chapter  1
13 Pages

Introduction

Competing narratives of the Ukraine Crisis 2014-2015 My purpose in this book is to explore the implications for an understanding of contemporary propaganda and the role played in it of mainstream Western news media (WMM) with particular reference to the crisis which emerged in Ukraine following the forced change of government in February 2014, leading shortly thereafter to an escalation of tension between the new government of Kiev and the Ukrainian (but substantially ethnic Russian) regions of Crimea (which was shortly to vote to be annexed to Russia) and Eastern Ukraine, and between the United States of America (USA), the European Union (EU) and Russia each of whom professed to have important security interests in the unfolding of the crisis. The principal focus throughout the study is on coverage of the Ukraine crisis by WMM, especially the prestige news organizations of the USA and UK, and how this coverage was challenged directly or by implication, by alternative, mainly Western media as well as by Russian and other media. Russian media or for that matter the media of the Donbass or of Crimea during this period are equally open to investigation for the propaganda functions they undoubtedly supplied, and it is important that studies be undertaken to make such investigations. Russian media are not, however, my main or overriding interest. Over a number of different publications, I have sought to better understand the nature of the relationship between centers of power in the West and WMM, especially following the events of 9/11 and the ensuing “war on terrorism.” In previous publications, I have examined the WMM coverage of imperial wars that have been initiated on false or misleading pretexts. For reasons that will become clear, I believe that the Ukraine crisis was initiated and sustained to provide just such a pretext, should it be needed, in the context of escalating tensions between the nuclear powers of the USA and its allies in the European Union, in opposition to Russia and China. I consider this topic to be important not only in itself but also because of how it might inform the study of communications in the context of a multi-polar world shared, on the one hand, between the USA and its traditional allies and vassal states and, on the other, the emerging alliances between the nations of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) economies. Notwithstanding a still powerful influence of US communications within the overall

ambit of international media communication (Boyd-Barrett 2015), there is little evidence of a return flow from leading members of the BRICS alliance to the USA (e.g., Xie and Boyd-Barrett 2015). Analysis of media flows between the BRICS economies is in its infancy: extrapolating from what is known, such flows are likely to be relatively modest in volume, format range (e.g., exports of Brazilian telenovelas), and audience (e.g., exports of Indian and Chinese movies to Indian and Chinese diasporas). The issue of flow may be less significant than the ways in which the content of international communications represent, reinforce or resist phenomena of imperialism or neo-imperialism (Boyd-Barrett 2015). The focus here on WMM representations of the Ukraine crisis speaks to US and Western attitudes and ambitions in relation to NATO expansion to Russia’s borders (and what this may signify for the potential continuity of Western global hegemony) and how these in turn relate to perceptions of Russia as a potential aggressor, as a potential target (in the event of future fragmentation of the Russian Federation) or as a potential competitor in a struggle for influence over Eurasia, the continental landmass that separates Western Europe and China. In 2015, NATO had a membership of twenty-eight countries (with the USA footing 70 percent of the expenses) with several others, including Ukraine, vying for entry. The one-sidedness of corporate mainstream Western media coverage in support of the official perceptions of Washington speaks not to the pluralism of a media era lauded by celebrants of digital and social media but to a much older narrative of complicity with the propaganda aims of imperial power. The Princeton scholar of Russia, Stephen F. Cohen, has observed that whereas during the Cold War “the media were open – the New York Times, the Washington Post – to debate,” today “they no longer are. It’s one hand clapping in our major newspapers and in our broadcast networks” (Smith 2015a). This reinforces trends that have been observed widely elsewhere, including in the study of Western media coverage of the (mainly) US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001, the (mainly) US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the disputed 2009 elections in Iran, unsupported and misleading Western claims that Iran’s nuclear energy program at any time constituted a dangerous nuclear weapons threat, and the Western-supported destabilization of Libya from 2011, and of Syria from 2011. There is little evidence here that the rise of the BRICS, and the supposedly countervailing power that a BRICS alliance (or alliances) might have in arresting the foreign policy ambitions of the USA and its allies have yet impacted WMM perspectives on the world or that a greater range of perspectives, putatively available as a result of the rise of BRICS media power, has helped shape Western media coverage in a more nuanced, multi-perspectival way. In this book, I identify ten principal Manichean sub-plots to the Ukraine crisis. For each sub-plot, I examine the conflict between a narrative largely espoused by the Kiev regime and its US and EU partners and almost uniformly by WMM throughout the USA and Western Europe and the countries of their allies, on the one hand, and a counter-narrative constructed by many critical,

alternative media in the West, on the other. The counter-narratives might sometimes favor perspectives emanating from Russian and ethnic Russian media and other sources but were generally not dependent on these. In making this determination I have been guided by my personal daily monitoring over 2014 and 2015 of: (1) selective Western, Russian and Ukrainian mainstream media (Independent, Kyiv Post, Los Angeles Times, Moscow Times, New York Times, UNIAN Information Agency); (2) selective Western alternative media (Antiwar.com, Common Dreams, Consortium News, Information Clearing House, Huffington Post, Truthout.org); and regular monitoring of (3) Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg, BBC, Economist, Foreign Policy, Guardian, Reuters, RT, Sputnik; and (4) Fair.org., The Intercept, Global Research, MediaLens.org, Mint News, New Cold War and Vice News. In the case of some alternative media in category (4), such as Mint News and New Cold War, I switched from regular to daily monitoring during the course of the study. I copied most substantial stories for later consideration. From stories found on and copied from these websites over the period 2014-2015 that covered the Ukraine crisis or were directly relevant to it, I have constructed Weberian “ideal type” characterizations of the principal divergent narratives (Weber [1904] 1949). I focus particularly on Western media and what we can learn from these about the nature of Western conflict propaganda and the beliefs and presumptions that these invite of audiences amidst the exposure of hypocrisies and contradictions that propaganda so often entails. My methodology stems from grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967). I work inductively from a range of texts that represent the clash of discourses between mainstream Western media accounts, on the one hand, and competing accounts that come principally from Western alternative media and companion sources that pay sustained attention, among other things, to the perspectives of ethnic Russians in Ukraine (Laclau and Mouffe 2014) on the other. Such a clash inevitably tends towards the destabilization of the hegemonic Western discourse, not in the sense that it entitles an analyst to declare what is “true” or “false,” but in the sense of being able to detect the play of ideology amidst apparent contradiction, paradox and hypocrisy. The ten main sub-plots or media narratives (some of them are several threads) have to do with the following episodes or phases of the conflict. I devote separate chapters to some of these, but I also bundle a few together, so that issues of International Monetary Fund (IMF ) lending and sanctions against Russia, for example, are addressed within a broader conversation about context in Chapters 3 and 4. Here are the ten sub-plots and the Manichean narratives associated with each:

1 Cause of the 2014 Crisis The West and Western media ascribed this largely to the yearning of the Ukrainian people to be identified with Europe rather than with a corrupt regime that had close ties to Russia. Russia and Russian media, East Ukrainian and alternative media in the West largely ascribed the crisis to a US-instigated coup that took

place in close partnership with neo-fascist parties without regard for established, constitutional democratic procedures.