Media Criticism Opinion Original Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence: “The Narrative Is Coming Apart”

Ukrainian modified T-72M1R., CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost

“In total, more than a thousand square kilometers of the territory of Ukraine have been liberated since the beginning of September,” Volodymyr Zelensky advised the world in his nightly video recently. The Ukrainian president, in his usual grubby T–shirt as if he had just come in from the front, had a day before told us Ukrainian forces had taken numerous towns and villages in the environs of Kharkiv, a key city in the north. But no, he couldn’t name any of these: “Now is not the time to tell you which ones.”

Various Western media reproduced these assertions as if they were entirely serious. A thousand square kilometers, 386 square miles, in eight days? I can’t tell you where?

For once, Zelensky seems to have spoken truthfully, or truthfully in part. As of this weekend it is clear the Armed Forces of Ukraine have made a substantial advance in the northeast. We now know the names of some of the towns the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) has retaken. It is a victory for Kyiv, a defeat for Moscow and Lugansk, one of the two republics known as the Donbas, the other being Donetsk to the south. Russian forces have withdrawn from Izyum, a city commonly described as key since they took it early in the conflict.

What are we looking at—or trying to look at, given Kyiv will not let correspondents anywhere near the area, and given Western reporters don’t go near the front lines even when they are permitted? The AFU’s advance looks on the maps like a bulge deep into Russian-held territory.

By all appearances we witness the great counteroffensive Kyiv has been promising for some months. Wait, you say: The counteroffensive was launched in the south a couple of weeks ago with the immediate objective of retaking the city of Kherson. Kherson was supposed to be but a stop on the AFU’s drive to retake all of the south on its way to Crimea.

Go ahead and say it: That was indeed the advertised counteroffensive. But the counteroffensive Kyiv told us about sent Ukrainian forces across broad open steppes where they had no cover. By all reports other than those of the professional cheerleaders filing to the major Western dailies, dug-in Russian troops and artillery mauled them. With little to show other than very heavy losses, the Kyiv regime folded its tent in the south. No more Kherson counteroffensive.

Now the counteroffensive is on in the northeast. I find Zelensky’s claim to have retaken a thousand square kilometers implausible—this equates to a pretty good whack of Connecticut—but the AFU’s advance, however much ground they have covered, has been swift. There appear to be reasons for this.

Chief among these, Russia seems to have made a radical miscalculation—either this or it never considered the territory at issue as important as was supposed. In any case, there appear to have been no regular Russian army units in the territory the AFU has taken. Russia left its defense to militias of the Lugansk republic. These are a mixed bag: Most of the troops the AFU has pushed back were reservists not trained to endure an offensive mounted by numerous Ukrainian brigades. There has been very little fighting in the course of the AFU’s advance, it is worth noting. 

In other words, the AFU found a weak spot in the Russian front and went for it.

Are we to celebrate this as some kind of apocalyptic victory—not a decisive defeat for the Russians, but the decisive defeat, a radical shift in the fortunes of war?

 No, thanks. The implications of this turn—psychological, political, and so on—are yet to be determined. But the long arc of this conflict has not changed. Russian forces still retain overwhelming superiority—ground, air, artillery, matériel, supply.  The AFU’s losses have been heavy by Kyiv’s admission. Ukraine is still a corrupt basket-case economy with unstable institutions. These are “facts on the ground.” 

But never mind that. The new drift among Western officials and media is that Ukraine’s march to victory has begun. I am impressed by the coordination of this spin campaign, even if it is transparently spin, but this is what an information monoculture is for, after all.  

The same day Zelensky told us about the thousand kilometers—same damn day—CIA Director William Burns reckoned that it is “hard to see Putin’s record in the war as anything but a failure.” Our chief spook continued, “Not only has the weakness of the Russian military been exposed, but there is going to be long-term damage done to the Russian economy and to generations of Russians.”

The same day as Burns spoke and the same day Zelensky spoke, Ben Hodges, a retired general who once commanded U.S. forces in Europe, gave Newsweek his opinion of the AFU: “They’ve set the conditions where they can restore full sovereignty, to include Crimea, I think, within the next year.”   

Golly, do I have this one upside down. I thought the Russian army was proceeding slowly and methodically to keep down casualties—its own and civilian—while grinding down Ukrainian forces to talcum powder. Remember: Ukrainians are fighting for land; the Russians aren’t. Moscow’s objective is to demilitarize Ukraine, as it has often stated, and time is on the Russians’ side. “No hurry,” as President Putin said a few months ago.

 Zelensky, official Washington, and the mainstream media seem determined to carry on in this fashion, facts on the ground notwithstanding. I continue to wonder what the plan is when said facts can no longer be obscured, when cheerleading no longer does it, when it proves no longer enough simply to repeat falsified accounts and judgments as if by dint of repetition they will come true. 

When everything fell to bits in the case of Russiagate, all those unnamed intelligence sources who had plenty to say for years disappeared back into the shadows and the traditional press slithered silently out the side door. As Dean Baquet, the now-retired executive editor at The New York Times, said at the time, We covered that. It’s not a story anymore. 

I don’t see that it will be so easy this time. It is one thing to hack around with an extravagant conspiracy theory such as Russiagate, the mother of them all, and quite another to make things up about a war.

Independent media—“There he goes again!”—have made accurate accounts of the Ukraine conflict available to those paying attention and within the limits of their resources. The question is when sound reporting and analysis will break through the placid, everything-is-all-right surface of the mainstream press and broadcasters. We are beginning to see this now—tears in the tissue of lies, if you will forgive the mixed metaphor.  This marks a significant turn, in my read.

“Yes, that is my judgment. I do believe the narrative is coming apart—slowly but surely in the United States, but much faster in Europe.”  That is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago named Ramzy Mardini, who has had the good fortune to study under the estimable John Mearsheimer, that troublemaking presence in the “realist” school of American foreign policy scholars and analysts. Mardini sent along a lengthy piece he published in the Aug. 12, 2022, edition of The National Interest, and I quote from an email exchange I initiated on reading it. 

“I do see many in the United States are beginning to question U.S. foreign policy toward the crisis and its participation in a proxy war,” Mardini’s note continues. “I also see more and more speaking out, which was most certainly not the case back in March, when I felt like I was alone. 

“The essay in The National Interest is 10,000 words and is a comprehensive critique of the narrative. I make the case that without challenging this narrative, a pivot to diplomacy is not possible. It is the narrative that is obstructing the West re-evaluating toward Ukraine.”

Ten thou is a lot of words for a journal such as The National Interest to devote to a topic with the headline, “Course Correcting Toward Diplomacy in 0the Ukraine Crisis.” The subhead is even pithier: “Washington must come to terms with its role in provoking and now prolonging the war.”

I thought Ph.D. students were supposed to trade in language so dense you can’t find your way to the far end of a sentence. Not Herr Doktor-in-Waiting Mardini. He starts out calling President Biden’s familiar rhetoric—“Whatever it takes so Russia cannot in fact defeat Ukraine and move beyond Ukraine”—evidence of an “escalatory” position. Then Mardini gets down to real business:

“… These purported assertions are erroneous. And yet they’re propagated, repeatedly, within the Western discourse over the war. The purpose of the narrative they conjure up is straightforward. The distortion and inflation of the threat serve to compel and enable Western governments to pursue—and maintain—hardline policies to deny Russia a victory in Ukraine.

“Early on, with bias run amok in the West, the media’s glaring and lopsided access into the conflict had also undercut its legibility of what was happening on the ground. By default, it over-relied on information furnished by one side of the war’s ledger. This empowered Washington (and also Kyiv) with nearly unfettered access to shape the interpretation of the war and its events to Western audiences without facing much, if any, scrutiny.

“In effect, the American public has been bamboozled into supporting a costly and risky proxy war against Russia. Then, it was actively led to believe that Ukraine was winning the fight, despite later reports that the U.S. intelligence community has lacked an accurate portrayal of the war on the ground from its very onset.”

Testify, Ramzy. Tell it like it is.

It is a lengthy read but a breath of air amid the smog.   

Mardini covers, among much else, the running theme that American intelligence got it right before the Russian intervention—“misleading”—and the media’s version of Moscow’s objectives: “Contrary to the media’s popular depiction, the war isn’t, and never was, about conquering Ukraine.” As to the Kyiv regime’s direct culpability: “Unbeknownst to the West, it was Zelenskyy’s government that made the first provocative move that incited the initial deployment of Russian troops on the border in February 2021, a year before the invasion.”

I don’t know about Mardini’s “unbeknownst.” So far as I can make out Zelensky doesn’t put on yesterday’s T–shirt in the morning without checking with the Biden people back in Washington. (Memo to the White House: Get this guy some new T–shirts next time you pledge more billions. My sources tell me the procurement people at the Pentagon can ship some for as little as $4,000 or $5,000 each.)

I could not be more pleased to see Mardini’s exegesis of this “bamboozle” in a mainstream publication. I count this a significant sign of what is going on beneath that placid surface I just mentioned and of things to come in acceptable public discourse. While I am wary of exaggeration, this could be the start of something big.   

Interesting that Mardini published in The National Interest, the realist’s house journal, which counts among its adversaries “liberal hawks and neoconservatives” who “disparage realism as a moribund doctrine wholly inimical to American idealism.” The current edition features none other than Henry K. on its cover.

It has been many years since I have seen any point in traditional distinctions between “left” and “right” in American politics. Nothing remains of the former, and you can’t talk about “the right” if everyone resides at that end of the garden. 

In this connection, Mardini shopped versions of his essay for months before The National Interest took it, and I am given to understand that numerous publications commonly understood to be “left” or “left liberal” were among those who declined it. 

Go figure. Ever since the Russiagate fiasco I’ve often felt as if I have a case of nitrogen sickness: What is up, what down? Where am I? What are the warmongers and Russophobes doing on what used to be the left, and why are the peaceniks often on what used to be the right?

Maybe there was something to Deng Xiaoping’s famous mot: It doesn’t matter whether the cat’s black or white so long as it catches mice. 

“The Western media’s coverage of the war in Ukraine has been heavily influenced by two sources of bias—one of structure and the other of disposition,” Mardini writes in a later note. “By structure, I mean the composition of access. The media establishment in the West does not have access to the opposing side of the war’s ledger…. The dependency between state and media was nearly absolute….

“By disposition, I mean how favoritism shapes how the news is covered. The media establishment in the West willingly avoids applying the same level of scrutiny of the information that is propagated by one side in the war as opposed to the other…. Those that have reasonable yet alternative arguments that challenge the existing narrative are not engaged with by journalists. Nobody calls them up for their comment or expertise in a story. I haven’t seen their columns accepted in the mainstream….”

Succinct, Doctor-to-be. It is just as you say. There are among Americans the “Sayable” and the “Great Unsayable.” And you may have just moved the needle. 

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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