In Ukraine Coverage, the Press May Be Doing Putin’s Work

Russia’s threat of reinvading its neighbor is all too real, but is the West — particularly its media — helping or hurting Kyiv with its doomcasting?

In Ukraine Coverage, the Press May Be Doing Putin’s Work
Ukraine cutline: Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden at their summit meeting last year in Geneva, Switzerland / Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images

How did the Kremlin’s closely controlled state television prepare its people on the eve of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine that Washington predicted just three days ago? Channel One nightly news opened with a long segment on the Winter Olympics, followed by reports of President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, with a small piece on Western war mania to follow. Not quite the media messaging you would expect from a country about to launch a major land invasion in Eastern Europe.

Ksenia Sobchak, daughter of Putin’s old boss at the St. Petersburg mayor’s office and now a TV star, tweeted that she planned to go “to the Bolshoi Theater to watch ‘Master and Margarita’ and spend the evening with Bulgakov, master of the absurd, which it seems is the best thing to do on this date.”

On the other side of the predicted battlefield, Ukrainians prepared for a brand-new public holiday announced Monday by their president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to mark the prospective invasion date. Zelenskyy’s advice to his people as they marked this new Day of National Unity? Put out more flags and celebrate Ukraine’s independence. Oh, and don’t forget to sing the national anthem at 10 a.m.

What happened to the call to shelter in place or evacuate the women and children?

After months of Russian troops building up around their borders, Ukrainians did finally have something to celebrate — images put out by Russia’s Ministry of Defense appearing to show some tanks trundling onto low-loaders and departing for their home bases, although no substantive withdrawal has yet been confirmed by independent sources or Western governments. In fact, Russia is now accused of having added 7,000 troops to the border. After his meeting with Putin, Scholz, for his part, announced that there was room for negotiation on the Kremlin’s demands for an end to NATO expansion and that talks would continue. Until of course Scholz backtracked on reports suggesting he did any such thing.

Did Putin blink in the face of resolute U.S. and British threats to mess him up if he dared go to war? Or, as some analysts have predicted, is this just a cunning ruse to get the Ukrainians to drop their guard before piling in? Maybe Putin’s feint is dialing down the rhetoric a tiny notch, while making sure that all parties know he can turn it back up whenever he feels like it?

After years of trying, the Kremlin has finally pulled off a pincer movement of information war. It poses as a sober diplomatic grown-up, voicing what it regards as legitimate security concerns. Meanwhile the West — and particularly the Western media — lathers itself into a state of near-hysteria over how dangerous, unpredictable, aggressive and deadly Russia could be.

For weeks, Western papers and TV have been filled with images of scary Russian tanks, warships and artillery blasting away — most of them provided, if you check the photo credits, by Russia’s Ministry of Defense. Since November, the U.S. and British governments have been issuing increasingly strident warnings that Putin is preparing an imminent and massive attack on Ukraine. All that time, Putin and veteran Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have been emphatically denying that they will do any such thing. The Kremlin has made no threats or issued any demands on Ukraine itself. They don’t have to, because the West is doing such an eloquent job of broadcasting the reality of Russian military might for them. The Western intelligentsia, meanwhile, has eaten up column inches playing defense counsel for Moscow in relitigating the end of the Cold War and alleging that the triumphalism of the winner led us into this avoidable morass in the first place.

Vladimir Lenin reportedly spoke of “useful idiots” among Western leftists who unwittingly helped the cause of the Bolshevik seizure of power. But as Putin has learned, enemies can be pretty useful, too.

Putin has remained largely inscrutable; the man in the high castle said to be talking only to his gung-ho “siloviki” — the security hawks — while 50% of his battle-ready land forces move into position all around Ukraine. Western intelligence agencies and governments have taken it from there, talking up supposed plans of attack with rockets falling on Kyiv and puppet regimes being installed at gunpoint.

In Britain, the Daily Mail splashed with the headline “48 Hours to War,” and its skillful graphics department has provided a steady diet of maps covered in large red arrows illustrating possible invasion routes for the armchair strategists among its readers. By now everyone is surely an expert on the mud-freeze theory of warfare or whether bombs-away begins halfway through the bobsleigh or snowboarding competition in Beijing.

For many Conservative-supporting newspapers in Britain, the crisis has come as a welcome distraction from allegations of the leisurely lockdown antics at No. 10 Downing Street that have left Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson fighting for his political life. In a phone conversation with one of the authors last week, a senior editor at a major British mid-market tabloid agreed that “this invasion stuff is probably all nonsense.” But fuck it, print away. “Boris needs this to run and run.”

The result: a crescendo of increasingly dire and precise scare stories complete with images of plucky Ukrainians training with wooden Kalashnikovs.

On the other side of the political spectrum the left-leaning Guardian, too, has led a fortnight with news of “growing tensions” on the border. To that broadsheet’s credit, its correspondent Shaun Walker — a rock-solid reporter with over a decade’s experience in Russia and Ukraine — has filed stories indicating that life continues as normal in Kyiv and quoting security officials’ frustration and skepticism over Western predictions of invasion. Yet that reporting has not altered the overall editorial message that war is all but certain.

In the U.S., the press has done what it does best when confronted with a crisis in a faraway land it neither understands nor tries to: It has retailed every scrap and morsel of intelligence passed to it by unnamed government sources while parachuting in senior correspondents to wait for the sky to fall. Reuters installed a live-streaming camera aimed at Kyiv’s famed Independence Square, presumably to capture the moment it ceases to be independent. So far, the most compelling image it caught was a hobby drone flashing an advertisement for a garage for sale—with a listed number for the Russian embassy. The New York Times was at least good enough to acknowledge what was, in essence, the Biden administration’s strategy of preemption: declassifying material almost as quickly as it has been gathered (and what time for careful, sober analysis that must leave) and mainlining it directly to scoop-happy national security reporters.

“The hope is that disclosing Mr. Putin’s plans will disrupt them, perhaps delaying an invasion and buying more time for diplomacy,” the Gray Lady informed its readers, “or even giving Mr. Putin a chance to reconsider the political, economic and human costs of an invasion.”

Journalists, in other words, are doing strategic comms for the White House. And they’re even taking credit for perceived breakthroughs in counterintelligence. CNN has implicitly cast itself in the role of George Smiley, announcing in inimitable “exclusive” fashion that Russian spies are (according to U.S. spies) deeply frustrated that their spy schemes for Ukraine have been publicized and therefore neutralized by outlets like CNN.

A senior European intelligence official admitted to one of the authors that Washington has indeed been using the Fourth Estate to conduct its deterrence policy. “The goal has been to signal to the Russians that we know everything you’re thinking and so don’t even think about it,” that source said. “Also remember that Putin, as a KGB case officer, is obsessed with intelligence and so by leaking furiously every hypothetical plot or invasion scenario, the implicit message is that his regime is compromised and his people are untrustworthy. It’s a clever strategy. It sows paranoia and uncertainty in Moscow.”

Maybe. But at what cost to Standards and Practices in New York?

A few days ago it was widely reported that Zelenskyy had announced, in his inauguration of National Unity Day, that Feb. 16 would be the invasion date. He didn’t. What this satirist-turned-politician did, in keeping with a comic sensibility that has obtained throughout much of his presidency and is easily intelligible to Ukrainians, was to mock the breathless Western coverage of the war that wasn’t. And that, naturally, was enough to prompt still more breathless Western coverage that Zelenskyy must have been told by Western intelligence that Feb. 16 was D-Day. One officer in the SBU, Ukraine’s intelligence service, said Zelenskyy’s true source of information was “the American media.” That same media, without bothering to wipe the egg off its face, spun around and claimed it was Zelenskyy who had got ahead of himself.

Ukrainians may be kidding. But they are not amused.

On Feb. 15, David Arakhamia, the head of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People Party in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament, accused CNN, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg of publishing fake news more harmful than anything cooked up by Russia’s foremost state propagandists — and at a cost to Ukraine, Arakhamia calculated, of $2 billion to $3 billion a month.

Privately, journalists at major networks have begun to whisper that perhaps critical faculties have failed at the expense of boosting flagging Nielsen ratings and generating red-siren Drudge links. A correspondent at one cable news channel messaged one of the authors last week, expressing doubt whether a Russia invasion of Ukraine was really in the offing and wondering whether the Biden administration wasn’t using “us to do their dirty work for them.”

None of this is to say that what’s been reported is on par with wholecloth fabrications — like “dodgy dossiers” or elaborate but misleading presentations at the United Nations about Saddam’s stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.

The topline news in this instance is not made up or unverifiable.

The deployment of 150,000 Russian troops and firepower to the Ukrainian border, corroborated by independent satellite technology companies, is clearly designed to telegraph a hostile intent, as most credible military analysts have suggested. Nor is Putin’s thinking on the status of a sovereign, independent Ukraine a mystery: Last summer he published a 7,000-word screed on the subject, full of historical revisionism and chauvinist assertions whose core thesis was that Ukraine and Russia are “one people.”

Furthermore, when Pennsylvania Avenue, Downing Street and presumably all the press’s security sources issue unprecedentedly specific and emphatic warnings that war is imminent, the media has a clear duty to report it, even if no invasion happens or doesn’t at any rate happen according to schedule or forecast plan.

For Johnson and President Joe Biden, Putin’s threat to Ukraine was — if taken at face value — an opportunity to step in and avert a geopolitical and humanitarian catastrophe. A major invasion would quickly have spilled over the borders of Ukraine in the form of refugees and violence into other European countries, including EU and NATO member-states.

But more immediately, the current crisis has also been an unmistakable PR opportunity. Both leaders rushed to rally international opinion, talk tough and threaten the world’s most notorious dictator with terrible consequences if he chooses to invade. If Putin pulls the trigger they can then say, “We warned you and did everything short of precipitating World War III to stop him.” If he doesn’t, they can claim credit for getting Putin to back down (while he assails them as lying warmongers, which they can no doubt live with). The political incentives to conflate Putin’s capabilities with his intentions were overwhelmingly strong.

Likewise, the herd instinct of the U.K., U.S. and European press to unanimously treat a threat of invasion as a “likely,” “imminent” or “inevitable” event is also understandable. No one wants to have missed the big story before it happens. Nor can a chorus of anonymous spooks be breezily dismissed, particularly when news competitors are treating their every murmur as gospel.

The West scared the daylights out of itself — though not, it seems, out of the Ukrainians, who have weathered this crisis with admirable sangfroid.

And what does Putin get out of it?

First and foremost, he will no longer be ignored. Like Russian President Boris Yeltsin before him, Putin has always regarded NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to Russian security. But up until this latest crisis, NATO considered Russia poor, isolated and weak enough to downgrade to a “regional” power — or, in John McCain’s pithy formulation, “a gas station posing as a country.”

Now look. Western leaders, from Scholz to France’s President Emmanuel Macron, have rushed to Moscow for emergency peace talks with the locked-and-loaded autocrat, who, under the pretext of outsize COVID-19 fears, sits across from them at opposite ends of ridiculously long tables.

Biden began his administration with a pledge to pivot U.S. attention away from Europe and toward China, vowing the days of “resets” and grand bargains with Russia were at an end. Now he has already held one summit with Putin and pledged another. He also speaks regularly to his Russian counterpart on the Moscow-Washington hotline. Just two days ago, Biden gave a very presidential speech about an encompassing and disastrous war that could still be launched by America’s main geopolitical foe — the very thought of such an event having been sarcastically disparaged as a nostalgic ’80s fever-dream by Barack Obama when Biden was his vice president.

The inescapable question of what a revanchist Russia will or will not do is said to be a major distraction for a powerful faction of foreign policy makers within the White House, one led by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. Sullivan sees China’s emerging global dominance as a long-term and bigger strategic challenge to the U.S. He simply wants the meddlesome bear to go away or into a state of prolonged hibernation. As a result, Sullivan is the one said to be pushing Kyiv to make concessions to Moscow even as the commander-in-chief sends Javelins and Stingers to Boryspil airport and the secretary of state defends Ukraine’s right not to make concessions at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

“I have no idea what is in Jake Sullivan’s soul,” one former senior U.S. diplomat close to the Biden administration said, “but I know he’s pissed off at Putin. And frankly, I’ll take it.”

So will Putin, who defines himself largely by his relationship to the “glavniy protivnik,” the KGB’s term of art for its main adversary, the U.S.

Putin can already chalk some small but significant victories on the board. At the outset of the crisis, the U.S. and the U.K. almost immediately ruled out direct military support on the ground for Ukraine. And as alarm ratcheted up, NATO trainers were withdrawn for fear of them getting caught in a possible shooting war with Russia. That’s no minor capitulation. Even before the Baltic nations’ accession to the alliance in 2004, small contingents of troops from European and U.S. armies were embedded in local military units helping not only to train them to NATO standards but also ensuring that any Russian attack could also involve Western casualties and an immediate escalation.

An up-front commitment that an attack on Ukraine would be considered an attack on NATO by Biden would certainly have given Putin pause for thought — and put him in a position of having to gamble with the prospect of an all-out confrontation with a massively superior military bloc.

Over the past several weeks Ukrainians have semi-seriously suggested that Western leaders should keep arriving because Putin wouldn’t risk accidentally taking them out in a bombing raid.

Instead, Putin has made serious headway in his strategic goal of shifting the goalposts of the debate about expanding the alliance. The big, bad American-led hegemon has been put on notice that any further moves to incorporate Ukraine into its security umbrella will trigger another Russian “military-technical” intervention. Even without one, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv has been emptied and relocated to Lviv, in Ukraine’s west, with frantic diplomatic staff reportedly burning classified or sensitive materials before they go in anticipation of another Saigon, Benghazi or Kabul — a precaution European embassies have not taken.

The West may be more or less united in threatening “serious consequences” if Russia invades. Chiefly these will take the form of sanctions, although no one really knows how sweeping or effective they will be. Will Nord Stream 2 really be scuppered? Will major Russian retail banks and energy companies be slapped with sectoral sanctions if Putin “only” rolls into the Donbas?

So far, the Kremlin’s biggest reaction to proposed retaliation has come from the threatened uprooting of “Londongrad” — a decadeslong free-for-all for Russian gangsters, oligarchs and bon vivants (including Lavrov’s own mistress, whose 21-year-old daughter somehow purchased an apartment in Kensington for nearly $6 million). Britain has made some encouraging noises in this respect and has now tightened its “golden visas” regime whereby anyone willing to invest enough money can settle in quickly in the country.

Keeping dirty billions out of the Kensington and Mayfair property markets is a worthwhile endeavor for its own sake, although it may not have as much of an effect on the siloviki said to be whispering “cakewalk” in Putin’s ear. Most of the Kremlin’s inner circle are under personal sanctions already in the wake of the takeover of Crimea and the war in Donbas. As Russia’s ambassador to Sweden, Viktor Tatarintsev, put it, “Russia doesn’t give a shit about sanctions.”

NATO roughly agrees on what to do if Putin invades. But on the question of deepening ties with Ukraine, Putin’s saber-rattling has exposed giant fissures in the transatlantic edifice. Germany’s wincing pantomime of solidarity has been more insulting than convincing; offering Ukraine helmets in lieu of weapons was the equivalent of leaving a dollar tip on a $100 check — worse than not tipping at all.

France’s philosophical and ambitious president has often theorized about European “security sovereignty” but has now undermined his own grand ideas by demonstrating the hollowness of the concept in practice. Macron pulled off a rare hat trick of shuttle diplomacy: First he alienated the Ukrainians (and the constitutionally neutral Finns) with talk of “Finlandization” for Kyiv as a possible solution to the impasse, and then he was humiliated by the Russians for insisting Putin sued for peace, which he did not.

For newer NATO members such as Poland and the Baltics, all with long histories of Russian and Soviet imperial occupation, Putin’s threatened mobilization is understandably an argument to speed Ukraine’s accession or, at the very least, cede not one inch to the east in the face of a tyrannical bully they know all too well.

But the hoarier beasts in Brussels now grumble that bringing Ukraine into the fold is neither possible nor desirable now, later or ever. Even Zelenskyy has suggested that NATO membership could be only a “dream” for Ukraine and that Russian “blackmail” is succeeding to keep it one. Polling in Ukraine in December showed a solid, but by no means overwhelming, 54% support for joining NATO. And while it’s not clear whether the latest crisis will boost support or diminish it, it’s clear that a substantial minority of Ukrainians opposes the idea altogether.

When Putin first explained the purpose of Russia’s buildup last November, he noted that it was crucial to keep up the pressure “for as long as possible.” Ever since, the U.S. has issued ever more dire warnings of what he’s up to — most recently that a coup will install a little-known sanatorium proprietor in occupied Crimea to rule all of Ukraine. Yet all it took to let the air out of those warnings was for Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, to announce the withdrawal of some troops from Ukraine’s border — without verifiably withdrawing any. These are troops that, even if they did leave, could be back in position within days. And their absence would still not be a bellwether for whether the remainder of the garrison in “attack position” goes in. No matter. Headlines pivoted in whiplash anticlimax from “48 Hours to War” to “Possible De-escalation?” The Western media should also know what it feels like to work for the Kremlin’s strategic comms department.

The only real loser so far has been Ukraine.

Talk of imminent invasion — followed by the evacuations of Western embassies and warnings for all Westerners to leave — has caused the country’s currency and stock markets to crash and foreign investment to dry up. Aircraft insurers racked up premiums for overflights of Ukraine and thereby effectively cut the country off from a large chunk of its civil aviation.

Zelenskyy has repeatedly warned that Western alarmism was unjustified. If the West really wanted to help Ukraine, he told a conference for foreign reporters last month, the U.S. in particular should ease back on the catastrophism.

Strangely, Zelenskyy may be channeling Western first principles more than the West is.

Public fidelity in government and journalism in the U.S. is at a nadir. Those who may have once believed what press secretaries told them or taken newsgatherers both literally and seriously as the gatekeepers of facts that were in the public interest to put out are now increasingly inclined to treat both as sensationalists, hucksters or opportunists. Talking heads routinely befall the very scandals they once pompously intoned about on air. News executives are fired for humping the help and possibly coaching the public figures they were meant to be holding to account. More broadly, the culture has yet to reckon with how to deal with the digital onrush of misinformation and its malign cousin, disinformation. Both are talked of as a second global pandemic threatening our way of life, but so far they are fought with restrictive public safety measures more theatrical than palliative.

All the while, Russia’s state broadcasters at home and agents of influence abroad — be they on podcasts, finance blogs, YouTube channels or RT or Sputnik-floated “independent” subsidiaries — rub their hands with glee at Western confusion and contradiction. Many make a nice living telling you why others in positions of authority should not.

So what if the war doesn’t come, after all this? Or what if it does come but not in the way it has been doomcasted, with a rain of rockets on Kyiv, a blitzkrieg “decapitation” of Ukraine’s government and the occupation of major cities?

What if it takes a stealthier form of coordinated but harder-to-categorize provocations including cyberattacks (Ukraine’s worst ever was this week, though that story was edged out of A-1 territory by more eyepopping yarns), acts of terrorism, “limited” cross-border assaults that end almost as quickly as they begin? In other words, an escalation of the war Ukraine has already been fighting for eight years.

Will this be seen as a tragedy, a relief or a letdown?

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