February 13, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 455

War Propaganda And Ideology At The Edge Of Oblivion

February 13, 2023 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 455

Within the coming days the cruel Russia-Ukraine War will enter its second year. Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 has triggered a series of global consequences not yet fully understood.[1] Despite intense scrutiny and speculation, no one really knows how it will turn out.[2] One hopes and prays that it will not lead to a nuclear exchange but even that dire eventuality cannot be discounted. Both Russia and Ukraine are supposedly preparing new armies aimed to deliver a knockout blow, both place hope in new weapons, both are desperately looking for more men, both have freed convicts to fight and you can find videos of forced conscription on both sides. Atrocities abound. Both sides search for allies and sources of support worldwide, no matter how marginal.

And aside from the two belligerents, other powers are heavily involved. The war has brought Russia even closer to China and Iran than it already was (these close relations were already there before the war). Meanwhile, NATO and especially the United States – at least the ruling elites – have taken up the cause of Ukraine with a passion not seen since the days after 9/11. Naturally, it is also in Ukraine's interest to involve NATO even more forcefully into the conflict, without limits or redlines, and the inertia toward that direction seems slow but inexorable. It is hard to believe that it was only seven years ago that an American President, Barack Obama, was described as believing that "Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there."[3] No one in the Biden Administration seems to believe this, at least publicly.

My own interests in this conflict are more narrowly limited to the issues of propaganda and ideology, topics I have both studied and worked on in government and out of it for many years. The focus is less on morality, who is just or unjust, or who will win but rather on the war of narratives and beliefs, including as expressed beyond the borders of the two immediate belligerents.

As the underdog and the victim of a Russian invasion, Ukraine has naturally benefited from considerable worldwide sympathy, particularly in the West. Ukrainian propaganda has been relentless and quite successful but like Western messaging about the conflict, it is less about the actual quality of the messaging than pushing against an open door, the Russians were already regarded as great villains in the West even before they invaded. War propaganda is much easier when it occurs among populations already conditioned (sometimes for very good reasons) to believe it. Before sympathetic audiences, Russian losses are played up and Ukrainian losses are played down, stories that seem almost too good to be true, usually are.[4] In the West, Ukraine became more than a terrible war or a tragedy, it became "the latest thing."

American and pro-Ukraine messaging has been somewhat less successful in regions such as Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia. The reasons seem obvious. In all of those regions, there is a built-in disposition in some quarters against Western messaging because there are many, both historic and recent, of what are viewed as examples of Western imperialism, invasion, and hegemony. Just as it does not take much to convince a Pole about Russian evil intentions, it does not take much for an Arab to be skeptical about anything the Americans are promoting when it comes to war, invasion, and international law.

American pro-Ukraine messaging seems more successful when it sticks to basic issues – Russia attacked Ukraine and seeks to annex its territory across an internationally recognized border – rather than sweeping pious intonations about the liberal democratic order or human rights or whatever fashionable enthusiasm is sweeping the Acela Corridor and the Eurocrats in Brussels.[5] The latter resonate in that part of the world already dominated by the United States and its closest allies but not everywhere. Soberly labeling actual Russian-controlled or leaning sources as such, without exaggeration, works better than moral hyperventilating.

As far as Russian propaganda, that oft-cited bogeyman of American elites, it has been shown to be as overrated in its effectiveness as the Russian Army on the battlefield. Indeed, looking at the past decade, never has so much (in Western efforts both in the public and private spheres) been spent over so little. Russia's propaganda successes are mostly either because of the previously cited complicated past of the West itself in certain regions of the world or because of self-inflicted wounds by Western propagandists.

When a U.S. official claimed that Ukrainian missiles falling in Poland were actually Russian or when the destruction of Russia's Nord Stream pipeline is spun as actually having been done by the Kremlin, it is Western credibility that is "devalued" by the West itself.[6]

Moscow's biggest propaganda success in recent years was not done by Moscow at all but by the American national security state and then by elite opinion, supposedly in trying to counter the Russians. The cure has been deadlier than the disease and it is the West, through overuse and misuse, that has fatally damaged the term "disinformation." First in the campaign against the legitimacy of the 2016 election results and throughout Donald Trump's presidency, then in the rise of unhinged "woke" advocacy against American society, history, and institutions, then in the campaign by the intelligence community against supposed Russian disinformation on American social media in the 2020 elections, it is America that, in a way undreamed of by the Russian Internet Research Agency, has waged a devastating campaign against itself. The discrediting of institutions, the levels of polarization and chaos achieved, dwarf anything Moscow has ever done. It is also no surprise then when Russia or China or Iran mirror and amplify narratives and tropes – left and right – that originated domestically by Americans using them against the United States. The internal damage from our own turmoil and from our ham-fisted response to Kremlin propaganda will likely be more consequential in the long run to America's destiny than whatever happens to Russia on the battlefield.

As far as the ideological dimensions of the Russian-Ukraine War, both the aggressor and the defender rely to a great extent on older sources of ideological mobilization and legitimacy. Anything and everything are grist for the propaganda mill but this is a war about blood and soil, on both sides. Nationalism, history, religion, sacrifice, flags, icons, and statues all are enlisted in a sacred cause.[7] Regardless of Western talk about Russian fascists and Russian talk about Ukrainian Neo-Nazis, both sides look decidedly martial and nationalistic in ways that seem to put them at variance with the Western zeitgeist. This reality will have consequences after the war for both sides no matter who wins. And while the willingness of the brave Ukrainians to fight and die has been one of the great surprises of the war, it is hard to believe that Western armies would do better than either the Ukrainians or the Russians in fighting the type of grinding war that has been fought, at the siege of Mariupol or in the trenches of Bakhmut. Both sides seem equally weary and equally committed, both are holding on and either one could crack under such pressure. Both sides warn of future escalation.[8]

Western armies, especially the Europeans, but even the more experienced Americans, are designed not to have to take such casualties or fight in such close quarters for so long because the lack of ideological motivation and the rigors of electoral democracy make them unsustainable. Western technological advances aim to make such sacrifices unnecessary. The West is doing in the war in Ukraine what it seems conditioned to do best these days: Sending money and shipping weapons.

Fighting for the Glory of Ukraine or for Mother Russia, for survival, even fighting for money and bloodlust, are cruder, more basic and stronger motives than fighting for the much touted "rules-based international order."[9] There are those people – mostly non-Westerners – still willing to fight in these existential ways, as we have witnessed in insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan and see in Ukraine, and there those who are not. The atavistic ways seen on both sides in this war terrify because they point to mindsets and values that the West had thought were gone, or should be gone, but that remain vividly present and important.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 395, Wars Of Multiple Miscalculations, June 27, 2022.

[2] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 451, Prospects Of Russia's War In Ukraine For 2023, January 24, 2023.

[3], April 2016.

[4] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 374, The Latest Propaganda Wars, April 14, 2022.

[5] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 375, That 'Liberal, Post-Modern' Life, April 19, 2022.

[6], February 6, 2023.

[7], January 6, 2023.

[9], March 6, 2022.

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