The American origins of Putin's Ukraine narrative

Like the US convinced its citizens to support its invasion of Iraq, Putin has used Russia's historical experiences to design a narrative convincing to large swaths of the Russian populace.

The American origins of Putin's Ukraine narrative

"This is evidence, not conjecture. This is true; this is all well documented. …We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction; he’s determined to make more."

War, since the beginning of the 20th century, has been given the moniker "total". Conflicts are no longer limited to armies engaged on the battlefield. Now, the entire societies and productive capacities of the combatants are drawn into the effort. This, according to the logic, led governments and military decision-makers to, among other things, develop novel ideological techniques directed at dehumanizing the enemy in order to make killing the human beings on the other side more palatable for the soldiers and citizens.

Demonizing an enemy, of course, is not something new. Even in the 1500s, European Catholics and Protestants wrote wildly exaggerated tales of violence and brutality to motivate their fellow Catholics and Protestants to resist and/or kill the other side. However, in the modern era, propaganda efforts took on new intellectual dimensions, sometimes backed by racism or Social Darwinism, and funneled to the citizens and soldiers through new media techniques like radio and newspapers, then television, and now social media.

The age of narratives

No matter the technique utilized, a state-sponsored narrative constructed for military aims is to provide a justification that convinces the necessary social groups or populations. In order to do this, a narrative has to be formulated purposefully and carefully.

The term "post-truth" has received a lot of attention in recent years, with allegations that social media and unprecedented information access that humans now have, or are subjected to, have made "truth" either unknown or practically difficult to identify. That discussion obscures the real problem, which is that of narrative.

A narrative is a construction of different pieces of information that constitute, as a whole, an intended message or version of events; many of those pieces of information may be factually accurate, but some may not be factually accurate. Novels are a type of narrative, but the news broadcast on television channels or the information written on social media sites also constitute narratives. In fact, what people consider to be "true" is a product of narratives that they are, whether consciously or not, consuming and digesting. An essential problem of our time is being able to access enough information relevant to a certain narrative, to be able to decide whether that narrative should be considered true or false, believable or not believable.

War narratives

Since WWII, the United States has been the foremost actor in the use of information media to promote narratives in support of military action. In the run-up to its March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US used multiple information tools to construct a narrative designed to convince enough of the international community that Saddam Hussein posed a threat warranting American intervention. We know now that most of that narrative was distorted or false. Even at the time, those who closely followed the issues knew that the US case against Hussein was hollow, said so publicly, and were not surprised when the US eventually found no evidence of an Iraqi WMD program.

The key to the US invasion of Iraq was its narrative: the techniques utilized convinced enough US citizens and enough of the international community to support the eventual invasion. But those observers who understood that the narrative was deceitful worried not only about the consequences for Iraq and its region; they understood that the door was opened for others to use the same techniques for the same malevolent ends.

Subsequently, when I hear Vladimir Putin falsely asserting that the Ukrainian government is run by neo-Nazis, I remember the claims of US officials, beginning in the 1990s, that "terrorists" were the primary threat to the US and that Iraq was a terrorist facilitator. Those claims were then used to justify actions that resulted in untold suffering for Iraqi citizens and mollify the US public and international community. Similar to Putin’s Ukrainian neo-Nazi narrative, much of the US narrative about Hussein was false or distorted, but grains of truth also existed. Did that justify the violence, death, and destruction?

When I hear Vladimir Putin’s absurd claims that the Ukrainian government is running biological labs for nefarious ends, in my ears echo Colin Powell’s infamous statements to the UN Security Council claiming absolute proof and truth for the US’ claims that Hussein had active, even mobile biological weapons labs. In that case, there was no truth to the claims at all, but the narrative had the desired effect.

Like the US convinced US citizens and the international community to support its invasion of Iraq, Putin has used Russia’s historical experiences to design a narrative convincing to large swaths of the Russian populace, and even to some segments of the international community. Obviously, many Russians believe that the "special military operation" is based on a real and present threat to Russia. Putin learned the American lesson: use the tools at your disposal to build a narrative composed of some true and some fabricated elements, appealing to the audiences that you need to convince, in order to reach your desired goal. The ends justify the means.

Time is running out for the US narrative

US officials, for their part, continue to demonstrate shocking indifference to their rhetoric. President Joe Biden’s recent speech in Poland, during which he stated that Putin "cannot stay in power," was an absolute, unmitigated global PR disaster, and exactly because the world remembers how American narratives proved false in the recent past. The domestic US media may, in Ben Rhodes’ notorious words, "literally know nothing", but the international community is no longer so naive.

US officials must realize that such rhetoric no longer serves any purpose other than to decrease US standing in the world. US officials must begin to forge a new narrative, and adopt more contrite, more flexible, more informed language. Tired platitudes on democratic ideals and human rights, after what the world has witnessed from the US in the past 30 years, elicits not much more than eye rolls globally. In an era of long-term narratives, built over time through the words chosen and decisions made by officials, the US now fails to convince much of the world that their version of events should be granted credibility. The opportunity to rebuild the US narrative is fast evaporating, if it is not already too late.

AA/Dr. Adam McConnel