The shallowness

This is a headline in the Guardian. They are covering a TV interview with Nigel Farage, leader of the ‘Reform’ party:

Nigel Farage claims Russia was provoked into Ukraine war

I am interested, a mainstream political candidate saying that Russia was provoked into the Ukraine war. What did he say? What did the interviewer say? How does the paper comment:

On why Putin invaded Ukraine, Farage said: “I stood up in the European parliament in 2014 and I said: ‘There will be a war in Ukraine.’ Why did I say that? It was obvious to me that the ever-eastward expansion of Nato and the European Union was giving this man a reason … to say: ‘They’re coming for us again,’ and to go to war.”

He added: “We provoked this war. Of course it’s his fault, he’s used what we’ve done as an excuse.”

Farage has long been accused by the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties of being an apologist for the Russian president.

Earlier this year Rishi Sunak said it was “clearly ridiculous” to blame the west for the war. “Russia conducted an illegal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine,” the prime minister said. “I’m proud that the UK has stood strongly with Ukraine from the beginning.”

That’s it. A ‘claim’ and the newspaper has dug up an old quote from Sunak, “clearly ridiculous”. Is anyone going to discuss this? How provoked? Are there parallels? Did this just happen at one moment in time or is there some kind of a history? Could Russia have acted differently? Could we?

I don’t know if more was said in the actual TV interview, but as far as the Guardian is concerned, it is a “claim”, (not a point of view, or argument), and, for balance, we have a dredged up quote from Sunak, “clearly ridiculous”. That’s it. No debate, no analysis

The deeper issue is something about how the media shapes politics to its exigencies; slogans, headlines, catchy argument points. Everything is on the surface and available for immediate consumption, no thought required. And politicians go along with this and bend to it. Politics becomes the clown part of the circus.

Here is some more thoughtful political analysis from our political leaders, reported by the Guardian.

James Cleverly, the home secretary, criticised Farage’s comments, saying he was “echoing Putin’s vile justification for the brutal invasion of Ukraine”, while the former defence secretary Ben Wallace said the Reform leader was voicing “sympathy” to someone who “deployed nerve agents on the streets of Britain”.

These comments are designed for mass projection to millions of people. They are designed to make an impact. Like an advert, they are short, impactful and have an awkward relation with the truth, if they even operate on the level of statements about reality at all. The politicians are aiming for a 10 second clip on the News at 10, or a headline. Nothing else matters. Their career depends on being seen to be reacting. They have to reach millions in 10 seconds. No time for thought.

We might hope that away from the cameras it is not like this, that they deliberate policy, try to discuss objectively, have a thought out policy, and they just put this on for the media. But, no. This is the policy. This is it.

Policy is shaped by these careerists performing for the media. Is this democracy? I don’t know what it is.

Update – claims and narrative

There is a great deal to be said on this theme. But for now I just want to add one more observation.

Farrage has returned to his theme, that the eastwards expansion of NATO and the EU was a provocation for Russia. It is easy to support this thesis from historical data. John Mearsheimer, for example, quotes Wiiliam Burns, then US ambassador to Russia:

Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.

Professor Richard Sakwa quotes George Kennan, another former US diplomat:

Why, with all the hopeful possibilities engendered by the end of the Cold War, should East – West relations become centred on the question of who would be allied with whom and, by implication, against whom in some fanciful, totally unforeseeable and most improbable future military conflict? . . . bluntly stated . . . expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the Cold War to East – West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.

Sakwa. The Lost Peace. How the West failed to prevent a second cold war. Yale. 2023

One can also refer to statements by Putin. It is an easy task to establish that NATO’s relentless eastwards expansion was a provocation. But, strangely, for the Guardian, this idea is a “claim” and a “narrative”. Yet, we do not hear them call the idea that Putin “launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine because he is intent on recreating the Russian Empire/USSR” a “claim” or a “narrative”. Yet this thesis cannot be established with historical data. (The best effort is a quote when Putin expressed regret about the breakup of the USSR which only works because they never quote his next sentence, when he remarked that to reconstitute the USSR was an impractical dream*). That’s it. **

So, this is where we are. The crazy and unsubstantiated idea that the Ukraine war was caused by Putin deciding he wanted to recreate the Russian Empire circulates in Western media as some kind of truth, while the idea which is supported by serious historical analysis that NATO’s eastwards expansion was a provocation is described as a “claim” and a “narrative”. A 180° inversion of supportable interpretations! There is simply no analysis.

* Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain.


He [Putin] reiterated that view in April 2005 when he characterized the break-up of the Soviet Union as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century’ but promptly added that it was impossible to fantasize about resurrecting the old Soviet state. 

Freeze, Gregory L.. Russia: A History (p. 495). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition

** Apparently there is a narrative by the MOD aimed at Farage’s remarks.

The MOD video apparently cites the 2008 Russia-Georgia war as evidence that Russia is “aggressive”. In historical reality that war was provoked by Georgia who launched an operation against their separatist region of South Ossetia which was occupied by Russian peacekeepers. (The EU report on this matter admitted as such). It goes on, apparently, to say: “For 75 years NATO has worked for peace, security and freedom”. But even a first-year student of international relations and security will understand the ‘security dilemma’. NATO may indeed feel that they are ‘defensive’, but one state’s defensive measures may be perceived as a threat by another state. This is not even to mention other factors which may have affected Russian thinking, such as NATO’s illegal bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999, in support of Kosovan separatists. The MOD video references the NATO Russia Council as evidence that NATO was ‘peaceful’ and Russia, ‘aggressive’. But, the reality is these efforts simply failed to assuage Russian fears. This is what the scholar Richard Sakwa says about the NATO Russia Council:

The creation of the NATO–Russia Council (NRC) in May 2002 was yet another attempt to assuage Russian concerns, but while Moscow may have gained a voice it increasingly lacked a stake in the US-centred security system. Despite declarations of partnership, European security was increasingly built against rather than with Russia. Four more waves of expansion followed: the ‘big bang’ enlargement of 2004 brought in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, Albania and Croatia joined in 2009, Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020, bringing the total to thirty.

Richard Sakwa. The Lost Peace. How the West failed to prevent a second Cold War. Yale. 2023

From the Russian point of view, the NATO Russia Council may well have appeared as an empty talking shop designed to provide material for claims about ‘partnership with Russia’ while in fact sidelining their concerns. At any rate – we can say that what the MOD is describing as a ‘myth’ is an arguable matter of history.