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The Russo-Ukraine War Is a Mediated War – Not Just a War on the Media

How the Russo-Ukraine War generated a media dimension of its own and how it linked the myths of the past century to the challenges of our own.

Tyranny Against Polities

It is not surprising, too, that tropes would be borrowed from pop culture and the fantasy genre for the narratives of this war. There’s indeed something of a Star Wars episode to it. On the one hand, an underdog, ethnic-minority (Russian-speaking Jewish) president of a small republic leads by example an outnumbered but determined force in an uphill battle against a one hundred percent obvious, unjustified, and lacking even a half-decent pretext aggressor. On the other, a chubby would-be Emperor, from behind his grotesquely long desk, disregards mounting casualties among his troops, throws his subjects into prison for calling the war “war”, [Black 2022], and threatens to destroy the whole planet with nuclear weapons. Further, no fantasy film could pull off a sharper, nearly hyperbolic contrast than the one between the video appearances of Zelensky and Russian President Vladimer Putin. The moniker “orcs”, borrowed from The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien to refer to Russian military personnel, might appear somewhat dehumanizing. But the gentlemen, it seems, took it rather as a challenge to live up to than as a reprimand: their actions speak for themselves.

It is remarkable what an unseemly role Russia had cornered itself into in this mediated war. For all the immensity and home media monopoly of their propaganda machine, all those Russians could come up with was brazen propaganda, [Darcy 2022] deep fakes, [Banerjea 2022] show trials, [Hyde 2022] otherworldly claims, [Golder 2022] mechanistically scripted comments by hired trolls online, and a weird obsession with the symbols of the long-collapsed, failed state of the Soviet Union [Young 2022]. The American Civil War between the North and the South is sometimes described as between the present and the past. [Ayers 2018] But if such simplistic descriptions were warranted to start with, this war between Russia and Ukraine would fit it much better.

In all its approaches to a mediated war, Russia followed the century-old British playbook from WWI – with a touch of their own, Soviet-style sloppiness. The only contribution from the Russian side which could be taken seriously, it seems, came in the interviews of Russian POWs on the YouTube channel of the Ukrainian journalist Volodymyr Zolkin and intercepted phone call recordings published by the Ukrainian army.

Russian civilian (you cannot call it civil) society didn’t do much better. From a series of not very big, vaguely defined, poorly supported, and eventually inconclusive protests in February and March to nearly complete willful blindness by July [Gershkovich 2022], all they demonstrated was a willingness to go along with their overlords and their criminal war. It is not just that they didn’t care about Ukrainians, the probability of a global food crisis [Kasturi 2022], or the consequences of a new full-scale war in Europe. They disregarded the massive slaughter of their soldiers, young men mostly from working-class families and the poorer regions of the country. 

This is not to blame private individuals or to deny the existence of quite a few civilian Russians with some common sense – those who made the least unfortunate choice in their situation and voted with their feet. [Gilchrist 2022] It is by no means easy or safe to demonstrate citizen initiative in a society that punishes any initiative, one with a deeply ingrained culture of mindless obedience, snitching, and mutual distrust. [Ruslyannikov 2022] All the more credit goes to those few tiny groups that still dared support Ukrainian refugees. [Chkhikvishvili 2022] But it’s damning for Russian society as a whole that escape is the only practicable alternative to apathetic submissiveness it offers – unless one is willing to take the risk of defection to the opposing side. [Daily Digest 2022]

While Ukrainians mounted large-scale protests in Russian-occupied towns and faced machine guns and armored vehicles, Russians were complaining about the closing of brand stores and fighting each other in panic-buying lines for sugar. Marina Ovsyannikova, the Russian television reporter who staged an on-air dissent demonstration, ended up trying to bargain her “protest” for anti-sanction points in an interview with ABC. [Karanth 2022] Even their opposition figurehead, Navalny, is an apologist for the Crimea occupation. [Dolgov 2014]

This is why a grassroots campaign to reach out to ordinary Russians via online messengers and counter their state propaganda yielded no tangible results. It was based on the assumption, as generous as false, that any significant part of that population cared for any objective information to start with and was only barred from it by state censorship. In fact, most of the world’s news media was and remains available within Russia. Even the few banned outlets, like BBC or Deutsche Welle, could easily be reached via free proxy applications or mirror sites [Deutsche Welle 2022] and processed via free translation software for those who don’t speak the language of the original broadcast. It was and remains a matter of will rather than opportunity. Meanwhile, some individuals continued to cheer for the murder of civilians well into the war – apparently oblivious to their government’s all too often repeated claims that nothing ever happened.

Like no other, Russia’s invasion of Ukrain challenged that long-standing narrative of aggressive wars being waged by dictators alone against the will of the common people under their rule. The longer the Russo-Ukranian war drags on, the more patent becomes the fallacy of that once ubiquitous designation, “Putin’s war”. In a society with no political tradition except rule by brute force, there is no real respect or appreciation for anything – “sovereignty”, “law”, “civilization”, “human rights”, “international community”, “peace”, even the lives and well-being of it’s own people – but brute force.

You could see it in those videos of lone anti-war protesters being insulted and attacked by random passers-by: not out of any misplaced loyalty or sense of threat (in this particular video, they’re in Germany), but just because they can. You could hear it (and you wouldn’t even need English subtitles if you just listened to the end) in a sneak-recorded interrogation of a young female protester being abused at a police station. [Eckel 2022] The operators behind brute force takes it as an offence, nearly perversely, when someone claims to value something else above it. In a culture like Russia, one identifies with the bully so as to not be identified with the victim and calls this sick and sickening brand of cowardice “being smart”.

You could observe it, too, in the stance of the Russian protesters themselves. Being (quite understandably) Russians first and only then activists, it was incomprehensible and profoundly counterintuitive to them how anything but might could make a real right. Of course, they did subscribe, rationally, to what they claimed – but, without the ultimate and sanctified value of brute force on their side, at a deeper level, they couldn’t feel they were fully right. Hence, their compromising, concessive focus on bare “peace” alone, with selective forgetfulness about justice. As if, in the situation at hand, one could be possible without the other.

This brings us to another social and cultural misconception this war shattered: that peace is a matter of consensus for consensus’ sake – not a collective effort to keep disturbers of peace down. In a case of blatant and unprovoked aggression, real peace can mean only the defeat of the aggressor. The only alternative, to rephrase a WWI slogan, would be “a peace to end all peace”: that’s a green light for all aggressors present and to come.

The oil and gas crisis that followed the invasion of Ukraine exposed the humanitarian, military, and political underpinnings of the environmental crisis. Not only are fossil fuels a deadly addiction not dissimilar to drugs, but they have their enforcers that are no less brutal than cartels. No amount of recycling, minimalism and Friday protests will help until and unless that brutality is met with an adequate response.

It is remarkable, too, what prominent role the symbols and the rhetoric of WWII played in the narratives of this conflict. Either side identified the other with the Axis and seemed to place an equally important emphasis on this trope. This urges us, in our age, to question and reassess the nearly-religious, often superstitious mythos of WWII we inherited from the previous century.

It has to be admitted, whether we like it or not, that the most destructive war in history wasn’t a fight for freedom and democracy, leave alone for any moral ideals – or else there would not be a genocidal, totalitarian Soviet regime on the Allied side. A regime that mass-murdered its citizens [Haven 2010], forcibly relocated whole ethnic groups [Uehling 2004], maintained a gigantic network of concentration camps [Coda Story 2020], suppressed the cultures and languages of minorities [Laiuk 2022], and used mass rape (child molestation included) as a weapon of war [Ash 2015]. This is a regime that, in all actuality, started WWII as an aggressor in 1939, proceeded to invade Finland in 1940, occupied Eastern Europe and annexed a part of Japan by 1945, then went straight on to a Cold War against its yesterday’s allies as soon as the war with the Axis was over.

Behind the popular Western rhetoric of opposition to fascism stands, to a large extent, the guilt for and an attempt to gloss over this collaborationist affair with that Soviet tyranny. A tyranny, we must admit next, which had never gone away completely. This war of our days, started by a former KGB agent turned dictator to reconquer a former part of the Soviet empire is a direct continuation of its policies. There is no need to force comparisons to Operation Barbarossa in this war because it already is a sequel to the September campaign in Poland, as well as to the Volksaufstand suppression in the occupied East Berlin, the invasion of Hungary, the violently suppressed Prague Spring, and to the genocide in Afghanistan [Fein 1993]. It is telling that Francis Fukuyama, the political theorist who proclaimed the (happy) “end of history” with the fall of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s, felt compelled to defend his theory in a last-ditch effort shortly after the invasion of Ukraine began. [Fukuyama 2022]

Another small (and long overdue) reckoning came for “tankies”, apologists of Russian aggression and Soviet imperialism, named after the tanks which Soviet invaders used to suppress civil dissent in Prague in 1968. By far the most notorious of the kind, Noam Chomsky, was called out in an open letter by a group of Ukrainian intellectuals [Kukharskyy et al. 2022]. Meanwhile, another couple of open letters – a joint effort by his “Russlandsversteher” counterparts in Germany [Kluth 2022] – was met with little, and mostly scornful, attention. One cannot whitewash, with recourse to the ideals of peace, freedom, dignity, and democracy, an entity that stands squarely in opposition to all of the above.

It’s another part of the same historical and mythological paradox, that the participation of Neo-Nazi combatants in the conflict had drawn so much emotionally-charged attention. Some people sporting the Third Reich-inspired or generally associated with the far-right symbols could be spotted on photos and videos from either side, in roughly equal proportion. That their presence, however, became a major focus for both Russian propaganda and pro-Ukrainian debunking effort is a sign rather of general confusion than any actual political affiliation. Instead of counting individuals with Hakenkreuz tattoos or White Power patches, we should ask ourselves what makes them so willing to fight for a democratically-elected Jewish president, side by side with Israeli volunteers – or for a self-described “denazification” effort, side by side with people waving Communist banners. It might be the same reasons that make people from any other fringe group seek a place for themselves in existing and available broader societies and organizations. It is not with them that either the root of or the solution to the current conflict lies.

Most clearly of all, the Russo-Ukranian War demonstrates how basic values mobilize and keep societies together, despite any divisions. For all the bipartisan tumult in the United States since the 2020 elections, the invasion of Ukraine was met with bipartisan opposition – even though considered, at first, a “genius” move by former President Donald Trump. [Milman 2022]. Opposing the blatant tyranny and lawlessness of Russia might be one of the very few occasions for the Black Lives Matter and the Truck Convoy people to bond. For all the scandals and petty squabble in the UK, the country resolved to stand by Ukraine, with Boris Johnson as the Prime Minister or without him. For all the troubled and tragic history they had in the previous century, Ukraine and Poland came together as closest allies. Disparaged as “brain-dead” a mere couple of years before [Rose 2019] NATO was reinvigorated in months and welcomed two new members, Finland and Sweden. Even Russia’s dictator Putin used to be quite unpopular and massively protested against in 2012 [Amos 2012] – until he gave his subjects, in 2014, the vent for pent-up bully aggression they were craving.

In the end, there’s no great variety of these basic values. It is either the preservation of one’s productive work for the future of one’s children – or fear, intimidation, and abusing another human being as a mere means to one’s ends. Of course, these two sets never exist in total separation from one another. But where one prevails, people have a chance, at least, to live in a polity: that indispensable element of the human condition which prompted Aristotle to define a human as a “political animal” [Aristotle 1912]. Where the other consumes all, however, there can be only tyranny: a thoroughly inhuman form of bare and barren coexistence held together by violence alone.

I would not like to conclude with references to the great and the mighty, thinkers and statesmen. Instead, I would rather quote Olena, a refugee from Ukraine (taking the liberty of paraphrasing her somewhat broken English). “One has to make the choice between good and evil. Even if you choose good, though, you aren’t guaranteed to win. But if you side with evil, don’t complain afterward that life is being harsh on you.” [Soft White Underbelly, 2022]

Ukraine still stands, but there is seemingly no end to this war, and no one knows what the outcome will be. It is up to every one of us, privileged enough to take a mediated tour of the battlefield from the comfort of our homes, to learn one’s lesson and make up one’s mind.

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