Putin may win and still lose

William Saunderson-Meyer says the Ukrainians have exposed the vulnerabilities of the Russia's military and its leader


Russia will undoubtedly win the war but the battle for the world’s hearts and minds is being won hands down by the Ukrainians.

Not many in the international community even pretend to believe the Russian line that it was forced to launch a “special military operation” to prevent genocide. Or that is imperative upon a Russian state that is drifting into fascist totalitarianism to carry out the “demilitarisation and denazification” of its democratic neighbour.

It must be vexing for Russia that its war crimes are happening in the full glare of publicity that a digitally networked European nation can bring to bear. It’s far more difficult to massage world opinion or hide atrocities when virtually every action of your forces is being streamed live on the cellphones of more than 40m Ukrainians. 

In contrast, the United States was more fortunate during its “Global War on Terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its “overseas contingency operations”, as the Obama administration euphemistically dubbed such adventures, largely took place before the explosion in social media, citizen journalists, and instant connectivity.

Given the ubiquity of electronic media — state-run, commercial and informal — it is telling that Putin’s reasons for attacking have not been vindicated with gruesome footage of mass graves. Nor of jubilant crowds embracing their anti-fascist liberators. 

The only mass graves uncovered lead indirectly back to Putin. This week, two mass graves were uncovered near Damascus. The New York Times reports that they are believed to contain thousands of bodies of Syrians killed in the detention centres set up by President Bashar al-Assad’s government, whose regime has survived solely through Russian military and diplomatic support.

About 130,000 Syrians opposed to Assad disappeared into these hellhole prisons and thousands remain missing to this day. By the estimates of human rights groups, more than 14,000 were tortured to death. But maybe they were neo-Nazis, so that’s okay.

Assad has cheered on the Ukrainian invasion. He told Putin in a telephone conversation that this was the “correction of history” and the “restoration of balance” against Western aggressors that was lost in the world after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

That’s much the same line that is being taken by the SA Communist Party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, and many in the leadership of the African National Congress. Both the SACP and EFF paint the invasion as a justified response to imperialist aggression. It may be a little more difficult to explain Putin’s threat of nuclear war but I guess there’s military merit in getting your retaliation in first.

Russia has understandably tried everything possible to impede the free flow of information. 

It’s closed the few remaining independent radio and television stations and blocked media websites in the Ukraine and Russia that are not slavishly pro-special military operations. Just using the word “war” can now conceivably carry a 15-year jail sentence, in terms of legislation hastily passed by the Russian parliament against fake news.

Facebook has been blocked, Twitter restricted. Russia has also cut access to several foreign “fake news” websites. After the European Union switched off the Russian state-controlled media network RT and YouTube, TikTok and Facebook followed suit, the Russians closed out Deutsche Welle and the BBC, although the UK is not an EU member.

These tit-for-tat gestures are of symbolic significance only. While the BBC response to its banning is charmingly quaint — it has launched four-hours daily of shortwave radio news broadcasts to Ukraine and Russia — it is utterly pointless.

First, this is not the Second World War or the Cold War. There is no need for those seeking the truth to huddle behind locked doors and curtained windows, listening eagerly for the chimes of Big Ben and the words, “This is London calling…”. (Although one wonders what audience still exists for a BBC whose focus has shifted from news to infotainment, all so constrained by wokeness as to be deadly dull?)

Second, attempts by any government to keep its citizens in ignorance are generally doomed. All that is required to circumvent most digital censorship is the technical knowledge that is genetically encoded in anyone over the age of six. 

Often, the censorship backfires. It did so on Monday when the live broadcast of Russia’s Channel One news — with an audience of 17m — was interrupted by one of its producers, Marina Ovsyannikova. She dashed in front of the cameras brandishing a placard reading “No war! Don’t believe the propaganda. They’re lying to you here.”

Russian news agency TASS said that Ovsyannikova would likely be charged under a law that bans any public act aimed to “discredit the use of Russia’s armed forces”. Fortunately for her and wisely in public relations terms, she was charged with “organising an unauthorised public event” and fined about R500. However, she was interrogated for 14 hours, denied access to a lawyer, and her fine doesn’t preclude more serious charges to come.

Blatantly biased and partisan news broadcasts are, of course, not the sole preserve of despotic regimes.  CNN’s hysterical and calculatedly distorted coverage of former president Donald Trump, loathsome though he was, was perhaps the lowest point in journalism, as opposed to state propaganda, in living memory.

Unlike the Russians, the Ukrainians have been reaping masses of good publicity. On the one side, we have a photogenic and engaging president who was a former actor and comedian. On the other, a president who before becoming a warmonger learnt his social skills as a head-thumper and toenail-extractor for the KGB.

It further helps that no one likes a bully. But everyone likes to see a bully have his nose bloodied. 

Consequently, the media and public response in Western nations have reached World Cup final levels of enthusiasm. Ukrainian refugees are being welcomed with considerably more hospitality than equally desperate but dusky-hued escapees from, say, the European Union’s Mediterranean neighbours.

The Brits have always had a soft spot for the plucky underdog, waifs and strays. When the UK government announced a scheme that allows families and individuals to bring in Ukraine refugees, more than 100,000 people opened their homes in the first 24 hours. This from a nation which just recently cast itself asunder from Europe, in part, to slow the flow of foreigners.

But like any mass hysteria, this embrace of Ukrainians, too, will pass. One can only hope that it doesn’t replicate in human terms the previous wave, when much of the global, urban middle-class acquired a pet to buoy them through the isolation of Covid lockdown. Then when the pandemic waned and restrictions lifted, they as seamlessly abandoned them to animal shelters.

Whatever happens, the refugees, despite their immediate privations, will be winners in the larger equation. Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in Europe, scoring abysmally on every quality of life indicator, including life expectancy. Being cold shouldered by insular Brits beats being bombed to smithereens by bloodthirsty Russians in Kyiv apartment buildings, creches, schools, shops and hospitals

It is also likely that the man who, after months of toying with them, has so compounded their misery with the invasion, may have overplayed his hand. Putin’s blitzkrieg, which was intended to place him on President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s front lawn before breakfast hasn’t exactly gone as planned. 

While his military machine will prevail in Ukraine, the events of the past couple of weeks have shown that Putin is not quite the strategic genius he thought himself to be and that Russian bear has vulnerabilities that few predicted.

Russia will win the war but may yet be grievously damaged economically, its reputation sullied and its ambitions to regain its glory days again thwarted.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundiced Eye