A Warning about Propaganda and the conflict in Ukraine

We’re seeing an increasing drumbeat of horrible stories out of the war zone, such as today’s “breaking news” of a bombing of a hospital in Mariupol. The stories you are seeing in the Western media blaming Russia are matched with stories in the Russian media showing atrocities being committed by the Ukrainian military and associated militias against their own people. Which are true? Probably elements of both. Which are lies? Yeah, you guessed it: probably elements of both.

There is only one truth of this: War is utterly horrific for those caught in the middle. Unfortunately, those horrors are often used as propaganda tools. Perhaps sometimes it’s justified, but you have to be very careful; in this case, it’s suicidal.

During the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, there were heart-rending stories about Iraqi soldiers removing babies from incubators and leaving them on the floor to die. Just one problem: it wasn’t true; in fact, the key “witness” was a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family (Link to LA Times sort-of not really walkback). Now, the Iraqis did lots of horrible things during the war. But that particular story (like the WMD stories in 2003) wasn’t truthful, although it was very effective in mobilizing popular and legislative support for the war.

I’m not saying the hospital bombing story isn’t real (it certainly is, although who did it may be in some doubt), but I am about to say it doesn’t matter, because this isn’t Iraq, or even Nazi Germany in World War II. The stakes are far higher, and the situation more risky.


Even if the incident is what it appears, the harsh but vital question becomes, is intervention worth the risk of a global nuclear war? This is a massive policy failure no matter how you look at it. Despite the rhetoric, there were no red lines on our part that said to Russia “this and no further” like there are with the NATO countries. Our credibility on that isn’t on the line.

We can argue over past policy all day. It is well known that I think that had we not been interfering, pumping weapons in, and giving Ukraine reason to believe we would intervene so that they felt no need to compromise, while simultaneously creating enough strategic ambiguity that we would not intervene so that Russia made the calculation they did, things would have gone very differently (as in probably no war at all). But it’s too late for that now. All we can do is not make things worse. Given how bad it is, that’s a hard thing to say.

Was this taken yesterday, last year, five years ago? November 2014? By VO Svoboda’s photos.

We simply cannot allow this to escalate into a direct US-Russia confrontation – there is just too much danger of a nuclear war. Then none of it matters. With this incident you’re hearing even more talk of a no-fly zone. And the warheads on TV are saying we can pull it off. They are wrong: a no-fly zone would be not just a step down the road to nuclear Armageddon, it would be a full-out sprint for the cliff. Even continuing to pump in military aid is only making the situation more dangerous, inflaming tensions, and getting innocent people killed. There is really only one thing we can do. Push Ukraine to negotiate, shut off the weapons flow, and rebuild the Iron Curtain 2.0.

Yes, that means sacrificing Ukraine.

I know what that means, but the alternatives at this point are worse, not only for the people of Ukraine, but the world, with an economic system on the verge of catastrophic collapse, much less the nuclear threat. Some will say we will be betraying the people of Ukraine, but really that betrayal happened a long time ago. We also betrayed the people of Russia, starting in the mid 1990’s – but nobody seems to want to talk about that. Again, from the standpoint of what to do in the next hours, days and months, it doesn’t matter at this point. We’ve got to stabilize this situation, fast, or it’s going to end in an outright US-Russia military confrontation, and no matter how you game it, that almost always goes nuclear.

Yes, it’s that dangerous.

15 thoughts on “A Warning about Propaganda and the conflict in Ukraine

  1. A couple of issues I have with this post:

    Re: propaganda- This post is built on a flawed conflation of two things: Western bias with Russian propaganda, and misinformation with disinformation. Trying to equate Western media outlets, which objectively have a pro-Western bias, with Russian state-owned and/or scripted outlets is laughable. Western outlets may have a tendency sometimes to pounce on misinformation that fits a pro-Western narrative, however that is nothing like the scripted and coordinated disinformation that make Russian media a mouthpiece of the Kremlin. Western media sources are not always accurate, and consumers of content are right to be wary. They have far more reason to be skeptical of coordinated Russian propaganda campaigns whose intent is purposeful disinformation, though. To conflate the two could be seen as an attempt to muddy the waters and cast doubt on all sources, which is the first step in gaslighting.

    Re: nuclear war- so if you boil it down, are you saying we have to give Putin Ukraine or he’ll use nukes? I thought he was supposed to be rational.

    Finally, because you’ve left all of my previous comments in “awaiting moderation” limbo, I have no clue if this post will see the light of day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • On nuclear war, a closer read of my posts would have revealed that I feel the risk of nuclear war comes primarily from the US, not Russia, because the US military structure has a big gap between non-peer conflicts where air supremacy can be quickly achieved and maintained (aka Iraq/Afghanistan) and peer-on-peer conflicts, and it could rapidly find itself in a situation where it has to use tactical nuclear weapons to avoid defeat. Now, Putin has also starting talking about nuclear deterrent, but in fairness that came after the issue was raised by others (and not widely reported in your so-called independent media).

      On propaganda, I find it amazing that people consider the western media to be significantly more reliable about foreign policy issues than elsewhere. Every now an then I do a quick check across the NYT, CNN, Fox News, Deutche Weld, and France24. The headlines are virtually identical, and all quote essentially the same government sources. It might as well be scripted and coordinated. Consider too the “warhead” phenomena (retired military and intelligence officials being used as analysts and even becoming journalists). This was a tactic that the US pioneered in the 1980’s, rolled out in earnest in the 1991 Iraq war, and perfected it post 9/11. Are you aware that these retired officers regularly receive briefings from the Pentagon with the preferred narrative? And those who do not mostly echo the line are cut off? So it might as well be “state-owned and/or scripted.” It’s a very different system – but it doesn’t produce any better information, much less “truth.”

      I’ll again try to be clear: there are plenty of villains here, and Putin certainly qualifies. The problem is there are no heroes, and trying to make a villain (US foreign policy) into a hero is delusional and dangerous. We can’t rightly criticize others unless our own house is in order – especially when it was largely our actions that created the situation (and, again, you have to look at the last 30 years, not the last 30 days).


  2. I guess where I have trouble is negotiations require both sides to give something up. What’s Russia bringing to the table to end the war?

    Like, could we do an agreement where Russia keeps Crimea and Ukraine recognizes the breakaway regions’ independence but otherwise the Ukraine government and the western part of the country stays as is. Maybe with an agreement that Ukraine will not join NATO unless Russia attempts another incursion.

    If we let Ukraine fall, I don’t see how that’s good for anyone… Russia is going to be dealing with an insurgency as long as they occupy Ukraine or have a Russian friendly government. We saw how that went for both Russia and the US in Afghanistan.

    So we need some outcome that let’s both Ukraine and Russia walk away with a win and at least some of what they both want. Otherwise it’s just kicking the can down the road.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Russia has been trying to negotiate over Ukraine for at least 8 years, and in fact flawed as it was there was an agreement (Minsk) that fell apart largely due to the failure of the Ukrainian government to carry through their commitments. The exact path you propose was made several months ago – and rejected by UA without any alternative. Russia has repeatedly made concrete proposals (some reasonable, some not) to which the US/UA have responded by saying “no” – but if you don’t propose something other than “we’re going to do whatever you want and you have to just suck it up” then it’s really not negotiation. Again, this is an abbreviated version; look back at other posts on how this situation was created over 30 years. Depending on when you start your narrative (“periodization” is the technical term) you can blame one party or the other, but I think a balanced view is that it’s mostly ours (and that hurts to be forced to reach that conclusion).


  3. TybeeTime, the messaging from the West is every bit as pernicious and State-driven as Russia’s. It is worse than just a pro-Western bias. It is an aggressive, coordinated force feed of melodramatic spin on real and fabricated events, deification of Ukraine and its President, and anti-Russian hysteria. You make it sound like Western news reporting is merely inept. You give them too much credit. Think of their coverage as Iraqi Baby Milk Factory stories come of age.

    Liked by 1 person

    • They are spin factories- but that is exactly what spin is- commentary and opinion on reported events in an effort to fit a narrative pushed by the news outlet, or reflective of its own internal or external biases. These Western outlets are not owned or operated by their governments, though- their biases and agendas are their own. If you strip away the interpretive BS, usually the basic facts of the journalism are still facts.

      To say that independent Western news outlets are equally or less credible than Russian state media that is owned, operated, and scripted by the Kremlin is living in an alternate reality.


      • Well, in my years “on government service” we never had any real trouble planting stories in the “independent” western media … they may not be owned by our government, but they are for sure pwned by them. What you are calling “facts” are frequently, in intelligence and military affairs, actually government supplied talking points. They may or may not be “facts” depending on if they support the narrative in play.


      • I think you have to concede the point. Deep throat cannot happen in Russia for example. Western media may be fed leaks to drive a narrative but a whistleblower with an alternative narrative(or truth, proof of corruption etc) will sell papers and they will run it.

        Currently the world sees a major power causing death in a civilian populace that looks and acts european, and they are sympathetic to westerners. The historical context you are trying to provide that is leading to this war is too complex and nuanced to explain the actions. The narrative is easy for the west right now. Democracy good, totalitarianism bad.

        There is no way the world backs off from support and this doesnt turn into a protracted quagmire for russia. Enkiops proposal is back off and give ukraine to putin? This isnt on the table anymore. And i would imagine that this conflict indeed will push the world to a M.A.D. scenario short term, if russia is able to democratize as a result of this conflict, the long term doomsday clock may look better


      • That may have been true 30 years ago, but no longer. Name a major whistleblower in the last 20 years, since 9/11, who was not savaged and dismissed by the western media. Look at what happened to John Kiriakou, who revealed aspects of the CIAs illegal torture programs under the Bush Administration, prosecuted and jailed for nearly two years by the Obama Administration.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m amazed at the responses to your posts.
    Don’t people read the posts? Thanks for your clear concise analysis, its a breath of sanity when all others are losing theirs.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think a lot do, but a number of vocal people commenting don’t have a deep background and understanding of the history and complexity of the situation, thinking they are “informed” because they read the NYT or CNN/Fox News (any more than someone who only reads/watches ТАСС или Россияа-24 is “informed.”). I feel sorry for them (and our country) because they are just so propagandized. Worse, many in our leadership have fallen into the trap of believing their own rhetoric. It’s not like the 1980’s when Reagan could say “Evil Empire” on TV, but in the back rooms we were engaged in very professional negotiations with the Soviets.


  5. In terms of whistleblowers, I feel like this wiki page(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_whistleblowers) shows that it happens, a lot. Abu Ghraib for example, among many others I have never heard of. John Kiriakou’s experience seems to be shared with some others on the wiki list, but not all by any means. And the details of that case I do not know completely but can see how its not Putin like gulag treatment of him. To pass the name of a fellow operative to a reporter was how they got him, and he was found guilty within the american legal system. Further, he has a successful career now. I mean, there is no russia whistleblower wiki page right? They all leak to the west and then die.


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