No time to waver on Ukraine

 No time to waver on Ukraine

CIUS weekly report on North American media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 22–28 October 2023

Three publications (The National Interest, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail) were selected to prepare this report on how the situation in Ukraine has been portrayed in the North American press during the past week. The sample was compiled based on their impact on public opinion as well as on their professional reputation, popularity among the readership, and topical relevance. These publications represent centrist viewpoints on the political spectrum.

This report covers only the most-read and relevant articles about Ukraine, as ranked by the respective North American publications themselves in the past week. Its scope covers promoted articles on home pages and articles from special sections on Ukraine, with the hashtag #Ukraine, from the paper editions of the publications, and about Ukraine from opinion columns and editorials.

  • The world and Ukraine: сonsequences if Ukraine loses the war; history provides an answer to the question of how Russia’s war against Ukraine will end; five charts track Western support for Ukraine; Ukraine needs support now more than ever;
  • Russia in war: human rights and freedoms restricted in Russia.

Main arguments:

How losing the war could affect Ukraine. Anthony J. Constantini (National Interest) writes that Ukraine’s failure to liberate the occupied territories and join the EU or NATO “could send the nation into a dark future.” Currently, Ukrainians are mostly optimistic: “Gallup polls show that around 70 percent of Ukrainians believe that they will join both NATO and the European Union within the decade, and other polls taken during the war reveal that Ukrainians hold the near-unanimous belief that they will ultimately triumph over Russia.” However, the situation could change dramatically if Ukraine fails to achieve any of the above goals. According to Constantini, based on what happened to Germany after the First World War, this could lead to the transformation of Ukraine into a “violently nationalistic” state. The flirtation of various political parties with the far right against the backdrop of war—and inevitable disillusionment of Ukrainians as the war drags on—could lead to an increased role for rightist forces in Ukraine’s political life. According to the author, it is worth paying attention to this potential threat: “The West may not wish to see these events as likely possibilities, but they can simply look to history. These things have happened before—and they can very well happen again.”

History knows how Russia’s war against Ukraine will end. Axel de Vernou (National Interest) emphasizes that Russia is trying to write its own history and is tailoring its war goals accordingly. Defining the former will allow it to influence how it frames the latter. According to de Vernou, there are three possible objectives in a war of conquest: assimilation, imposition, and accommodation. Conquering states can also be placed into one of these three categories based on statements made by their leaders in peacetime and at war. Russia is no exception. However, it is quite difficult to give a clear answer as to which of these categories Russia—which unleashed the war against Ukraine—belongs to, even for Russians themselves. In the author’s opinion, as a result of Ukraine’s strong resistance Russia has begun to veer from one extreme to another: from statements “On the Historical Unity Between Russia and Ukraine” to the need to annihilate “Ukrainian cities and the erasure of ‘nationalism’ writ-large in Ukraine.” In the eyes of Russians, the chaotic nature of this movement could call into question Putin’s long-term strategy: “One day, he compares himself to Peter the Great. The next day, he insists that Russia is eradicating neo-Nazism in Ukraine.” According to de Vernou, “Putin, notwithstanding his allusions to [czar] Peter, is drifting in Stalin’s direction when he repeats his allegations of neo-Nazism.” This is also reflected in public opinion: “According to a survey released in August by Russian Field… Stalin was the third-highest ranked historical leader behind Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (Gorbachev and Yeltsin are ranked the lowest). By comparison, in December 2021 Stalin placed third in a list of Russia’s top ‘anti-heroes.’” Apart from the fact that they love imperialists, Russians are now more interested in socio-economic issues: “half of the 30–40-year-old Russian respondents prioritized a decrease in prices, an increase in their salaries, and improvements to their living conditions, including medical and educational institutions. Only 7% of respondents chose Russia’s victory against Ukraine as their top priority, while about a third wished for an end to the war.” This could play a decisive role in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Five charts track Western support for Ukraine. Michael O’Hanlon, Constanze Stelzenmüller, and David Wessel (Washington Post) write that for 20 months Ukraine has been resisting Russian aggression, but it cannot continue to do so without the support of the US and Europe. Currently, the majority of American and European citizens and politicians still support Ukraine, but the prospect of a prolonged conflict is beginning to undermine this unanimity. Uncertainty about US support for Ukraine is causing concern among Europeans, “who know that their security, as well as Ukraine’s, depends on continued U.S. support.” The authors present five charts that in their opinion best demonstrate the dynamics of support for Ukraine from the United States and the European Union: (1) Americans’ support for military aid to Ukraine; (2) Americans’ support for economic aid to Ukraine; (3) Percentage of respondents who agree that the EU should support Ukraine; (4) Commitments (EU & US) to Ukraine through late July 2023; and (5) Foreign heads of state and government, foreign cabinet members, and leaders of international organizations who met with President Zelensky in Ukraine. These graphs show that support has declined slightly but the vast majority of people in Europe and the United States remain unanimous in their support for Ukraine.

No time to waver on Ukraine. Lawrence J. Rob and Stephen Cimbala (National Interest) argue that the prolongation of the war and the rising cost of defeating Russia will increase the likelihood that NATO leaders, including Washington, will waver in their support for Ukraine. According to the authors, “Already in the United States, some members of Congress, media commentators, and research analysts are questioning either the significance of the American commitment to Ukraine or the increasing costs of weapons and other means of support.” The first group criticizes President Biden’s policies but supports Ukraine’s right to self-defence. Others question the motives behind the US’s support for Ukraine. A third group of Ukraine-skeptics suspects the Biden administration of using a proxy war in Ukraine as a tool for “regime change in Russia.” The main arguments in favour of ending support for Ukraine are as follows: (1) the threat of turning this military conflict into a “forever war,” in which the US “bears the largest share among NATO members for the costs of advanced military equipment”; (2) a combination of conventional and unconventional warfare, including special operations, political warfare of various kinds, and the widespread use of 21st-century technologies, which significantly complicates the dynamics of the war; and (3) accusations of corruption against President Zelensky and Ukrainian politicians in general. There is also criticism that “NATO’s post–Cold War enlargement was a dangerous maneuver that inevitably aroused Russia’s suspicions.” However, history shows otherwise. According to Rob and Cimbala, “Autocrats like Putin often exaggerate the fears of foreign intervention to prop up their regimes on the home front.” In their view, despite this criticism there are strong arguments in favour of NATO’s support for Ukraine. For one thing, NATO defends peace and security in Europe against attempts to forcibly change territorial state boundaries. For another, this conflict is existential for both Ukraine and the international order. The ability of the United States to cope with several challenges simultaneously will depend on effective political leadership and military capacity. Therefore, it is crucial for the US to “define our political and military objectives relative to this conflict, as well as for the strategy that connects the two.”

With America’s focus shifting to other matters, Europe needs to double down on supporting Ukraine. Timothy Garton Ash (Globe and Mail) argues that Europe needs to take the lead in providing military, economic, social, and political support to Ukraine, as the United States may not be able to play as significant a role as it has in the past. “In moments like this people always reach for the metaphor of a Marshall Plan, but by its very name that suggests the U.S. will play a leading role,” Ash writes. “The American public is just not ready for that anymore. Nor do I see why Europe should expect the U.S. to do the lion’s share, nearly 80 years after the end of the Second World War. Ukraine is in Europe, after all, and Europe has a very large economy of its own. Furthermore, if we succeed in its reconstruction, Europe will be the biggest beneficiary.” Even though Ash has doubts about Ukraine receiving an invitation to join NATO in the near future due to political considerations in the US, he believes it’s time for Europe to help Ukraine more: “The EU needs to start an incremental process which at each stage creates a positive incentive: you reconstruct, you reform, you gain more access.” Lastly, Ash reminds readers that failing to support Ukraine adequately may result in a significant loss of territory and a semi-frozen conflict that would embolden Vladimir Putin and other dictators alike. 

In Putin’s Russia, dangerous erosion of reason and humanity continues. Nina Khrushcheva (Globe and Mail) writes about the grim state of affairs in Russia under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, drawing parallels to George Orwell’s novel 1984. She mentions the significant emigration of professionals from Russia, driven by Putin’s increasingly repressive regime, and describes a troubling incident involving the co-chair of a human rights organization being charged with “discrediting the Russian armed forces” and subjected to punitive psychiatry. The author notes that “reason, logic, and humanity have been systematically sucked out of Russian life, dragging us back to the era of Stalin and his gulag.” After Stalin, Khrushcheva adds, the only time that the state “engaged so openly in such violent repression” was under the USSR’s leader Yuri Andropov, who headed the KGB in the 1970s before becoming general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1982. In the meantime, Putin’s emphasis on Russian unique superiority and his alignment with the Russian Orthodox Church are seen as part of a project that seeks to reject modernity and establish control over all aspects of Russian life, spreading the russkii mir throughout the former empire and beyond. Khrushcheva concludes that these developments are akin to the Taliban’s rejection of modernity in favour of divinely ordained absolute rule—a vision that has been heavily promoted in Russia. 

Worth your attention:

Is there a real threat of neo-Nazis coming to power in Ukraine? Anthony J. Constantini (National Interest) emphasizes that Ukraine’s defeat in the war with Russia could lead to Ukraine’s transformation into a nationalist state: “the likelihood—of a much darker future, one which the country’s Western backers have been unable or unwilling to consider: that an unsuccessful Ukraine could turn violently nationalistic.” Similarly to what happened to the German Empire in the early twentieth century, according to the author, it could happen to Ukraine: “The disaster that followed for the country—economic ruin, a loss of territory—shocked the German population: how could they have lost? For many, solace was found in an answer: Germany did not actually lose. It was instead stabbed in the back by those who wished to destroy Germany. The establishment was utterly discredited as a willing participant or clueless pawn in this conspiracy. When combined with mass poverty and inflation, the feelings of betrayal curdled into rage and support for radical parties, such as the Nazis.”

After the First World War, Germany pursued revisionism (because it could not justify its imperial ambitions). In contrast, Ukraine seeks to return only its territories, which are recognized by the international community and law. 

In the 2014 and 2019 parliamentary elections in Ukraine, far-right parties failed to overcome the electoral threshold. In 2019 nationalist parties ran as a united front but nevertheless gained only 2.15% of the vote. Moreover, it is hardly credible to talk about neo-Nazism in a country where “a Jewish president picks a Muslim defence minister.”

The narrative about Nazis in the Azov Battalion is heard mainly in the propaganda rhetoric of the Russian Federation. Disseminating this false narrative contributes to the spread and strengthening of Russian propaganda.

Media Monitoring Service

Media Monitoring Service (MMS) critically assess dominant narratives, including a special focus on disinformation, in selected key Canadian and US publications regarding contemporary Ukraine. The purpose of MMS is to inform experts and the general public about how Ukraine and Ukraine-related events are covered and reported on and to alert them to contentious ideas and claims that may be perpetuated in the media to Ukraine’s detriment. Read more

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