In the autumn, American officials began warning that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent. To many, it seemed like fearmongering. Then, the Russian state made the “decision to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic” and shortly after tanks began to roll west of the parallel.
On February 14, just before the invasion, the NB Media Co-op published my essay “Echoes of Cold War: NATO Aggression and Ukraine.” The gist was that imperialist Western states are reifying a Cold War binary, that NATO expansion is at the core of much of the conflict in Ukraine, that NATO upholds American dominance in the post-war world, and that people in NATO member states must question the organization’s official narrative regarding the conflict.
The Russian invasion altered the course; but, Russia is still not alone in its guilt. The United States and its allies have managed to depict the act of invasion as the beginning of war in Ukraine. While, the invasion was an extreme acceleration, war has been ongoing since 2014, following Euromaidan and the annexation of Crimea. Imperial powers have been meddling in Ukrainian politics for even longer – before war broke out, Ukraine was a ‘soft-power’ battleground for Russia and the United States.
Western media depicts NATO as a neutral and defensive body. NATO is really a structure of military domination. It is not the cause of the current crisis but a tool which has contributed to it. It is also a driver of what liberals would call ‘instability’ in the region in question. Both the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014 were used by the United States and its NATO allies for regime-change purposes in an effort to exercise control over the country. Since 2014, billions of dollars have been spent on military and cultural operations in Ukraine by NATO powers.
The current situation was not unforeseen. In 2008, NATO openly stated that Ukraine and Georgia would join the organization. Since then, its policy and practice has steadily moved toward the inclusion of these regions. In the same year, William Burns (now director of the Central Intelligence Agency) stated that:
“Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite… from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests. [Pursuing this strategy] would create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.”
In 2020, Zelenskyy issued a National Security Strategy which explicitly identified Russia as a threat and identified NATO membership as a key objective of Ukrainian policy. This act was celebrated by the Atlantic Council, NATO’s American think-tank, despite the fact that current leaders of the state, from Biden to Burns, have long warned about the dangers of Ukrainian NATO membership.
Most American officials probably do not view American foreign policy as imperialist; rather, they view it as a matter of “great-power politics.” The officials who feign shock now have really been aware for some time that such an outcome was likely or inevitable. It was simply deemed an acceptable risk for the sake of power politics. To them, the problem in Ukraine is not the invasion by Russia but the fact that the Russian pursuit of dominance in Ukraine runs contrary to their own interests.
Other NATO members, such as Canada, have been deeply involved in attempts to exert control over Ukrainian society and politics in order to expand the American sphere and undermine Russia. By effectively shifting all of the blame onto Russia, America and its allies have been able to skirt critique since the invasion in February. This analysis may seem to deny the agency of Ukrainian people; however, denial of agency is precisely the approach of imperial powers.
It is easily forgotten now that Western powers once supported Putin and that the ‘oligarchy’ in Russia is in large part a product of the West. As the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research stated:
“When the USSR collapsed, Western countries wielded their resources and power through Boris Yeltsin (1991–1999) and then Vladimir Putin (from 1999). First, the West impoverished the Russian people by destroying the country’s social net and allowing elite Russians to devour the country’s social wealth. Then, they drew the new Russian billionaires into investing in Western-driven globalisation… It was the West that helped the Russian billionaire class capture the state and ride astride Russian society.”
‘The West’ is not opposed to Putin for the sake of morality but because the Putin regime is no longer a vehicle for unfettered American expansion and extraction. Tricontinental also noted in the same article that the West overtly backed Yeltsin and Putin’s wars in Chechnya and only began to vilify Russia when Putin began to question the potential for actual integration into the Western sphere of power. War in Chechnya, like many conflicts elsewhere, was acceptable as it did not appear to threaten Western interests.
People in the West are so willing and able to instantly support Ukrainian resistance to Russian imperialism because they now find themselves aligned with Western imperial powers. As a result, their opinions and perceptions are being constantly reinforced by media, public discourse, and state bodies. Yet, when an allied state is the aggressor in an imperialist war, Western media serves to quell such unwavering support.
America’s global position of power can never be overlooked when examining conflicts such as the one in Ukraine. Isolating the war in Ukraine from it is a grave error. Yet, even anarchists at some of the most influential anarchist media outlets and collectives have bought into the idea that NATO is concerned with protecting Ukraine’s right to self-determination. This is likely the result of outrage at the violence currently being carried out by the Russian state in a European country, and the result of the effective “information war” being waged by Western powers.
William Burns, director of the CIA, has stated that the agency is waging an information war with Russia. A CIA ‘information war’ is an exercise in psychological warfare. This is no secret – the CIA was explicitly founded in 1947 in order to carry out covert “psychological warfare” in the post-war era. It quickly changed the term from psychological warfare to “information activities” to alleviate public unease. It should go without saying that a psychological warfare operation carried out by the agency should not be accepted uncritically.
The information war underwrites media coverage. Sometimes, propaganda is obvious, such as the wave of articles in serious news outlets showing Ukrainian soldiers holding puppies and kittens. Other coverage is less overtly propagandistic. It is the tone and the selection of facts. Though Western media outlets portray themselves as objective disseminators of free speech and truth, they are inextricably tangled up with states and major corporations. This does not mean that government agencies are necessarily dictating coverage by media outlets, however, it does mean that media outlets rely on and reproduce state perspectives and dispositions.
Canadian coverage is in no way insulated from this problem. In 2021, an investigation in Passage revealed that Canadian “editorial boards have supported Canada’s war and regime change efforts since the First World War 98 per cent of the time.” A 2021 investigation by Ricochet and Jacobin also ‘revealed’ that Canadian television panels are overwhelmingly dominated by corporate lobbyists. In the early years of the Cold War, the CBC was specifically ordered to disseminate propaganda by the government of Canada. Contemporarily, direct orders to disseminate propaganda are not typically necessary. The media is structured in such a way that it will automatically reproduce state ideology. Debate exists only within certain limits.
The contrast between the coverage of Western wars in non-European parts of the world and the war in Ukraine is striking. While Western media outlets make a point of using the spelling Kyiv rather than Kiev, they also actively participate in the erasure of Palestine as a nation by refusing to even name it and by white-washing Israel’s atrocities against the Palestinian people. This coverage is not disconnected from political activity. Despite the fact that Israel is committing ever-accelerating apartheid, Canadian arms exports to the country are increasing. It is no mere oversight that the fact that civilians made up 63% of people killed in Israeli assaults on Palestine last year did not result in the same level of outrage as the killing of civilians did in Bucha.
States and state officials are drawing direct parallels to the Cold War. When talking about ‘the Cold War,’ people think of covert operations and espionage. Yet, the fact that Western states may not be acting honestly now is somehow unimaginable. The fact that the same organizations that carried out unethical activities during the Cold War under the pretence of protecting freedom might still carry out those activities should not come as a surprise to anyone, particularly as one of the predominant organizations in question was proven to engage in torture on a systemic level during the so-called War on Terror.
It is important to note that Cold War imperialism was not entirely militaristic. Bhakti Shringarpure has noted that overt violence and physical/geographical mapmaking in the Cold War was paired with “a second plane… committed to the use of soft power that mainly aimed to influence opinion and often even claimed to improve people’s conditions through aid and education.” She also states that, while military power is often condemned, “there is a tendency to profess that soft power has inadvertent positive consequences,” and treat it apologetically. In actuality, the two planes of power are inextricable.
Western attempts to shape and control Ukrainian politics are imperialist actions. The immense levels of funding that the West pumps into certain Ukrainian cultural and media organizations is a form of imperialism. It is also a continuation of Cold War practice. For example, during the Cold War, the CIA established an organization in Italy called the Italian Association for Cultural Freedom, which became the “center of a federation of about a hundred independent cultural groups” championing liberal democracy in the region. This organization’s creation cannot be disconnected from the fact that the CIA also interfered in Italy’s federal election a few years earlier to ensure that the Christian Democrat Party won the election.
In Ukraine, the immense funding pumped into cultural and media activities by organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy should not be disconnected from the American interference in the 2004 and 2014 ‘revolutions’ or Ukraine’s apparent desire for American involvement in its own affairs. It should also not be disconnected from the immense build-up in the area of NATO troops or from the support being given to military organizations. Furthermore, these activities should not be disconnected from operations elsewhere, where the American state and its allies are involved in other self-interested military operations.
It cannot be ignored that The Kyiv Independent, for instance, the golden egg of independent Ukrainian news sources, has ties to the American and Canadian governments. Twitter, the hub of breaking news, has effectively been operating as an affiliate of Western states, silencing or hushing voices which do not conform to the official narrative and amplifying those that do. The hypocrisy of Twitter’s approach to flagging ‘state-affiliated’ sources is also clear, shielding the BBC, the CBC, and other Western state media organizations entirely from this classification.
Media coverage of ‘Azov’ is another serious matter of concern. After the siege of Mariupol, Azov is being treated even more heroically than before. Western media has been watering down the reality of the neo-Nazi organization in order to avoid undermining Ukraine’s national defence. Yet, simply recognizing the clear existence of fascist and neo-Nazi groups does not give legitimacy to Putin’s false justifications for invasion. It is necessary to identify and critique these groups despite the ongoing war because there is simply never a justification for neo-Nazism. The Russian invasion has likely served to accelerate the neo-Nazi threat and Western states have been actively aiding the ideological and military strength of their most effective organizations.
People are quick to dismiss the presence of neo-Nazi militias as insignificant simply because far-right political parties in Ukraine have not had electoral support to the same degree as far-right parties in neighboring regions. This is a ridiculous neutralization of the severity of their threat and relies upon a false equivalence. Simply put, how many ballots are equal to a tank? Furthermore, neo-Nazism is not ‘merely’ a far-right ideology. Neo-Nazism is a celebration of Nazism and the Holocaust. It is an attempt to revitalize the ideology and the material conditions which correspond to it. To pump weaponry into the hands of those calling for renewed Holocaust is never acceptable (the fact that Russian neo-Nazis also exist does nothing to change this). Yet, battalions with explicit ties to neo-Nazism are regularly celebrated in Western and Ukrainian media as heroes and freedom fighters.
People such as Hilary Clinton have compared contemporary Ukraine to Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the USSR invaded. Her analogy has a two-pronged effect – the first is to reify the Cold War narrative and the second is to highlight the apparent effectiveness of proxy warfare. However, this should be a major red flag. The consequences of pumping weapons and money into the hands of paramilitary organizations fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s are well-documented.
As was the case in the Cold War era, much of this ‘information war’ is being fought by private individuals (without direct direction from the state) who simply believe that they are doing the right thing. It is important to acknowledge that even when not directly orchestrated by the government, activity can benefit state power and serve to reproduce state ideology. When state ideology is accepted and bought into by the population, it can engage in patterns of reproduction and circulation seemingly of its own accord. As a result, it is imperative to remain critical.
It is important to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine; however, this condemnation is meaningless unless it is paired with broader critique of imperialist structures and the hyper-militarization that continues to fuel this war. It is also necessary to recognize the absolute danger that exists in treating Ukraine as a battleground in a ‘European’ proxy war with Russia. Furthermore, it is necessary to recognize that propaganda is not only spread by Russia and that turning a blind-eye to this fact contributes to further war.
In the wake of the Russian invasion, people in the West are actively or passively latching onto ‘liberal democracy’ and American imperial power. Fear of ‘disinformation’ has been used to stoke pro-military sentiments and silence critique. The media is currently replacing the threat of Islamic extremism with the threat of Russian aggression – an embrasure of effective Cold War practice, which allows the American state to overcome the blowback of the war on terror and the Trump administration to reclaim its position as a righteous and benevolent military empire.
Luke Beirne is a freelance writer who lives in Saint John, on unsurrendered and unceded Wolastoqey land. His debut novel, Foxhunt, was released by Baraka Books in April 2022.