Putin & Zelensky: Sinners and saints who fit our historic narrative

Think about why the West wants to invoke WWII and the Cold War here, and then ask whether it’s been productive.

While war rages in Ukraine, all is blissfully peaceful on the home front. Americans have embraced the official narrative. No western movie ever drew the good-versus-evil line so clearly or crudely. The White House, Congress, and the press insist that Ukraine is the innocent victim of unprovoked aggression, that Russian forces will threaten all of Europe if they are not stopped, and that the United States must stand with Ukraine “for as long as it takes” to assure victory.

Dissenting from this consensus is all but impossible. Even in the run-up to our 2003 invasion of Iraq, a few lonely voices cried out for restraint. Since we plunged into the Ukraine War, such voices are even harder to find.

Today it is considered heretical, if not treasonous, to suggest that all parties to the Ukraine conflict bear some blame,  to argue that the United States should not pour sophisticated weapons into an active war zone, or to question whether we have any vital interest in the outcome of this conflict. A strictly enforced intellectual no-fly zone has all but suffocated rational debate about Ukraine.

In the halls of political power in Washington, Ukraine has become an almost mystic idea. It’s less a geographic place than a cosmic plane where a decisive battle for the future of humanity is unfolding. The war is seen as a glorious chance for the United States to bloody Russia — and to show that although the balance of world power may be shifting, we still rule.

America’s explosion of passionate love for President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine was the triumph of an irresistible media campaign. He was presented as freedom’s new global hero. Overnight, his image popped up in shop windows and on internet sites.  

In the opposing corner is another caricature, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, portrayed as epitomizing all vile and degenerate qualities. He fulfills our need to focus hatred not onto a country or a movement or an idea — that’s too diffuse — but onto an individual. For years, we reveled in our moral superiority over colorful nemeses like Castro, Khadafi, and Saddam Hussein. Putin fits perfectly into this constellation. Having such a cartoonishly wicked enemy is almost as reassuring as having the saintly Zelensky as an ally.

Soon after war broke out last year, Congress voted to appropriate $40 billion in aid to Ukraine. What was astonishing was not just the size of this package but the fact that every single Democrat voted for it. Only 11 senators and 57 House members, all Republicans, were opposed. The press applauded. 

No country that is at war, directly or by proxy, encourages debate over whether the war is a good idea. The United States is no exception. Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson jailed critics of the wars they waged. Some opponents of the Vietnam War were prosecuted. The ghostly absence of debate over our involvement with Ukraine marks the latest victory of official narrative-shaping.

The Cold War was arguably the most powerfully developed narrative in modern history. For years, Americans were told to believe, and did believe, that they were mortally threatened by an enemy that could attack at any moment, destroying the United States and ending all hope for meaningful life on Earth. That enemy sat in Moscow.

By then, Americans were already accustomed to seeing Russia as an incarnation of “the other,” the force of barbarism that always threatens civilization. As far back as 1873, an American cartoonist depicted Russia as a hairy monster vying with a handsome Uncle Sam for control of the world. That archetype resonates across generations. Like most populations, Americans are easily mobilized to hate whatever country we are told to hate. If that country is Russia, we have generations of psychic preparation.  

Politicians in Washington may be forgiven for jumping onto the Ukraine warpath. They presume that voters, who have more pressing concerns, will not punish them — and that arms makers will richly reward them. Less pardonable is the attitude of the press. Rather than play its putative role by posing uncomfortable questions, it has largely become chief cheerleader for the official Ukraine narrative.

Almost all battlefront reporting is from “our” side. We read an endless flood of stories about Russian atrocities and other outrages. Many are no doubt accurate, but the imbalance in reporting leads us to presume that the Ukrainian army commits no war crimes. A report by Amnesty International about Ukrainians’ use of human shields in battle was met with outrage and condemnation. The message is clear: justice is on one side, so reporting from the field must reflect that.

Many who write about this conflict seem to believe, as their predecessors did during the Cold War, that the U.S. government is a team and that the press has its role in assuring victory for our team. This view is death for journalism. The press should not be on anybody’s team.  Our job is to challenge official narratives, not mindlessly amplify them. That is the difference between journalism and public relations.

For those of us who were war correspondents in an era when conflicts were reported from various perspectives, the one-sidedness of reporting about Ukraine is most striking. I covered Sandinistas and Contras, Serbs and Croats, Turks and Kurds. Those experiences taught me that in conflict, no one side has a monopoly on virtue. Today Americans are being told the opposite. We are fed a childlike narrative in which all virtue is on one side and all evil on the other. 

The unwillingness of most war correspondents to cover the Ukraine War from both sides is reflected on editorial and op-ed pages. No major newspaper appears to pose fundamental questions about this war.  

Is Putin justified in not wanting enemy bases on his border? Should we contribute to the death of thousands in order to make a political point? Did we help provoke the war? How much of Ukraine’s army is pro-Nazi? Why does it matter to the United States where the border of Donbas is drawn? Should we consider Ukraine’s reputation as one of the world’s most corrupt countries before sending it huge amounts of aid? Is this conflict really a titanic showdown between democracy and autocracy, or just another European brushfire?

Even as the United States sinks more deeply into the Ukraine War, these questions are deemed impolite to ask. The stifling consensus that binds our political parties and media prevents thoughtful debate. One of the worst results of the Ukraine War is already clear. It has led to a new closing of the American mind. 

7 Responses

  1. Bill Dombrowski
    Bill Dombrowski at | | Reply

    One can only hope that in the aftermath of this conflict your remarks will be kept in mind as the search for culpability on both sides is pursued.

  2. Lasse
    Lasse at | | Reply

    Right on. Well written, well done.

  3. Michael Luhan
    Michael Luhan at | | Reply

    One simple point to keep in mind here: All of the massive destruction and savage atrocities against civilians in this war are occurring in Ukraine and being committed against Ukrainians by Russians. So much for even-handedness.

  4. Cassander
    Cassander at | | Reply

    A voice in the wilderness?

  5. T Hurwitz
    T Hurwitz at | | Reply

    A misdirected voice here. One country invaded another. One country claims the other is not a country, but instead is part itself. One country is huge, the other is small. One country has committed major war crimes and brutal torture and murder against the other. One country, Russia, has devastated the other’s. Ukraine’s, cities. Without understanding these facts and not obscuring them, a thoughtful conversation about the war in Ukraine is impossible.

    1. DC Reade
      DC Reade at | | Reply

      If only it was that simple…

  6. DC Reade
    DC Reade at | | Reply

    Having just read the op-ed by David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts in the Washington Post, your observations ring true. Nearly all of theircolumn is devoted to drawing a direct line of comparison with Putin’s present-day invasion of Ukraine and the conduct of war by Russian forces in the Ukro-Russian War with the history of the USSR, the Stalin regime, and World War II, in order to support a thesis that there’s a peculiar “Russian way of war” that’s inherently more inhumane than military campaigns conducted by other nations. Petraeus and Andrews insinuate that this is due to some inherent flaw in the Russian character.

    The analogy fails on several levels: first and foremost, there’s no ready analogy between the conduct of Soviet soldiers in World War II to the Russian Army. Petraeus centers his case on the indisputably horrific use of mass rape of civilians by vengeful Soviet troops in World War II. Those cases are now said to have numbered in the millions, according to historians like Anthony Beevor, Max Hastings, and William Hitchcock. It’s a shocking detail from a ghastly history of which few Americans are aware, but there’s no evidence that Russian troops have engaged in mass rape as a terror tactic in Ukraine.

    Petraeus also neglects to mention some important aspects of the WW2 Soviet counterattack advance to Berlin that should be obvious to anyone conversant with that history. Contrary to what’s implied in his thesis, the troops were not all ethnic Russians; the USSR was a multi-ethnic nation with a multi-ethnic army, and in point of fact the Red Army that waged war across Eastern Europe so mercilessly in 1945 included a substantial number of Ukrainians in its ranks, and Ukrainian-led units. Josef Stalin, whose policies in both peace and war are brought up as a telling example of Russian ruthlessness, was not a Russian; Stalin was an ethnic Georgian. And, crucially, the enormous cruelties of the Red Army push to defeat the Nazis were preceded by months of a ruthless defensive struggle for survival on the soil of the home territory that were sufficient to have debased almost any soldier and incited a lust for personal revenge once the tables had turned.

    As William Hitchcock’s 2008 book The Bitter Cost of Freedom makes clear beyond all doubt, World War Two reached a crescendo of violence, lawless conduct, and civilian casualties unprecedented in modern history- and the crimes and barbarities of that war were found in every battle theater, not just the Russian Front. Not only historical accuracy but historical prudence should advise that assessments of the Ukro-Russian War need to steer as far clear of facile comparisons to World War II.The inaccuracies of the Petraeus and Roberts editorial not only seek to exaggerate the horrors of the present-day war in Ukraine, they also work to underplay the impacts of World War Two, which were dramatically wider and more profound than those to be found in the Ukro-Russian War. (As yet.)

    Both General Petraeus (ret.) and historian Andrew Roberts must realize all of the points I’ve brought up; they’re incontrovertible facts. Their spurious omissions give the Washington Post article the unsavory flavor of war propaganda.

    Petraeus and Roberts then pivot to another example that he uses to support his claims of the unique nature of Russian cruelty in the conduct of war- the severity of General Kadyrov, the supposed architect of present-day military strategy in Ukraine. Yet Kadyrov is not an ethnic Russian- he’s Chechen, as noted by the authors of the article. This fact would not be especially incongruous if Putin’s record of ordering Russian military campaigns against Chechnya- a former Soviet republic and border state harboring separatists with a history of terrorist activity inside Russia- weren’t also being used as evidence of Russian cruelty and expansionist ambitions.

    Finally, it has to be said that the inhumanity of Vladimir Putin’s conduct of the war against Ukraine has yet to approach the level of total war that the US-spearheaded UN coalition carried out against Iraq in 1991. In that conflict, US air power not only destroyed most of the electrical infrastructure, many of the bridges and roads, and much of the waterworks of Iraq, the embargo in the aftermath left the Saddam regime largely unable to repair the damage, leaving it to languish until the follow-up US invasion in 2003. As far as the stated goal of forcing the Iraqi Army to withdraw from its occupation of Kuwait, the necessity of that tactic was questionable. As an American, I’m not comfortable bringing up that history. But as a tactical comparison to the conduct of the Ukro-Russian War, it has at least as much relevance as any historical analogy to be drawn from World War II.

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