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US Propaganda and Ukraine
Notes on Information Warfare
On the 24th of February, the Russian government headed by Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. Since that date, the US media landscape has been flooded with messaging depicting Putin as a power-mad tyrant hell-bent on expanding the Russian Empire back to its former glory days when the monolithic Soviet Union controlled half of Europe solidly fortified behind the Iron Curtain. Americans have been asked to unify against this threat of an expansionist Russia, which, if left unmitigated, will surely lead to the instigation of a new Cold War at least, with the possibility of looming nuclear Armageddon or World War III starting any moment.
Rising to the call, citizens of the US have offered a consistent stream of support for the Ukrainian people, clearly bearing the brunt of Russian aggression, by engaging in the appropriate personal display of their choice in public endorsement of those clearly fighting for their freedom against an overwhelmingly authoritarian regime. Suddenly, the yellow and blue colors are out in force, and millions of Americans sit at the ready to dispute any and all narratives seeking to add nuance to the dominant interpretation of current events. These narratives, of course, are Russian Propaganda.
What I do not see are careful analyses of events. I don’t see any comparison of sources to determine one way or another if alternate interpretations of events are propaganda, or if they are actually rational and accurate. I don’t see any quality debate. Either you are with the Ukrainian people, or you are with the enemy.
I also don’t see anyone talking about the use of propaganda in the United States. From my perspective, the vast majority of these Americans have no understanding of the context of the current crisis, yet they adamantly believe Russia is clearly to blame. Is it possible that American propaganda is so powerful, that many Americans are swayed to these passions based on false beliefs? It’s time for us to deeply consider the impact of US propaganda on the mind of the average American, and fully recognize the devastating impact this is having on the mind of many who truly believe that lies are truth.
Perhaps the greatest propaganda ever perpetrated on the citizens of the United States is the steadfast belief by many that such propaganda doesn’t exist. The assumption is that because the US government does not advertise its paid messaging, it can’t be happening. The presence of so many media options, all spouting the same messaging, create the facade that many news reporters must all come to the same conclusion. Russia is obviously bad because so many sources say it is. Right?
Few comprehend the massive centralization of media corporations or their common collusion through groups such as The Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg conference, and the World Economic Forum. There are now only 5 major corporations that determine what US citizens call news. Representatives from these 5 corporations often collude at think tanks funded by tax-deductible foundations controlled by the upper class. These think tanks were created to promote the interests of Western corporations, not the citizens of the United States.
The history of propaganda in the United States has been well established. Many of us know about Operation Mockingbird. Starting in the 1950s, the CIA began to place journalists on its payroll in order to clandestinely influence the American media landscape with narratives favorable to “US interests”. The operation was so powerful it was dubbed “The Mighty Wurlitzer” due to its power to influence the masses. The intrepid Carl Bernstein penned an exposé for Rolling Stone showing how this influence extended through the 1970s.
While, theoretically, the Church Senate Committee exposed this criminal activity by intelligence agencies, including a mass propaganda campaign, little is known about whether or not these revelations caused any substantive changes to those organizations. Many reforms aimed at providing congressional oversight of these agencies were loosened after 9/11, and the CIA continues to skirt these types of obligations to this day.
Though it is unclear whether the Church Committee had any effect on the CIA’s illegal use of domestic journalists in the spread of establishment propaganda, it is clear that such programs never really stopped. William Casey, the CIA director from 1981 to 1987 has been quoted as saying:
“We’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public believes is false.”
Has this goal now been achieved?
We know that in the early 1990s public relations firm Hill and Knowlton were hired to promote US involvement in what became the first Gulf War. The PR campaign was illegal, but the Justice Department chose not to prosecute. The campaign’s crowning achievement was congressional testimony from an anonymous 15-year-old girl known as “Nayirah”, who told the story of the Iraqi army stripping hundreds of babies from hospital incubators and leaving them to die. This story was told ad nauseam throughout the American press and continued until the tanks were rolling through the sands of Iraq. Of course, it was eventually revealed that “Nayirah” was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, and the whole facade a setup.
Do I even need to mention Weapons of Mass Destruction?
To make matters worse, 2012 marked the end of the Smith-Mundt Act which had afforded US citizens some modicum of protection, at least in theory. Initially invoked in 1948, it was designed to prevent the wartime propaganda machine built during WWII from coming home to roost by preventing the US government from distributing media content domestically. Buried deep within the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act allows the US government to produce and distribute media without attribution. This means there is no way to know if that segment on CNN, NPR, or any other corporate media network actually came from the Pentagon or State Department. What the CIA has been doing for decades behind the scenes is now perfectly legal, acceptable behavior within the current media establishment.
War in Ukraine
With all of this in mind, how are we to view the recent whirlwind of media coverage concerning the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Certainly, we must approach the dominant narrative with a discerning eye. Many in the independent media have been closely following the situation in Ukraine ever since the 2014 Maidan Revolution. Some of us even watched RT and other alternative media sites in order to get the Russian version of events. The funny thing is, it makes a lot of sense.
While Americans have been soaking up the “Putin is a power-hungry authoritarian madman, focused solely on Russian expansion” narrative, the Russians have assembled what appears to be a well-constructed, logical argument for the invasion. Though many simply disregard this interpretation as Russian propaganda, what strikes me is the lack of fear and hate-mongering so prominent in Western narratives, coupled with the use of well-sourced facts to back up their argument.
Fact #1: The US is expanding NATO
This excellent article describes the spirit of the 1990 negotiations in which Secretary of State James Baker promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move “one inch eastward” after the fall of the Berlin Wall. There is simply no doubt that the United States made false promises to Russian leaders at the time. Those promises were broken in 2004 with the inclusion of seven former Soviet states. Most recently, Macedonia joined in 2020. This article discusses the severity of Western incursion into countries once within the Soviet sphere of influence, including weapons sales and military support.
My question is, why is NATO expansion so important? I am old enough to remember the fall of the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, it seemed inevitable that a strong reduction in nuclear arms stockpiles should follow. With the destruction of the Warsaw Pact, there was no longer a need for NATO. It should have been disbanded decades ago. Had NATO been disbanded, none of this would be happening.
Fact #2: The US was involved in a coup that deposed the democratically elected leader of Ukraine
In 2014 the US government aided and abetted a revolution in Ukraine against the democratically elected president who had been contemplating strengthening economic ties to Russia. This article links to a recorded conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Neuland and then Ukrainian ambassador Geoffery Pyatt. The conversation clearly indicates US involvement in the use of extra-Democratic mechanizations to determine the political leadership of Ukraine post-revolution. Can anyone believe this behavior to be ethical? This revolution caused the start of the civil war that has been raging in Ukraine for the last eight years.
Fact #3: There is a civil war happening in Ukraine
Perhaps most fascinating concerning the typical Western narrative about the current crisis is the complete lack of a historical context from which this narrative is formed. Many seem completely oblivious to the fact that Eastern Ukraine is populated by Russian speaking people who have historical and cultural ties with Russia. This portion
Bear in mind, this civil war may not have happened without US support for the revolution in the first place. Given the circumstances, should not the citizens of Donetsk and Luhansk rights to self-determination at least get a mention in the general conversation about the situation in Ukraine?
Fact #4: There are Nazis in Western Ukraine
A cursory review of the history of Ukraine is enough to reveal a powerful anti-Russian National Socialist movement within the country including a long-standing hero worship of the WWII German collaborator Stephan Bandera. This movement has political parties as well as an entire military battalion representing political and military power within the Ukrainian establishment.
Russian-speaking Ukrainians have endured political oppression as a result of these far-right nationalist movements. On May 3, 2014, anti-Russian activists, including members of the National Socialist Right Sector party, forced hundreds of Russian sympathizers to seek shelter inside the Trade Union building in the city of Odessa. They subsequently set the building on fire killing at least 30 people. Also, the government of Ukraine has committed civil rights violations against Russian speaking citizens by discriminating against the Russian language.
Fact #5: The Ukrainian government never implemented the Minsk Accords
How many Americans have even heard of the Minsk Agreement that was negotiated to end the Ukrainian civil war? Rather than pulling back heavy weaponry, allowing humanitarian aid, and providing the separatist republics with a degree of autonomy as promised, the Ukrainian government continued to shell Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine, causing mounting civilian casualties. These attacks were facilitated with over a billion dollars of US military aid.
So those Ukrainians who identify with the Russian language and culture have been living with the repeated shelling of their population for the past eight years, despite Russia’s attempts at brokering a peace deal that would have avoided the current conflict.
Propaganda, Ukraine, and the Future of US Democracy
It is not within the scope of this essay to determine absolutely the voracity of the Russian narrative, only to allow the reader to know that it exists and that an intelligent person could understand how and why the violence ultimately escalated into a full-blown proxy war between the United States and the Russian Federation. Like it or not, the clear persecution of Russian-speaking Ukrainians by a prominent Ukrainian Nationalist bloc resulted in a civil war after a US-backed coup deposed a Russian-friendly, democratically elected leader. This, coupled with NATO expansionism and an influx of US-made weaponry onto the scenario, and the stage was set. Is it surprising that the government of the Russian Federation made the choice to protect not only those Russians in Ukraine but its own national sovereignty as well? You may disagree with the choice, but it is not an insane choice, given an understanding of the historical context of the conflict.
Many Americans seem unwilling, even unable, to comprehend this narrative. Any mention of these justifications for the invasion results in cries of “Russian disinformation” or accusations about listening to “Russian propaganda”. The black and white nature of the national conversation concerning the Ukraine crisis lacks the subtlety and nuance necessary to truly work towards any legitimate resolution to the crisis.
Boiling the argument down to “Putin bad” without the capacity to comprehend at least some US culpability is infantilizing, to say the least. The American public needs to grow up and start having mature conversations about important issues such as this one. Conversations that are not driven by senseless propaganda for the benefit of a select few, but conversations that are driven by a sincere level of compassion for those who feel wronged and the ability for rational thought that is capable of recognizing complex truths.
Personally, I am still waiting for NATO to disband. It’s been a long time since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The Cold War ended generations ago. The Ukraine conflict would end tomorrow if it happened. Of course, no establishment figure would ever bring up the idea, but it is a simple solution. We know it would bring peace and stability to the entire region. Why not give it a try?
This possibility should be a part of the larger, intelligent conversation that Americans could be having right now, but that conversation is not happening. Instead, one side is calling the other side names and refusing to validate the feelings or engage with the logic of those with views alternative to the mainstream. There is the dominant Western narrative, or there are lies and deceit, nothing in between. No respect for a different opinion. This degradation of public discourse within an overly propagandized culture is the real tragedy that defines the American political conversation today. Discussions about the Ukraine crisis are symptomatic of a deeper disease and this disease will not allow the people of the United States to actively engage in finding a solution to this crisis. Until we collectively awaken from the haze of corporate/government propaganda, can it be said that our democracy even functions? Without the capacity to listen to different points of view, and rationally process these differences with respect, can it be said that the US system of governance even functions at all
Yet even if we could, do the people have the power to influence the machinations of government? It is the government, and its corporate partners, that are producing the propaganda. The powerful few in charge of these organizations are literally affecting the ability of the public mind to function at all outside of their control. So many are willing to simply follow the “Grand Wurlitzer” wherever it leads.
I want to end this essay with a quote from one of America’s foremost propagandists, Edward Bernay’s.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. ...We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. ...In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
― Edward Bernays, Propaganda
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