Russian propagandists are constantly reinventing reality

Propagandists have proven to be highly adept in constantly reinventing reality in autocratic countries, particularly Russia, where the fact that reality has constantly debunked the Kremlin’s claims could not wholly shake Russian confidence in its war on Ukraine.

“Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially, the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia”, wrote George Orwell in his novel 1984.

This was meant to symbolise a fictional world where those in power are highly successful in engineering their own reality, even when substantial changes occur that would normally be expected to shake the population’s trust in their own propagandists.

Unfortunately, real life has proved to be surprisingly similar to Orwell’s fictional world, as Russian propagandists have been trying to explain events on the battlefield in Ukraine.

On February 26, 2022, two days after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, a (now removed) text on the Russian state news agency Ria Novosti declared Russian victory, praising the Kremlin for restoring Russian unity and ending Ukraine’s existence as an “anti-Russia”.

However, total Russian victory soon became impossible, so there had to be a pivot to a new narrative. After all, based on Russian propaganda, the people at home should have been expecting their soldiers to come home soon.

So, an old narrative about NATO provoking war with Russia via its Ukrainian “subject” was refurbished. It was, in fact, NATO and its support for Kyiv that was leading to “military escalation”. In April 2022, RT head Margarita Simonyan, a key pillar of Russian propaganda, declared on Russian state TV that the country was “waging war against NATO”.

Managing expectations

The situation worsened for Russia when Ukraine launched a highly successful counter-offensive in the autumn of 2022, regaining significant lost ground. Propagandists were confused, blaming security services, Kremlin advisers, and the lack of general mobilisation. They, however, quickly returned to their previous claims about Russia being at war with NATO rather than Ukraine. “Brussels” was accused of prolonging suffering by supporting Ukraine and the West. Some claimed the war was lasting longer than expected because Russia “greatly cares about civilians”.

Elsewhere, actors who claim to support peace—such as Hungary’s government—claim that Ukraine has done “what it possibly could” on the battlefield; it could not advance. It stopped being sovereignbecause it could only function off Western money, so it should return to the negotiating table.

As such, expectations have been constantly redrawn by Russian or pro-Russian propagandists regarding the war. From a three-day battle, the expectations were changed because of an alleged fight with NATO or because Russia was “taking care of civilians”. Setbacks were explained by Russia not putting everything it had into the fight.

As of June 2023, the majority of Russians (73 per cent) support the actions of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine, according to a poll by Levada, and 54 per cent said the “special military operation” was progressing successfully.

However, only 40 per cent supported continuing military actions—down from 48 per cent in May. Even if we consider measuring public opinion in Russia extremely challenging, data suggest that the complete failure of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine still appears to be a success to most Russians, even though many want an end to the war.

Hearts and minds

It must be noted that the West is currently in an information war with the Kremlin for the hearts and minds of the people, especially Western populations; support for governments aiding Ukraine is not collapsing.

The Kremlin meanwhile is playing a long game, waiting for the exhaustion of the West and its abandonment of Ukraine. This war is deeply asymmetric. The West has barely any access to Russia’s information space, while Russia can (mostly) freely broadcast its messages in Europe and North America by circumventing sanctions or via intermediaries.

Additionally, populations of authoritarian regimes might be more resilient to war exhaustion due to their restrictive information environments.

Overall, the West needs to invest more into improving the resilience of its populations, not via repression but—instead—education, media literacy, and proper strategic communications by governments.

This is, of course, going to take longer than it took for the Kremlin to turn Russia into an autocracy. Investment in these strategic actions must start flowing right now.

Originally published here

Ron Paul is wrong on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Ron Paul is wrong when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And it isn’t just Ron Paul, the entire realist spectrum of thought in the international relations sphere is misguided in their approach to Russia’s imperialist pursuit, and the appropriate response of NATO and its member states.

For those who don’t know, the “Realist school of thought in International Relations” is one headlined by scholars like John Mearsheimer and Robert Pape. Their views and scholarly work were brought to the forefront during the War on Terror, with their paraphrased view that American interventionism not only caused radical Islamic terrorism, but fueled it while the United States was engaged in the Middle East. Those views, while usually reserved for the pages of academic journals and faculty lounges, were popularized by presidential candidate Ron Paul when he ran in the Republican primaries in 2008.

When pressed with the question of opposing the war in Iraq, then-candidate Ron Paul barbed with Rudy Guiliani over the concept of “blowback,” the realist idea that interventionism fuelled the problem of Islamic terrorism, and that Iraq made the issue exponentially worse. Ron Paul was right when explaining the issues with America’s involvement in the Islamic world — and the world is a far worse place for failing to listen to him.

That said, the advocates of Ron Paul’s school of foreign policy thought are rapidly exposing their dogmatism when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In real-time we are seeing those who stood in opposition to American adventurism in the Middle East recycle their arguments for Ukraine, despite the obvious differences in the two situations.

First off, the War on Terror was a failure because it was a war on a concept, mostly fought against non-state actors who spread across several national borders. To anyone with two eyes and a brain, it’s pretty clear Russia’s intrusion into Ukraine is fundamentally different. Here we have a pariah kleptocracy invading a sovereign democracy. Juxtapose that against a group of non-state terrorist organizations spread across the globe and the difference couldn’t be more obvious.

Beyond that, where the realist crowd really stray far from reality is the grievances Russia uses for its justification to intervene in Ukraine. Those who hold the Ron Paul foreign policy view consistently parrot the line that “NATO created this problem with its expansion inching closer to Russia’s borders.” This is problematic for several reasons.

First, it completely ignores the fact that Russia’s neighbours, including Ukraine, sought NATO membership because they really feared what would happen if the Russian military acted on Putin’s nostalgic view of a post-USSR Russian empire. Was their concern overstated? If Ukraine has shown us anything, it’s that their fears were warranted.

Secondly, let’s evaluate that argument in the context of what happens if Russia is successful in toppling the government of Ukraine and absorbing it into Russia, which has long been a goal of Putin. If Putin is successful in actually taking, and holding Ukraine, they will have conquered the country to prevent NATO from being on their border, while at the same time rapidly expanding NATO’s presence on their border. A new Russian state with Ukraine in the fold would have Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland (all NATO members) bordering their new imperial state. Given that, how can anyone take seriously the argument that Putin’s invasion is a means to creating more space between Russia and NATO?

It becomes pretty clear that Russia’s expansionist view is based on a decade’s old view of Russian influence, and not one where NATO adventurism is to blame. Plus, if NATO was really the existential threat to Russia that Putin apologists would have us believe, why did NATO not take the intrusion into Georgia, or Putin’s theft of Crimea, as a means to militarily engage Russia in war? If NATO was the imperialist force that Putin would have you believe, the table was set long ago for conflict. And yet, NATO didn’t use those encroachments as a justification to engage Russia in military conflict.

The same goes for those who argue the US’s involvement in regime change in Ukraine in 2014 somehow justifies Putin’s invasion today. Those in the Ron Paul crowd, and strident socialists, regularly state the Obama administration spent $5 billion fueling unrest to overthrow the government in Ukraine. Even though that figure is demonstrably false, let’s assume it is true. Is US involvement in the civil unrest justification for Putin’s invasion nearly a decade later? It certainly isn’t. Not only that, this argument completely ignores the fact Ukraine has a new, incredibly heroic, democratically elected president with Volodymyr Zelensky. This falsehood, which is pumped out by those on both ends of the political spectrum, seems to completely forget that democracy is alive and well in Ukraine.

Simply put, the attempt to use blowback theory, which was certainly accurate and valid for the War on Terror, for Russia’s grievances is at best completely ignorant. At its worst, those in the Ron Paul crowd, whether willingly or not, have become “useful idiots” in Putin’s propaganda machine.

So what should we, as in NATO, do in regards to Putin’s continued push for a Russian-occupied Ukraine? What we’ve done so far is good, with targeted sanctions and restrictions on Russian bank’s access to SWIFT (the system which facilitates most international transactions). But is this good enough? Probably not.

A no-fly zone, properly enforced by NATO forces, would certainly be the next step. In fact, this is what many Ukrainians are asking for, stating that if NATO can secure the skies, they can “handle the rest.” And so far, they have valiantly defended their homeland against the madman dictator who wishes to put them under his thumb.

Critics will quickly point out this is “a clear escalation” and could lead to a hot war between NATO and Putin’s Russia. While that may be true, this misses the point that what is, and isn’t an escalation is solely determined by Putin. Putin could very well view economic sanctions, the seizure of property, being kicked out of SWIFT, NATO supplying Ukraine with weapons, the EU supplying fighter jets, funding, or any other measure as an escalation or an act of war. Those who support any of those measures are comfortable enacting them regardless of how Putin may view them. They’ve already committed to intervening, in some way, shape, or form. While those measures will make life in Russia difficult and may help the Ukrainians extend their resistance, they don’t protect the Ukrainians from the prospect of aerial bombardment. A no-fly zone does exactly that

And what if NATO does nothing? What would happen then? Well, first off, every dictator in the world would seek nuclear weapons. Doing so would ensure that they could act as they please, no matter how monstrous, without consequence. Even worse, failing to further engage threatens whatever hope we have at achieving a denuclearized world, or a world with fewer nuclear weapons. The US, UK, and USSR once convinced Ukraine to give up their nuclear weapons in exchange for protection if their sovereignty was later infringed upon. If “we”, the member states of NATO, can’t honour that agreement, what hope do we have of ever convincing any country in the world to scale back their nuclear arsenals?

The Ron Paul or Realist foreign policy advocates are trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole with their recycling of once accurate arguments. And while they hammer away, Russian armed forces hammer away on the people of Ukraine and their democratically elected government.

David Clement is a columnist for The Western Standard

Originally published at the Western Standard