Previous articles in this series addressed the expansion of NATO, the US government’s refusal to negotiate on further expansion with Russia and its unwillingness to search for diplomatic solutions for reaching peace. Propaganda hides what should be resolved politically. The US and other Western governments and the corporate media agree on not discussing the responsibilities of the US and NATO in the gestation period of the war in Ukraine as well as the obvious lack of resolution of tensions. This article focuses on some key features of war propaganda which hide and frustrate the possibility and hope of reaching a peaceful settlement.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked renewed interest in propaganda studies. Most analyses appear to focus on Russia’s manipulation strategies and techniques to try to justify the invasion and silence internal opposition. Critiques have addressed how Russian propaganda uses euphemisms to refer to the war (“special military operation”), construes and demonises an enemy (presenting Ukraine as an anti-Russian neo-Nazi state), twists international law (Article 51 of the UN Charter) and presents Russia as pursuing a noble cause (“denazify” and “demilitarise” Ukraine). Moreover, there has been abundant commentary on censorship in Russian media and the silencing and repression of dissident journalists and activists.
In the context of a war and underlying geopolitical conflict, however, one cannot forget that all sides resort to propaganda. Information management for both domestic and foreign consumption is key to the effective handling of any war. The memorable media appearance of an unshaven Zelensky bedecked in olive green fatigues to say that he had stayed in Kiev surely deserves a study on how to transmit that one is a man of the people (plain-folks approach) and supports its people with bravery and readiness for military resistance. His gesture of leaving the lectern and sitting with journalists suggested a democratic alliance of mutual support. Also noteworthy was the emotional appeal used to mobilise further support from Spain by comparing the 1937 bombing of Guernica by the Nazis with the current situation in Ukraine. Although the context of both wars is very different, Picasso’s Guernica immediately comes to mind as a universal symbol against the barbarity of war.
This article is particularly interested in the official narrative by NATO, especially the US. This narrative explains the war in terms of madman Putin taking the unprovoked decision of invading Ukraine for the purpose of achieving more power and building an empire. The virtue of this narrative is that it effectively camouflages the geopolitics of the war, especially the role of the US and NATO and the possibility of negotiating peace.
The pathologisation of the enemy works to dilute the responsibility of the group of belonging because one cannot negotiate with a madman. By concentrating on the wickedness of the villain, the previous NATO aggressiveness towards Russia is left out of the discussion and further military escalation justified. The possibility of working around the Minsk II Agreements and discussing a possible neutral status for Ukraine to reach a peaceful settlement is hardly considered. Since no diplomatic solutions are made publicly visible, further war is justified as inevitable.
War propaganda focuses heavily on the ills of the approved target to divert attention away from any questioning of the role of its sender. What is said about the other helps to hide what one has done. This strategic use of emphasis leaves no space for changes in US foreign policy that are needed to favour a diplomatic settlement and to build a more just and secure world order.
The official narrative repeats that the invasion is unprovoked precisely because, even though it is unjustified, the US did systematically provoke Russia with NATO expansion, military activity and lack of dialogue. This narrative also conceals that there are clear winners of the war, namely a reinvigorated NATO and the arms and fossil fuel industries, mainly in the US. The possible negative consequences of sending arms and of having a prolonged war are also generally omitted in mainstream commentary. Inflation and economic chaos are blamed exclusively on Putin.
Propaganda not only hides parts of empirical reality that are meaningful to understanding the conflict. It also dresses one’s own actions in benevolence. Thus, both Ukraine and NATO countries have framed the conflict in a dichotomic manner as a fight between democracy and autocracy, freedom and totalitarianism. Even weapons manufacturers have argued that they sell arms to Ukraine because they support democracy, notwithstanding the fact that they do business with dictatorial regimes around the world. This Manichean strategy fosters Hollywood-style infantilisation that views the world as an eternal struggle between good and evil and, therefore, serves to justify further war by burying the roots of the conflict and the possible solutions.
The official narrative is also based on transmitting fear of future Russian attacks to other European countries and even to the US. This fear can work with efficacy after the demonisation and pathologisation of the enemy without a need to consider the military strength of the parts, if such attacks would have any rationality or what might be the consequences for Russia. In a superb example of Orwellian doublethink, mainstream commentators are able to hold at the same time that Russia is a threat to the world and that it has no military competence and is being defeated in Ukraine.
Alternative analyses of the war and proposals of peace are often met with corrective measures to discipline the dissenters and steer the conversation back to the pre-established script. Proposals of responsible statecraft or geopolitical prudence are accused of having a pro-Putin bias, which serves to disqualify any argument that might be made. The clear difference between understanding a conflict and justifying one of the sides is forgotten by propaganda, which instead equates them. Even the professional journalistic principle of providing context is attacked out of fear that the official narrative might be challenged.
The proposal of seeking diplomatic solutions is often responded to with a false-equivalency as appeasement and capitulation to Russia’s interests. Propaganda is blind to the clear difference between an agreement in which both sides make some concessions to achieve part of its objectives (win-win solution) and submitting to the other side (loose-win solution). The mainstream media exclude, vilify or caricature the voice of the Global South demanding diplomatic solutions and a world order based on collective security and defence, not on expansion and aggression.
As a self-fulfilling prophecy, war propaganda announces that there will be more war, military spending and militarisation. One cannot expect a turn in geopolitics towards a more peaceful world order. The US is using the war in Ukraine to send the message to China that Taiwan should continue to arm itself and prepare (with Washington’s support) for an eventual invasion. The report NATO 2030: United for a New Era proposes rethinking NATO as a shield against alleged Chinese and Russian aggression in a new Cold War. To this end, it advocates maintaining the nuclear arms race, even though nuclear weapons have been prohibited by the UN.
Of course, any propaganda campaign applies the term propaganda only to the other side; North Atlantic corporate media are said to provide information. However, they have transmitted and supported uncritically the version of the US government and shut down any possibility of seeking a peaceful settlement. They did not defend freedom of speech even when Western governments went as far as to censor Russian media.
Liberal media scholarship is right to criticise propaganda by authoritarian/totalitarian political regimes such as Russia, but democracy and peace also require the critical analysis of North Atlantic governments and media. As an alternative approach to tolerating and disseminating propaganda, the next and final article in this series will discuss key features and examples of peace journalism.