Occasionally, I wonder why I got into the blogging business. Fortunately, whenever these doubts arise, my local rag, The Ottawa Citizen (for which I once used to write), helps me out by publishing some outrageous nonsense, reminding me of the need for someone, somewhere to take the initiative in debunking it all. And since nobody else round here seems to be doing the job, the task falls upon me.
Today the Citizen obliged me by producing not one, but two such pieces, which was kind of generous of it because one would have been quite enough. The theme of both was the impending Russian invasion of Ukraine. As any sensible person knows, this isn’t going to happen (unless the Ukrainians are stupid enough to try to recapture the rebel provinces of Donbass by force). But that hasn’t stopped Western politicians and the media from screaming wolf on an almost daily basis for the past couple of months. Every day that Russia fails to invade Ukraine brings more articles saying that it’s just around the corner. Just wait. ‘The Russians are coming!’
Anyway, article no. 1, on which I won’t spend much time, is a relatively straightforward piece of reporting entitled ‘Russia warns of response if Ukraine joins NATO.’ This uncritically repeats a statement by Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielus Landsbergis saying that, ‘We are convinced that Russia is actually preparing for an all-out war against Ukraine. It’s an unprecedented event probably since the Second World War.’
To this my response is that, A) Landsbergis being ‘convinced’ doesn’t make it so, and B) even if true it’s hardly ‘unprecedented’ – there’s been no shortage of wars since 1945, quite a few of them fought by Western powers (The invasion of Iraq anyone? The bombing of Yugoslavia?). So wouldn’t it make some sense to tell readers so?
Next, the article tells us that ‘In response to Moscow’s provocation, EU foreign ministers agreed to hit targets linked to the Wagner group, a Russian private military firm, with punitive sanctions, accusing it of destabilizing Ukraine and parts of Africa.’ So what is the ‘provocation’ here? It’s stated as a given, but no evidence of any ‘provocation’ is given.
And then, the Citizen finishes with this gem:
‘Russia’s domestic intelligence service was accused by its Ukrainian counterpart Monday of waging information warfare after it said it had arrested 106 supporters of a Ukrainian neo-Nazi youth group for planning attacks and mass murders. The Federal Security Service said that two of those held had planned attacks on educational institutions.’
Damn those Russians, arresting Neo-Nazis who planned to attack schools! ‘Waging information warfare indeed!’
The problem with this article is not that it’s factually false, as it mostly just repeats claims by Western and Ukrainian officials, but that it treats those claims as given and makes no effort to either challenge or contextualize them. That said, it’s a relatively mild piece of propaganda compared to what appears on the op-ed page of the same edition. This is an article by one Joseph Brean, entitled ‘Putin’s Taxi Driving Disclosure Part of Plan, Expert Says.’ It’s a real doozy.
Basically, the article is a four column story based entirely on the opinions of a single ‘expert’ – Aurel Braun, a professor at the University of Toronto, who, I think it’s fair to say, sits on the hawkish wing of the Canadian foreign policy community. No other ‘expert’ is cited. Nor is any effort made to analyze whether Braun is right. His mere opinion is considered sufficient to justify half a page of full-sized newspaper.
Let’s take a look at the Braun told Brean. (Their names have a certain ring to them, don’t you think?) The starting point is once again Russia’s impending invasion of Ukraine, and the ‘hook’, as journalists say, is a recent revelation by Vladimir Putin that in the 1990s he drove a taxi in order to raise money. ‘One can assume that Putin did not just make these remarks off the cuff,’ says Braun. Putin must have had a reason for raising the taxi driving story.
Fair enough, I say. Putin obviously felt that the anecdote would serve some purpose. Braun and Brean tell us what that might have been:
‘The effect is subtle but by reflecting on the indignity of the collapse of Soviet society, Putin is whipping up support for his campaign against Ukraine, to deny it has a legitimate national identity separate from Russia’s, but rather is a construct of the West, destined to be reclaimed, just like Russia’s imperial influence.’
You can see it, right? Putin says, ‘I drove a taxi’. But what he really means is, ‘let’s invade Ukraine!’ Makes sense, huh?
Braun explains the logic to Brean, who laps it all up uncritically. Putin’s story gives him a link of ‘shared suffering’ with other Russians, says Braun. Putin is thereby indicating to everyone that the ‘loss of superpower status was not just abstract but personal.’ Brean adds: ‘This is typical of the modern Russian geopolitical victim as both aggressor and victim, Braun said, simultaneously projecting confidence and complaining about being treated unfairly.’
Just to make sure we get the point, Brean then proceeds to inform readers that Putin is rewriting history, and wraps up his piece with the following piece of tosh:
‘He [Putin] indulges a rosy view of Joseph Stalin as a firm hand who organized and industrialized Russia. … A recurring theme is that Russia’s future should look like its past, as an imperial Third Rome. His 2014 invasion of Ukraine and Georgia before that, for example, were always described as reclaiming Slavic land and people.’
In a previous post, I mentioned various principles for writing a bad article about Russia. This includes ‘making stuff up’, quoting what others have claimed without mentioning that their claims are dubious or even wrong, and citing only sources that fit your chosen narrative. Here we have them all.
Making stuff up: Putin doesn’t ‘indulge a rosy view of Joseph Stalin’ (as I’ve detailed on various occasions), wasn’t even president during the 2008 war with Georgia, and, as far as I know, has never justified that war in terms of ‘reclaiming Slavic land and people’ (the South Ossetians, after all aren’t Slavs). (One could allow this in the case of Ukraine if one calls the 2014 annexation of Crimea an ‘invasion’, but Putin has never admitted to supporting the rebellion in Donbass, so can’t be said to be justifying that in any terms, let alone those of reclaiming Slavic lands and people).
Quoting claims without pointing out that they may not be true: pretty much the whole article fits that criterion.
Citing only experts who fit your narrative: Brean cites only one expert – Braun – so we have that one too!
In short, we’ve got pretty much the personification of the bad article. Its thesis – that an anecdote about taxi driving reveals some aggressive imperial intent – is amazingly far fetched. One can’t prove it wrong, given that one would have to have access to Putin’s brain to do so. But there’s nothing to connect taxi driving with Ukraine. Putin’s popularity has long rested on his ability to restore stability at home after the chaos of the 1990s. His latest anecdote fits firmly in that narrative. There’s absolutely no reason to see anything else in it.
The taxi driver story is ‘a “calculated” act of propaganda,” says Brean. For sure, there’s propaganda here. But it’s coming from the Ottawa Citizen, not from anyone else. Brean, Braun and Putin’s Brain – quite the combination!