Wednesday, April 30, 2014

InfoWar over Ukraine - from sad to ridiculous

In his much acclaimed book, Munitions of the Mind, the late Philip Taylor wrote:
"Propaganda [is] [...] the deliberate attempt to persuade people to think and behave in a desired way. [...] [It constitutes] conscious, methodical, and planned decisions to employ techniques of persuasion designed to achieve specific goals that are intended to benefit those organizing the process. [...] An essential characteristic of propaganda is that it rarely tells the whole truth."

He warned that with all the modern information and communication technology propaganda has become ever more sophisticated, and in an effort to alert the readers, suggested the following questions: "How freely does that information flow? Is anyone controlling it an any way? If so, why? Are we being told everything? Is what we see, hear, and read an unfettered representation of what is really happening? What are we not being told, and why? Is the information on which we base our opinions and perceptions of the world around us free from influence of propaganda?"

The situation in Ukraine is dire, and unfortunately, it is getting worse by the day. It hurts to watch what is going on there, and the concern for family and friends is always on my mind. Following the news, whether in personal capacity or that of an "aspiring academic" is depressing, to say the least. But I have to stay informed (that's what my work is on, after all), and in an earnest effort to keep an open mind, I've been trying to keep up with the information coming from both sides. Honestly, I can't even begin trying to make sense of it all. Below is a somewhat random compilation of masterpieces that, if don't make you cry, will (I hope) at least make you laugh.

If you are sitting in the West, then you are likely to be predisposed to seeing everything coming out of Russia as untrue or distorted. If you're accessing this post from the "non-West", you are very likely to be as skeptical of the information and interpretations presented by the Western leaders and media. Russia is far from being an open or a democratic society. Liberalism, on the other hand, is a sort of a hegemony in its own right, with one established truth which should, absolutely, be accepted, otherwise "you're against us" (this becomes especially visible when foreign crises are involved). In both cases, complexity is sacrificed for political ends, which always prefer the black-and-white binaries. Meanwhile, people's lives, well-being, and their entire future are on the line...

Lack of understanding

I'll start with a very telling example - a perfect "mini"-version of what is going on right now between the "West" and Russia. Complete lack of listening. Total absence of respect. No desire to understand the other. Bias. One-sided, and selective interpretation and presentation of information.

Similarly, approaches and statements like these don't really help, either:

"The Russia Problem": "Western leaders, and their publics, have wanted to believe that the end of the Cold War means the end of conflict in Europe. Georgia in 2008 should have burst that bubble, but there is no excuse after Ukraine. Vladimir Putin's Russia is a growing threat to Europe's peace and stability, and the longer the West waits to respond the higher the cost will be."

Who's got bigger guns?

Remember this priceless (yet scary) moment from about a month ago? It's a segment from a weekly analytical news show by Russia's head propagandist Dmitry Kiselev. Here, he ensures us all that Russia could, in case of need, turn the US into a pile of "radioactive ash"..

Image from BuzzFeed.

This was followed up by actual official statements to stand up for Russia's interests and to retaliate if need be (wouldn't the US?): "Russia says it will respond if Ukraine interests attacked."

In the most recent program this past weekend, Kiselev mentioned that USS Donald Cook left the Black Sea, and went on to ridicule the American "perception" that the warship and the missile system it carries are invincible. To ensure the public, he stated that Russia's own "Bastion" missile defense system (which, by the way, is "much faster") will "tear any floating metal into pieces".

See 30:54-34:10.

This was all funny, until I heard the following story on NPR: "Does Russia Have The Military To Take Ukraine?"

A direct quote:
"Howard says the [Russian special forces] team members, good as they look, still have a ways to go to match the best special operations forces from the U.S. and other countries, but they were more than adequate for the operation in Crimea. [...] Russia put a big share of its oil wealth into defense spending, but at least one analyst says the country still doesn't have enough well-trained professional soldiers to carry out an invasion of Ukraine."

Then there was this from the US News and World Report: "Russia Is Outmanned and Outgunned. NATO can easily field a military far superior to Russia's."

In short, we can all just rest assured.


If you haven't heard yet, let's just drill it further into your head: PUTIN IS A FORMER KGB AGENT. And again, just in case you forgot already.

Kiselev too had a perspective on espionage: he talked about the OSCE military observers taken hostage in Eastern Ukraine and accused (by the separatists) of being Western spies.

See starting 6:57

Clearly, he didn't get the Kremlin memo: "Moscow has said what it calls “public structures” controlling parts of southeastern Ukraine had not been properly informed of the observers’ plans to travel there." Even though that was supposed to be settled by now, some of the observers are still being held hostage.

Who's better at Photoshop?

Last week, Kiselev amused the viewers with his commentary on John Brennan's "secret" trip to Kyiv.

See 36:14 - 37:46

He reiterated some of the earlier accusations surrounding the trip -- that Brennan used a false passport to get into the country ("just as a real spy"), and that his visit meant the Kyiv government was now taking orders from Washington (well, truth be told, the government did start an "anti-terrorist" campaign against the East the day after Brennan left, and the White House expressed open support for that action). But then, he suggested a few ideas on how Brennan could have been disguised to avoid being spotted as entering the country (you know, because "wigs are so popular with American intelligence agencies"). The transgender "look" suggested in the end was accompanied by a comment along the lines of: "After all, this is so 'European' these days. It would be easy to blend into the 'European Kiev'."

(Yeah... Wouldn't be able to make this up, even if I wanted to...).

BUT, then there was this: hard evidence provided by the State Department that proved, beyond any doubt, that there were Russian special forces ("green men") in Eastern Ukraine, instigating and fighting alongside the pro-Russian separatists (the photos were initially supplied by the Ukrainian government). The "evidence" appeared in the New York Times first, and then spread to others like wildfire.

Straight from the horse's mouth. As if Iraq never happened...

The article was published on April 20. By April 22, the authors reconsidered their initial piece and published another article, with some actual reporting and background, and what seemed to be a convoluted "retraction" (with lots of excuses and justifications -- see for yourself). There was further contemplation on this incident on NYTimes' op-ed page that day, but some Internet users took upon themselves to find further similarities between the grainy, unclear photos and the potential "bad guys":

Apparently, Photoshop and other digital editing skills are coming in real handy these days...

Crazy, Insane, Unstable... Psychopath?

We all probably know very well by now that Putin is insane. Something's just not right. He clearly wants a Third World War. Merkel said she "was not sure he was in touch with reality." There is a lot of evidence to suggest that he's a psychopath.

Also, have you seen those crazy pro-Soviet old ladies protesting in Eastern Ukraine (they really, really like Putin)? Here's an infographic that had been making the rounds on various social media last week.

Image via Twitter.

I was unable to track where it came from initially, but I guess the position is clear. (Please note the contrast between the crazed Putin fan and the "Patriotic Activist". Very subtle, isn't it?) Neat categories. Plain and simple, and oh so representative...

On the other hand, the Russians have been expressing concern about the mental health of the Ukrainians themselves, citing the popularity of the American "pastor" and "exorcist" Bob Larson, who spent some time in Ukraine earlier this month, freeing the population of "demons" (this was, apparently, his third visit to the country). Here's the Russian take on it (sorry, no translation):

Of course, they couldn't resist drawing "spiritual" parallels between this and the sudden popularity of Anatoly Kashpirovsky right before the collapse of the USSR, or even Rasputin before the Revolution of 1917.

Something is wrong with these people, and they clearly need help. (Russia's there -- on "standby"...)

Media as 'Propaganda by Default'

Books can be written on the subject. I'll just bring two examples:

And Russia's response (summed up in the program below): "America has lost its "democracy", the media are not independent, and the people are not informed enough, all the while the US is actively "teaching others" on how to be democratic states in good standing. Relatively speaking, Russia is much more democratic these days than the US is."

Watch the first 55 mins for some jaw-dropping "revelations" about the American media, featuring, most prominently, RT's Margarita Simonyan.

"The Promise of [the] Hashtag"

To counter the Russian "misinformation and propaganda", the State Department has put together an entire campaign pushing the message hashtag #UnitedForUkraine as a vehicle for promoting "the truth". The campaign involves a Twitter account, a YouTube channel, and a livejournal blog (in Russian), as well as constant use of the hashtag by all NATO officials (which then spread to reporters, and the general public) to demonstrate support for the country. Western support, that is.

I won't go into evaluations of the effort itself (will try and come up with another post on that). Just need to point out that it backfired when the Russian MFA started using the same hashtag to promote its own perspective. Then Psaki responded...

...and all hell broke loose. For a good reason.


This list could go on and on. I'll stop here for now. Just a reminder that in conflict situations and in cases where there are dueling and parallel narratives, we have to be weary of anyone who claims to have "the truth" (and no, "patriotism" or Hollywood stereotypes should not be dictating our perceptions here...).

In a report last week, Russia's independent ("opposition"?) channel Rain TV (Dozhd') suggested that the people of Southeastern Ukraine are so tired of all the propaganda and fighting that they just want to be left alone, and get a chance for a better future. The report also says that the local population, the "immediate witnesses" are the ones "most confused" as to who is fighting for whom and why.

In short, even those on the ground don't know what "the truth" is. Can we, sitting thousands of miles away, and having certain preconceptions (and interests) before we even look at what are supposed to be "facts"? I guess I might be asking too much when I suggest that we forget finding and/or asserting "The Truth", and instead, to focus on the people...

Need I remind that "truth" means Pravda?


P.S. - Please note that I haven't even touched upon everything that is not said, or sufficiently discussed on either side of the 'conflict'. Examples include the integrity and background of the current (and aspiring) Ukrainian leadership, who do not really inspire any more faith than Yanukovich would; or Russia's Eurasian Union aspirations and the true motivations behind this all.

More food for thought...


  1. Lena -- Excellent piece! Best, john

  2. Excellent post! More to follow?
    The comment on Liberalism is funny, sad and true.
    About propaganda... In the post-Cold War period we hoped that it was a thing of the past. It turns out that it is alive and kicking.
    The Orwellian "Ministries of Truth" are no metaphors these days. And to slightly modify Lord Acton's dictum we can say that "Absolute propaganda corrupts absolutely." It is sad because, in my view, it deals one of the worst blows to European values.
    I am no fan of Kiselev and his words about turning the US into a pile of radioactive ash was sheer idiocy. However, what is not reported, including your blog, is that he said that in response to Belkovsky’s comment on “Ekho Moskvy” radio (if I remember correctly) who urged the US to nuke the Russian Black sea fleet from its 5th fleet in Bahrein…