Vladimir Putin, who has been a tyrant for decades, is at last facing unified global resistance: the UN general assembly voted 141 to 5, with 35 abstentions, to demand that Russia stop its aggression; Europe and the United States have been sending weapons and aid to Ukraine; Russia has been hit with an unprecedented wave of sanctions, even from neutral playgrounds for the wealthy such as Switzerland and Monaco. There is a sense of solidarity fomented by the common realization that Putin poses an existential threat not only to Europe, but to the entire world.
Some remain agnostic about the global response, however. Glenn Greenwald, for example, has written a piece entitled “War Propaganda About Ukraine Becoming More Militaristic, Authoritarian, and Reckless,” in which he expresses concerns that the Ukrainians are engaged in manipulative propaganda that is trapping the west inside a “system of complete consensus” and that this will lead America to act foolishly, as it did in launching the invasion of Iraq. He writes:
It is of course possible that the Western consensus is the overwhelmingly accurate one and that the moral framework that has been embraced is the correct prism for understanding this conflict. All sides in war wield propaganda, and that certainly includes the Russians and their allies as well (emphasis mine). This article is not intended to urge the adoption of one viewpoint or the other.
It is, instead, intended to urge the recognition of what the effects of being immersed in one-sided, intense and highly emotionalized war propaganda are … Precisely because this propaganda has been cultivated over centuries to so powerfully and adeptly manipulate our most visceral reactions, it is something to be resisted even if—perhaps especially if—it is coming from the side or viewpoint you support.
This might sound fair on first glance—but by suggesting a false equivalence between both sides, Greenwald obscures the meaningful differences between Ukrainian and Russian propaganda.
The Ukrainians have been using a combination of classic war propaganda and savvy social media tactics reminiscent of those employed during the Arab Spring uprisings. Their images of battle victories—ambushed Russian columns, downed aircraft and triumphal poses with Javelins—helped shape the early narrative that the Ukrainians were not only resisting, but defeating, the bungling Russian army. They show compelling videos of civilians taking up Kalashnikovs and standing in front of tanks. They amplify martyrs, most famously the Snake Island defenders, who said the viral and endlessly memed line, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself,” before supposedly fighting to the death. (Those soldiers ended up captured, not killed, which shows that there is probably some exaggeration in these stories.) All of this is done with a mocking wink in Putin’s direction.
The images also show such things as the shelling of an ambulance in Kherson, which resulted in a driver and patient being burned alive and the bombardment of the bridge over the Irpin river, where civilians—including children, the elderly and the disabled—were attempting to flee. There are countless other examples. This is not propaganda, though it is effective messaging. It is simply a way of revealing the war crimes of the Russian army.
Then there is Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has become a national hero and an international symbol of freedom and resistance. His response to the United States’ offer of evacuation was an instant classic: “I need ammunition, not a ride.” His bravery contrasts vividly with that of Putin, who has a penchant for empty bravado and shirtless photo ops. Zelenskyy, in his country’s time of need, is willing to stay and die in Kyiv while Putin hides in a remote bunker, conducting meetings at ludicrously long tables.
Zelenskyy has also turned out to be a brilliant tactician. He is perhaps the main reason why the EU came together and agreed to impose crippling sanctions on Russia—after he called into a meeting of EU ministers and left them in tears. Zelenskyy is not a cynical manipulator, but he understands how to convince leaders to do the obviously right thing.
The important point is that the Ukrainian stories are mostly true: the heroes, martyrs and brave civilians, their president who rose to the occasion and the horrible war crimes perpetrated against their people—all these are real. There may be some hyperbole involved in the messaging, but these are standard wartime morale-boosting tactics. The purpose is to convince the world to help the Ukrainians defend themselves. They have long said that they alone will fight and die for their country if only the west can arm them, and this is exactly what we are seeing.
Russian propaganda, on the other hand, claims that Putin is simply responding to Ukrainian aggression and that the Russian army is on a noble mission to liberate Ukrainian citizens—to “denazify” the country. They claim that this is not a war or an invasion, but a “special military operation” and a “peacekeeping” mission. They claim that they are not attacking civilians. In Kherson—where Russia controls the television tower—Ukraine’s Security Service has reported that people are being brought in from Crimea to pretend to be civilians and stage a rally welcoming the Russian invaders.
These are all lies—and not just exaggerations, but the exact opposite of the truth. Despite his efforts to plant a false flag operation, we know that Putin launched this invasion unprovoked. He is now salting the earth in Ukraine, resorting to Grozny and Aleppo style tactics. He is massacring civilians. In Kherson, brave Ukrainians protested in front of tanks and even climbed on top of them, waving their flags.
This is happening in front of our noses, and the images and videos that bear witness to this are all over social media. Putin’s lies serve only to justify his revanchist ideology to himself and to the citizens of his totalitarian regime.
Ignoring these qualitative differences obscures more than it clarifies, making it difficult to judge what is right and wrong. Greenwald writes:
One has to travel back to … the invasion of Iraq, in order to find an event that competes with the current moment in terms of emotional intensity and lockstep messaging … the narrative themes deployed then are identical to those now; the very same people who led the construction of that narrative and accompanying rhetorical tactics are … playing a similar role now; and the reactions that these themes trigger are virtually indistinguishable.
Greenwald takes this war—which is not about the US, but about Ukrainian freedom—and makes it about American media narratives and messaging. By focusing on superficial similarities between Ukrainian and Russian propaganda and between media narratives in 2002 and 2022, he obscures the most important point: that Putin—not the United States—is the aggressor here, and that there is not only a clear and present threat to democracy, but—unlike the case with Iraq—a nuclear threat.
This must be music to Putin’s ears: this kind of obscurantism is a time-honoured Kremlin technique used to spread cynicism, apathy and moral confusion. It can only benefit Putin when journalists use these tactics, which distract from his ongoing war crimes.
But, despite the efforts of these useful idiots, the global backlash against Putin is growing and, even if he wins the war with Ukraine, it remains to be seen how he fares in Moscow. If he loses this war, it will be a good thing. Of course, all wars are complicated, but we must remain clear about the central problem in this one: Putin. This is Putin’s invasion, driven only by his deluded fantasy of a Soviet empire, and those of us who believe in freedom and democracy must help the Ukrainians defend their nation. Obscuring these facts with false equivalences, whataboutery and bickering over media narratives helps neither the Ukrainians nor the western democracies. It helps Putin.