A nasty war of words

Refugees wait for transport after fleeing the war from neighbouring Ukraine at the border crossing in Medyka, southeastern Poland, on Saturday. - AP Photo
Refugees wait for transport after fleeing the war from neighbouring Ukraine at the border crossing in Medyka, southeastern Poland, on Saturday. - AP Photo

Everything about the war in Ukraine comes as a shock. We are ignorant of the possibilities of human duplicity, greed, selfishness, etc but when we stare them in the face they always look uglier than we could have imagined.

Reports from the frontline speak about the propaganda war that is being fought in Ukraine alongside the vicious military engagement, and as the war grinds into its second month, what each side, and the NATO allies, too, are telling their people is jaw-droppingly Orwellian in its intent to misinform and condition thinking.

Top marks for shamelessness goes to the Russians. It was like watching a tragi-comedy last week to see President Putin address a stadium full of Russians at a music concert to mark the eighth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. Many people there, dutifully captured on camera, their gleeful faces sporting the colours of the Russian flag, were forced to attend.

What their heroic leader told them was mind-boggling. There was no war in Ukraine, no pulverising of cities, attacks on civilians, nuclear threats, mass exodus, terrible losses among Russian soldiers, no admission of embarrassment that Russian might could not quell its smaller neighbour’s fervour for independence.

Rather, Russia was preventing genocide in Crimea. He quoted the Bible’s admonishment to sacrifice ourselves for our friends as justification for Russia”s low-grade involvement that is causing some inconveniences at home.

As breathtakingly incredible is the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who regularly tells the world’s cameras the opposite of everything we know to be true because we have seen it via several international news outlets in real time and we have heard the voices of the dispossessed as they run from damnation.

Barefaced state lying continued last week with prominent government critic and opposition party leader Alexei Navalny receiving another nine-year sentence in a phony trial, accused of fraud and contempt of court. He was gaunt but defiant, having already survived a nerve-gas attack in 2020 and returned to Russia, determined to fight Putin’s regime, which he had been investigating for fraud. Tit for tat.

Ukrainian President Zelensky, meanwhile, has become the darling of the West. He will probably get a Nobel Peace Prize if he survives. Once a professional comedian, his acting powers have not deserted him. He adapted rousing speeches of great wartime leaders such as Winston Churchill and rallied his people to fight, managing successfully to tap into their desire to live lives free of oppression and the dictates of an increasingly megalomaniac autocrat.


Who knows just how exaggerated the casualty figures Ukraine publishes are, or how many enemy fighters and generals have really been felled? Certainly, the UN casualty figures can only be a conservative estimate.

Zelensky’s efforts to push his reluctant Western friends into action to increase support for Ukraine are getting more frantic as the truth of expedient friendship is slowly revealed. President Zelensky is right that Ukraine is being used as a buffer against Russia and that the West’s offering, although great, is inadequate to the task of defending Western values and liberal democracy against Russia and also China, which supports Russia and with which Russia shares a long border.

Ukraine has been encouraged to see itself as sharing the values of the European Union, with its “multilateral order based on rules and rights that have been painfully put together since the end of WWII” and which NATO is there to defend. But the fact is that Ukraine is expendable.

The West’s doublespeak is glaring. A month later, no decisive action to stop Putin dead in his tracks has been taken. Sanctions are long-range weapons.

The disbelief is showing in odd ways. John Simpson, the veteran BBC foreign editor, has praised Zelensky’s ploy of continuing to ask for a no-fly zone, knowing he can't have it, then criticising the alliance and musing that NATO is not worth joining, that way confusing Russian thinking.

Camouflage also may exist in the possible under-reporting of war materials being dispatched to Ukraine from the US and other allies, although Ukraine is accusing them of not sending the high-level weapons it needs because of a false definition of “defensive weapons.” As the Ukrainian Foreign Minister pointed out last week, every weapon the Ukrainians use is a defensive weapon.

I totally agree with him about that and also about the rhetoric around sanctions. As the pain for us becomes more apparent, the West are applying sanctions caveats. The Economist reports, for example, that Russian central bank reserves overseas are not all frozen, so Russia is being allowed to pay off its debt and not default on payments. Similarly, there are SWIFT payment system exemptions for certain big banks, although Russia was meant to be fully excluded.

But energy is the difficult sacrifice for the West. Europe still has no embargo on Russian energy because so many countries are dependent on Russian oil and gas supplies.

There should be a 1984-ish proverb: “Principle is a necessary casualty of war and expediency is morally right.”


"A nasty war of words"

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