Is Ukraine being left to fend for itself?

Shougat Dasgupta

 

Two years ago, when Russia began its full scale invasion of Ukraine, it became apparent that talk about a quick victory was just the Kremlin buying its own disinformation. Ukraine, buoyed by Western, particularly American, support, proved to be a formidable force. Now, as a debilitating, deadlocked war is about to enter its third year, there appears to have been a slight but significant shift in momentum.

Ukraine, while staving off Russian bombardment, also finds itself trying to reverse a gloom-laden narrative gaining traction in the West.

With a bill to further fund Ukraine’s war effort languishing in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the U.S. Congress, it appears as if American domestic politics outweigh any concern for the fate of Ukraine. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin aired a sentiment common among Republicans as he explained why he voted against the bill. “Vladimir Putin is an evil war criminal,” Johnson said. But, he clarified, “Vladimir Putin will not lose this war.”

This week, former U.S. President Donald Trump, speaking on Fox News, described Russia as a “war machine.” Russians, he said, “defeated Hitler, they defeated Napoleon,” seemingly reiterating the case Putin made in his interview with conservative pundit Tucker Carlson that defeating Russia on the battlefield is “impossible by definition.” And only 10% of people recently polled across 12 European Union countries said Ukraine would win the war, albeit only 20% said Russia would win it. A far bigger share, 37%, said they anticipated both sides would be “reaching a compromise settlement.”  

Last year, to mark the first anniversary of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted defiantly that “2023 will be the year of our victory!” Over the course of this last year, though, much of that spirit has withered away in the West. My colleague Avi Ackermann spoke to Coda contributing editor Peter Pomerantsev, currently a senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. According to Pomerantsev, despite “moments of alliance,” the West “as we knew it, the West that won the Cold War, is over.” In Russia’s view, the collective West “has no will, they’re incapable of acting,” he added. 

The kind of indecision Pomerantsev is referring to has, arguably, emboldened China to step up as a potential peacemaker. At a security conference in Munich, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi this week described China as a “force for stability in a turbulent world.” The Global Times, a Chinese state-sponsored, English-language tabloid, in a recent editorial argued that NATO’s “footsteps are moving towards Asia,” that NATO is turning Russia’s war with Ukraine into a world war. 

Trump, of course, recently claimed that were he to become president he would meet Putin and Zelenskyy and “within 24 hours that war will be settled, that war will be over.” For such election promises to come good, Pomerantsev said, “clearly it requires Ukraine to be on the ropes.” 

As the war enters its third year, disinformation and narrative manipulation continue to be vital, effective weapons in the Russian arsenal. The Kremlin, capitalizing on parochial political divisions within the U.S., is, with increasing effectiveness, undermining the West’s war effort. In a fraught election year, will American voters be persuaded that helping to defend Ukraine is crucial to their own interests and to their global influence? And given their domestic preoccupations, will they care enough?

GLOBAL NEWS

Despite the obvious success that Russia is having outside its borders with manipulating the narrative in its favor, the Kremlin continues to crack down on all forms of dissent at home. This week, Russian pro-war blogger Andrey Morozov was said to have died shortly after he was told to delete a post on Telegram. In the post, Morozov, a soldier, said 16,000 Russian troops died and 300 armored vehicles were destroyed in the bid to capture Avdiivka, a Ukrainian stronghold in the Donbas region. This apparently angered both Kremlin apologists and unnamed figures in the Russian army. Morozov wrote that he was forced to delete his post about Avdiivka by “generals ready to sacrifice thousands of soldiers just to ‘distinguish’ themselves” and “journalists who build their careers on lies from the screen.” While confirmation has been hard to come by, Morozov reportedly shot himself.

And on the theme of Russian crackdowns, Ksenia Karelina, a citizen of both Russia and the United States, was imprisoned after she donated $51.80 to a Ukrainian charity. According to various media reports, she was accused of treason and arrested in the city of Yekaterinburg, close to the Ural Mountains. Karelina worked at a Beverly Hills spa and had been in Russia for a month before she was arrested. She could face up to 20 years in prison for her alleged crimes, which include taking part in public demonstrations in the U.S. against the invasion of Ukraine.

And finally… Jon Stewart has the best (and funniest) take on Tucker Carlson’s mad caper through Moscow’s metro stations and supermarkets. If, like Carlson, you are baffled by the splendor of the Moscow subway, it is because it was intended as a shrine to Joseph Stalin, or at least to his Soviet ideals. And now another dictator runs it. A couple of years ago, our reporter Marina Bocharova spent some time with Kirill, a young man who was fired from his job as a Moscow metro train driver for signing up to Alexei Navalny’s mailing list from his private email address. Marina was investigating how Kirill’s boss and his boss’s bosses in the Russian government knew that Kirill had signed up to the mailing list, and what that knowledge implied for Navalny’s reliance on Big Tech to spread his message. For more on that, read the piece we published earlier this week on how Silicon Valley let Navalny down.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.

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