Propaganda and the Narrative

I assume that most of the people who read this blog agree that a great deal of what might be called the “Standard Western Media Narrative on Ukraine” could better be termed propaganda. That is to say that it is a constructed narrative designed to produce deep-rooted convictions. Or, more bluntly, constructed lies and selected truths designed to shape opinion.

Let’s get the truths out of the way: Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych ran a corrupt and inefficient government. The condition of life for a great many Ukrainians is dreary, disappointing and declining. EU association had serious, perhaps majority, support in Ukraine at the time Yanukovych abandoned it. A lot, perhaps even a majority (but no one knows), supported, at least to some extent, the Maidan protesters and are glad to see the back of Yanukovych. Those could be agreed to, with some discussion about how big the support was and how bad Yanukovych was, by practically all people with any degree of informed knowledge. But those aren’t the things I am talking about.

The “Standard Western Media Narrative on Ukraine” (SWMN henceforth) goes quite a bit further than that. It would, I would say, consist of the following assertions

  1. Yanukovych was very much under the thumb of Putin (It’s very personalised: Russia is Moscow is Putin. But that’s another story.)
  2. A key Putin policy is to keep Ukraine and the other former USSR countries under his influence.
  3. Putin will not allow Ukraine or any of the former USSR countries to form an association with any other power.
  4. Using his influence, in furtherance of his aim to keep Ukraine under control, Putin forced Yanukovych to cancel the EU agreement.

Perhaps a little variation in the SWMN; maybe Putin bribed Yanukovych rather than ordering or threatening him. But these variances are unimportant and these four assertions are taken for granted in almost every Western report on recent events in Ukraine.

I say that these four are propaganda and I say they are because there are huge logic holes in them; therefore they cannot be true. They can only be believed if they are repeated so loudly, quickly and routinely that none of the audience gets a chance to think.

So let us think. We’re told Putin controls Yanukovych and won’t let Ukraine sign on with the EU. So why did Putin let him get so close to signing? Surely he would have stopped the whole process months ago when it was easy to do so. This is a huge logic hole. We’re told that Putin wants to keep all the former Soviet states under his control. But Georgia and Moldova signed association agreements with the EU. Are we supposed to believe that Putin had more power over big Ukraine than over little Georgia and Moldova? Another logic hole. Therefore, consideration of what actually happened – Yanukovych changing his mind at the last moment and Georgia and Moldova signing  – detonates the four assertions: they cannot be true. QED

Now to a second question. Has any Western media outlet discussed, at any level of detail, what the terms of the agreement were? I have not seen anything; I’ve read opinions but I have seen nothing with any detail in the Western media. Not even the authors of the Wikipedia entry can find anything about what the agreement actually said. Why not? Isn’t that a relevant part of the story? Or might seeing the details raise questions about how beneficial the deal would have been for Ukraine? Better to keep the discussion at the level of EU agreement Good! Russia agreement Bad! That’s propaganda, not reporting. QED

Finally a third question. A decade ago there were protests in Kiev and elsewhere and people power triumphed. A decade ago the people demanded new elections, got them  and West-friendly people were voted in. A decade ago democracy triumphed over corruption, Russian influence and so on and on. And here we are again (with a lot more violence and some creepy people we didn’t see much of then, but never mind). Have you seen any Western media outlet discuss this fact? Or speculate on what happened to the “Orange Revolution” and Yushchenko and how Ukraine got back to Yanukovych? Or even mention that this is a second appearance of the same theme? Or don’t you agree that everything is written up as if this was something absolutely unprecedented in modern Ukrainian history? Propaganda again: a constructed narrative designed to make the audience feel a certain way. If one were to think about “Orange Revolution” I and its failure, one would have a different opinion of “Orange Revolution” II; probably not a very optimistic or supportive one. So don’t remind anyone. QED

So, I submit that we have three powerful arguments that the SWMN is a construction that plays up some facts, ignores others and avoids certain questions. In short, something manufactured by interests that are not necessarily concerned with improving the miserable situation in Ukraine but are playing some geopolitical game. (And playing it rather ineptly: I very much doubt that the supporters of “88” are going to just go away quietly. And they don’t like the EU or NATO.)

Some more evidence of manufacture: given that the famous Nuland-Pyatt conversation was out there and could not be ignored by media outlets that pretend to objectivity, chase the squirrel: make the reporting about her opinion of the EU and not about the fact that two American diplomats have been caught arranging the chairs in the new Ukrainian government. (And, the way things are looking, I doubt either “Klitsch” or “Yats” will be in the chair when the music stops.) That’s propaganda – or information-management, if you prefer – too.

So, Dear Readers, I’m not really trying to persuade any of you; what I hope you will do is try these arguments out on your neighbours and see if they have any effect at weakening the deep narrative planted in their heads by endless repetition. And, please, report back either way.

We spend our time talking to each other: preaching to the converted. That may be amusing and keep us from watching daytime TV but it doesn’t move anything forward. We have to come up with something that makes our neighbours, daily subjected to propaganda (here’s an egregious example), stop and think a bit. Why? Because calling Putin/Russia the Enemy could have very painful consequences for a lot of people. Quite apart from the moral repugnancy of cheering on what may turn out to be really terrible times for Ukrainians who, are after all, people who’ve never done any of us any harm.


  1. I think it’s time for Putin to get out of bed and take out the garbage…And may the good people of SE Ukraine be fast in their preparations.

  2. Peter Lavelle says:

    Excellent analysis!!!!

  3. Good point about lack of discussion on terms of the association agreement. However all other arguments seem to be not fair:

    – western medias openly talk about corruption of oligarchic system in Ukraine, in which Tymoshenko and Yuschenko were active players, who basically had been lying and stealing from Ukrainian people. Ie

    – Georgia, Moldova and not mentioned by the author Armenia, were put under tremendous Russian pressure directed on forcing them to abandon so called ‘european way’. Georgia – Russia trade is still blocked by Russia, Moldova was threatened with closing borders to Moldovan gastarbeiters and we should also mention ban on wine export from Moldova to Russia, imposed by Russians. Armenia has military issues with Azerbaijan, so Russian pressure didn’t need to be very laud to make Armenia resigning from association with EU.

    Russia is not a good guy in Ukraine, as now they play on splitting the country in very obvious way. Pilgrimages of Russian Duma deputies go to Crimea and support separatistic ideas. Comments of Russian Dmitry Medvedev are pretty supportive for this solution as well.
    Russia also actively uses its propaganda resources on defaming Ukrainian ‘Maidan’ movement and minimizing frustration of people over sick oligarchic system as one of most important reasons of its eruption.

  4. “EU association had serious, perhaps majority, support in Ukraine at the time Yanukovych abandoned it. A lot, perhaps even a majority (but no one knows), supported, at least to some extent, the Maidan protesters and are glad to see the back of Yanukovych.”
    I don’t know if there were polls on the Association Agreement as such, but about half of Ukrainian supported EU membership (admittedly not on the table in the short-term), while one-third supported joining the Customs Union.

    In addition, we have polls indicating that Ukrainians were almost evenly split on Euromaidan, but in December and February more Ukraianians opposed Euromaidan than supported it:

    Oddly enough, this did not mean that Ukrainians supported Yanukovych (whose poll numbers remained largely unchanged around 25-30% until February), Klitschko often doing better and with increasing support. (See Electionista’s roundup of Ukraine polls:

    So, we have a complicated picture: Ukrainians were divided, pro-EU, anti-Euromaidan, Yanukovich-skeptic. And now, with what was effectively an armed insurrection against a legitimately elected government, we have an even more divided country where any semblance of legal and peaceful transition of power has been discredited.

  5. David Habakkuk says:

    Patrick Armstrong,

    The propaganda however may not be working as well as it did.

    This morning, the ‘Telegraph’ published a report under the title ‘US and Britain say Ukraine is not a battleground between East and West:
    William Hague says Ukraine must form an inclusive government committed to unity.’ If you look at the ‘best-rated’ comments, the hostility to Western policy is palpable.

    (See )

  6. David — I completely agree that this isn’t selling very well this time around. You can see it in almost every set of comments in pieces about Ukraine. Even, among people who believe the Official Narrative there doesn’t seem to be much willingness to get involved. Plus, no matter how much it is not mentioned, most people will have a vague memory that something like this happened before and nothing better resulted.
    And, as we see more stories of neo-Nazis, nervous Jews, You tubes like this one what willingness there is will decline farther.

  7. “We’re told that Putin wants to keep all the former Soviet states under his control. But Georgia and Moldova signed association agreements with the EU. Are we supposed to believe that Putin had more power over big Ukraine than over little Georgia and Moldova?”

    I don’t know who’s claiming Putin wants to keep all the former Soviet states under his control; that would be pretty ridiculous on its face, given that the Baltic states have firmly left the building.

    But what I do see being argued — and it seems a reasonable point — is that Ukraine is in a class by itself. A Ukraine that’s joining the EU has profound geopolitical consequences, most of which are perceived in Russia as negative for Russia. We’ll put aside whether that’s correct, or indeed whether Ukraine has a snowball’s chance of joining any time soon! The point is, Russia really doesn’t want Ukraine to join.

    Russia wants Ukraine to join the Eurasian Union; this is also a true and legitimate point. How badly Russia wants it is an open question, but it’s clearly an important foreign policy goal.

    As to little Moldova, let’s do note that Moscow is putting a lot of pressure on Chisinau right now, both directly and through Moldovan proxies. (Check out the recent vote in Gagauzia, for instance. Most Moldovans are quite certain that was directly inspired by Moscow, and having lived in Moldova for a year I’m inclined to think they have a point.) They’re not quietly permitting Moldova to slip into the EU. Personally I think they’re fighting a losing battle — a clear majority of Moldovans want EU membership. Their Russian minority is a lot smaller than Ukraine’s, they don’t share a border with Russia, and the Transnistria situation is a perpetual ongoing irritant. They do have a large pro-Russian Communist party, but that’s the usual post-Soviet populist party of Russian speakers + rural people who feel marginalized by the current system + pensioners. Since Moldova is a rural country with a lot of pensioners the Communist Party consistently gets over a third of the vote, but this is not a recipe for long-term electoral success. I suspect the best Russia can accomplish there is a delaying action. We’ll see soon enough.

    Doug M.

    • I was expecting something like that: Putin doesn’t really care what Georgia and Moldova does. But it was supposed to care very much about Georgia in 2008, wasn’t it? And any time Trans-Dnstr comes up we are told how much Moscow cares about that, aren’t we?
      Yes, Putin has “lost” the Baltics but he wants them back (a quick search turns this up More can be found but I can’t be bothered to look.
      The SWMN is never consistent on mere details.

      • Um… that’s not what I said. I didn’t even mention Georgia, and I said Russia *does* care about Moldova.

        Maybe you were responding to someone else?

        Doug M.

    • And the EU snaps a card on the table:

      The free movement card can only be played once, but it’s pretty powerful. It’s pretty obviously a response to the various forms of Russian pressure I mentioned above. Watch the current Moldovan coalition take this one into the coming elections.

      Doug M.

  8. There’s a nice article by Mark Ames of the Exile on a similar theme:

    • don’t even have to read that to know what it says! Ames’ years in Moscow left him very predictable on this sort of thing.

      Doug M.

  9. Excellent article. A few points:

    To the truths you accurately presented I would add two points that provide important further context for recent events:

    1. Yanukovich has a pattern of cheating, legally gaming the system or otherwise subverting election results that don’t go his way. This happened in 2004, and to two parliaments – as soon as he came to power he flipped the parliament without new elections, and then this parliament made some rules that enabled his party to retain control after the next elections, despite losing the popular vote. We don’t know exactly what he would have up his sleeve for the presidential elections in 2015, but because past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior, it is reasonable to assume that something would happen. And this is what most Ukrainians thought too. These protests may have caught him off-guard.

    2. Related to that: the opposition parties have had healthy leads in the polls. He was in a political fight with politicians who were much more popular than he is despite being politically and legally powerless to do anything.

    This was an unpopular president whose party lost the popular vote in the parliamentary elections, who was making decisions not supported by the majority of the people, and who was widely assumed would hold onto power forever if given the chance.

    The sense of political powerlessness and desperation, as well as longstanding simmering anger among half the population explains the context of the events.

    With respect to the rest, I agree that Yanukovich was no Russian puppet. However I think that Putin would prefer Ukraine not to move Westwards and would use whatever tools he had available to try to prevent his from happening (such as offering a better deal to Yanukovch than the EU did). I don’t think America would be any different if, for example, there was a Mexican opposition who would try to leave NAFTA and link up with China. But I don’t think it’s realistic to assume that Russia wasn’t pressuring Ukraine. Russia, btw, just banned Ukrainian pork. So when Yanukovich was president pork was safe but now it has become unsafe? Are the revolutionaries poisoning the pork?

  10. Yuri Hrynyszyn says:

    Patrick, your argument that Putin doesn’t hold a more powerful hold ver large Ukraine than little Moldava doesn’t hold water. Moldova isn’t important to him strategically. Without Ukraine Russia is nothing but a minor power. Russia needs Ukraine for her natural resources and strategic location. This has been a fact born out by history.

  11. The simple narrative is that Putin supported a corrupt leader as long as it was possible for him to have Russian aligned people or even citizens in his government then it came to bit him in the ass when there was finally a popular revolute against his leadership.

    Where is Yanukovych now no doubt being protest by Russian allies or in Russia himself.

    Question is will it spread to Russia?

    No doubt crack down and unrest against Putin’s rule has increased dramatically since his 3rd term presidency for life with recent sentencing of 7 or 12 protestors about a week ago.

  12. I can verify that the mainstream of the german press exactly wrote about Ukraine – with all this bizarre one-sidedness you describe – like you explained. About 1% seemed to have thought about things.
    Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt for example – just like Merkel or other german politicians – talked about the Nuland and Helga Schmid-sentences only in the lines of “some regimes spread information that way”, and like our media only blurbed about “Fuck the EU”. That it was “fuck Merkel, you support “Klitsch” but we want “Yats”, Jazenjuk, and we have to say who rules countries” – was not reported or discussed. So yes, what you describe as double moral standards is true. At least there were some comments from readers, and so people who don’t only read the article – might have started to think. Sometimes the readers are not as one-sided as the media, in all countries.

    I even met people who were so crazy as to say the western world would have supported Yanukovich (???). Nobody did, but there were even voices from Maidan we heard who seemed to think the west would support Yanukovich…absurd.
    It is bizarre to live in an age of media hypes and misinformation. All kinds of nonsense is the result.

    A strange thing is that the german media from Berlin-taz to the yellow press speak about Swoboda or even more right wing movements as if they were “peaceful nationalists”. Germany! The country of the Nazis, and normally the press is – rightfully – very critical with fascists of all sorts. In Ukraine they were mostly ignored or white-washed…

    You speak about that you would “preach to the already persuaded” here. My hope in a rather strange media-smart-dictatorship of today (99% of all german or swedish readers read only one opinion, whatever their preferred paper might be) is that such stupid contradictions, such a lot of “questions not asked” – can’t be the last word.

    Take the Timoshenko-hype of Germany. Our media praised her like a goddess, the angel, the only democrat, our NATO- hope, from 2004-2013. That it was Juschtschenko and others, not only Yanukovich, who started the trial against her, was nearly not reported, and so on. Chancellor Merkel and Gauck, our president-preacher, lied into the faces of the people.
    Now, that she is free, she is bashed and disregarded! The same papers who made a goddess out of her, ignoring all facts, changed their minds, all together like in an army!
    So in cases like this I tend to hope: just people with a real amnesia, or ideologists who really want to lie, could swallow that.
    Some *should* ask questions, in cases like this? (Why is she not longer seen as our heroine? Don’t they need her for longer, what might be the reasons?…)
    Yet – at the moment, I can only speak for german and swedish media, nearly nobody is asking questions.
    There is nobody forcing our media to write the way they do – no minister of propaganda, so to speak. They just “do it”, like, it seems, all journalists stayed in the same hotels nearby Maidan in Kiev, and had their fan-groups. They think they all know the one-and-only-truth. Horrible, in all countries, it seems.

  13. Another assumption I invite you to look for is at the root of the WMSM’s coverage of events in Crimea. It is assumed that when “Ukrainians” rise against Yanukovich they are doing so because they are genuinely, on an individual choice level, disgusted with him.
    But when the inhabitants of Crimea rise against Kiev, they are merely puppets of Putin; they have no free will. No consideration of their concerns about the sort of “lustration” that’s being talked about, fear for their jobs, visceral reaction to hearing about “fascists” or “banderites”; they’re just puppets manipulated by Putin.

  14. Of all the polarizing propaganda from both sides.

    Worse than the West. I thought that you Russians were different from the West. The West loves money, but now you Russians have removed your masks, or maybe that old Russians never changed anyways.

    Like Hitler. Hitler invaded foreign countries to protect his Germanic people. Putin invades to protect his Russian people. Maybe Italy should invade the US to protect all the Italian bloods, France invades Canada, and Spain invades Mexico, California, and Argentina.

    Worse than Muslims. These torjan horses start planting foreign flags, never mind religious buildings. Both have trouble integrating as immigrants. Either stay in a foreign land as a guest or integrate. You want to take over a foreign country using squaters rights, or pretending to be a friend? Who would be so low? At least a prostitute requires payment to ‘love’ you, but these other types enter your house as friends, and later take your house and cut your throat. The Russians in Ukraine must learn Ukrainian. You don’t like that? They why did the Ukrainians have to use Russian? Next time don’t only think of yourselves. Karma.

    Never expect when the time for war arrives that your immigrant population will fight for you. Watch out Germany, you are within the crosshairs of the Turks. Continue to be naive to your future detriment. Liberal ideology is nice when stomachs and bank accounts are full, but reality will hurt.

    Pay back of debts. Give Tartars back their land. Show me just how honourable the Russians are. Pay for all the Ukraianians killed by the former leader of the USSR that sat in Moscow and whose hand commanded all those ethnic Russians to eliminate the Ukrainians. One way street. No one likes to admit their mistakes, and pay for them. We all pay for our mistakes and for the hurt to others, sooner or later.

    Forget this babble of right-wing extremists in the Ukraine. There are extremists in every country and in governments also. Stop using the ring-wing extremist excuse to justify your pride. These gorillas and pitbulls will be put back in their cages.

    Official languages. Give Tartars and Ukrainians their official languages in Crimea. You lost Crimea and the Black Sea before to the English. Ok, maybe Crimea is more Russian than Ukrainian. I don’t know the full history. Krushi gave the keys of the Russian’s car -mea to the Ukrainians, big mistake. Never give the keys of your car to your neighbor just because he has a beautiful wife. Ukrainians and Russians never forget that rule unless you are truly men of God. So make Russian the official language in Crimea, and let Russia take Crimea. Ukrainians leave Crimea. Russians leave Ukraine, including the east. Ukrianian is the only official language of Ukraine. Each man has his own house and no more sharing. That is wisest for the human animal. Keep them separated like animals in a zoo. Never believe stories of brotherhood since Cain killed Abel. Brotherhood is for holy people, the rest of us need to be kept separate.

    Do not repeat the mistakes of the Communists and Fascists. The young generation must kick the old buggers the hell out with their Communism and Fascism. Remember, and do eat either of that vomit your fathers ate.

    Time for a new world soon, good bye to you oldies.

  15. “Putin will not allow Ukraine or any of the former USSR countries to form an association with any other power” But Moldova hasn’t signed one with the EU yet, right? Some are saying that Russia is pressuring Moldova through Gagauzia? New Crimea coming up?