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Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Picturing the Evil – Europe’s unwanted Misconception of Russia



Last Sunday, Russia celebrated its National Navy Day and President Vladimir Putin attended the fleet show in the Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia’s exclave at the Baltic Sea, surrounded by the EU and NATO members Poland and Lithuania. In western media, the only message communicated to the public was Putin’s plan to create a “new nuclear powered ice breaker fleet”.

The image set is more than clear: the media pictures one more time the image of a “Russian warlord” who is provoking the west with new army technology – disregarding the fact that a nuclear powered ice breaker fleet has rather little to do with actual army technology. Even in presumably open online discussion on Twitter, the image of the “mad man” in the Kremlin is an omnipresent one. Europe is unsure how to react and seeks guidance from the US as the only strong actor to face Russia. Washington’s advices here were quite simple: sanction Russia, punish Putin and his followers, and do anything necessary to pull Ukraine away from Russia. But, is this the true strategy? The results of this face-off are rising tensions, increasing military presence alongside the borders and joint NATO trainings in Ukraine; in short: a serious increase of distrust, a return of the West-East antagonism, and an escalating threat of war, that was unthinkable just a few years ago.


Understanding Putin, Misunderstanding Putin
In Germany, a new “derogative” word has been created since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis: “Putinversteher” (a person showing understanding Putin; hence: showing “sympathy” for Putin’s actions). But as several non-biased journalists state, understanding Putin does not automatically mean that they share full sympathy with Putin’s actions, but it is a mere linkage to the mind-set and the actions why Putin is doing it this way. Above all, journalists with years of corresponding experience in Russia (like Gabriele Krone-Schmalz) clearly state that trying to apply western standards on democracy, free market capitalism and western values cannot be applicable universally, and for sure not in Russia. In order to understand Russia it requires far more than only analysing from outside the potential threat emerging from Russia. Krone-Schmalz knows what she is talking about, she was a long-time correspondent for German public news in Russia and has spent a notable time of her life living in Russia.

Nevertheless, as the past has demonstrated various times on different occasions, once the West has drawn the face of a potential enemy or of a crazy man somewhere in the world, it is unlikely to get rid of the new enemy that easily; no matter if it was Saddam Hussein, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Muammar al-Gaddafi, or Basher al-Assad. Now, it is the turn of Vladimir Vladimirowich Putin.

From a western perspective, it is rather simple: Russia has dragged the Ukraine into a civil war and attempts to prevent Ukraine’s approach towards the West – towards the EU and NATO. Western policy makers claim that Ukraine’s future is laid down in a permanent linkage to the West, and NATO would have a key strategic focal point in Eastern Europe – right at Russia’s doorstep.

Any attempt to analyse the motivation of Russia’s moves in Ukraine, or critically questions the actual political situation in Ukraine with the still unclear role of the right wing extremist Svoboda Party in the government, will be answered with massive criticism on online platforms, or, if being a journalist or scientist, not published or broadcasted at all. The propaganda machinery is hence working effectively.


Propaganda Flourishing on both Sides
In times of crisis or near-war scenarios, media plays an essential role to inform or misinform the general public. Observing several public or official mainstream media coverage ever since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, it turns more and more into a media, information and propaganda war. The purpose of propaganda is not to inform the public and to tell the truth through objective and independent journalism, but to draw the image of a rising evil on the other side of the border. The black-and-white imaging of Ukraine and Russia, with a very biased supportive information campaign in favour of Ukraine, and a notorious Russia (respectively Putin) bashing on the black side has been maintained very actively and there is little or no room for objective news coverage.

It is very hard – if not impossible – to find unbiased news report about the rising tensions between Russia and the West – at least through the conventional newspapers and television programmes. The problem for German public broadcasting lies in its public funding through a broadcasting tax paid by the German population, and the board of directors of both main broadcasting stations ARD and ZDF are filled with high ranked politicians from the leading political parties CDU and SPD. As a consequence, high editor in chief and journalist positions are filled not necessarily by qualification or personal reputation, but rather by personal networking to the political board of directors and party membership. The risk of party biased news coverage and information is given quite conspicuously, and western media will not get tired to picture the evil side – hence: Russia.

The evil ones, as stated by German author Mathias Bröckers in his book “Wir sind die Guten” (“We are the good guys”), are always the other one, never us. But if you ask the question who the good ones are, it clearly depends who you ask. If you as the average American mainstream, they will say that it’s Russia. If on the other hand you as the Russian general public, they will say – obviously – that it’s the Americans. State run television programmes like Russia-1, NTV or RT use the same amount of propaganda tools as used in the west, blaming the West for its notorious intervention in the current Ukraine government and accusing them for backing the fascist movements inside the Ukrainian government; and the US' strong desire to weaken Russia and preventing it to challenge the US on a global scale. Truth or propaganda? There is a hint of truth and lies, on both sides.

But can Europe be blamed in this propaganda war? Yes, it can, though it does it involuntarily.


De facto US power in Europe
In February this year, during a political talk show on German television, we could see a drift emerging between Europe and the US in the view of the Ukraine crisis and the approach towards Russia. Two of the prominent guests on this show were Martin Schulz (President of the European Parliament) and John Kornblum (former US Ambassador to Germany). Martin Schulz had clearly stated that Ukraine is a matter of European security and the US should not intervene in this matter as “Ukraine is not at America’s borders”. A bold statement by Schulz, but instantly brought back to harsh reality by Kornblum who stated that “the actual power is in Washington”.

Last week we had seen the NATO training “Rapid Trident” taking place in the Ukrainian town of Yavoriv, alongside with US, Ukrainian, Romanian, and Bulgarian forces. Presence of NATO forces in Ukraine, even for training purposes, can and will certainly be regarded as a provocative act by Russia. The message sent from the West is clear: the Ukraine is subject to a long-term affiliation/alliance with the West; and the Ukraine has to be considered as a part of the “Western Security Hemisphere”.

In a wider sense, the US is continuing to foster their “Full Spectrum Dominance” which should also be applicable to Ukraine. Europe, no matter how much they develop their own sphere of peace, wealth and stability, is only useful to the US as long as they may use their NATO allies as permanent base for military commands and troops. NATO has expanded over the past years, while its former counterpart, the Warsaw Pact, ceased to exist after the folding of the Soviet Union in 1991. Consequently, former Warsaw Pact members became NATO members in the past years, including the former Soviet Republics Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Russia had repeatedly criticized this move from the west after the assurance given after the collapse of the Soviet Union that NATO would not expand eastwards. Apparently, NATO had forgotten about that quite quickly.


Calling off Sanctions as a first Step
Europe is powerless in the view of NATO activities in Ukraine, and to repeat Schulz’ words that Ukraine is a simple European matter and the US should not intervene in this conflict, shows how little Europe or even the EU can do against its bigger brother over the pond. 

The current sanction regime is harming both sides, Europe and Russia, and it affects farmers in Portugal, France and Greece who can no longer export their agricultural goods to Russia, neither can Russian based companies expand business abroad due to lacking access to financial assets or sanction limited red tape barriers. The German car manufacturer Opel has just recently announced to close down its entire production plants in Russia. According to the German economic news (Deutsche Wirtschaftsnachrichten) German exports to Russia have dropped by 4.4bn Euros, the prediction for 2015 estimate a total loss of around 10bn Euros, summing up the overall losses up to 20bn Euros since the beginning of the sanctions in 2014 (http://deutsche-wirtschafts-nachrichten.de/2015/07/23/deutsche-exporte-nach-russland-brechen-um-34-prozent-ein/). For Russia, the sanction regime led to inflation, cuts in government expenditures on the social welfare system, a partly dramatic depreciation of the Rouble, and job cuts in key industries.

Calling off the trading sanction regime would be the most logical solution to ease the tensions, as both sides, Europe and Russia, heavily depend on their trading relations. If Europe had the will and the courage to cease the sanctions, Russia would do the same and it would lead to a chance to ease the tensions on the continent. History has proven on various occasions that economic sanctions do not work as a political instrument to force a state into negotiations. Instead, the just harden the front lines and lead to more sanctions and counter-sanctions. Calls for more sanctions on the Russian energy sector, as demanded by Alex van Ness, Manager of public information for the Center for Security Policy (http://www.usnews.com/opinion/economic-intelligence/2015/07/01/us-and-eu-must-do-more-to-sanction-russian-energy-sector),are a dangerous strategy towards escalation of the conflict.

The trouble is, unfortunately, Europe is still hooked up to its direct line to Washington, and it’s the big brother over the pond that co-decides what Europe should do.

As such, Kornblum’s words in February this year are like a persistent echo, Europe has not enough courage to stand up against the US, even though it should.

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