By Alain Gabon
July 16, 2022: Information Clearing House — “Middle East Eye” — Academic studies, dissident intellectuals and history itself have shown how quickly our information systems can turn into gigantic propaganda machines as soon as states go to war.
Amid the Russia-Ukraine war, Nato and the European Union offer a perfect example of this type of “war communication”. In terms of censorship, disinformation and propaganda, we are witnessing a replay of what happened during the Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Wherever one turns, with rare exceptions, the only voices authorised to speak are those giving the official party line: Nato spokespersons, retired officers converted to the lucrative business of security consulting, “geopolitical experts” (but only those who will stick to the script), Russia’s political opponents, Ukrainian deputies and other allies of President Volodymyr Zelensky, himself the object of a mindless cult of personality.
The veneration and even mythification of Zelensky, which has reached absurdist levels, is partly explained by an understandable detestation of the aggressor, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and by the acting talents of Zelensky, a professional comedian who has shrewdly seized the moment to radically rebrand himself as a symbol of resistance, freedom and democracy – the camp of good against the “absolute evil” embodied by Putin, a sort of cross between Che Guevara and Rambo.
But it is also explained by a logical fault, namely the fallacy that if Putin is the supervillain and he attacks Zelensky, then the latter is necessarily the good and noble hero who deserves our unconditional support. In other words, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
But if Putin is indeed the villain and Ukraine is a country under attack, this does not automatically make his adversary a saint before whom all should bow down.
Because who really is Zelensky? In a nutshell, he is a populist demagogue and a manipulator; an autocrat at the head of a regime that can best be described as proto-fascist, without endorsing Putin’s pathetic alibi of a “Nazified” Ukraine.
With his demagogic cry of “the people against the elites”, his rudimentary electoral programme, his false promises to fight corruption that were forgotten as soon as he was elected, and his brutal authoritarian leanings, Zelensky is a perfect example of western populism – light years from his carefully crafted media image. Just last year, the Pandora Papers showed how he and his close circle benefited from a network of offshore companies. Since the Russian invasion, pundits appear to have conveniently “forgotten” these facts.
According to Transparency International’s latest corruption index, Ukraine under Zelensky scored 32 out of 100, on a scale where 0 means highly corrupt and 100 means very clean. It was just a few points ahead of Russia, and on par with countries ravaged by corruption, such as Zambia, Algeria and Egypt. This was the case even before the West began pumping billions into Ukraine.
As for Zelensky’s approval ratings, they were in free-fall just before the war broke out, with 55 percent of Ukrainian voters saying they were against his candidacy for a second term. Zelensky was thus literally saved by Putin’s February invasion, which has proved to be a real miracle for him and his entourage of cronies.
The Kyiv regime also exhibits a growing number of proto-fascistic characteristics: the cult of the personality, which turns the head of state into a venerated and untouchable figure; the militarisation of society; the saturation of media and cultural spaces with war propaganda; the constant staging of a crude warrior machismo, not unlike Putin’s; systemic corruption; and of course, the integration into the regular army of neo-Nazi groups, such as the Azov regiment.
It is deeply ironic that before the war, western media were recognising the reality of that problem – but as soon as the war started, these groups were magically whitewashed as “freedom fighters”, and praised as heroic resistors through typical spin. Anyone who now raises the issue is immediately accused of disseminating Putin’s propaganda or being an agent of the Kremlin.
Even more shocking, yet typical of war propaganda, has been the systematic censorship by dominant western media of any information that would undermine the Zelensky worship and unconditional support for the Kyiv regime.
In a March presidential decree, Zelensky banned the opposition by suspending the activities of 11 political parties accused of having links with Russia. Thus, the invasion was used in the most cynical manner as a convenient excuse to crack down on political opposition through false rhetoric about “collaboration with the enemy”.
Zelensky also invoked the war to eliminate media freedom by merging and nationalising Ukrainian television channels into a single information platform called “United News” – a platform entirely dedicated to his propaganda.
It should by now be clear that the Zelensky regime is controlled by the most hawkish and extremist escalationists, both Ukrainian and foreign, starting with US President Joe Biden, who has been shunting aside any talk of diplomatic negotiations.
Zelensky himself, rendered dizzy by the insane cult of personality and his consolidation of power, has thus been encouraged in the illusion that he can “win” militarily – without even defining what “victory” could mean in this situation, and even less how much more it will cost his own people. Though at first willing to negotiate and compromise, he has since fallen in line with the most extremist war hawks, none of whom appear to care about the rest of Europe, which they view merely as something to exploit for more arms and money.
From the interventions of the myriad Ukrainian propagandists who have taken over our (dis)information systems, it is clear that if they could, they would already have dragged us all into an open and direct war with Russia, a nuclear power. We would be well advised to protect ourselves from them too.
Instead of being emboldened in this reckless military escalation of a war that is devastating his own population and country, Zelensky should instead be pushed towards the negotiating table – for his own sake, that of his suffering people, and the good of the world, which is now itself suffering from a slew of setbacks: inflation, energy and food shortages, and a military-industrial complex ecstatic at the prospect of having trillions of dollars redirected towards it for years to come. A deal to end the war seems feasible, as there a reasonable peace plan on the table.
In additional to all its other consequences, the Russian invasion has further fractured the US-led post-war global order, which has become a battleground between the ever-more hawkish and imperialistic US, backed by the EU and with the instrumentalisation of institutions such as Nato and the G7; and the anti-western bloc led by China and Russia, now officially designated as the West’s two main geopolitical existential threats. There is also a third group of unaligned countries.
It is important to note that the latter two groups include the vast majority of the world’s population. And despite its triumphalism, the West has failed to drag the rest of the world into its war against China and Russia.
Though countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have widely condemned the Russian invasion and are increasingly voting with the West at the UN, calling for a peaceful negotiated solution, most states – with the exception of Syria – are ultimately aiming to stay neutral and continue relations with all parties.
Middle East at a distance
Given the region’s heavy dependence on all involved parties – Russia, Ukraine and the West – for food and energy supplies, as well as national security, they know they have nothing to gain but a lot to lose from direct involvement in this conflict, or from overtly picking sides. They have thus uncomfortably strived to distance themselves from the war without alienating anyone – a tough balancing act that can see them accused of siding with the enemy for shying away from the western sanctions regime.
In a nutshell, to the 9/11-style injunction “You are either with us or against us”, MENA has so far responded: “We are with neither – or rather, we are with all of you.”
This refusal to get directly involved in a conflict seen as foreign, western and distant is clearly reflected in public opinion polls. Despite American efforts to enlist Middle East regimes, a poll of the region’s citizens found that two-thirds had “no stance” on the war, while a smaller portion were split almost evenly between support for Russia (16 percent) and Ukraine (18 percent). It is just not their fight.
In fact, many have actively refused to side with Ukraine and the West against Russia for a number of reasons, including perceived western hypocrisy on the professed principle of non-aggression and respect for territorial sovereignty (Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan loom large here); racist double standards on the treatment of refugees; and widespread distrust of the West in general.
In the current atmosphere, dominated by the most hawkish war extremists, this determined non-alignment – not to be confused with apathy – is refreshing and wise. It signals a sound understanding of where their nations’ interests lie, a determination to prioritise them in the face of western pressure, and a resolute will for independence.
Dr Alain Gabon is Associate Professor of French Studies and chair of the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, USA.