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The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice


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Self-fulfilling propaganda: the effects of arming Ukraine

By Chris Beall

Did you know that in November 2013, Ukrainians overthrew their legitimate and democratically elected government in a violent, Western-supported coup? Did you know that later in April, the Kiev military launched a brutal campaign against the nation’s “independence supporters” in Donbass, or that, through a sophisticated Western propaganda campaign, the U.S. has maliciously and wrongfully painted Russia as the conflict’s aggressor?

How about the “very likely” belief that most weapons possessed by the independence supporters are, actually, locally sourced? Or the fact—substantiated through multiple neutral inspections—that no indication of Russian military activity has yet to be detected along the Ukrainian border? That “Canada, Britain, the U.S. and the boys with their toys in NATO headquarters are looking for a fight with Russia,” and that these Western nations are implementing policies in the region based on “imperial hubris instead of science and expertise?”

So goes the discourse, under the Russian propaganda machine. This is what journalism looks like when the Kremlin handles your payroll.

Of course, as a preface, let’s not oversell this. Our own media system is no stranger to questionably selective cherry-picking. It’s rare even in the West to find a truly nuanced treatment of the Ukraine crisis: one which takes seriously Russia’s real geostrategic interests in the region, or, for example, the important role played by Ukrainian gas debts in explaining Russia’s reaction the above-noted coup.

And yet, without myself being on the ground in Donetsk, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the bulk of the above amounts to utter absurdity. Amnesty International has highlighted the mounting evidence of direct Russian involvement in Ukraine, and a recent report by the Royal United Services Institute, a British security think-tank, confirms the same.

Writing for Foreign Policy, Peter Pomerantsev argues that Vladimir Putin’s greatest political success in recent years has been his construction of a truly modern Russian propaganda apparatus: a selective information machine marked by glitz and innovation beyond the scope of its stale Soviet predecessor. According to Pomerantsev, Putin has created a willingly captive audience for the narratives disseminated out of the Kremlin—claims like Ukraine’s new government being run by neo-Nazis or the borderline-paranoid assumption that the United States and NATO are constantly plotting to weaken and undermine Moscow. This partially explains Putin’s extraordinary 86 percent approval rating as of late, despite the virtual collapse of the ruble and Russia’s increasingly repressive domestic police measures.

But what is perhaps the most remarkable in all of this post-Soviet propaganda regarding the Ukraine crisis is how badly certain elements of our own government in Washington apparently seek to legitimize these exact narratives.

As the less-than-optimistic Minsk II peace treaty between Kiev and Ukraine’s Eastern Provinces limps onward, conversations have already resurfaced in Washington encouraging President Obama to arm the Ukrainian government with lethal aid and military assistance, aimed at countering Putin’s aggressive foreign policy actions. Just on March 4, a bipartisan mix of eleven U.S. Representatives brought a new letter to President Obama, urging the “transfer of lethal, defensive weapons systems to the Ukrainian military.” Meanwhile, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey and our new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter have each displayed some willingness to adopt such a policy.

Needless to say, there is some logic to arming Kiev. These sorts of arms shipments are an all too familiar form of asymmetrical hard power, employed by nation-states all over the globe. The basic idea is to put Ukraine in a position where it may drastically increase the strategic costs of Russian intervention in the region. Put bluntly, the goal is to kill increasing numbers of Russians fighting alongside Eastern Ukrainian separatists, and thereby erode Putin’s domestic approval as casualties mount. Or, as Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution summarizes, “The government supposedly fears the ire of Russian mothers whose devotion to the well-being of their soldier-sons can move political mountains even in authoritarian Russia. Rather than face a growing number of aroused and organized Russian mothers, the thinking goes, President Vladimir Putin will avoid escalation in Ukraine.”

However, while this form of containment policy can be implemented cheaply and easily by the United States, this hardly means that it will actually solve anything. As Shapiro wisely recognizes, “Unfortunately, one of the few more powerful forces than mothers in Russian politics is anti-Americanism.” Given President Putin’s current approval ratings and the complex and multifaceted propaganda machine he has built for himself, it would be impossible for the United States to arm Kiev without providing support and credibility to the Kremlin’s U.S.-imperial narrative.

Furthermore, while it’s easy for members of the House to romantically sympathize with the ongoing struggle of the bullied Ukrainian government—as we should—it’s quite another leap entirely to think that sending guns will actually aid in their plight. Paternalistic as it may sound, it is crucial to consider the realpolitik backdrop of this conflict. Nobody doubts that geopolitically, Ukraine is far more important to Russia than to the United States. Likewise, it is clear that short of direct U.S. military intervention and open combat with Russia, nothing is really stopping the Russian military from storming Kiev and devouring the whole country, if that’s what the Kremlin actually wanted.

The risk, then, is turning this into a post-Cold War chicken match, in which the United States is almost certain to blink first, and the result of which will only reinforce the American imperialism framework that Russia has utilized to rationalize and build domestic support for this conflict. Statesmanship starts to get silly as one approaches universal approval ratings. By placing ourselves in a position where the U.S. actually does play a hand in killing Russian servicemen, Putin would have all the fuel he needs to make a real mess of things in the region.

This, ultimately, raises questions regarding the human rights concerns of this policy. By upping Putin’s stakes in Ukraine and escalating this conflict beyond the last year’s six-thousand casualties, the real losers of U.S.-Ukrainian arms shipments will be those exact victims who would benefit the greatest under a diplomatic close to hostilities. This includes future victims of Kharviv-style terrorist attacks, in Kiev and elsewhere, as well as the civilians on both sides of the conflict, currently caught in the crossfires of Donbass. An escalation of hostilities, absent some realistic end goal of peace, will simply drag out this crisis.

There’s a reason that the U.S.’s own allies are warning us not to arm the Ukrainian government. France and Germany, the brokers of the current Minsk II peace treaty, recognize that this conflict only ends diplomatically. The fact that we will rely on these nations, in any attempt to place further economic pressure or Russia, goes without saying. But the U.S.’s relationship with its allies aside, if we truly want to promote rights, democracy and peace in Ukraine, then there seems little choice here other than at least temporarily placing our bets on Minsk II. Shaky as this treaty as started, sending U.S. arms to Kiev can only cripple its efforts, and further delay a diplomatic peace in Ukraine.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo Credit: People in Need/European Commission/Creative Commons