Truth - the first casualty of war

28 Feb 2022 04:07pm
Russian troops in Ukraine
Russian troops in Ukraine

By Yulia Sveshnikova

It looks like Russians, Ukrainians and the rest of the world suddenly found themselves swamped by a dire bottomless information spiral, where misinformation is cooked faster than fast food and ruthless one-sided judgements are made without second thought, dividing people who would otherwise be on friendly terms. Let’s just stop for a moment.

Every time, something appalling happens in the world, there is a plethora of self-made experts on each and every matter – and through this, we’ve been flooded with pseudo-expertise on the Taliban, US foreign policy, Kazakhstan domestic political dynamics, and even the doping expertise for Olympic sportsmen – the list goes on.

However, with the eyes fixated at the Russian military operation in Ukraine, the spiral of the information from multiple sides has added several more rounds. Have you watched “Wag the Dog” about the power of media to construct a war to distract people from domestic political scandal? Now would be the time to watch or re-watch. Made in 1997, the screenplay writer probably still had a very slight idea of how much more powerful construction of narratives will become with the spread of the Internet, polished propaganda techniques and the era of “post-truth” (as if we ever had the era of truth).

Unlike that satirical film, the ongoing war is real by a variety of classifications and by its nature. It is not a cyberwar, which features we as an international community are still trying to establish, it is not just an information war, it is far past the warmongering that provides material for pundits of all sorts. There is a death toll on both sides and people are struggling to understand what their compatriots must die for in the 21st century.

As President Zelensky said in his address to the Russians, “Ukraine in your news and Ukraine in reality are two completely different countries”. It is bigger than the information field in both, but also fair to say about what Russia-Ukraine escalation is in reality and what millions of people across the globe see through the different lenses, handed over by a variety of sources with their own agendas.

For instance, there is a part of this information war that Russia has in fact lost, which is to highlight the suffering of the people in the estranged region of Donbass, those that you might know better as the Donetsk and Lugansk republics. Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised the republics as independent on Feb 22 paving the way for military action.

The conflict between the breakaway regions and Ukraine’s central government is not a new one- it has been ongoing for the past eight years. The same way people of Donbass experienced shelling, childbirth at bomb shelters and power cuts – are the same scenes that you now so eagerly observe these days in Kiev, through multiple English-speaking channels.
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To my Malaysian readers, I would tell that if we are suddenly so amused with assessing the ‘bigger picture’ to start at home, as this country has plenty of domestic issues that need to be addressed. To the broader audience, the bigger picture would include the interventions conducted by foreign powers without a UN mandate – the imperfect but the only Leviathan-like authority that we have in the international system. However, passing such a buck would divert us from the current realities, where the activation of the Russian system of strategic deterrence (nuclear forces) might indeed make it an existential problem for the whole world.

Of course, it is not at all futile, to reckon with the historical experience and to try to assess the configuration of the international system – to understand why it is coming apart at the seams. We could suggest that the struggle is unfolding between the forces of authoritarian and democratic worlds, but hasn’t the pragmatic rational approach to international politics with simultaneous application of double-standards proved that clash obsolete? With some calling for a better platform to unite humanity around something more pragmatic, politically blind, like Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – it probably did.

How closely are we familiar with the Russian attempts to negotiate security guarantees with its Western colleagues? If not much from history comes to mind and the best we could do is Google where cities of Kharkiv, Lviv or even Kiev are, we might as well leave judgement to the experts. Deliberations about the strategic decades-long imperialist thinking of Putin look catchy, but at the current point the situation might be better explained by stronger positions of the military lobby and peripheral role of diplomats in the decision-making process in Russia.

This brings me to the focal point of this distress call – the people. It occurs to me that the politicians on all sides of the conflict (and by those I mean many others beyond Russia and Ukraine) relate to each other’s mindset better than to their own people. Same is fair about the peoples that shared brotherly ties for centuries, that have families, friends and colleagues on both sides of the border. Now they are set against one another. It is a tragedy.

The question of how the tensions between Russia and the West, in particular NATO, reaching its culmination in Ukraine, must be subject to deep and professional analysis – hastily made, uninformed accusations based on the products of the information war, will not do good to any of us involved.

The EU leaders are promising that Putin will pay dearly for this operation. Let’s not fool ourselves, it is people of Russia – those who have not been asked about this decision – that will be paying dearly. Closure of civil airspace, banishment from the financial system, economic embargos, cutting off academic collaboration and many more, an iron curtain of sorts is in the making – the cost will be borne by the common Russians, many of whom poured to the streets to say “No to War”. More than that, as some analysts have predicted, the wave of anti-Russian racism is not beyond imaginable. After 2014 events over Crimea, each carrier of a Russian passport was seen at times as accountable for the policies that the current administration undertakes.

And even when the conflict is over, these hostilities and misunderstandings will stain the Russian people for probably decades, standing on the way of constructive dialogue, cultural and academic exchanges, not to mention economic and political ties.

While I am trying to argue that the current conflict is a culmination of the long-term process of reconfiguration of the international system, as well as ongoing events in Donbass region, there is a persistent question on the part of many concerned Russians powerlessly sobbing over the tragedy of fratricide in their little apartments – was there another way? We think there was and diplomacy should have been given a chance.

With Moscow putting its nuclear deterrence forces on alert, if you know what such a move means for the global security, the surreal question of how to get back to sane dialogue is still there. If you have an informed opinion on that, do share. If not – honor what those involved are going through and choose something else as your spectator sport today.

Yulia Sveshnikova is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham of Malaysia.

The views expressed in the article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sinar Daily.