She should have that, Cecilie Hellestveit, she can write. She writes easily, fearlessly, at times funny. Take any page in the book Bad news from the Eastern Front and you will find words you did not expect in the category of political literature – such as "fox desk" and "yoke-like", or varied and easily understandable language such as "pimple", "throat" or "pressed ... up to dance". Not to mention the epilogue title "What do we do now, you guys?". Then the publisher also reports that the book is selling like muck (my choice of words); the first edition has already been torn away. After a few weeks, we are talking in the order of 10 copies, which is not exactly a daily occurrence here on the mountain.
The book is the third in a trilogy about wars in our time. Syria and Yemen are the first two. And now Ukraine-Russia. The book's 22 theses introduce 22 short chapters with three main sections: war, rivals and our little country. It is a good communication strategy. It is the consequences for our small country that Hellestveit ultimately wants to say something about. The presentation is neat and makes the message accessible. But one must not be fooled by the fact that the book only has 204 pages. It is printed in small 11-point type and is not read in an afternoon at all. You have to work a little.
A rare inflamed and immature media climate
The author dares. She deals with a war which has perhaps only just begun and which has left a rare inflamed and immature media climate. Inflamed, since everything and everyone is influenced by this war – both families' finances and official budgets, aid cuts, military rearmament, global energy policy, the laws of the sea, nuclear policy, and not least bloc politics, moreover it has led to increased tension around the globe.
Inflamed, also because the front lines in the Norwegian media are colored with an insult and incitement that we have experienced for a long time – tense loyalties and accusations in the media as well as around the breakfast tables. Here one is a 'Putin-licker' or a 'Nato colporteur'. In any case, you are 'sick'. And a lot is put on the head. SV has become a 'NATO party', and Klassekampen says "send more weapons". In the 60s, Tom Lehrer sang that "everybody hates the Jews". Today, it is Steigan.no that has been given this role. The NRK news is populated by people in uniform, and NATO's press releases form the bedrock for anyone who wants to be taken seriously by the major opinion carriers. There is plenty of scum in the water.
With a background as a researcher, one must approach sources and debate professionally. But Hellestveit also has an audience that is loyal and committed and that must not be disappointed. She must know where the line is between ally and enemy, know 'the line-of-control', as it is called in the mine-covered area between India and Pakistan. If you step wrong, you 'die'. In terrain as in writing.
Hellestveit begins with a clear ambition. She wants to address "the forces which the war has unleashed, in and outside Europe, and which have then caught the war in its relentless geopolitical grip". It starts on February 24, 2022.
She assures that she is clean, no encumbrances.
Her personal starting point is also the best. She assures that she is clean, no encumbrances, no party political affiliation or ulterior motives. Maybe not quite musical to launch the book, then, under the auspices of the right-wing think tank Civita? Or maybe this was carefully planned? So have you got that flank covered? Hellestveit is a military strategist.
So what is Hellestveit's method, hers modus operandi, for navigating this mine-strewn landscape?
Hellestveit must, in today's climate, go to great lengths to assure the reader that she is on the 'right side' by initially dressing the language in NATO-appropriate colours. She is certainly not a "Putin-licker". She talks about Russia "going to a war of aggression contrary to international law against a neighboring country", about "war of aggression", "war of invasion", "the power of aggression" and "the work of a madman", or, hold on tight, "inspired and encouraged by a fascist ideology , supported by oligarchs swelled by neo-imperialist ideologues from the ever-shrinking circle around a revisionist Russian leader”. Putin is also "probably in poor health". He is "vengeful" and an "apostle of vengeance." Orthodox religious drums are heard in the background.
At the same time, we are not given the chance to doubt the author's loyalty to Ukraine. We get Ukraine's "heroic efforts", "heroes stood out in every village under the tactful leadership of Volodymyr Zelinskyj [...] if everyone stands together against non-Germans, this can end well. Slava Ukraine!”. Here, Forsker-Hellestveit perhaps disappears far into the background?
After such forcefully patriotic outbursts, Hellestveit can back off a little: She somehow doesn't want to be taken for being a mere colporteur of NATO's press releases or the Defense Institute's NRK sessions either. She also assures at the outset that "every war produces many truths". Courageous, I think, because in the back of my head ring the words from the secretary general of the press association in Dagsnytt 18 who in ours assured, after pressure, that hun did not at all think that NATO engaged in propaganda. Propaganda was then just something Putin did!
But Hellestveit is not quite there. Because she reminds that the conflict actually not began in 2022, but rather in 2014. The starting perspective is modified. I see an opening for the past, prehistory, motives, reasons, provocations? Although there were no legal reasons for Russia's actions in the form of a defensive war or a UN mandate (see page 16), she opens the book to completely different perspectives. She draws the BRICS countries into the picture, which is interesting, especially in these times when Lula is back at the wheel of Brazil. And Israel's, Saudi Arabia's and the Emirates' neutrality messages against Russia, not many Norwegian media are mediating.
Hellestveit goes back to 1994 and finds there Jimmy Carter's security adviser, Polish Zbigniew Brzezinski. In his article on Ukraine in Foreign Affairs, he believes that the country defines whether Russia will be a great power or not. Without Ukraine being in some way subject to Russian influence, the world's largest country is no longer a "great power", he believes. However, Hellestveit fails to include Brzezinski's proposal about the possibilities that a buffer with UN peacekeeping forces could play in the area – or inclusive measures and trust-building. And she fails to mention Brzezinski's concern that Ukraine is in economic freefall after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The West's ambition to weaken Russia
Hellestveit then quotes Putin's statement that Ukraine is making itself "an instrument of foreign states' military and geopolitical struggle against Russia", and that he "accuses the US of supporting Ukraine with weapons and training, integrating Ukraine's military with NATO structures and threatening Russia's Black Sea Fleet from the territory of Ukraine".
Unfair by Putin? Impossible, this reviewer believes, because Putin's claim about the West's ambition to weaken Russia is hardly something he himself has invented. It has been written up and down the page about the US's ambitions and strategies to weaken Russia. Not least, Brzezinski does not hide the need to tame Russia in this very area "if the US is to be able to dominate Eurasia" – or the world island. Hellestveit uses HJ Makinder's world island term and with it indicates Makinder's "he who rules the World Island rules the World". She thus points out that we are not talking about a local European conflict, but about the struggle for nothing less than world domination.
Brzezinski's perhaps most talked about work The Grand Chessboard, which came three years after the aforementioned Foreign Affairs article, points to the US's path to dominating an entire continent – which it itself is not even a part of (!), as he mentions. But it is therefore about world domination. Nothing less. And it is America's ambitions he is talking about. In this way, Hellestveit carefully conveys a different message than the official NATO message that great power ambitions should be Russian alone.
Rearmament guided by enemy images and suspicion is important in the Hellestvet geopolitical toolbox for security.
Later in the book, Hellestveit becomes more verbose, repetitive, but also more daring precisely in pointing to Norwegian challenges in the relationship with the EU, to tensions with Russia, where our interests are not necessarily the same as those of NATO and the EU countries. The debate she invites seems honest and not part of a disguised yes-to-the-EU-and-NATO campaign. And she warns against taking lightly the agreements we have with Russia about the dividing line in the north, (page 173) where Norway's interests are not necessarily shared by our allies. In this way, Hellestveit's method, step 2, becomes an important strategy for daring to promote key issues in a time where anything other than Putin outrage is taboo.
Nevertheless. Hellestveit thinks that, on the whole, it is power and strength which applies to geopolitical maturity. Everything else is naive and "vulnerable", as for example where the relationship with China is discussed: "[W]e provided the Chinese with an excellent testing ground for cyber attacks in an advanced digital society. This is not how we have thought in Norway. That time is over. But as of today, several decades of lack of such thinking mean that we are now in a very vulnerable situation."
Thoughts that trade at its best, cultural exchange, student exchange, the spread of literature and tourism can be pieces in a crowding between peoples that can create mutual dependence, boundary-breaking knowledge, trust, yes perhaps solidarity, friendship and, God forbid, well - peace - shines with its absence.
Rearmament guided by enemy images and suspicion is important in the Hellestvet geopolitical toolbox for security. But there are other tools. That thoughts that trade at its best, cultural exchange, student exchange, the spread of literature and tourism can be pieces in inter-ethnic crowding that can create mutual dependence, boundary-breaking knowledge, trust, yes perhaps solidarity, friendship and, God forbid, well-being - fred and, yes, security – conspicuous by its absence. It is a pity.
The RAND report is not mentioned in the book
Because Hellestveit is inviting a security debate. And one of the most influential inputs in the US security debate around Russia and Ukraine is the report Overextending and Unbalancing Russia from Washington's leading strategic think tank, the RAND Corporations. In retrospect, you can see that the RAND report is almost a recipe book – with something to it – for what has been going on around Ukraine this spring, not least the part that is governed by NATO. The report was published in 2019. Amazingly, it is not mentioned in the book. It cannot possibly be an oversight. Even NATO leader Stoltenberg has proudly declared in autumn 2022 that since 2014 NATO has been concerned with equipping and integrating Ukraine into the organisation.
Here are 20 selected measures that the RAND report recommends, and which the US can very likely succeed in defaming, threatening and generally weakening Russia, according to RAND:
- increase the USA's own energy production
- increase Europe's opportunities to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the USA
- impose extensive trade and economic sanctions against Russia
- send weapons to Ukraine
- create the impression that the Russian authorities are not concerned with the interests of their population
- undermine Russia's reputation abroad
- deploy bombers
- deploy more tactical nuclear weapons
- deploy drones and remotely piloted aircraft
- invest more in long-range, super-fast rockets
- invest in new, electronic warfare technology
- increase marine activity in the area
- monitor Russia's Black Sea activities
- increase US forces in Europe
- place large NATO forces along Russia's border
- hold military exercises up to Russia's border
- practicing military countermeasures and offensive measures
- increase support for the missile program and fail to withdraw from the IRNF missile agreement
- withdraw from the deal but resume building missiles without redeploying
- withdraw from the agreement, but resume building missiles and redeploy
Is this a list that a researcher, who is to inform Norwegians about the Russia-Ukraine conflict, should include? This reader of Bad news from the Eastern Front means "yes!".
I have no doubt that author Hellestveit knows the report and much more, in detail. The question is whether the possible explanation "you can't include everything, you know", will hold in this case. But, yes, that would, maybe, be another book. Despite approaches that point beyond the prevailing NATO narrative, Hellestveit has undertaken a solid 'cherry-picking' of sources and arguments where she conveniently develops backwards what confirms the generally acceptable.
Every author has the right, and perhaps the duty, to take a stand and advocate a view and direction. But if you want to be taken seriously, you have to establish a space with knowledge and breadth and lead the reader inside. Good sources that provide different narratives about the Ukraine war than the NATO narrative are difficult not to see, but absent at Hellestveit. And it is sad, since these both have relevant experiences, academic weight, are widely read and easily accessible.
Good sources that provide different narratives about the Ukraine war than the NATO narrative are difficult not to see, but absent at Hellestveit.
Let me suggest a few of them: longtime UN adviser, Russia expert and Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs; former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Kissinger proposed a Finnish solution for Ukraine in 2014 with neutrality like Finland. But the US leadership supported Brzezinski's plan); Chicago professor John Mearsheimer; longtime Russia expert and UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter; Swiss NATO consultant and Ukraine expert Jaques Baud. To name a few. Did I mention Norwegian PRIO professor emeritus Ola Tunander? Hellestveit knows them all.
Then Hellestveit could have discussed the disagreement. Fair enough. But she should, in the name of decency, have discussed that there are reflected counter-concepts to the NATO narrative: that sensible people believe that the Ukraine conflict is a planned and provoked war by NATO, but primarily by the United States and Great Britain; that Putin and Russia have every reason to feel surrounded, yes, threatened; that Europe and NATO broke promises not to move eastward after Germany's reunification; that fascism and anti-Semitism abound in Ukraine; that streets in Kyiv and Lviv are named after war criminals, holocaust deniers and fascists like Stepan Bandera, street names that are allowed to remain intact even today, protected by militant fans – which anyone with Google Maps can see exists. Or that the corruption, which breaks all records and which should make everyone who sends billions to Ukraine, react. Or that war crimes are also committed by the Ukrainian army, which includes fascist militia groups and thousands of mercenaries who have been paid by NATO over many years (Baud 2022).
Others in the gallery of people I miss, who could reveal a different and less glamorous
ro's pre-history to the war, is advisor Robert Kagan and his wife, Victoria Nuland, who was one of the tops at the US State Department in both 2014 and 2022, I don't have space for here. But something Hellestveit should not have ignored was the president's son Hunter Biden and the "conspiracy theory" about his ugly Ukraine adventure, which can be read on the internet (see below). The information is demonstrably true, a truth which, after several years, has not yet been conveyed by the Norwegian media. With this, Hellestveit was able to provide angles to later understand the blowing up of the Baltic Sea pipelines [see Tunander's article in this newspaper] and the import of expensive US gas to Europe as a replacement for the Russian one – something that became seriously relevant after the book was published .
Hellestveit should have argued factually from more sides than the official, approved one. It would be brave, but above all professional. It could give us tools to understand. Maybe convinced us. But, yeah, that would probably be a different book, folks. Now, however, we have reason to feel not only ushered in, but seduced by, Bad news from the Eastern Front.