Sometime before I left Ukraine I began to feel a strong case of burn-out with this so-called “information war” between the West and Russia. I, of course, made my career so to speak on not joining a “team.” For example, I supported and continue to support Ukraine primarily for ideological, moral reasons, not simply because of heritage and certainly not because of the stance the US government took on the matter. More importantly, I do not see everyone who claims to support Ukraine or oppose Putin’s regime as an automatic ally. This isn’t rocket science; it’s called having principles and trying to be consistent. Unfortunately, that’s a very lonely path these days, and that’s what makes it so easy to get burnt out.
When we look at the “information war” as this conflict that began in earnest in 2014, it is often portrayed in the West as a conflict between truth on one side and Russian propaganda on the other. In reality, it is nothing of the sort. The reason we see the conflict this way is only because the Russian side has been intentionally and enthusiastically flooding the internet with literal disinformation, often in the form of easily-debunked, poorly fabricated fake stories. Since a lot of the West’s counter-propaganda consists of debunking those stories, it gives the impression that Russia lies while the West upholds objective truth. The former is still very true, but the latter simply isn’t.
While many people on the Western side of this conflict are far more grounded in reality than Russia’s propagandists, they still tolerate myth-making and creatively interpreting history to score political points today. In other words, they’re fine with occasionally doing the same thing the Russian government does when it suits their purposes.
For a perfect example of this, look no further than the controversial video released by NATO about the “Forest Brothers,” the name that refers to the Baltic resistance movement after WWII.
Naturally, the Russian government’s reaction to the release of the film was to go ape-shit and start screaming about Nazis. Indeed, it is true that some of the Forest Brothers, much like many members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, were former Nazi collaborators. From what I saw, however, the Western response to Russian hysterics wasn’t a call for a nuanced study of the Baltic resistance as a whole, but rather dismissal and whataboutist references to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
To see what’s wrong with this film, I recommend reading this piece by Jewish and Holocaust historian Dovid Katz. If you don’t have time, here’s the main takeaway:
“As for the flawed NATO film, it could be ameliorated by an additional moment of explanation about the featured group’s Nazi connections. True, that might cancel out its value in the West’s informational war against Putinist aggression. But our information war, unlike Russia’s, needs to be based on Western values and historic truthfulness. An alternate solution suggests itself: Make a film about the many brutal evils and crimes of Soviet Communism, perhaps focusing on the very area where the Zapad 17 exercises are slated to be held.
As is often the case, there is a “simple” solution to what is being sold as a “complicated” problem.”
Some might object to Katz’s criticism, saying that the film celebrates only the resistance to Soviet occupation, not Nazi collaboration. But in this climate, try to imagine the shoe was on the other foot. If Russia released, for example, a short film celebrating the victory at Stalingrad, for example. I guarantee you Twitter would be alive with people tweeting about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in response. See, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact totally invalidates the Soviet Union’s role in defeating European fascism and Japanese imperialism, because it was collaboration (indeed it was), but the actual Nazi collaboration of groups like the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists doesn’t count because…uh…later they were betrayed by the Nazis and they…uh…killed maybe a few hundred German personnel.* This is classic whataboutism- “This thing isn’t bad because your side did this, but the thing your side did is still bad.” One can scream about Russian propaganda as much as one wants, but at the end of the day this is just the same thing, only dumber in some cases.
More importantly from a practical point of view, without correcting this kind of behavior it will never be possible to win hearts and minds among Russians, the only people who can ever halt the imperialist behavior of their rulers for good. Western pundits would like to think that they’re just urging Russia to take responsibility for its past actions. While it is true that Western countries often fail to live up to this standard, there’s a lot more of this accountability in the West than in Russia right now. Unfortunately, the real message the West has been sending over the past decade or so isn’t being interpreted that way. In reality it looks more like the West is telling Russians they must accept the Western interpretation of their own history, while countries like Ukraine, Poland, or the Baltic states are free to tell whatever narratives they wish. While it’s not true that Western media totally ignores the whitewashing that goes on in those latter countries, the attention they receive is nothing compared to what Russia gets for basically the same activity. Does anyone really expect Russians to take a more critical view of their history when they can easily see Ukrainians who defend figures like UPA-leader Roman Shukhevych by repeating nonsense like “every nation has a right to their own heroes?”**
Obviously it is very possible for a person to both debunk Kremlin lies and on the other hand support lies and myth-making which suits them. The latter does not somehow invalidate the former. But such people don’t really have any right to claim they are standing up for truth. They are standing only for truth when it suits them. The Russians are doing the same thing, it’s just that the truth rarely suits the Kremlin.
I’d urge my fellow “fighters” in this information war to be consistent in their principles and to respect history and the study of history. History does not belong to one nation; it belongs to humanity. Every attempt to distort and deny it is a slight against human memory, against the story of humanity. None of these nationalist myths actually do anything to repel Russian aggression; they actually provide grist for the Kremlin’s propaganda mills and generally make people dumber.
As for practical advice to those who actually care about being on the side of truth and not just being on a side, I would recommend the following:
-Stop whitewashing Nazi collaborators or groups who committed atrocities just because they are seen as anti-Russian. We Americans already have a shameful past of getting into bed with former Nazis or their collaborators because we decided that Communism was a bigger threat. Incidentally none of that activity actually helped roll back Soviet influence. Instead it just got a lot of people killed for nothing.
-Stop tolerating whitewashing of such figures by nations who feel “threatened” by Russia. For one thing, Russia is not the Soviet Union, ergo all the whataboutist talk about Molotov-Ribbentrop is really moot. The sad fact is that some countries just fought on the wrong side in WWII, and they need to get over that fact the way countries like Germany or Italy (yes, yes, Italian Co-Belligerent forces excepted) did. A good way to do this is by encouraging people to separate their modern independence from historical organizations that often had nothing to do with said independence.
-Stop pretending that World War II was stared by both Hitler and Stalin; it was started by Hitler, who would have gone to war with or without the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Of course the USSR’s shameful history of collaboration associated with the pact must be taught, but it should be taught in the context of the time, a time when all the major powers collaborated and engaged in appeasement because they all believed they weren’t ready for war. In any case, I repeat that Russia is not the USSR and thus all this talk about Molotov-Ribbentrop is utterly irrelevant to the Kremlin’s actions today. If the Russian ministry of education adopted this Western view of WWII for its school curriculum, would that change anything about the immoral, authoritarian nature of the Putin regime? Absolutely not.
-Don’t let the Russian government get away with monopolizing the victory over fascism in WWII. Instead of trying to invalidate the Soviet Union’s contribution by idiotically pointing out Molotov-Ribbentrop, try pointing out the fact that six million Ukrainians served in the Red Army; at times Ukrainians made up at least 15% of the Red Army’s strength. One in four Belarusians died fighting for the Soviet Union, often as partisans. Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Tajiks, and other peoples whose nations were not directly threatened with invasion and occupation fought in the ranks of the Red Army. In short- the Russian Federation has no right to dictate how the history of the war should be remembered by former Union republics, some of which (Ukraine, Belarus) experienced the war on a far more destructive level.
These are just a few of the recommendations I can give to those who want to fight lies with truth, and not just other lies.
I realize I might lose some supporters by calling out something on “my side,” but I don’t care. I lost plenty of comrades because I stood up for Ukraine when many Western leftists had bought into the Kremlin propaganda. Better to be right than popular.
I can continue to fight against propaganda and the distortion of history, but I cannot continue to be a part of an “information war” that seems to be nothing more than passive-aggressive internet trolling as a substitute for actually opposing the Kremlin’s aggression and assault on reality.
*I’m sorry but I’ll be blunt- If you’re Ukrainian you probably shouldn’t be complaining too much about Molotov-Ribbentrop. That’s why we have Galicia, Volyn, Bukovina, and Bassarabia today. If you’re comfortable giving those territories back, then you can talk. Moreover, most of Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union at the time. Ukrainians in Poland welcomed the invading Soviets, and even the nationalists, at the behest of the Germans, fomented a not-too-successful uprising against the Polish government in 1939. I’m terribly sorry but Ukraine is up to its elbows in responsibility for the carve up of the Polish 2nd Republic whether on one side or the other. Also I find it rather cynical that those who would defend figures who slaughtered Poles by the thousands in Volyn often act as though they’re so concerned with the fate of interwar Poland. Again, this just shows how this side isn’t about moral principle or consistency, but just “winning” a game of historical narratives.
** Yes, I have seen Ukrainians online use this defense numerous times, repeating it almost verbatim as a mantra in both Russian and Ukrainian. No, most Ukrainians don’t see Shukhevych or the UPA as national heroes, which is one reason why every attempt to glorify them in Ukraine typically meets with great controversy.