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A totalitarian medial steamroller

Ola Tunander
Ola Tunander
Tunander is Professor Emeritus of PRIO. See also wikipedia, at PRIO: , as well as a bibliography on Waterstone
UKRAINE/RUSSIA / : Talking about an "unprovoked Russian attack" is pure propaganda. The Minsk agreement with Ukraine in 2014 was supposed to ensure Ukraine's neutrality and integrity and give the Russian-speakers in Ukraine the right to practice their mother tongue. But in 2021/22, Kyiv and Washington canceled the agreement at the same time as the US built up militarily in Ukraine. Today, journalists and other commentators do not understand why Russia cannot afford to lose the war. How is it possible that the entire Norwegian, and much of the Anglo-American, media world could be bewitched by such propaganda?


What commentators can say in the mass media – on Dagsnytt 18 and in the major newspapers – has been narrowed down, yes, one-sided, especially when it comes to questions about the Ukraine war. Several people I know have canceled their newspaper subscriptions. Others want to keep a paper newspaper for breakfast almost regardless of the content because they have always done so. But they are also frightened by the incompetence of politicians and journalists who apparently live in a parallel world.

Those who have studied security policy and the experiences of the Cold War for many decades choose to remain silent. Those who could have warned us against a difficult development have given up.

A few decades ago, there was, at least within the labor movement, an acknowledgment that one had to take the other party's need for security seriously. But now everything is forgotten. The hubris typical of journalists, politicians and officers today will backfire. We can only wait for it to go as bad as we have already said.

The only accepted narrative

Practically all commentators in the mass media have since 2022 claimed that Russia entered Ukraine with the goal of conquering land to restore the old Russian Empire or Soviet Commonwealth. Many have envisioned a victory, a liberation of Ukraine from the Russians as the Vietnamese liberated themselves from USA, or how Norway succeeded in freeing itself from the German occupation. And the more modern weapons the West would give Ukraine, the greater the opportunity would be for Ukraine to recapture lost land. So it was said.

But those who know American-Russian security policy know that this has little to do with reality. Nevertheless, it has been the only accepted narrative within the Norwegian media world. Anyone who has said otherwise has immediately been thrown into the periphery. The media system has functioned as a totalitarian machine, a centrifuge, where anyone who questions the obvious is ejected into silence. There has only been one perception. We have to go back to Soviet-era Pravda to find something similar.

Lost hope of Ukrainian victory

But now something has happened. In recent weeks, more and more people have had to reconsider the possibility of a Ukrainian victory. The massive Ukrainian spring offensive of 2023 turned first into a summer offensive and then into an autumn offensive. However, Ukraine never succeeded in recapturing lost land. American newspapers have now lost hope of a Ukrainian victory. This hope was presented in Norwegian newspapers and on Dagsnytt 18 and caused the Norwegian government to give 75 billion in arms support to Ukraine (over five years). But the more weapons we have given, the more soldiers have been killed without anything changing on the battlefield. Today we know that Ukraine has lost several hundred thousand men without the front having moved at all. What the media has been telling us has been proven wrong. For the US, the important thing has not been a Ukrainian victory, but to "weaken Russia" – even if it would cost hundreds of thousands of dead Ukrainians. Already in March 2022, former US Assistant Secretary of Defense Chas W. Freeman Jr. stated: "We [the US] will fight to the last Ukrainian."

"Putin's full-scale invasion"

Today we are faced with a cruel reality, for which journalists, commentators and politicians must also take responsibility. Practically all politicians and journalists in the West have from 24 February 2022 started by talking about a "full-scale invasion" and an "unprovoked Russian attack" in order to "conquer Ukraine». The phrase "full-scale invasion" has been used before, but after February 2022, this phrase has probably been used more times each month than it has been used in history combined.

It was Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba who spoke in the early morning of 24 February 2022 about Putin's "full-scale invasion of Ukraine", and practically all newspapers and TV channels came to use Kuleba's words on the same day. Thereafter, almost every mention of the war was prefaced with "Putin's full-scale invasion" to "conquer Ukraine." The British Guardian already wrote on 2 February that Washington and London predicted "a full-scale invasion" of Ukraine.

Early in the morning of February 24, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned Putin's "unprovoked attack", and President Joe Biden spoke the same day about "Russia's unprovoked attack". All journalists used the same expression.

The words 'unprovoked attack Ukraine' give more than half a million hits on Google, while the previous 'full-scale invasion Ukraine' gives close to two million hits. These terms have governed the media narrative that has set the framework for the public conversation, and any deviation from this narrative will either bounce off the goose like water. Already from the first day, yes, from the first hours, certain "truths" were thus established which set limits
one for the public conversation.

These 'truths' appear to have been originally deployed in London and Washington. Ukrainian Kuleba had met President Biden and Defense Minister Austin in Washington a few hours before the attack. The art seems to be to establish 'a truth', a hegemonic discourse, already from the first hours of the war – and then to make this discourse watertight against any criticism.

Provocations and lost trust

Talking about an "unprovoked Russian attack" is pure propaganda. Already in 2008, everyone who knew anything about foreign policy knew that a NATO expansion that opened the way for Ukrainian membership would have to lead to war. In Russia, it was seen as an unheard of provocation. That Russia did not attack in 2014, despite Ukraine's importance to Russian security, and despite US support for the coup d'état against the democratically elected president, shows remarkable Russian restraint.

Intelligence analyst George Friedman described the 2014 coup as "the most blatant coup in human history." Despite this, Moscow was content to accept Krym's decision to join Russia and accept some limited support for the Russian-speakers of Donbass (but not their plea to belong to Russia); they entered into the Minsk Agreement with Ukraine (after German-French mediation) to ensure Ukraine's neutrality and integrity, and they wanted to give the Russian-speakers in Ukraine the right to practice their mother tongue.

However, it turned out that the United States and Ukraine never intended to keep this promise. In 2021–22, Kyiv and Washington canceled the agreement at the same time as the US built up militarily in Ukraine. It goes without saying that Russia saw this as a threat to its existence. The country was faced with one provocation after another. Not even a written agreement signed in the UN Security Council would comply with Kyiv and Washington.

After this, Moscow lost all confidence in the West. And it is hardly surprising that the Russians would not give up their sovereignty, which would be the consequence of allowing the US to build up militarily in Ukraine. What amazes us instead, after all these provocations, is that Russia did not attack earlier. The narrative that Washington and London established on 24 February 2022, in other words, built on a lie.

But it has not been possible to talk about this in the major newspapers or on TV in Norway – or the West in general. Therefore, journalists and other commentators do not understand why Russia cannot afford to lose the war.

A threat to the state's existence

When the war in Vietnam had cost the United States too much, the Americans left the country. And when the war in Iraq and Afghanistan became too costly for the Americans, they also left these countries. Many in Norway have believed that Russia would do the same in Ukraine, since it has been assumed that the war is something that Russia itself has "chosen", to quote US Defense Chief Mark Milley.

But for Russia, the war was not at all about conquering land, about installing a Quisling regime or about punishing an opponent. For Russia, the war was about denying the US a military presence in Ukraine that would turn Ukraine into a US bastion so close to Moscow that Russia would have no opportunity to defend itself. The Russians declared such a presence a threat to the state's existence. In other words, the country had no choice. So when the US moved weapons systems ever closer to Russia, Moscow put its foot down. It meant that, on the one hand, Russia would sacrifice everything to ensure a neutral Ukraine, while on the other, the US could leave Ukraine if the war cost them too much.

To occupy Ukraine?

Russia was satisfied with the negotiated Minsk agreement. It was a guarantee of a neutral Ukraine and a guarantee of eastern Ukraine's security and right to maintain the Russian language. The fact that Russia accepted the Minsk Agreement clearly shows that the country had no interest in conquering Ukraine. It was Ukraine and the West that broke the agreement, not Russia.

If Russia had wanted to conquer Ukraine, it could have done so after the Western-backed coup d'état in 2014. At the time, Ukraine did not have an army that could match the Russian one. Russia could have mobilized large forces and 'restored the old Soviet Union' if it had wanted to. But they didn't do that. In his speech at the invasion on 24 February 2022, Vladimir Putin said: “I have already said that Russia has accepted the new geopolitical reality after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We have treated all the new post-Soviet states with respect and we will continue to do so. We respect, and we will continue to respect, their sovereignty. […] But Russia cannot feel safe, develop and exist with a permanent threat directed at us from Ukrainian territory.” And Putin added: "We have no plans to occupy Ukrainian territory."

Some claim that Putin is lying, and that he really wanted to conquer Ukraine and recreate the Soviet Union. However, one cannot deny that he defends the sovereignty of the post-Soviet states in his speech.

But let's ignore Putin's speech and his support in the speech for "a neutral Ukraine" and instead look at the purely objective criteria: The invasion force of 170-000 men (according to General Milley) was not even a fifth of that strength which had been necessary to occupy Ukraine – according to a Western rule of thumb: one soldier per 180-000 inhabitants. Yes, not even a tenth if we look at Russian practice (cf. Czechoslovakia 40). Nor did the Russians begin the attack by bombing the country's cities, as the United States begins its wars. Russia entered with a very limited army and almost without deploying the air force or navy. This was a clear signal to the West that they had no intention of conquering Ukraine.

Despite the fact that Putin sa, and despite the fact that he did, unequivocally pointed to him not intended to occupy Ukraine, nearly all journalists, commentators and politicians in the West claimed that this was what he wanted to do (here we can add that a Quisling regime would also have assumed an occupation...).

During the March 2022 negotiations, the Ukrainian side accepted Russia's main demand for a neutral Ukraine, and both sides popped the champagne bottles, according to President Volodymyr Zelenskyi's military adviser Oleksiy Arestovych. But after this, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson traveled to Kyiv and told Zelenskyj that peace talks with "crocodile Putin" were pointless and that the West would give Ukraine full support in the war. According to Zelenskyi's chief negotiator David Arakhamia, Boris Johnson said: "We are not going to sign anything." Instead, one should fight ("Let's just fight"). After this, Russia gave up hope of achieving a Ukrainian neutrality through negotiations.

As a direct result of Ukraine's refusal to continue negotiations, Moscow organized a referendum among the remaining residents of Donetsk and Lugansk and in the now-occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhya counties, linking the former counties with Krym. Their inhabitants naturally supported Russia, and the parliament in Moscow then decided to include the four counties in Russia.

However, a NATO membership for the 'Rest of Ukraine' will never be accepted in Moscow. Russia will therefore have to keep the war going. And the longer the conflict continues, the more territory Russia will take, and the more Ukrainians will be killed. Ukraine's losses on the battlefield are enormous. And several hundred thousand killed soldiers must be replaced. In December last year, Zelenskyj said that the military leadership now wanted to mobilize up to 500 new soldiers. But most of these soldiers will not be well-trained young men. They will eventually be killed, while Ukraine loses more land. It's like Freeman jr. initially said of the United States: "We will fight to the last Ukrainian."

The medial centrifuge

In sum, we can say that TV channels and newspapers in the West are talking about an "unprovoked Russian attack" and about a "full-scale invasion" – despite the fact that this description has nothing to do with reality. This was a narrative that was established in Washington and London in the first hours of the war, and which the entire media world repeated. We have to ask ourselves: How is it possible that the entire Norwegian, and much of the Anglo-American, media world could allow itself to be bewitched by such propaganda?

Why are the same people who waged the US war in Iraq now waging Ukraine's war against Russia?

We must also ask: How could the media fall flat for what we had to know were neoconservative propaganda institutes, such as the Institute for the Study of War under President Kimberly Kagan? Many people know the Kagan family from two decades ago; they wanted to start a war in Iraq at all costs and then continue it if possible. Why are the same people who waged the US war in Iraq now waging Ukraine's war against Russia? And how could the media ignore all the specialist knowledge that exists in the area? How could the Norwegian media become so single-minded and rely on obviously erroneous claims that have cost us Norwegians many billions of kroner – and that have cost hundreds of thousands of lives? Those who bear the responsibility for this and who have been driving this alignment and this campaign, must at least think about what they have been guilty of.

In the few cases where some commentator in the media has touched on the background of the conflict and mentioned what Western policy would lead to, the media centrifuge has thrown them out of the public eye. And the heavier such subject matter experts weigh, the faster the centrifuge moves, and the more brutally any deviation is trampled down. Critics know today that it is not possible to speak out. In other words, we've got a totalitarian medial steamroller that flattens and straightens everything that gets in its way. Will we, only when it all escalates and the disaster becomes big enough, raise the question of whether what we did was wise?

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