Media Criticism Opinion Original Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence: Unmaking History

The Write Stuff – by Mr. Fish

By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost

Every young journalist knows, and probably most newspaper readers know, too, the old thought: Journalists write the first draft of history. I like to think a few or more journalists and a few or more readers also know that this is sheer nonsense. Journalism, and I mean in its mainstream variety, is what the powers that control media publish precisely to keep true accounts of events out of the history books, not in them. 

This is why—and you will never get me off this point—independent media assume so great an importance in our time. As the derelictions of traditional media deepen, publications that hold themselves independent of power—political, administrative, corporate, financial—assume a responsibility outsized to their resources. They will prove the historian’s true friends.

But let me set this thought aside for now in favor of a more immediate piece of business.

Beginning August 16 and running through August 24, The Washington Post published six stories, four of them at generous length, under the opening day’s headline, “The Post examined the lead-up to the Ukraine war. Here’s what we learned.” Washington’s local paper is playing the biggest first-draft-of-history card in its hand with this series. There is enough melodrama in this extraordinary parade of copy to keep an afternoon soap going.

I have to hand it to the three Post reporters whose bylines sit atop these pieces—Shane Harris, Karen DeYoung, and Isabelle Khurshudyan, with various others credited in the agate type at the conclusion. They did a lot, lot, lot of shoe leather work for this project—or phone work, as likely as not, given a great deal of the reporting consists of what these journalists got from interviews with, per usual, unnamed officials who witnessed the meetings, conversations, intelligence briefings, and so on that the reporters did not.

Fair enough. This is presented as a series of “tick-tock” stories, chronological accounts of events in very fine detail. But immediately there are problems.

Here is how the first piece in the series begins. The time is autumn 2021, when Russia, for the second time that year, had begun amassing troops and matériel near its border with Ukraine in response to indications—well-reported at the time—that the Kyiv regime, with U.S. support, was planning to attack the breakaway eastern provinces known as the Donbas as the opening act in a campaign ultimately to reclaim the Crimean Peninsula:

On a sunny October morning, the nation’s top intelligence, military and diplomatic leaders filed into the Oval Office for an urgent meeting with President Biden. They arrived bearing a highly classified intelligence analysis, compiled from newly obtained satellite images, intercepted communications, and human sources that amounted to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war plans for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The session was… notable for the detailed intelligence picture that was presented. Biden and Vice-President Harris took their places in armchairs before the fireplace, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined the directors of national intelligence and the CIA on sofas around the coffee table.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken prepares for a press availability with U.S. Secretary of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, in Brussels, Belgium on April 14, 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain]

There are a number of things to say about this opener. As sheer presentation, the intent is to convey authoritative authenticity by way of all the useless detail, a we-were-there aspect that is key to the entire series. The reporters were not there, of course. The armchairs, the fireplace, the sofas, who sat where: This is what they were told. Straight off the top, the Post is trafficking in the illusion of bearing witness.

Apart from the seating arrangement and of much greater importance, there is the “highly classified intelligence analysis.” The Post’s reporters did not see this analysis or verify the business about the satellite images and human sources—or verify, indeed, even the existence of the intelligence. They were told, once again, about the intelligence and how it was gathered and what was in it—notably the Russian president’s “war plan.”

Reminder: This is what went on daily during the Russiagate fiasco, reporters taking the word of officials and pretending these officials had no agenda.   

This war plan is detailed later in the series. And there is only one conclusion to draw from it: What those present are supposed to have put before the president was either the worst intelligence since the CIA’s failure to anticipate the Soviet Union’s collapse, or the war plan as described secondhand is not what they had gathered that sunny October morning to talk about.

There is one other feature of this passage that is important not to miss. Take a moment to study it and try to describe what the group in the Oval Office was doing—what everyone there shared in common. My answer: By The Post’s account these people were in a state of surprise, maybe even mild shock. Far away and unexpectedly, a nation was marshaling its army on its border with another nation. Those present were engaged in a collective act of innocent discovery. They were wondering together how to react. 

It is absolutely key to keep this opening tableau in mind. I say this not only because it suggests what The Post intends to put across to readers in its series on what caused the Ukraine crisis and how it proceeded in its earliest days. These paragraphs are also a kind of enduring document all by themselves. They are like one of those historical paintings on museum walls that tell a large story in a single, intimate scene: In one group portrait, The Post gives us an extraordinarily compressed image of the people who have conducted American foreign policy since the Spanish–­American War of 1898—a virtuous people, a righteous, moral people wondering what to do as inexplicable evil elsewhere comes upon them.

The Washington Post’s series on the Ukraine conflict’s origins brings us to a critical moment. The contents of these pieces are not only The Post’s idea of how this crisis should be inscribed in history books yet to be written: The Post is setting down the official orthodoxy altogether. I read gravity and danger into this daring project because, let us not be mistaken, we have been here before. This is precisely how the origins of Cold War I—assuming as I do we are now well into Cold War II—were blurred, distorted, and not infrequently falsified to an extent from which we have yet to recover.

In 1996, a scholar named Carolyn Eisenberg published Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944–1949. It took half a century, and this exceptional book is not the only one of its kind. But it was Eisenberg who at last established, chapter and verse, that it was the Truman administration, not Stalin’s Kremlin, that bore responsibility for the division of Europe and the East–West binary that blighted humanity for four and some decades. As measured by public opinion, we must note, it remains axiomatic even now that it was the Soviets who inflicted Cold War I upon humanity.

It behooves us to do all we can to prevent this from happening again in the case of Ukraine and Cold War II. Media such as The Washington Post are immensely powerful. But they do not have a monopoly on the attentions of future historians.  

Blur, distortion, falsification: These are the fundament of The Post’s six pieces to the same extent they corrupted Cold War history all those years ago. I count four questions The Post appears intent on making sure we cannot understand correctly.

There is Vladimir Putin’s supposed fixation on Ukraine as a former Soviet republic he wants to restore to the Russian Federation. There are those war aims Milley laid out in the Oval Office in October 2021—extravagant ambitions to “decapitate” the Kyiv regime and occupy the country all the way to its frontier with Belarus. There are—a big one, this—Washington’s frustrated efforts to negotiate with Moscow prior to Russian forces’ intervention on February 24.  

And looming large above these, there is the question of responsibility, just as it loomed 75 years ago. Everyone knows the old adage: Truth is war’s first casualty. I propose a refinement when the U.S. is in on things, given it has started pretty much every war it has fought since 1945, and I am not sure I need my “pretty much.” Causality is war’s first casualty. America is ever the done-to, never the doer.

Early in 2021 the Kyiv regime began to escalate its long-running attacks on the two Donbas republics, Donetsk and Lugansk. The first buildup of Russian troops was evident by March. It did not last long: Russia began a partial withdrawal of these forces in April. By early autumn Russia was amassing forces along its border for a second time. Its full-scale intervention was by then a few months away.

No Western media explained either of the Russian buildups at the time; nor did Washington or any of its allies offer such an explanation. To go by the mainstream reporting and official statements, Russia decided out of the clear blue to amass troops and matériel along its frontier with Ukraine, and then decided out of more clear blue to pull them back.

Then Washington officials began to float various theories, and these began to see print. One of my favorites among these was that Russia’s plan was to drive through Ukraine and attack Poland, Moldova, and who knew how far into Western Europe. There was the thought that Vladimir Putin proposed to reconstitute the Soviet Union. Or why stop there: Vladimir Putin was given to dreams that he was a new Peter the Great, a 21st century czar. How’s that for diabolic delusions of grandeur?

Then there was the idea that Putin’s health was failing and he was desperate to leave his mark on history. But for my money nothing beat the speculation, allegedly informed by Western intelligence, that Vladimir Putin was going insane, an isolated madman with his fingers on the nuclear buttons.

And so The Post’s three reporters purport to lead us into the Oval Office, where the first matter they take up is the great “why” of the military reinforcements on Russia’s side of the border with Ukraine. We are now offered an official explanation worthy of the history texts.  

William Burns, the CIA director and a former ambassador to Moscow, is the first to get the floor in The Post ’s account. Burns had it that Putin was “fixated on Ukraine.” This is at bottom a toned-down version of the insanity theory in combination with the new-czar theory and the reassemble-the-Soviet-Union theory. The Post account of Burns’s remarks continues:

Control over the country was synonymous with Putin’s concept of Russian identity and authority. The precision of the war planning, coupled with Putin’s conviction that Ukraine should be reabsorbed by the motherland, left him with no doubts that Putin was prepared to invade. 

Later in this piece, “a senior official involved in the decisions”—one of those, alas—weighs in on this point. “The Russians were going to do what they did regardless of what the allies did,” this official observed in The Post’s paraphrase. This remark was apparently delivered in an interview conducted at some point after the February 24 intervention had begun.

What is being said here and what is or was erased from the record?

Even before Biden and Blinken held their “Summit for Democracy” in December 2021—before, even, the sunny October morning in the Oval Office—this administration has assiduously sought to persuade the world that it is ideology that shapes global events in the 21st century. The now-official explanation for Russia’s troop buildup and eventual intervention—The Post has taken us well beyond speculation—must be read as a case in point, another rehearsal of the democracy-vs.-autocracy bit wherein the Russian president is cast as a grieving nostalgist obsessed to the point of irrationality with retrieving Russian greatness.

What The Post proposes to write out of the story are politics, political economy, and history—which, of course, have always been and will always be what drives geopolitical events. The U.S. role in raising tensions in and around Ukraine since it cultivated the coup in Kyiv in 2014 is nowhere mentioned. NATO’s eastward expansion—a matter Moscow has sought repeatedly to negotiate since the fall of the Soviet Union—is dismissed as another of Putin’s unreasonable obsessions. When he raises the question again in late 2021, The Post report dismisses it as “a familiar diatribe.”

Remember the causality problem and how most of us lost track of this matter during Cold War I. This is how it gets started, with insidious bunkum such as this. And remember, too: The Post’s six-piece takeout is merely the first such project in the first-draft-of-history line. We are in for a lot more of this, inevitably. 

General Milley, the joint chiefs chairman, seems to have been right in his element as he laid out Russia’s war plans—sorry, Putin’s, we must keep this personal—on the sunny October morning. “We assess that they plan to conduct a significant strategic attack on Ukraine from multiple directions simultaneously,” somebody told The Post’s reporters Milley told the Oval Office gathering, “their version of ‘shock and awe.’”

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Aug. 18, 2021. U.S. Department of Defense, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll say. Milley had Russian forces moving on Kyiv from four directions with plans to seize the Ukrainian capital in three or four days. He is quoted as continuing, “The Spetsnaz, their special forces, would find and remove President Volodymyr Zelensky, killing him if necessary, and installing a Kremlin-friendly puppet government.”

All the while, Russian troops would also advance into eastern Ukraine and along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast in the south.

“It was a plan of staggering audacity,” the Post reporters wrote as they outlined Milley’s presentation, “one that could pose a direct threat to NATO’s eastern flank, or even destroy the post–World War II security architecture in Europe.”

Some of this—the incursions from the east and along the southern coast—is demonstrably accurate if, it must be said, an obvious call. Destroying the Continent’s security architecture to replace it with one that would bring order to an increasingly unstable environment on Europe’s eastern flank is a passable summation of Putin’s principle intention.

But most of what Milley purportedly had to say borders on Strangelovian paranoia—staggering, I will say, in its wild inaccuracy. Seizing Kyiv, arresting or murdering Zelensky, naming a puppet replacement, driving all the way to western Ukraine, threatening NATO? Where did this come from? The Post tells us it came from “newly obtained satellite images, intercepted communications, and human sources.” It was with these the U.S. “penetrated multiple points in Russia’s political leadership, spying apparatus and military, from senior levels to the front lines.”

This account prompts two thoughts.

One, this was a smoke-and-mirrors charade from the first. By the start of 2021, it was reported, if not widely, that the Armed Forces of Ukraine had dramatically escalated its attacks on the eastern provinces and that it enjoyed American support as it did so. If you are provoking, provoking, provoking your adversary, it does not require a lot of intelligence (in both senses of the term) to predict that your adversary will respond. 

Two, as already suggested, there is the question of what was in the purported intelligence on the coffee table during the sunny October morning. In my view, it was either faulty or adulterated intelligence, or The Post is holding up its end of a propaganda exercise by reproducing fallacious accounts of the administration’s deliberations for consumption by the reading public.

Although in the nature of these things we cannot know which is so, I go with the second of these possibilities. What Milley had to say was simply too out of line with reality to be a credible version of an intelligence portfolio.

Six months of war, we need to note, bear out Russia’s stated objectives at the time it began its intervention. They are to demilitarize and de–Nazify Ukraine. Moscow’s objectives may change, shaped by the massive arms the West is shipping into the country, but they have not to date included territorial gain west of the two breakaway republics, with a possible exception along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. It has displayed no interest in seizing the capital, none in driving west of it, and no interest in decapitating and replacing the regime with another to its liking.

I read two purposes into The Post’s inflated account of the Russian military’s war plans. One is what we call threat inflation, placing Russia in the most dangerous light possible—a threat not only to Ukraine but to the West altogether. This is the fear card, in short—perfectly familiar to anyone who endured Cold War I. Two is to make up an imaginary Russian strategy that, when it does not materialize, can be cast as a failure.

One of the later pieces in the Post series is dedicated to this theme. The headline alone is a delight: “Battle for Kyiv: Ukrainian valor, Russian blunders combined to save the capital.” Wow. Hollywood may want to get in on this story.

We get a lot of histrionic tick-tock—“Viktor Derevyanko woke to scalding pain, his body burning”—as we read of how Russian forces were repelled in their attempt to take Kyiv early in the conflict. Once again, there is no evidence they ever made such an attempt. They appear to have stopped short north of the capital of their own accord—in Bucha, among other places—and then withdrawn, also of their own accord.

I have read many accounts of this withdrawal to the effect that the Russian forces’ purpose from the first was merely to tie up Ukraine’s best ground units while the Russians got their campaign in the east going. But to my knowledge these reports have never been confirmed. We do not know everything, but we know there has never been any persuasive evidence that Ukrainian troops beat back the Russians from the northern suburbs.

Nevertheless, into the history books The Post proposes to send this incident, with its valorous Ukrainians and blundering Russians, as an example of the shambles Russia made of its intervention in its early months. By all appearances, Russian forces are systematically winning this war, but never mind that. Shambling incompetents they must be.

In December 2021, Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov, his foreign minister, presented the drafts of two treaties addressing the European security question. One went to Washington and the other to NATO headquarters in Brussels. The treaty format reflected Moscow’s desire to begin talks with the West toward a renovated security architecture—this on the thought that existing arrangements had led to the dangerous disorder evident to everyone save those who insist that “the rules-based international order” is fine as it is. 

Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov in 2019., CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Moscow proposed new commitments and guarantees as the basis of the new order it advocated. Chief among these were the withdrawal of missile systems deployed on Europe’s eastern flank and assurances that NATO would not expand any further eastward. The underlying premise of these documents was that no nation or group of nations can secure itself at the expense of any other nation’s security. This is a cardinal rule in statecraft, as a middling graduate student in international relations would easily understand.

These treaties were in effect the culmination of a long effort on Moscow’s part.  Russia had spent the previous three decades asking the Western powers to refrain from advancing NATO toward Russia’s borders, as various American officials had promised in talks with the now-deceased Mikhail Gorbachev after Germans dismantled the Berlin Wall in the final weeks of 1989.

In a more recent context, Putin had spent the previous eight years urging a settlement between Kyiv and the two Donbas republics in accordance with the Minsk I and Minsk II Protocols. These were signed in September 2014 and February 2015 and provided for, roughly speaking, a federal political structure that would give the eastern provinces sufficient autonomy to hold the nation together. France and Germany backed the Minsk accords—on paper but not in practice. Kyiv, with the West’s tacit approval, made no effort to implement them.

I vividly recall the coverage of these treaties and Washington’s response. It was a wall-to-wall carpet of derision. Moscow’s demands were preposterous, extravagant, unreasonable, irrational. This reflected the official response. Washington was unwilling to talk about anything more than small adjustments in NATO troop strength and other marginal matters.

Wendy Sherman, Antony Blinken’s No. 2 at State, termed the two documents “nonstarters.” This is a Britishism denoting blanket dismissal—“fuggedaboutit” in American street talk. I grew heartily sick of “nonstarter” as the press incessantly repeated it. It was handy, as it relieved reporters of the responsibility to reason through the Russian documents on their own.

The U.S. position, immediately adopted by Washington’s supine allies, proved to be the final stroke for Moscow. When Putin announced the Russian intervention two months later he was visibly bitter, the speech infused with an uncharacteristic measure of emotion. The subtext seemed to me plain: We have tried for 30 years to reason with you duplicitous hypocrites. Now I have drawn my line.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, is to my mind the weasel without compare in the reigning administration—artless, diplomatically inept, habitually untruthful. And it is to Sullivan that The Post’s reporters give the floor on the U.S. position toward Russia prior to its February 24 incursion.

Quotation 1:

A big part of our focus was basically to say to them, “Look, we’ll take the diplomatic track and treat it serious[ly]… if you will take the planning for force posture and sanctions seriously.” 

Quotation 2:

We were saying, “Look, we’re taking diplomacy seriously, but we’re so worried about this that we’re actually moving men and materiel.”

I suppose The Post had to let Sullivan say the same thing twice given these assertions are so monumentally false. That last bit about moving men and matériel is especially rich. Sullivan is trying to explain away the fact that by the summer of 2021—while Kyiv continued to escalate its shelling of population centers in the east—the U.S. had already begun increasing its weapons shipments to the regime and had established a direct communications link between Kyiv and the U.S. European Command.

The truth is that Washington made very little diplomatic contact with Moscow before the latter issued its two proposed treaties and next to none afterward. If you can think of a clearer indication of Washington’s intent during these months, and a more irresponsible way to address a gathering crisis, please use the comment thread.

In the matter of diplomacy, The Post gives us one delightfully telling moment as it foists six pieces’ worth of falsehoods and misapprehensions upon us. This little bit I take to be true.

We’re now at the start of 2022, and by this time The Post’s reporters are slathering on the purple prose with a trowel. “Jan. 21 was a cold, bleak day in Geneva, with gusty winds whipping the surface of the usually placid lake that shares the Swiss city’s name.” Jimmy Breslin couldn’t have begun any better.

Secretary Blinken and FM Lavrov are having a sit-down—one of the only encounters the two have ever had and their last to date. “Blinken again laid out U.S. positions,” The Post writes. “If Putin had legitimate security concerns, the United States and its allies were ready to talk about them.” Between them, Blinken and Sullivan seem to think that if they insist often enough the sky isn’t blue, somebody will believe them.

“Blinken found Lavrov’s responses strident and unyielding,” we read, and who can be surprised. Now comes the brilliant bit. 

When they had finished at the mahogany table, Blinken invites Lavrov into a private room and asks, “‘Sergei, tell me what it is you’re really trying to do?’” Then The Post paraphrases: “Was this all really about the security concerns Russia had raised again and again—about NATO’s ‘encroachment’ toward Russia and a perceived military threat? Or was it about Putin’s almost theological belief that Ukraine was and always had been an integral part of Mother Russia?”

It is hard to believe America’s top diplomat is this stupid and indelicate, but Lavrov’s reaction tells us this truly was Blinken’s question: “Without answering, Lavrov opened the door and walked away, his staff trailing behind.”

You have to love it. I do, anyway. It is exactly how the Dummköpfe running American foreign policy should be treated. They have nothing to say and there is nothing to say to them.

America was innocent when the Maine sank in Havana harbor in mid–February 1898: The Spaniards did it. We were innocent as the U.S.S. Maddox and the C. Turner Joy sailed in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964: The North Vietnamese attacked them. We were righteous innocents when we mounted Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003: Saddam Hussein had an inventory of weapons of mass destruction. We were innocent when a small minority of Ukrainians overthrew an elected president in February 2014: We had nothing to do with the Kyiv coup, and it wasn’t a coup anyway because our friends don’t do coups.

And we are innocent now, having armed and trained the Ukrainian military for years as they attacked their own people, having insistently pressed NATO eastward in the face of plentiful warnings from many sides that this would provoke a conflict, having brushed aside decades of Russia’s diplomatic démarches to remake the Continent’s security order so that all sides benefited.

No, we are again innocent: all of this has nothing to do with the Ukraine crisis. The Russian leadership nurses quasi-religious obsessions and could not be stopped.

Among the most dangerous features of the American credenda is this ever-and-always claim to innocence. It is our license to aggress across the world, indifferent to the rights and aspirations of others. This enduring claim to innocence, we urgently need to accept, is the most un-innocent thing about us.

In publishing the series of pieces I briefly review, The Washington Post proposes that we continue insisting on our innocence, inscribing it once again in history, destructive as it is to ourselves as well as the rest of humanity. In this The Post is as un-innocent, as responsible, as all the people it depicts for its readers as innocent. Our nation will not do well in this new century unless we can think and act honestly and so find our way out of this delusional state. The Post has chosen to stand against this project.

Patrick Lawrence
Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.

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