A rising discussion of political narratives seems to have reached a crescendo in the first months of the David and Goliath Russo-Ukrainian War. The idea of a narrative is an attractive way to help people stay on script, but if you stick with a narrative, surely it must square with the facts.
The Russian narrative of a special operation to de-nazify and de-militarize Ukraine failed to fit the facts from day one. As everyone now knows, the President of Ukraine is jewish and the Ukraine military did nothing to provoke an invasion by over 100,000 Russian troops with help from mercenaries from Chechnya and Algeria, and Russian separatists from the Donbas region of Ukraine. The facts were so dramatically incompatible with Putin’s narrative that he started talking about a ‘noble war’ demanded by the failure of diplomacy to achieve ‘noble aims’. Again, an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign and independent nation is far from noble. And, as Maxim Katz* sarcastically notes in his video, the retreat of Russian forces and sinking of the Moskva was all going to plan, according to Putin’s narrative!
That said, Biden’s or the West’s Nato narrative also had problems with the facts on the ground. The West saw the war as unprovoked aggression against a peaceful and independent nation which had already been occupied by Russian forces in Crimea and much of the industrial Donbas region of Ukraine since 2014. But central to the narrative was that as Ukraine was not a member of Nato, and therefore the defensive alliance could not have direct militarily involvement without risking escalation of a war between the US and Russia that could lead to the use of nuclear arms. Sanctions will suffice, along with the supply of defensive weapons to Ukraine – according to this narrative.
Yet the facts on the ground continually demonstrated that sanctions and empty threats to Russia, such as sending troops to Nato countries, such as Poland, were not going to make a difference for Ukraine. Likewise, Germany’s halt of the certification process of the Nord Stream 2 gas project was in the right direction but relatively empty since it had yet to become operational. Since then, Germany has dithered even more. They might be more effective in some longterm, but not fast enough to prevent further disasters and atrocities in Ukraine.
The sanctions placed on the finances and travel of selected Russian officials, oligarchs and billionaires also seem to be proving no more effective than Russia not allowing the Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, and about a dozen others, from traveling to Russia.
Russia and the Western nations of Nato have both established relatively clear but weak and false narratives. Neither narrative could hold up to the facts on the ground. At least in the West, the public can see the atrocities being committed in Ukraine, despite western sanctions and threats. They can see the dithering over what weapons and support can be sent to Ukrainian soldiers.
These events only make the western nations appear freighted rather than resolute. It shouts the West’s fear of being more directly involved in Ukraine, giving a green light to Putin. The narrative is we can’t help Ukraine, as they are not in Nato, but step one foot into Nato territory and Russia will cross a red line. However, it is painfully obvious that the West will face the same threats if a Nato country were invaded – the potential of sparking a nuclear response from Putin. The West can puff up and thump its chest about not putting a toe across the Nato border, but it is an implausible threat when we can see Nato standing back and watching Russian aggression and atrocities being committed in Ukraine.
Undoubtedly, as it is regularly reported, many among the public in the West feel guilty, helpless, and immoral watching this aggression being unchecked. If Ukraine falls, the western public will see that a false narrative was imposed on them. In Russia, many if not most of the public cannot see the facts on the ground given the levels of censorship of the internet and social media as well as independent broadcasters. The state broadcasters simply parrot Putin’s latest narrative. We can only hope that the facts make their way to the Russian public. Many Russians are said to be okay with living within this lie, but at some point the facts are so obviously at odds with the narrative that it is unsustainable.
Roosevelt’s proverbial ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’ is certainly not the strategy here. The western narrative is more along the lines of speak loudly and promise not to bring any sticks to this fight. The whole world can see the folly of this rhetoric. Yet any leader expressing exacerbation with this false narrative is accused of potentially escalating the conflict – reinforcing the limits of Nato’s threats.
As the UK journalist Simon Tisdall wrote in the Observer (17 April 2022): ‘Nato should talk less and do more, or Ukraine will be torn apart, bit by bit.”
*You might enjoy this Russian YouTube video with English subtitles that drives home the propaganda of the Putin regime, which you can find by searching for Maxim Katz on Youtube.