Break Glass in Case of Kremlin Disinformation

Let me begin with an apology. The views and information presented here will lead to some reflexive accusations of disloyalty and even duplicity. So let me say sorry to those people. Nevertheless, despite their well-fertilized outrage over any expression of doubt at the news media’s coverage of the war in Ukraine, the United States is not obligated to be a party to this conflict at all. 

In a previous article, I forecast much of the bungled response to Russian designs on Ukraine, which had already been set in motion by the Biden White House. Admittedly, I was not then convinced Putin would actually ante up and launch a full-scale invasion. 

And yet despite knowing beforehand that it would happen, the administration was unprepared for the military and economic effects of such a conflict. Or they didn’t care. A presidency that has always paid lip service to fighting income inequality now has responded to 40-year highs of inflation and record-high gas prices with the refrain that citizens need to buy electric vehicles

Their game plan is simple: Keep the eyes and ears of Americans focused on the carnage east of the Dnieper River, and use it to distract from a worsening economy while fostering jingoistic themes to demonize our enemies. It’s almost as if Joe Biden stole all of fellow former Vice President Dick Cheney’s finals week notes and has condensed them into a neat crib sheet.

We still can think for ourselves, however—and while it’s still legal—here are several war narratives that Americans need to be on the lookout for in the coming weeks and months.

Myth 1: The United States Is Defending Democracy

Fact: Ukraine is a clear contrast from Russia in terms of looser legal limits on freedom of expression, let alone other former Soviet republics like Turkmenistan, often called the North Korea of Central Asia. But democracy is merely a means of making a choice, not a justification for the choice being made, nor is it the best way to define a system. Notwithstanding its pretensions of being more “democratic,” in many other ways Ukraine’s system resembles that of Russia’s. In order to give even basic context to how Ukraine is governed, certain major events must be explained.

The Orange Revolution of 2004 occurred only 13 years after Ukraine gained independence. Until then, many presidents of the former republics, including Ukraine’s Leonid Kuchma, were remnants of the old nomenklatura, the Soviet managing bureaucracy class who were members of the Communist Party and its various organs. Kuchma was relatively pro-Russian compared to his predecessor Leonid Kravchuk. 

Some of the other players in Ukraine’s politics also came from the nomenklatura. Kuchma retired in 2004, setting up what became a showdown between his like-minded prime minister Viktor Yanukovych and a previous prime minister Viktor Yushchenko. While the vote was indeed disputed, the election was simply overturned with a revote, and the more pro-Western Yushchenko was declared the winner in a remarkable 10-point swing from the original results. But his term would be marred by infighting and division among the pro-Western parties. Yanukovych won the 2010 election in a fully recognized runoff against Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister under Yushchenko who later broke with him and ultimately eclipsed him. 

By November 2013, Yanukovych had signed trade agreements with Russia that cemented close relations between the two nations and was involved in contentious negotiations with the European Union over a proposed “association agreement” that he ultimately declined to sign. This led to Ukraine’s pro-European and nationalist opposition mounting a series of increasingly raucous and later violent demonstrations in Kyiv’s Central Square, known as the “Euromaidan.” Through the next four months, the situation had deteriorated to the point where over 100 demonstrators were killed by riot police and Yanukovych could no longer maintain control. He fled to Moscow on February 22, 2014, in anticipation of being impeached.

These facts being outlined, here is the state of “democracy” in Ukraine since then:

  • Yanukovych’s direct successor as president, Oleksandr Turchynov, was placed into power in a caretaker role outside of the normal constitutional process. His elevation was enabled by his designation as speaker of the parliament and acting prime minister on February 24, 2014, following which he simply assumed the presidency. In June 2014, Petro Poroshenko was elected the new president.
  • Turchynov’s prime minister was the ultranationalist Arseniy Yatsenyuk. But his politics are beside the point, given that before Yanukovych’s escape, a leaked phone call between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt included refers to “Yats” (Yatsenyuk) as their preference for a central role in the next government.
  • Ukraine in 2021 ranked 32 of 100 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, ranking worse than Egypt (33), El Salvador (34), and Panama (36).
  • President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last March unilaterally revoked the broadcast licenses of three media outlets owned by parliamentary deputy and businessman Taras Kozak, because the stations were allegedly pro-Russian. Whatever the truth of the accusation, a nation where the president can silence a press outlet with the stroke of a pen is “democratic” only in the shallowest sense of the word.

Viktor Medvedchuk, another politician representing the largest pro-Russian party in Ukraine’s parliament, has been under house arrest since last year facing charges of treason. 

All of these major issues are not to detract from the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty by the invasion, nor the aspirations of the nation’s citizens for a system free of foreign domination and political corruption. It would be naïve and dishonest, however, to frame the current fight as a simple one between democracy and tyranny.

Myth 2: Ukraine Is Fighting to Remain Sovereign and Independent

Fact: Ukraine is torn between pro-Russian and pro-EU/NATO spheres of influence, neither of which can allow it to be truly independent. Since the conflict has begun while most of the world has portrayed the conflict as a Russian land grab, there have been some skeptics of varying persuasions, from left-wing investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald to British Euroskeptic politician Nigel Farage pushing back. They argue that NATO’s expansion into former Soviet satellites and republics goaded Putin into invading Ukraine.

This is no consolation to the displaced refugees who are fleeing the artillery, ballistic missiles, aerial bombardments, and approaching armored columns that Putin launched from across Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus. But geopolitical truths cannot be ignored simply because they involve amoral motives or cause suffering. Even the Guardian, certainly no advocate for Putin, published an opinion column in late February arguing that expansion of NATO had been flagged for years as a possible catalyst for reigniting the Cold War. 

What is often omitted from the discussion, however, is that the position of the post-2014 Ukrainian governments would not have preserved the nation’s independence from Moscow but rather transferred the dominance from there to Brussels and Washington, D.C. Since the outbreak of broader hostilities, Zelenskyy has applied for expedited admission into the European Union. This raises the question of how far would Ukraine go to integrate into the EU. Would it. . . 

  • Abandon its currency the hryvnia and join the Eurozone?
  • Subject its institutions and citizens to the legal rulings of the EU’s court systems?
  • Send troops and equipment to participate in a new proposed European army?

The last of these questions was once considered so preposterous that British Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg dismissed it as a “dangerous fantasy” in 2016 during the run-up to the Brexit referendum. But by 2021 it had become an open proposal of EU leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron.

As an actual hot war has broken out, Admiral James Stavridis observes that Macron’s ambition is now much closer to reality. This means that any Ukrainian state that would survive the war and be admitted to the EU would be bound by a collective security arrangement that would see its soldiers potentially garrisoned in any of the bloc’s 27 other member states or even sent on peacekeeping missions in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a nation that has been at war since the 1960s. If that sounds like there are a lot of strings attached, consider that at one point the EU had a regulation requiring bottled water manufacturers not to indicate that their product prevents dehydration.

Myth 3: The Russian Invasion Ends the Post-World War II
International Military Nonaggression Between Nation-States

Fact: This delusional take comes courtesy of the scribe of neoliberal globalism Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. As he puts it:

In acting this way today, though, Putin is not only aiming to unilaterally rewrite the rules of the international system that have been in place since World War II—that no nation can just devour the nation next door—he is also out to alter that balance of power that he feels was imposed on Russia after the Cold War.

Yes, the world certainly is changing but not the way that Friedman and other opinionated journalists and pundits are saying. In reality, there were numerous incursions and invasions by one sovereign country into another throughout the latter half of the 2oth century. What does he call the Korean War, any of the Arab-Israeli Wars, the Falklands War, Turkey’s 1974 invasion of northern Cyprus, or the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait? How about Operation Just Cause in 1989, when President George H. W. Bush invaded Panama on the pretense of mitigating drug trafficking? If he is talking only about Europe proper, we only have to look at the Soviet invasions of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). 

Myth 4: Labeling the Azov Battalion As a Neo-Nazi Group Is Misleading At Best

Fact: This ridiculous position was outlined in an apologetic piece published by the Atlantic Council, but to be fair many mainstream media figures are not exactly swallowing this Kool-Aid. According to this explanation, however, it is not the current Azov Batallion of Ukraine’s National Guard that is composed of Nazis, but its direct antecedent, a paramilitary group formed in 2014 in the aftermath of the Euromaidan, Crimea Crisis, and War in the Donbass.

The Atlantic Council article was written in response to the citation of the Azov Battalion as an inspiration for the Christchurch shooter in 2019, and attempts to wave away accusations against the unit by simply dismissing such pieces of evidence as FBI court filings as mere allegations. Meanwhile, there are many accusations that Vladimir Putin’s “denazification” campaign in Ukraine is pure hypocrisy given his association with the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary company whose leader Dmitry Utkin also sports Nazi tattoos. 

In order to understand this touchy topic, it is necessary again (sorry) to step back into Ukrainian history. The Azov Battalion is far from unique as there are numerous ultranationalist organizations documented by mainstream sources like BBC Newsnight, such as the National Militia and National Corps.  These groups draw their inspiration from a long tradition extending back to the post-World War I Russian Civil War in which Ukrainian separatists created the Ukrainian People’s Republic and battled with both the White and Red movements before ultimately being overwhelmed in 1920 and absorbed in the Soviet Union. During World War II, many Ukrainians turned on the USSR having suffered through the forced famines of the Holodomor in the 1930s. Some of them joined the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), an ultranationalist group that fought against the Soviets and Poland and committed atrocities against Polish and Jewish civilians in areas under their control. 

After originally supporting the German invasion, the UPA turned against the Nazis when they saw an opportunity to create an independent Ukrainian state. The most famous of them was Stepan Bandera who has been resurrected as a patriotic hero in the modern Ukrainian nationalist movement. After World War II, Bandera was among many Nazi collaborators from all over Europe who were sheltered among Western Allies in order to prepare the ground for resistance movements against Soviet domination. He is widely acknowledged to have worked with Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service

But what about today? Is all of the hype about this being a collection of Stormfront enthusiasts armed to the teeth just a bunch of Russian propaganda, while the Kremlin itself employs Nazi-like tactics and even uses white supremacist militias of its own? 

There is a plethora of evidence that Azov was and continues to be the armed vanguard of Ukraine’s ultranationalist Right. This includes those espousing an ideology and lineage that is in continuity with the UPA or Ukrainian units of the German Waffen SS that collaborated with the Germans in World War II. In 2019, Time correspondent Simon Shuster documented Azov recreational activities firsthand and chatted with a Swedish white supremacist who had journeyed to Ukraine with the explicit goal of attaining military training that he could apply to similar movements in his home country. 

That same year, the Ottawa Citizen reported that Canadian diplomatic and military personnel had met in 2018 with Azov personnel and discussed cooperation. In 2016, the Guardian visited a “TEK base” of the Azov Battalion in which they were training teenagers in a summer camp setting for a coming war with Russia, with both cut-outs and real firearms in military uniforms. When quizzed about Nazi symbology and beliefs in the movement, a representative denied that such personnel within the movement are working with children in the camps, despite several clear examples of counselors tattooed with swastikas, the death’s head, black sun, and other traditional Nazi symbols.

Any reasonable reading of the situation must acknowledge that neo-Nazi elements are an integral part of Ukraine’s nationalist political landscape and military struggle against Russia.

Myth 5: Questioning Media Narratives Is Akin to Peddling Kremlin Propaganda

Fact: If this standard were applied historically, where would many key figures in the U.S. government be today? John Kerry serves in the State Department as the special envoy for climate; how can he be trusted given his participation in the 1971 Winter Soldier investigation as a war veteran testifying about war crimes by U.S. troops in Vietnam? Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) serves as the co-chairman of the House Democratic Steering Committee. She voted against military action in Afghanistan in 2001 and against Yugoslavia in 1999 during the Kosovo War. Those were courageous stances, though at the time both were labeled as disloyal servants of enemy subversion. Let’s keep that in mind when Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and the harpies from “The View” are calling for federal investigations of Tucker Carlson and Tulsi Gabbard. 

The situation in Ukraine is complex and our ability to understand the motivations of the various parties involved is hampered by foreign and U.S. propaganda efforts as well as disinformation at every turn. As we watch the conflict unfold, it is imperative we remain sober, reject popular myths, and resist the efforts of multiple parties to pull us into a conflict that is not of our making.

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