Is it possible to know less about what is going on in a country after you have visited? I certainly came away with this impression on leaving Ukraine. Sure, I learnt a bit about the history, food and the lengths of skirts but what about the big stuff in the news?
As with other controversial geopolitical issues such as Israel/Palestine, Syria, Turkey and the Kurds, you only have to read the comments sections on many internet news sources to know that there are a lot of opinionated fuckwits out there who have little interest in learning the truth, beyond spouting invective at anyone who doesn’t believe their version of the truth, which drowns out the calmer voices seeking a reasoned analysis. A partial source for all this swearing into cyberspace is the utter failure of much of the mainstream news outlets to question government pronouncements and really dig up some of the dirt lurking behind the headlines. Time and time again an Offical Narrative determines the tone of much of the reporting and for many this has led to such a lack of faith in conventional news that some people are prepared to accept any contradictory reports, regardless of their value.
Events in the Ukraine from the Maidan protests to Russia’s annexing of Crimea and backing of the rebellion in the east have been a classic example of this battle between the Official Narrative and the Russian Version, while lurking in the background are the Conspiracy Theories. If you believe the Official Narrative, the decent people of Ukraine spontaneously rose up against the dictator Yanukovych who wanted to enforce a pro-Russian deal after rejecting an EU offer, against the wishes of the masses. If you believe the Russian Version, violent fascists overthrew the democratically elected government in a coup which installed an illegal fascist government. Both are, of course a load of bollocks but both also contain elements of the truth.
This leaves us with the Conspiracy Theories, that handy catch-all phrase that allows western leaders to dismiss with an airy wave convincing evidence of their many misdeeds. They can get away with this due to the Preposterous Nonsense that some people in the alternative media are prepared to accept as fact because it “sticks it to the Man” and shows the shadowy hand of dark forces behind the government and their friends in the Illuminati or whatever this week’s bogeyman is. Unfortunately some of this Preposterous Nonsense, once in a while, turns out to be true but by this time the Official Narrative has been so engrained that only the “lunatic fringe” pays any attention to it.
In the good old days, manipulating the media was a simple matter: either you sent in some soldiers to take over the radio station so you could broadcast whatever Preposterous Nonsense you wanted or you simply rang up your chum, Lord Whotsit and said, “got a spot of bother with the natives, would you mind printing off this Preposterous Nonsense for us in your newspapers, there’s a peerage in it for your cousin Tarquin”. With the advent of the internet, governments discovered that their annoying subjects would have the impudence to actually tell people about the stuff they didn’t want you to hear, so they developed a whole load of strategies to overcome this problem and re install the Official Narrative, something they have done surprisingly well in recent years and particularly with Ukraine. One reason they achieved this was that they had discovered subtle manipulation of the news, while Putin and Co carried on with pushing the Preposterous Nonesense in a loud and official sounding way and expecting westerners to believe it. It’s all very well insisting that you don’t have any of your soldiers in Donetsk or Crimea but when your opponents are doing interviews with the soldiers, holding their Russian passports, you have lost the media war. Having finally worked this out Russia Today has realised it needs to hold off on the propaganda but they are desperately playing catch up. What it has meant is that when it does some valid critique of Western actions and it definitely does at times, hardly anyone pays attention.
The security services have come to realise that as you can’t hide news in the old-fashioned way of simply banning it (although occasionally shooting or poisoning people works as it always has done). Hiding it in plain sight by releasing all kinds of snippets of conflicting information of varying degrees of credibility, which people will interpret in numerous ways, conveniently makes everything much too confusing. Hence, after a hard days work when the nice woman on the news says, “these are the baddies and these are the goodies”, you can relax, give some money to the right charity, sign the right petition and vote for the right party at the election, without the inconvenience of having to understand an enormously complex, shifting set of variables. Remember, that news blog you read, that comment on Facebook, that alternative news site you follow, might just be the work of governments and security services nudging readers in the right direction. I can, however make one thing simple for you with the Ukraine and all the other infuriatingly difficult issues: there are indeed just goodies and baddies, the goodies are the normal people living in these countries trying to get by and not get killed in the process and the baddies are most of the politicians on all sides, both inside and outside the country.
Whether you are on the Russian or American side, don’t imagine for one minute that your government actually gives a fuck about the Ukrainians, both are happy to see the bodies pile up and the economy collapse as it furthers their geopolitical machinations. The US has used talk of democracy to give a sense of legitimacy to its dealings in Ukraine but would have happily supported a barbaric dictator if he was in a position to remove Russian influence over Ukraine. US NGO’s like the National Endowment for Democracy are just as much about regime change as they are supporting democratic processes and its hardly surprising that governments are waking up to this and kicking them out. Russia will bang on about ethnic Russians being oppressed by the Ukrainians but will never say anything about pro-Russian governments oppressing their populations – see Syria as a fine counterpoint to their stance in Ukraine.
Hence we are left with a pile of guesswork over what has gone on in Ukraine: how much were the protests engineered by the US?; which side, or did both sides shoot innocent protesters in Maidan Square?; who shot down flight MH17?; how many actually want independence in eastern Ukraine?; how much are the Russians backing the rebellion?; what war crimes have the Ukrainian army and militias committed;? what crimes have the rebels committed?; how corrupt are the Ukrainian government?; what influence do the far right groups have? Anyone who is totally convinced of an answer to any of these and more questions has probably firmly staked their claim with one side or the other but that is not to say they are necessarily wrong. All sides have long proved their moral bankruptcy, with the deficit counted in innocent dead.
Most Ukrainians are wise enough to have a grasp of these issues and no matter how much they hate Russia are aware that their forces have shelled villages and tortured prisoners, they know that many of their politicians are corrupt and have little faith in their ability to transform the economy. As the national debt to the West rises, fewer may be aware that their industries and services will be sold out from under them to satiate the greedy global banksters holding US and UK passports, as has happened around the globe, all with the divine blessing of the supposed liberators from Russian aggression.
If I can be sure of one thing, of one bit of truth, it was on the faces of the people I saw in the shabby towns of Slavyansk and Kostaninovka, both close to the conflict. The ragged concrete skeletons of dozens of abandoned Soviet era factories spoke of distant times of full employment. Rows of flower print polyester clad babushkas selling only humble handfuls of garden produce, spoke of a still fading economy. Proud people kept the cracked and tilted pavements free of rubbish. Whether wanting to be part of Russia or Ukraine, what these people wanted was peace and jobs, a future with hope, not stirring speeches from politicians anxious to line their pockets or from Generals demanding their sons on the front line.