Rising alarm about a supposedly imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine has been vying for preeminence in the UK news with sordid details of Downing Street lockdown parties.
It is unusual for a conflict that has not even begun, and may never happen, to dominate the news in this way – from the press through broadcasting to social media. Even more so given Ukraine is not a member of Nato and there are no obvious or immediate implications for UK national security.
New angles have been found practically by the day. Early on, the focus was on reports of 100,000 (or more) Russian troops massing near the eastern Ukrainian border – the part of Ukraine, the Donbas, being fought over by Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russia rebels for nearly eight years.
Then came reports of live-fire exercises on the Russian side of the border. Then it was Russian deployments close to Ukraine’s northern border with Belarus, ostensibly for routine military exercises, but really, some surmised, as cover for a quick Russian dash into Ukraine.
UK defence secretary Ben Wallace upped the UK’s game on 17 January, with a point by point riposte to Vladimir Putin’s six-month old scholarly essay on Russia-Ukraine relations. This has been widely read, wrongly in my view, as a justification for Russia bringing Ukraine back into its orbit by force.
Since then, the UK has made enormous play of the dispatch of 2,000 anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, along with 30 of the army’s finest to train the recipients. The US followed with shipments of 80 tonnes of what it called “lethal aid”.
Only Germany has gone out on a limb, stating it did not supply weapons to conflict zones, then sacking the head of the Navy when he stated some eminently sensible, but taboo, home truths – about Russia never giving up Crimea and Russia’s chief purpose being to gain respect.
US President Biden followed up with a telephone call to European leaders, and Germany announced it was sending helmets. Thus was a show of Western unity restored.
By now there were contingents of UK journalists, with camera teams and the rest, embedding themselves with the Ukrainian army, dug into trenches reminiscent of the First World War.
The plucky Ukrainians, viewers were informed, were preparing to fend off the big bad Russians, and, boy, would they give them a fight.
It was a message repeated in a hyperbolic interview given by the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, to the BBC Today Programme on 26 January. She also plugged her earlier claim – based, it was said, unusually, on UK intelligence – about a Russian plan to replace Ukraine’s existing government with (named) leaders loyal to Moscow.
That claim had fallen rather flat after those named were found to be less than plausible coup-plotters.
All of which might be par for the course in the world of media and war, were there not some rather peculiar aspects of what remains a scare. One is the utter confidence with which the UK and the US have warned of an invasion, pilloried Russia and championed Ukraine.
Another is that the actual parties to this so far non-invasion have said and done next to nothing to support the war-talk. Russia has consistently denied any intention to invade, while Ukraine itself, from its President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, through ministers and MPs, has remained unnaturally calm.
All the running has been made by the UK and the US. This is something the Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, Oleksiy Danilov, told the BBC’s Ukrainian service raised certain questions – a view that the mainstream BBC gave little play. But it does, or at least it should.
Much energy has been expended on asking why Russia might be choosing to invade Ukraine now. Answers: Biden’s perceived weakness; the West’s post-Afghanistan disarray; German leader Angela Merkel’s departure; Russia’s comparative economic and military strength; Putin’s impatience with Nato expansion.
But a better question might be this: Why have the US and the UK chosen to whip up what amounts to a massive campaign against an invasion that Russia denies planning, that has left even the country concerned indifferent, and that makes no sense in mid-winter against a well-equipped and fiercely patriotic Ukraine?
And why have most of the media in the UK and the US amplified it so enthusiastically?
Ukraine good, Russia bad, Putin evil
It should perhaps be clarified for those who accept shock-horror reports of Russian near-violations of UK air space, that the media by and large don’t spend hours and weeks of their time training telescopes on the heavens, or even Ukrainian border zones.
The information is put out by the people who do, who also decide whether, when and how to release it. Initial media accounts of Russian troop deployments and a possible invasion came courtesy of a US intelligence document the Washington Post said it had ‘obtained’ in early December.
“Reporters easily become putty in the propagandists’ hands.”
The US and the UK well know the seductive quality for the media of select intelligence nuggets, but also the pitfalls (remember Iraq’s non-existent WMD). That information was only discredited later, however. It did its job at the time.
As with the manipulation of the media for war in Iraq, the alarm is all the more plausible – and less likely to be challenged – when it fits into a widely shared mindset. In this case, Ukraine – good; Russia – bad; Putin – evil expansionist.
Add some grainy satellite footage, reporters in flak jackets in trenches, preferably some firing in the distance, and the case is made.
The dangers of talking up a threat – that it might trigger a rash response – is not the reporters’ problem. They easily become putty in the propagandists’ hands – after all, how do you challenge the veracity of satellite footage or intelligence snippets or Pentagon experts?
As someone who earned a reprimand from the Foreign Office for questioning the UK’s pre-war Iraq narrative, I know.
A flicker of hope might be that around a week ago the BBC suddenly seemed to wake up to the possibility that it might be stoking, rather than reporting, the UK/US-Russia tensions. Its Moscow correspondent, Steve Rosenberg, was interviewed about how things looked from Russia.
Interviewer Martha Kearney tried to put to Liz Truss Danilov’s question about the US and UK’s war-hype – to no effect, but she tried. The invasion question is now at least sometimes prefaced by “if” rather than “when”.
As to why the Russian threat to Ukraine is being hyped now, part of an answer might be as a response to the gauntlet that Moscow threw down to the West, when it suddenly presented the US and Nato with two draft agreements on security in Europe back in December.
These were documents that some saw as an ultimatum and others as an opening gambit for what the Kremlin perhaps hoped would be discussions on European security. The message would be that the West intends to play hardball.
Of course, those warning so confidently of an imminent attack have little to lose. If Russia invades, they will be right, and if it doesn’t they will be right too, claiming a victory for the deterrent power of the West and crowing about a Russian retreat.
Win-win, as they say – even as the only point of agreement is that an actual war, by design or more likely by accident, would certainly be lose-lose.