring of 2021, we were told that it was not possible that COVID-19 was caused by a lab leak. This narrative became so well policed that, for a long period, it was impossible to even mention it on social media without the post in question being removed. Just two years later, this is now increasingly accepted as the most likely origin by official bodies — including the US Department of Energy and the FBI.

The pandemic provides many other notable and obvious recent examples of attempts to impose and police an official narrative. Alternative viewpoints became accessible only thanks to the persistence of a number of journalists and researchers, who did not allow the authorised version of events to set a limit on their analysis. They were able to communicate with the public owing to the bravery of a handful of publications — The Critic prominent amongst them. Those who obtained their information from other media sources had a completely different outlook on important events. Having had little exposure to other arguments, most British people still think that lockdowns were necessary. Only a better informed minority are able to contest this assertion.

Something similar has happened with the war in Ukraine, although it is less obvious that a narrative is being imposed. Certainly, a number of vital issues are simply not being reported in the western media. This much was openly hinted by Zelensky in his speech to Congress when he triumphantly declared, “We defeated Russia in the battle for minds of the world.” The Economist has been even more frank: “Ukraine dominated the information war in the West.” A distinguished journalist, who has long experience reporting on the region for The Times, similarly confirmed that we have been subjected to a “state-of-the-art information war”. Perhaps future historians will be able to document in detail the ways this has been orchestrated, but for the moment only the briefest occasional glimpses behind the curtain are necessarily available.

There is no doubt we are seeing a highly sophisticated media operation at work. This is nothing new or surprising. Time was when western governments would try to get an ex-tabloid hack to gain public support for a war. Such crude methods seem almost touchingly naive now. What is happening today is vastly more sophisticated. Five years ago, the head of NATO wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian with Angelina Jolie about defending womens’ rights. Today, if military alliances want to gain your support for a particular side in a conflict, they are going to be subtle yet highly persuasive, with much talk of values. Generally, the line being pushed depends on a stereotyping of the two sides, making the Ukrainians into a paragon of enlightened values whilst casting Putin as nothing less than Dr No.

Maintaining this narrative relies on the absence of dissenting voices raising questions. Despite Kissinger warning about antagonising Russia and stressing the dangers of prolonging the conflict, exponents of standard realpolitik — once regarded as the adults in the room in security policy — have been little heard and less heeded lately. Realism in international relations only seems to apply when it comes to making overtures to Middle Eastern butchers like Mohammed bin Salman. Mearsheimer’s suggestion, that NATO expansion is a significant cause of the tension that led to the conflict, is routinely dismissed. Whisper it quietly, but many are actually delighted to be at war with Russia, albeit through a proxy. Hawks are secretly pleased to find a good rationale for increasing defence spending, even if the inability of Russia to best Ukraine shows it is patently not a substantive military threat to the UK or any NATO member.

Elsewhere in Europe, the mood is quite different and more critical. Tellingly, the greatest scepticism is to be found in the countries closest to Ukraine. My own exposure to different perspectives comes through having a Bulgarian partner and a long association at an institute for advanced studies in Bucharest. After months of war, an opinion poll found that an astonishing 52 per cent of Slovaks said they hoped for a Russian victory. Given the country shares a border with Ukraine and was invaded by Soviet troops within the living memory of older generations, one starts to wonder — what do they know that the British don’t?

We are rarely told that Ukraine is basically an oligarchy

Those closer to Ukraine are certainly not fooled by the persistent presentation of occasional spectacular events in the country as evidence of substantive democratic achievements. The so-called “Orange revolution” of 2004 was little more than a contested election between oligarchic factions. Yet, much of the media were apparently content to take at face value its presentation as a democratic revolution. We are rarely told that Ukraine is basically an oligarchy. Given it is a competitive one (where Russia is a state run one), individual oligarchs must be politically active to defend their patch. The media has had little to say about these people who effectively run the country. Zelensky was the first non-oligarch to be elected president, but he was widely regarded on his election as a cat’s paw for Kolomoisky. Only the war gave him an opportunity to assert himself. Tymoshenko was particularly notable for paying image consultants handsomely to dress her up for the political stage, most preposterously after her imprisonment on contested corruption charges as a sort of Slavic Mandela. Western outlets lapped this sort of thing up, although the Ukrainian public have been rather more sceptical.

By the time the Maidan protests took place in 2014, a very high level of sophistication had been achieved in such matters. In a country which had become Europe’s poorest, there were many on the streets with no particular agenda other than to express their general dissatisfaction. Opinion polls at the time also showed no great degree of enthusiasm for the jamboree anywhere but in the capital and Western regions. Yet it was uncritically presented as, in Guy Verhofstadt’s words, “the largest pro-European demonstration in the history of the European Union”. Few questions were asked about what was going on behind the scenes, whether there were unsavoury elements and what their agenda was. A leading Ukrainian sociologist has exposed over a number of publications the extent to which radical right wing groups were calling the shots during “Euromaidan”.

If anything, reporting has only degenerated since then, with Manichean stereotyping taking over from any serious consideration of the actuality. Much of the liberal West genuinely believes Russia was primarily responsible for the election of Trump as well as the result of the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016. This is despite lengthy investigations by Mueller and others finding no substance to such suggestions. Putin has become a pantomime caricature, and it is now impossible to seriously discuss the rationale behind his actions. We are told time and again that he is a neo-imperialist who seeks to recreate the USSR or the Russian Empire. The course of events does not support this. If Putin had such ambitions, he could have realised them in Ukraine by not stopping with Crimea in 2014 and pushing on to Kyiv. As recently as a prominent 2021 statement, he compared Russia and Ukraine to Germany and Austria or the USA and Canada — two separate countries, with much in common, who should “respect” one another. Try to find a mention of that in the voluminous media coverage. His behaviour in relation to Donbass during the long Minsk processes, where Ukraine consistently played a recalcitrant role, backs the impression that until very recently he had no intention (the exceptional case of Crimea aside) other than to respect Ukrainian sovereignty. The media paints Putin as a new Hitler lustful to annex neighbours’ territory, but Jonas Gahr Store, the Norwegian Prime Minister remarked, “We settled a 40-year border dispute in the Arctic Ocean through very modern, up-to-date negotiations.”

We are in territory similar to the lab leak hypothesis here, with a whole line of very obvious questions simply not being put or not being allowed. It is hard to know the extent to which publications are deliberately not informing their readers or whether, in a world where foreign reporting is increasingly seen as too expensive to do properly, they are simply themselves poorly informed. The well resourced Economist reported last spring on a statement of Putin, “There is a line about denazifying the Ukrainian education system, whatever that means.” As the anonymous author seems ignorant of the matter, we might refer them to other media sources. They have reported the extent to which paramilitary groups, who celebrate Ukrainian nationalists who fought with the Nazis, have played a significant role in recent politics in the country. Indeed, despite the US Democrats at one stage seeking to have the Azov group listed as a terrorist organisation, it has since been officially incorporated as part of the Ukrainian army and given tanks and heavy artillery. The Economist is not alone in staying schtum about these matters. A recent piece on British volunteers in such irregular units was published in The Guardian by Luke Harding, who has led its reporting of the war. He takes surface denials at face value (rather extraordinarily for a publication that is not normally shy of labelling positions “far right”) and fails to document the disturbing links between Ukrainian nationalism and the Nazi regime.

When Poroshenko, sixth richest man in the country, was elected president post-Maidan, there were hopes that he might be able to reconcile Ukrainian society. Instead he appointed a number of far right ministers and increasingly became captured by nationalist agendas — or, as some would have it, promoted them in order to distract attention from his economic failures. These governments passed a number of laws that further encroached on minority and linguistic rights, flouting standards established in international treaties that Ukraine signed up to as long ago as the 1990s. Already before the country had become independent, the only official language of the country was Ukrainian. This had long been a bone of contention with predominantly Russian speaking areas of the east — and a matter which Moscow has very naturally taken a keen interest in. As far back as the early 1990s, Donetsk and Lugansk held non-binding local referenda on federalism and the status of the Russian language. Yanukovych attempted to find a solution to this long running problem with a 2012 law that would have allowed some regional autonomy in language use — a very modest measure, compared to his election promise to make Russian a second official language. Even the latter is a not unreasonable proposal by European standards, given that a large section of the population are fluent in it but not Ukrainian.

The EU, despite high rhetoric about rights, has persistently ignored this issue

One of the first acts of the new post-Maidan government was to attempt to strike down this law. In the years since, its modest, minority-friendly measures have increasingly been replaced by laws that seek to limit the usage of Russian and deprive other minorities of the ability to use and be educated in the language of their choice. In 2017, a proposed new draft language law was described by Thorbjrn Jagland of the Council of Europe as not in “compliance with internationally-agreed standards on minority protection”. Indeed he specifically said it was a “threat to peace and stability. Heavy condemnations came not just from Moscow but from a number of EU governments, including those of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece, who all have minorities in Ukraine. The EU, despite its high flown rhetoric about rights, has persistently ignored this crucial issue. However, when it came to gay rights, it suspended all talks about an association agreement — for a period lasting years — until the parliament in Kyiv legislated for them.

Language and minority rights issues remained largely unreported whilst the Ukrainian regime was painted by contemporary media as the champions of liberal values, simply on the basis of its energetically opposing Moscow. It is fascinating to observe how, just after the invasion last year, the language issue briefly raised its head in the media before disappearing entirely. A Daily Telegraph report shortly after the invasion attempted to dismiss it as being of any consequence. A magazine article by Archie Brown, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Oxford, also briefly mentioned it, again downplaying its significance. Unherd, which was rather fearless during the pandemic, tackled the issue only in an effort to dismiss it. Its commentator was forced to engage in kettle logic to this end. Declaring at the start of his piece that “Russian intelligence networks have tried to use the Hungarian question to destabilise Ukraine”, he goes on to quote an adviser to Orban describing the Poroshenko’s language laws as “a serious violation” of the right of ethnic Hungarians “to be educated in their mother language and to use their mother language in public life”. He is far from the only journalist who has ignored the concerns of EU member states who have minorities in Ukraine. An entire article in The Guardian, about how strained Hungary’s relations with Poland have become, fails to mention language rights. This is a main bone of contention between Budapest and Kyiv, which has led the country to be highly sceptical of Poland’s enthusiastic support for Ukraine.

More recently, there have been some occasional mentions of the issue, but attempts to repress the Russian language are usually treated as if they are something that has spontaneously arisen quite recently (whilst passing over the situation of other minorities in silence). A piece in The Economist now tells us “de-Russification has mostly been a bottom-up process or a matter of individual preference, as opposed to government policy”. There is no mention at all of more than a decade’s worth of repressive legislation. Its report revels in an unseemly way over how volumes of Mayakovsky, Pushkin and Dostoyevsk were shredded to make egg cartons and toilet paper. An article in The Spectator, running generally against the strongly pro-Kyiv, pro-NATO tone of its coverage, protested generally against “canceling Russian culture”. It still did not detail the long history of Ukraine’s failure to respect even the most basic levels of linguistic and minority rights.

Conditions on the front in the current conflict have occasionally been compared to the First World War. Perhaps it is journalistic hyperbole, but something strikes me as being similar to that war. A dispute, in which fault can plainly be seen on both sides, has been presented by the media as a civilisational clash. It is hard to find exact parallels, but what has happened in Ukraine is something akin to Northern Ireland becoming part of a thirty-two county Ireland, and the government in Dublin then deciding that you could only get a civil service job or bring a court case if you did so in Gaelic. It would be nothing less than an attempt to exclude and disenfranchise the sizable Unionist population. Britons would rightly be hopping mad, and sabres would start to get rattled pretty quick. However, it would seem that the US and EU think Putin has never had a legitimate reason to be concerned about the position of Russian speakers in Ukraine.

Putin realised that Russia and Ukraine were never going to be Germany and Austria

It is a situation that should never have been allowed to develop. The large European state, with concerns about a kin population in a neighbour, is an old, old story in the history of the continent, one which usually does not end well. The EU has always presented one of its core missions as preventing war on the continent yet, as I document in a forthcoming paper, it has done nothing to address this situation. With its sharp elbowed attempts to capture Ukrainian markets, it has actively inflamed it. Other European bodies have proved equally feeble, despite the Russian government consistently seeking remedies through the Venice Commission and similar structures. As long ago as 2007, a citizen of Crimea (then an autonomous republic within Ukraine) brought a case to the European Court of Humans Rights. He was challenging state practices that effectively prevented him from using his name in its Russian form for many official purposes. Ruling on narrow technical points, this most activist of courts (one that has just told Bulgaria it must recognise gay marriage) dismissed the issue. There was rightly outrage in France during the recent presidential contest when Zemmour said that immigrants should adopt “French” names. Yet when Ukrainian Vladimirs are forced to be known as “Volodomyr”, there is a deafening silence. The constant handwringing about rights suddenly stops.

Perhaps the final straw for Putin was a 2021 law on the indigenous peoples of Ukraine. This made manipulative use of an idea from international law to effectively enable an unprecedented statement that the Russian minority had no right to state protection of their spiritual, religious and cultural heritage. No minorities other than two small Jewish sects living in Crimea (and hence effectively irrelevant for practical purposes) were stated to be indigenous to the country. Ethnic Ukrainians were legally the only native inhabitants of the country. Kyiv presumed that Russia would be content to again make futile protests to toothless European bodies as it had been doing for years. Looking for mentions of this crucial piece of legislation in all the voluminous coverage of the war is like searching for a needle in a haystack. I very much suspect that future historians will remember it as, along with the threat of NATO membership, one of the immediate triggers of Putin’s decision to invade. It was the moment Putin realised that Russia and Ukraine were never going to be Germany and Austria or USA and Canada, at least not whilst nationalist ideology reigned in Kiev.

We have had eighteen months of war now. One estimate would have it as one of the most violent wars since 1812. There is much talk of the Russian “meatgrinder”, but only recently has the media started to admit the huge numbers of casualties on the Ukrainian side. We can again see media manipulation at work in the way in which a Pentagon “leak” in April was still maintaining Ukrainian army deaths were only 17,000. Now, when US policy has started to change following the failure of the counteroffensive, the deaths are conceded to be at least 70,000. The media only lets you hear about the one that fits the current official agenda.

The tragedy is that there was nothing inevitable about this war. It could have been preempted by diplomatic action, by preventing Russia feeling threatened by NATO expansion to its borders, and by reigning in the more radical nationalists in Kyiv. Admitting to the existence of these nationalists didn’t fit with the narrative that was being pushed, however, so the West simply pretended they didn’t exist. The price paid for this has been massive. Apart from the slaughter on both sides, the costs of reconstruction are heading towards a stunning $500 billion. It has long been fondly imagined that the spread of liberal democracy would lead to the end of war, but the reality of the last few decades suggests that the attempt to spread liberal democracy has itself been a cause of massively destructive wars.

The conflict in Ukraine certainly resembles the Great War in being a needless slaughter that could have been prevented by not allowing the situation to become so polarised. How to bring it to an end? Ukraine never seriously engaged in the Minsk peace processes from 2015 onwards, which sought to bring the much more limited conflict in Donbass to an end. Zelensky was elected to find a way to peace, but a press conference announcing a formula was broken up by Azov paramilitaries. The violence of the current war has thoroughly poisoned the well, and the conflict seems destined to become at best a frozen one. If there is to be peace, it will necessitate all parties recognising each others’ positions. This means not just the Ukrainians, but their Western allies admitting that Russia had and has well grounded concerns about the treatment of minorities in the country. Given that these issues have been so carefully hidden away, that seems a very long way off.

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