Disinformation has become a central tool in the United States and Russia’s expanding information war. US officials have openly admitted to “using information as a weapon even when the confidence and accuracy of the information wasn’t high,” with corporate media eager to assist Washington in its strategy to “pre-empt and disrupt the Kremlin’s tactics, complicate its military campaign” (NBC, 4/6/22).
In defense of the US narrative, corporate media have increasingly taken to branding realities inconvenient to US information goals as “disinformation” spread by Russia or its proxies.
The New York Times (1/25/22) reported that Russian disinformation doesn’t only take the form of patently false assertions, but also those which are “true but tangential to current events”—a convenient definition, in that it allows accurate facts to be dismissed as “disinformation.” But who determines what is “tangential” and what is relevant, and what are the guiding principles to make such a determination? In this assessment, Western audiences are too fickle to be trusted with making up their own mind.
There’s no denying that Russia’s disinformation campaign is key to justifying its war on Ukraine. But instead of uncritically outsourcing these decisions to Western intelligence officials and weapons manufacturers, and as a result erasing realities key to a political settlement, the media’s ultimate guiding principle for what information is “tangential” should be whether it is relevant to preventing the further suffering of Ukrainian civilians—and reducing tensions between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.
For Western audiences, and US citizens in particular, labeling or otherwise marginalizing inconvenient realities as “disinformation” prevents a clear understanding of how their government helped escalate tensions in the region, continues to obstruct the possibility of peace talks, and is prepared to, as retired senior US diplomat Chas Freeman describes it, “fight to the last Ukrainian” in a bid to weaken Russia.
Coup ‘Conspiracy Theory’
For example, the New York Times (4/11/22) claimed that US support for the 2014 “Maidan Revolution” that ousted Ukraine’s democratically elected President Viktor Yanukovych was a “conspiracy theory” being peddled by the Chinese government in support of Russia. The article featured an image with a red line crossing out the face of journalist Benjamin Norton, who was appearing on a Chinese news channel to discuss how the US helped orchestrate the coup. (Norton Wrote For FAIR.Org frequently from 2015–18.) The evidence he presented—a leaked call initially reported by the BBC in which then–State Department official Victoria Nuland appears to select opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk to be Ukraine’s new prime minister—is something, he noted, that the Times itself has reported on multiple times (2/6/14, 2/7/14).
Not having been asked for comment by the Times, Norton responded in a piece of his own (Multipolarista, 4/14/22), claiming that the newspaper was “acting as a tool of US government information warfare.”
Beyond Nuland’s apparent coup-plotting, the US campaign to destabilize Ukraine stretched back over a decade. Seeking to isolate Russia and open up Ukraine to Western capital, the US had long been “fueling anti-government sentiment through mechanisms like USAID and National Endowment for Democracy (NED)” (FAIR.org, 1/28/22). High-profile US officials like Sen. John McCain even went so far as to rally protesters in the midst of the Maidan uprising.
In the wake of the far right–led and constitutionally dubious overthrow, Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula and supported a secession movement in the eastern Donbass region, prompting a repressive response from Ukraine’s new US-backed government. Eight years later, the civil war has killed more than 14,000. Of those deaths, 3,400 were civilian casualties, which were disproportionately in separatist-controlled territories, UN data shows. Opinions on remaining in Ukraine vary within the Donbass.
When the Times covered the Russian annexation of Crimea, it acknowledged that the predominantly ethnic Russian population there viewed “the Ukrainian government installed after the ouster last weekend of Mr. Yanukovych as the illegitimate result of a fascist coup.” But now the newspaper of record is using allegations of disinformation to change the record.
To discredit evidence of US involvement in Ukraine’s 2014 regime change hides crucial facts that could potentially support a political solution to this crisis. When the crisis is reduced merely to the context of Russian aggression, a peace deal that includes, for example, a referendum on increased autonomy for the Donbass seems like an outrageous thing for Ukraine to have to agree to. But in the context of a civil war brought on by a US-backed coup—a context the Times is eager to erase—it may appear a more palatable solution.
More broadly, Western audiences that are aware of their own government’s role in sparking tensions may have more skepticism of Washington’s aims and an increased appetite for peace negotiations.
The outsized influence of neo-Nazi groups in Ukrainian society (Human Rights Watch, 6/14/18)—including the the Azov Regiment, the explicitly neo-Nazi branch of Ukraine’s National Guard—is another fact that has been dismissed as disinformation.
Western outlets once understood far-right extremism as a festering issue (Haaretz, 12/27/18) that Ukraine’s government “underplayed” (BBC, 12/13/14). In a piece called “Ukraine’s Got a Real Problem with Far-Right Violence (and No, RT Didn’t Write This Headline),” the Atlantic Council (UkraineAlert, 6/20/18) wrote:
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Front Line Defenders warned in a letter that radical groups acting under “a veneer of patriotism” and “traditional values” were allowed to operate under an “atmosphere of near total impunity that cannot but embolden these groups to commit more attacks.”
To be clear, far-right parties like Svoboda perform poorly in Ukraine’s polls and elections, and Ukrainians evince no desire to be ruled by them. But this argument is a bit of “red herring.” It’s not extremists’ electoral prospects that should concern Ukraine’s friends, but rather the state’s unwillingness or inability to confront violent groups and end their impunity.
But now Western media attempt to diminish those groups’ significance, arguing that singling out a vocal but insignificant far right only benefits Russia’s disinformation campaign (New Statesman, 4/12/22). Almost exactly three years after warning about Ukraine’s “real problem” with the far right, the Atlantic Council (UkraineAlert, 6/19/21) ran a piece entitled “The Dangers of Echoing Russian Disinformation on Ukraine,” in which it seemingly forgot that arguments about the electoral marginalization of Ukraine’s right wing are a “red herring”:
In reality, Ukraine’s nationalist parties enjoy less support than similar political parties in a host of EU member states. Notably, in the two Ukrainian parliamentary elections held since the outbreak of hostilities with Russia in 2014, nationalist parties have failed miserably and fallen short of the 5% threshold to enter Ukrainian parliament.
‘Lead[Ing] The White Races’
Russian propaganda does overstate the power of Nazi elements in Ukraine’s government—which it refers to as “fascist”—to justify its illegal aggression, but seizing on this propaganda to in turn downplay the influence and radicalism of these elements (e.g., USA Today, 3/30/22; Welt, 4/22/22) only prevents an important debate on how prolonged US and NATO military aid may empower these groups.
The Financial Times (3/29/22) and London Times (3/30/22) attempted to rehabilitate the Azov regiment’s reputation, using the disinformation label to downplay the influence of extremism in the national guard unit. Quoting Azov’s founder Andriy Biletsky as well as an unnamed Azov commander, the Financial Times cast Azov’s members as “patriots” who “shrug off the neo-Nazi label as ‘Russian propaganda.’” Alex Kovzhun, a “consultant” who helped draft the political program of the National Corps, Azov’s political wing, added a lighthearted human interest perspective, saying Azov was “made up of historians, football hooligans and men with military experience.”
That the Financial Times would take Biletsky at his word on the issue of Azov’s Nazi-free character, a man who once declared that the National Corps would “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade…against Semite-led Untermenschen [subhumans]” (Guardian, 3/13/18), is a prime example of how Western media have engaged in information war at the expense of their most basic journalistic duties and ethics.
Azov has opened its ranks to a flood of volunteers, the Financial Times continued, diluting its connection to Ukraine’s far-right movement, a movement that has “never proved popular at the ballot box” anyways. BBC (3/26/22) also cited electoral marginalization in its dismissal of claims about Ukraine’s far right as “a mix of falsehoods and distortions.” Putin’s distortions require debunking, but neither outlet acknowledged that these groups’ outsized influence comes more from their capacity for political violence than from their electoral participation (Hromadske, 10/13/16; Responsible Statecraft, 3/25/22).
In the London Times piece, Azov commander Yevgenii Vradnik dismissed the neo-Nazi characterization as Russian disinformation: “Perhaps [Putin] really believes it,” as he “lives in a strange, warped world. We are patriots but we are not Nazis.” Sure, the article reports, “Azov has its fair share of football hooligans and ultranationalists,” but it also includes “scholars like Zaikovsky, who worked as a translator and book editor.”
To support such “patriots,” the West should fulfill their “urgent plea” for more weapons. “To retake our regions, we need vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft weapons from NATO,” Vradnik said. Thus Western media use the “Russian disinformation” label to not only downplay the threat of Ukraine’s far right, but even to encourage the West to arm them.
Responsible Statecraft (3/25/22) pushed back on the media’s dismissiveness, warning that “Russian propaganda has colossally exaggerated the contemporary strength of Ukrainian extreme nationalist groups,” but
because these groups have been integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard yet retain their autonomous identities and command structures, over the course of an extended war they could amass a formidable fifth column that would radicalize Ukraine’s postwar political dynamic.
To ignore the fact that prolonged military aid could reshape Ukraine’s politics in favor of neo-Nazi groups prevents an understanding of the threats posed to Ukrainian democracy and civil society.
Shielding NATO From Blame
Much like with the Maidan coup, the corporate media’s insistence on viewing Russian aggression as unconnected to US imperial expansion has led it to cast any blame placed on NATO policy as Russian disinformation.
In “The Five Conspiracy Theories That Putin Has Weaponized,” New York Times (4/25/22), historian and author Ilya Yaboklov listed the Kremlin’s most prominent “disinformation” narratives. High on his list was the idea that “NATO has turned Ukraine into a military camp.”
Without mentioning that NATO, a remnant of the Cold War, is explicitly hostile to Russia, the Times piece portrayed Putin’s disdain for NATO as a paranoia that is convenient for Russian propaganda:
NATO is Mr. Putin’s worst nightmare: Its military operations in Serbia, Iraq and Libya have planted the fear that Russia will be the military alliance’s next target. It’s also a convenient boogeyman that animates the anti-Western element of Mr. Putin’s electorate. In his rhetoric, NATO is synonymous with the United States, the military hand of “the collective West” that will suffocate Russia whenever it becomes weak.
The New York Times is not the only outlet to dismiss claims that NATO’s militarization of Ukraine has contributed to regional tensions. Jessica Brandt of the Brookings Institute claimed on CNN Newsroom (4/8/22): “There’s two places where I have seen China carry Russia’s water. The first is, starting long before the invasion, casting blame at the foot of the United States and NATO.” The Washington Post editorial board (4/11/22) argued much to the same effect that Chinese “disinformation” included arguing “NATO is to blame for the fighting.” Newsweek (4/13/22) stated that Chinese disinformation “blames the US military/industrial complex for the chaos in Ukraine and other parts of the world,” and falsely claims that “Washington ‘squeezed Russia’s security space.’”
Characterizing claims that NATO’s militarization of Russia’s neighbors was a hostile act as “paranoia” or “disinformation” ignores the decades of warnings from top US diplomats and anti-war dissidents alike that NATO expansionism into former Warsaw Pact countries would lead to conflict with Russia.
Jack F. Matlock Jr, the former ambassador to the USSR warned the US Senate as early as 1997 that NATO expansion would threaten a renewal of Cold War hostilities (Responsible Statecraft, 2/15/22):
I consider the administration’s recommendation to take new members into NATO at this time misguided. If it should be approved by the United States Senate, it may well go down in history as the most profound strategic blunder made since the end of the Cold War. Far from improving the security of the United States, its Allies, and the nations that wish to enter the Alliance, it could well encourage a chain of events that could produce the most serious security threat to this nation since the Soviet Union collapsed.
These “disinformation” claims also ignore the more contemporary evidence that Western officials have an explicit agenda of weakening Russia and even ending the Putin regime. According to Ukrainska Pravda (5/5/22; Intercept, 5/10/22), in his recent trip to Kyiv, UK prime minister Boris Johnson told Volodymyr Zelensky that regardless of a peace agreement being reached between Ukraine and Russia, the United States would remain intent on confronting Russia.
The evidence doesn’t stop there. In the past months, Joe Biden let slip his desire that Putin “cannot remain in power,” and US officials’ have become more open about their objectives to weaken Russia (Democracy Now!, 5/9/22; Wall Street Journal, 4/25/22). Corporate media have cheered on these developments, running op-eds in support of policies that go beyond a defense of Ukraine to an attack on Russia (Foreign Policy, 5/4/22; Washington Post, 4/28/22), even expressing hope for a “palace coup” there (The Lead, 4/19/22; CNN Newsroom, 3/4/22).
As famed dissident Noam Chomsky said in a discussion with the Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill (4/14/22):
We can see that our explicit policy—explicit—is rejection of any form of negotiations. The explicit policy goes way back, but it was given a definitive form in September 2021 in the September 1 joint policy statement that was then reiterated and expanded in the November 10 charter of agreement….
What it says is it calls for Ukraine to move towards what they called an enhanced program for entering NATO, which kills negotiations.
When the media denies NATO’s culpability in stoking the flames of war in Ukraine, Americans are left unaware of their most effective tool in preventing further catastrophe: pressuring their own government to stop undermining negotiations and to join the negotiating table. Dismissing these realities threatens to prolong the war in Ukraine indefinitely.
As the Biden administration launches a new Disinformation Governance Board aimed at policing online discourse, it is clear that the trend of silencing those who speak out against official US narratives is going to get worse.
Outlets like Russia Today, MintPress News and Consortium News have been banned or demonetized by platforms like Google and its subsidiary YouTube, or services like PayPal. MintPress News (4/25/22) reported YouTube had “permanently banned more than a thousand channels and 15,000 videos,” on the grounds that they were “denying, minimizing or trivializing well-documented violent events.” At the same time, platforms are loosening the restrictions on praising Ukraine’s far right or calling for the death of Russians (Reuters, 3/11/22). These policies of asymmetric censorship aid US propaganda and squelch dissent.
After receiving a barrage of complaints from the outlet’s supporters, PayPal seemingly reversed its ban of Consortium News’ account, only to state later on that this reversal was “mistaken,” and that Consortium was in fact permanently banned. The outlet’s editor-in-chief Joe Lauria (5/4/22) responded to PayPal’s ban:
Given the political climate it is reasonable to conclude that PayPal was reacting to Consortium News’ coverage of the war in Ukraine, which is not in line with the dominant narrative that is being increasingly enforced.
As Western outlets embrace the framing of a new Cold War, so too have they embraced the Cold War’s McCarthyite tactics that rooted out dissent in the United States. With great-power conflict on the rise, it is all the more important that US audiences understand the media’s increasing repression of debate in defense of the “dominant narrative.” In the words of Chomsky:
There’s a long record in the United States of censorship, not official censorship, just devices, to make sure that, what intellectuals call the “bewildered herd,” the “rabble,” the population, don’t get misled. You have to control them. And that’s happening right now.