A couple of weeks ago, this column guardedly suggested that John Kerry’s day-long talks in Sochi with Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, looked like a break in the clouds on numerous questions, primarily the Ukraine crisis. I saw no evidence that President Obama’s secretary of state had suddenly developed a sensible, post-imperium foreign strategy consonant with a new era. It was force of circumstance. It was the 21st century doing its work.
This work will get done, cleanly and peaceably or otherwise.
Sochi, an unexpected development, suggested the prospect of cleanliness and peace. But events since suggest that otherwise is more likely to prove the case. It is hard to say because it is hard to see, but our policy cliques may be gradually wading into very deep water in Ukraine.
Ever since the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, reality itself has
come to seem up for grabs. Karl Rove, a diabolically competent political infighter but of no discernible intellectual weight, may have been prescient when he told us to forget our pedestrian notions of reality—real live reality. Empires create their own, he said, and we’re an empire now.
The Ukraine crisis reminds us that the pathology is not limited to the peculiar dreamers who made policy during the Bush II administration, whose idea of reality was idealist beyond all logic. It is a late-imperial phenomenon that extends across the board. “Unprecedented” is considered a dangerous word in journalism, but it may describe the Obama administration’s furious efforts to manufacture a Ukraine narrative and our media’s incessant reproduction of all its fallacies.
At this point it is only sensible to turn everything that is said or shown in our media upside down and consider it a second time. Who could want to live in a world this much like Orwell’s or Huxley’s—the one obliterating reality by destroying language, the other by making historical reference a transgression?
Language and history: As argued several times in this space, these are the weapons we are not supposed to have.
Ukraine now gives us two fearsome examples of what I mean by inverted reason.
One, it has been raining reports of Russia’s renewed military presence in eastern Ukraine lately. One puts them down and asks, What does Washington have on the story board now, an escalation of American military involvement? A covert op? Let us watch.
Two, we hear ever-shriller charges that Moscow has mounted a dangerous, security-threatening propaganda campaign to destroy the truth—our truth, we can say. It is nothing short of “the weaponization of information,” we are provocatively warned. Let us be on notice: Our truth and our air are now as polluted with propaganda as during the Cold War decades, and the only apparent plan is to make it worse.
O.K., let us do what sorting can be done.
Charges that Russia is variously amassing troops and materiel on its border with Ukraine or sending same across said border are nothing new. They are what General Breedlove, the strange-as-Strangelove NATO commander, gets paid to put out. These can be ignored, as most Europeans do.
But in April a new round of the escalation charges began. Michael Gordon, the New York Times’ reliably obliging State Department correspondent, reported in a story with a single named source that Russia was adding soldiers and air defense systems along its border.
The sources for this were Marie Harf, one of State’s spokespeople, and the standard variety of unnamed officials and analysts. Here is how it begins:
In a sign that the tense crisis in Ukraine could soon escalate, Russia has continued to deploy air defense systems in eastern Ukraine and has built up its forces near the border, American officials said on Wednesday.
Western officials are not sure if the military moves are preparations for a new Russian-backed offensive that would be intended to help the separatists seize additional territory.
“Could,” “has continued,” “not sure,” “would be.” And this was the lead, where the strongest stuff goes.
Scrape away the innuendo, and what you are reading in this piece is a whole lot of nothing. The second paragraph, stating what officials are not sure of, was a necessary contortion to get in the phrase “new Russian-backed offensive,” which was the point of the piece. As journalism, this is so bad it belongs in a specimen jar.
Context, the stuff this kind of reporting does its best to keep from readers:
By mid-April, Washington was still at work trying to subvert the Minsk II ceasefire, an anti-Russian assassination campaign was under way in Kiev and the Poroshenko government, whether or not it approved of the campaign, was proving unable, unwilling or both to implement any of the constitutional revisions to which Minsk II committed it.
A week before the April 22 report, 300 troops from the 173rd Airborne had arrived to begin training the Ukrainian national guard. The Times piece acknowledged this for the simple reason it was the elephant in the living room, but by heavy-handed implication it dismissed any thought of causality.
Given the context, I would not be at all surprised to learn that Moscow may have put air defense systems in place. And I am not at all sure what is so worrisome about them. Maybe it is the same reasoning Benjamin Netanyahu applied when Russia recently agreed to supply Iran with air defense technology: It will make it harder for us to attack them, the dangerous Israeli complained.
Neither am I sure what is so worrisome about Russians training eastern Ukrainian partisans—another charge Harf leveled—if it is supposed to be a mystery why American trainers at the other end of the country prompt alarm in Moscow.
Onward from April 22 the new theme flowed. On May 17 Kiev claimed that it had captured two uniformed Russian soldiers operating inside Ukraine. On May 21 came reports that European monitors had interviewed the two under unstated conditions and had ascertained they were indeed active-duty infantry. This gave “some credence” to Kiev’s claim, the Times noted, although at this point some is far short of enough when Kiev makes these kinds of assertions.
On May 30—drum roll, please—came the absolute coup de grâce. The Atlantic Council, one of the Washington think tanks—its shtick seems to be some stripe of housebroken neoliberalism—published a report purporting to show that, in the Times’ language, “Russia is continuing to defy the West by conducting protracted military operations inside Ukraine.”
Read the report here. It’s first sentence: “Russia is at war with Ukraine.”
“Continuing to defy?” “At war with Ukraine?” If you refuse to accept the long, documented record of Moscow’s efforts to work toward a negotiated settlement with Europe—and around defiant Americans—and if you call the Ukraine conflict other than a civil war, well, someone is creating your reality for you.
Details. The Times described “Hiding in Plain Sight: Putin’s War in Ukraine” as “an independent report.” I imagine Gordon—he seems to do all the blurry stuff these days—had a straight face when he wrote three paragraphs later that John Herbst, one of the Atlantic Council’s authors, is a former ambassador to Ukraine.
I do not know what kind of a face Gordon wore when he reported later on that the Atlantic Council paper rests on research done by Bellingcat.com, “an investigative website.” Or when he let Herbst get away with calling Bellingcat, which appears to operate from a third-floor office in Leicester, a city in the English Midlands, “independent researchers.”
I wonder, honestly, if correspondents look sad when they write such things—sad their work has come to this.
One, Bellingcat did its work using Google, YouTube and other readily available social media technologies, and this we are supposed to think is the cleverest thing under the sun. Are you kidding?
Manipulating social media “evidence” has been a parlor game in Kiev; Washington; Langley, Virginia, and at NATO since the Ukraine crisis broke open. Look at the graphics included in the presentation. I do not think technical expertise is required to see that these images prove what all others offered as evidence since last year prove: nothing. It looks like the usual hocus-pocus.