by Daphna Whitmore
The Russian media censorship that followed the invasion of Ukraine, or “special military operation” as it must be called in Russia, came as no surprise. Censorship closer to home is a little more surprising but it has gone largely unnoticed. Rather than state censorship, in the West it has been tech giants and media corporations doing the redacting.
In New Zealand Sky TV just banned the Russian channel RT, and there has been no protest. If anything there is quiet approval. Youtube has blocked Russian state media, again there’s been no audible protest.
All things Russian are now bad since the invasion of Ukraine, and much attention has been given to targetting Russian oligarchs. Yet it is wishful thinking to imagine that seizing oligarchs’ yachts and other baubles will be decisive. In fact, the sanctions against the oligarchs are popular inside Russia and suit Putin who has his own battles with them.
It is very hard to make an assessment of the war in Ukraine relying upon Western media sources. We lack a sense of the mood of the Russian public, how much opposition there is to the invasion and how much the sanctions are being felt by ordinary people. While Russian media is propaganda-laden it is possible to get some information and to read between the lines. The censorship of the Russian media in the West leaves the public more in the dark.
The invasion of Ukraine is clearly a war of aggression against a sovereign nation. It is also part of a long-running battle between imperial powers. The rivalries that played out in the last century have shifted shape but are not over. There are other echoes of the past with with the emergence of far-right elements and neo-Nazi armed units such as the Azoz and Aidar battalions in Ukraine. The Western commentators have laughed off the claims of neo-Nazi forces in Ukraine and point to Zelensky the Ukraine’s Jewish president as a refutation. However in the many decades since the defeat of Germany it has been forgotten that the Nazis hated the Soviet Union, and Russians were its targets, not only Europe’s Jews.
The biggest echo of the past however was the threat of nuclear war being back on the agenda. Nuclear escalation still seems unlikely but Putin’s threat has shaken us out of complacency.
From the Western media, we hear of a world united against Russia. There are street protests, admittedly not very big, demanding a no-fly zone for Ukraine which would take Nato directly into the war with the risk of a much wider conflict.
For the most part the Western media has made a poor job of reporting and analysing the invasion. In the first few days media commentators were saying it would be all over quickly and Ukraine’s defenses would be crushed by the Russian military. This was an odd prediction considering even the blitzkrieg of Poland by Nazi Germany in 1939 took weeks, and it was half the size of Ukraine.
When a Russian victory didn’t happen in the first 72 hours, commentators surmised that the invasion was going horribly wrong for Russia. Defense experts were puzzled that the Russian forces had not seized control of the air, and were making slow progress. Some at least did note that war is unpredictable and that Putin is a person who will have prepared for a number of contingencies.
The most glaring gap in the assessment was the assumption that the Russians would fight in the same way as the US. Since the 1991 invasion of Iraq with what came to be known as ‘Shock and Awe’ tactics, the US has used overwhelming air superiority in war. They bomb everything (including power stations and hospitals as they did in Iraq) before moving in ground forces. The US has immense power in the air, but as Afghanistan showed, it is not successful at occupations. If a country is large enough, with a suitable terrain, a young population, and a strong clan-like social structure it can thwart a US occupation with a protracted insurgency.
The Russian style of war follows a different doctrine from that of the US. Because Russia cannot challenge US/Nato air supremacy it developed an alternative military strategy. The USSR spent the Cold War in a hugely expensive arms race trying to match the US. With the collapse of the USSR and the economic decline in the 1990s Russia’s military was forced to modernise and rebuild. The New Look military programme began in 2008 and focussed on building up anti-air defences so as to be able to deny air supremacy to Nato, and focused on artillery to deliver firepower. So if Nato does end up intervening and using air power to stop the Russian advance it too could be subject to significant losses.
In the past three decades Russia has gained military experience through fighting wars with former parts of the USSR, and through its military engagement in Syria. The invasion of Ukraine is a much bigger military operation than any of these and there were clearly logistical problems with the long convoy of tanks. Whether they overcame these issues is not clear as there are almost no reliable sources from behind Russian lines reporting in the West.
While the Russian military operation is not the disaster that the media portrayed it as, that does not mean it will necessarily all work out in Putin’s favour. Russia is not a major power, it has a relatively small economy – similar in size to Spain. However, Europe, especially Germany, is reliant on Russian gas for heating homes and generating electricity. Russia is still supplying gas to Europe despite the talk of sanctions. If Russia wanted to retaliate it could cut off gas to Europe and that would have a significant impact.
In the West it is easy to forget that a much larger world exists outside this sphere. Much of the commentary from mainstream media is blind to the non-Western world. So while the media talk of “a world united in condemning Russia” that is not the reality.
This war is being fought in Europe but it is stirring up new power alignments across the world.
It is likely that Russia will end up far more reliant on China as a result of the sanctions. There is growing speculation that the dominance of the dollar as the international currency is ending and that China will expand the reach of its digital currency and money transfer system. There is also talk of India exploring a rupee-ruble arrangement.
While Europe will feel the blowback effects of the sanctions if Russian oil and gas are stopped the US is less exposed as it has its own fossil fuels. However it is a large refiner of oil and does buy some heavy oil from Russia to mix with lighter oil. Now the US is turning to Venezuela and Iran for alternative supplies of oil. It shows that even the world’s hegemonic superpower can only impose so many sanctions at one time.
While in the West we talk about the right to free speech and a free press we often do not live up to those ideals. The banning of Russian media and the lack of curiosity about different perspectives means that in practice the Western is cut off from much of the world.
If there are geopolitical shifts, as seems likely, it will come as a surprise if we listen only to Western talking heads.