The New Observer Uncategorized Propaganda watch

Propaganda watch

This is a New York Times article about Zelensky’s current trip to the US. One of the main aims of the visit is to shore up bipartisan support for more billions to be spent supporting Ukraine. The stakes are viewed, in some quarters, as quite high – as there is a growing danger that a Republican President could pull the plug. A growing number of Americans are expressing doubt about continuing to arm Ukraine. (John Mearsheimer thinks that even Trump would not in fact be able to pull the plug – but some think there is a real risk). At any event, this is the context.

It is in this context that the New York Times tells its readers:

In the run-up to the invasion, Russia stated claims to security influence in Eastern Europe more broadly, demanding that countries admitted to NATO after the breakup of the Soviet Union leave the alliance.

If people believe this they might think that the US is under threat from Russia – it is trying to drive countries out of NATO! I would assume this is deliberate propaganda because the power of this false statement to influence Americans to back more spending on Ukraine is clear.

The statement is of course not true. Russia demanded that NATO roll back its posture in Europe to what it was in 1997. This would imply for example pulling forces back from Poland and Hungry. The proposed treaty also included a provision for temporary placement by agreement of all parties (obviously unacceptable to the West as it would have given Russia a veto on NATO force placement in NATO member countries). And it further proposed a mutual agreement for neither side to carry out military exercises close to the borders. But; while these were stringent proposals they did not envisage any country being required to “leave the alliance”. That isn’t true.

The full text of Russia’s proposed treaties with the US and NATO are available online.

The demand outlined above about pulling back forces to the position of 1997 was of course unacceptable to the US and NATO. But, at the same time, it is probably no more than the US would arrogate to itself. The US has a Monroe Doctrine by which it does not allow any foreign military power to set up base in its hemisphere. (John Mearsheimer). Just before the current war the US reacted very negatively to a proposal by Russia (probably conducted as a kind of thought-experiment) to place weapons in Venezuela. In making the above demand the Kremlin was not in fact demanding anything other than that which the US assumes for itself.

Just one further point. At the heart of this conflict is the now raw and open conflict between the US and, sadly the EU, which see and treat Russia as a minor power who has no rights to have a say in anything outside its immediate borders, (even if the developments affect the Russian economy) and Putin’s revisionist Russia which is actively asserting its right to be treated as an equal to the US, with the right, for example, to be be able to exercise a veto on military developments in its vicinity. OK. The US thinks like this. But the rhetoric does not (openly) admit that double-standards are in play. What is very striking is how no mainstream journalist, never, not once, (that I have seen), simply asks a Western politician – “why, if the US would not allow Chinese or Russian military bases in Mexico are we going to war to insist on this right for us in Ukraine?”. If the answer is; “because we are more powerful and better than Russia and as a liberal democracy we have more rights”, at least let them say that openly. But my guess is that if more people understood that Russia is asking for equality and not more than that, then they would be inclined to say “why not”? Which is why the media never ask this question.

In general terms there were ideas in these treaty documents which could have been engaged with, including a mutual proposal about not placing short and intermediate range missiles within range of the other side (a long standing Russian proposal) and, as I mention above, a proposal to limit military exercises close to each other’s borders. But, my main point in this post, is simply to highlight this naked propaganda. Russia did not demand that any countries leave NATO as reported by the New York Times. That is probably propaganda to help Zelensky sell his war to Congress. A war which seems to be killing a lot of people and which it is very, very hard to see is going to lead to the “defeat of Russia” (the actual aim of Ukraine) or even the restoration of Crimea and Donbas.

Update – 22-9-23

This is another exhibit. Basically the war lobby is working hard given that Zelensky is in Washington and there is some doubt about whether the latest tranche of aid ($24 billion) is going to be passed. This is from an opinion piece in the Washington Post. The piece is based on a visit the author made to Ukraine and he reports the determination of the Ukrainians to fight and not accept a compromise based on territorial concessions:

No, Ukraine is not a perfect country. It still has corruption problems, as Zelensky’s recent near-wholesale replacement of the defense ministry’s leadership suggests. The country is also experiencing the predictable tensions between maintaining national unity during a wartime and preserving its status as a pluralist democracy with freedom of speech and the right to criticize the government. Under the Ukrainian constitution, elections have been suspended during the current declaration of martial law; it’s impossible to have serious elections with roughly one-fifth of the country occupied by Russian forces.

There are so many problems with even this short text that it is difficult to know where to start.

Firstly; Ukraine had a problem “preserving its status as a pluralist democracy” long before the current war. Immediately following the Maidan coup the new parliament tried to pass a law rescinding an important law that allowed Russian to be used as a official language. The bill was not signed into law by the then President, but that the attempt was made reflects that the parliament that formed after Maidan was not a “pluralistic” one. In the immediate period after the Maidan coup the Communist Party was banned, thus disenfranchising approximately 13% of the electorate [1]. Bans on “pro-Russian” media followed. As Richard Sakwa explains in his book Frontline Ukraine, there are two possible visions in Ukraine. One is a “monist” one, which focussed on a single, unitary Ukraine and the other is a more pluralist vision. It is precisely the first one which won by the Maidan coup. [2] It is almost laughable to propose that the current government in Kiev is interested in developing Ukraine as a pluralist state. Indeed, the current government issued a law in 2021 requiring the use of Ukrainian in the service industry. [3] In 2018 a Western region banned Russian cultural products. [4]

Secondly; the author of the opinion piece reports how Ukrainians are ready to fight tooth and nail to defend Ukraine and against losing any territory. But did he go to the East? To Donbas? To Crimea? Almost certainly not. Had he done so he would have found people who Ukraine regards as its citizens who would express that they want to join with Russia. The actual problem, both views prevail in Ukraine, is completely elided. He only asks one side what they think and then presents this as the view of Ukrainians. This is at the same time absurd and absolutely the standard Western political-media class position on Ukraine. They aren’t even prepared to engage with the problem that Ukraine is split.

As for explaining away the current postponement of elections with “it’s impossible to have serious elections with roughly one-fifth of the country occupied by Russian forces.” the author is perhaps forgetting that Zelensky was elected President in 2019 when Crimea was already under Russian “occupation” and, according to Kiev, so was Donbas. (I accept that the current war situation across the whole country makes holding elections very difficult; but that is the issue, not that part of the country is “occupied”; this didn’t stop them before).

And “Ukraine still has corruption problems”. I expect it does. In fact on Transparency International’s index Ukraine is pretty close to Russia. One can’t help wondering how much of the Western aid is being siphoned off.

Ukraine is, even before the current war, an authoritarian and corrupt country in which oligarchs wield outsize influence. In fact, a little bit like the Western depiction of Russia! Of course the overall picture is complex but it does seem that the US is backing Ukraine not because it is a paradigm of liberal democracy, but because it is a useful geopolitical pawn in a game to “push Russia out of the ranks of the Great Powers”. I side with those who think this is a terrible mistake.


  1. “The disenfranchisement of the 13 per cent of the electorate that had voted for the party in 2012 could hardly be considered democratic.” Sakwa, Richard. Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (p. 137). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  2. ibid.