The Test of Propaganda: Ukraine Conflict

I normally like to post longer pieces when I have the time to fully document the basis for my arguments. Since I’m in the final stages of my book, today’s post will be a little different. What I address today is the uses of Propaganda. Most people associate Propaganda with disinformation and misinformation, though even those two terms are seldom defined.  I have always thought that Jacques Ellul’s classic work Propaganda is a good place to start and I’m glad to see that others out there agree. There’s a lot more to read on propaganda of course: as always, Chomsky is insightful. Since my time and space is limited this morning let me just offer a simple, straightforward definition of propaganda: it’s the effort to form and shape social attitudes, generally with the goal of getting people to do something. Propaganda doesn’t have to be disinformation or misinformation specifically, though those can certainly be used for propaganda purposes. The harder part of coping with propaganda is discerning the ways in which it often manipulates and selectively arranges facts, resulting in a narrative that is both misleadingly descriptive of reality and also intended to shape reality. Sometimes, propaganda is successful in bringing about the results desired but then there are those times when social reality has a way of biting people in the butts. I think we are rapidly approaching this situation in Ukraine. My guess is that in about two to three weeks we will have a very clear picture of whose propaganda: Russia’s or the US-EU view of the nature of the conflict is closer to reality.

I’ve stated before and will state again: I view Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine as a violation of international law, destabilizing to the international system and not really in Russia’s geo-strategic interests. The closest comparison I can make is to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, though the analogy is not perfect.  This does not change the actuality that the U.S. bears significant responsibility for the way in which the situation which led to Russia’s invasion developed. You can read my last two posts (here and here) on that topic. Thus far however, I have refrained from commenting on the actual military situation, not least because I lack military experience and because I lack access to classified documents from both sides. Hence any armchair musings about the military situation require me to sift through multiple competing claims in an attempt to discern who is credible and who is not.

Some points that should be kept in mind with respect to the military situation however is as follows. The US has not fought a fully equipped, well trained and motivated force in any of our recent conflicts and on balance, our record has actually not been that stunning over the long haul. The Ukrainian military right now has a near unlimited supply of weapons, tactical and strategic support from the U.S. and NATO, access to satellite and intelligence reports and according to at least some reports in the US military, actual US and British intelligence and military personnel on the ground in Ukraine-in addition to the “unofficial” special operations forces. Given this, I am reluctant to accept the view that Russian forces are incompetent, though my sense is that the initial invasion was poorly planned and executed.

As of right now, there are two basic competing narratives, neither of which I fully accept and both which should be taken as propaganda which contains some true information, some true information presented in a misleading fashion as well as outright misinformation and disinformation.

Narrative 1 (U.S.-EU-Ukraine): The Russian military has performed incompetently and will soon be worn down and exhausted. We can expect that Russia will be decisively defeated in the next two or three months. The purpose of this narrative is to garner support for US-EU policy towards Ukraine which seems to consist of dumping large amounts of weaponry and money into Ukraine with little to no oversight. Pro US.-EU-Ukrainian sources all allege that the tide will turn in Ukraine momentarily. Pay no attention to Ukraine’s defeat in Lysichansk, it is Ukraine that is in the better long term strategic position.

Narrative 2 (Russia-LPR.DPR): The Russian “special military operation” is actually going according to plan. The Russian retreat from Kiev and Sumy was part of the plan all along to fix Ukrainian forces in place while the real attack would focus on the Donbas. The goal of this narrative is to convince the Russian and LPR-DPR populations to support the conflict and to demoralize Ukraine’s supporters. Russia on the verge of actually winning the war, at least in the Donbas.

As best as I can judge, neither of these narratives is tenable.

However, one of these two narratives is most likely closer to the truth, in the sense that there is a military reality on the ground. It is possible that the reality is neither side has an advantage and that both narratives are equally false, though in my estimation, a stalemate for Russia is a loss. The likely reality is that one side or the other is about to demonstrate where matters actually stand, and we will know in about a month.

Moon of Alabama argues that the reality on the ground favors the Russians. Some would no doubt argue that this information is in fact Russian propaganda. In my view however, this article has two critical advantages, at least with respect to the immediate issue. The information is fully documented and can be verified or falsified and I have not seen any time when reports on this site were falsely attributed or misrepresented. The second advantage is that he gives a good visual of where matters actually stand on the ground.  The maps he provides as far as I can judge give a good picture of the military reality. Russia’s victory in Lsyichansk followed its victory in Severodonetsk significantly sooner than most expected, including various pro-Russian sources. The battle now shifts to Seversk and Bakhmut. If they fall, the battle moves to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. A Russian victory in Seversk and Bakhmut is a sure sign of a rapidly deterioriating situation for Ukraine. The loss of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk will mean that Russia has achieved a major victory. At present, Ukraine’s best hope appears to be in the Mikoliaev-Kherson-Meliotopol arena. If it can launch a quasi-sucessful or succesful counteroffensive it gains both a propaganda and real military victory. If it fails, it means that Ukrainian capabilities are actually lacking. My best guess is that we will know for sure in about a month where things stand.

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