Stoking war with Russia, US media is Biden admin's top ally
While Europe resists Washington's Ukraine-Russia war fever, establishment US news outlets are a reliable partner in propaganda.
In its standoff with Russia over Ukraine, the Biden administration claims to be "united across the board" with European "allies and partners," all while defending "principles that have been at the core of security, stability, and prosperity for decades in Europe and beyond."
But more than two months in, the Biden administration's campaign to stoke fear of a Russian invasion has run into significant roadblocks from the very allies that it claims to be protecting. The crisis has revealed that the US government's staunchest ally for Russia war-mongering does not occupy any European capital, but is instead found right at home in establishment US media newsrooms.
Despite repeated humiliations for all involved, prominent outlets have proved to be a consistent vehicle for laundering pro-war disinformation to the US public. And while front page headlines and cable news chyrons have adhered to strict narrative discipline, the White House's actual, and perhaps only, core principle in Ukraine can sometimes be found buried in the back pages of top US newspapers: safeguarding US hegemony.
Absent from virtually all news coverage is the background that helps explain how we got here: the post-Cold War drive to expand NATO at the behest of DC neoconservatives and their arms industry funders; the 2014 US-backed Maidan coup that ousted a Ukrainian president who resisted Western efforts to cut off ties to Russia and impose crippling neoliberal austerity; the critical role of neo-Nazis and fascists in that coup and their increased influence inside Ukraine in the years since; the US refusal to actively support – if not direct orders to thwart – Kiev's implementation of the 2015 Minsk II accords, which would grant the rebel Donbas region autonomy in return for its demilitarization, thereby ending the fighting but also -- to the dismay of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists and their DC backers -- the prospects of Ukraine's NATO membership; the very fact that the supposed threat of a Russian invasion is a manufactured crisis following a now eight-year old playbook, perhaps designed to justify crippling, bipartisan US sanctions on Russia or even provoke the Ukraine-Russia war that the US claims that it wants to avoid.
Also left unexplained is how flooding Ukraine with weapons and blocking a diplomatic settlement offers any benefit to the US taxpayers footing the bill, at a time when Biden continues to abandon his domestic campaign pledges on a near weekly basis.
A "strategic communications campaign" of US state propaganda
Instead of reporting factual information, US media outlets have flooded their audiences with what one Western intelligence official calls a "strategic communications campaign." This campaign is described uncritically by CNN as a series of "alarming headlines" and a "drumbeat of official disclosures" that have come from "agency spokesmen and officials" who "have provided little by way of evidence -- in effect, asking reporters to report the material without confirmation." In short, a "strategic communications campaign" of state propaganda.
The latest attempt to sow Russia invasion panic came on Friday, with concurrent leaks that the US "believes Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine" or, in the more toned down version, that "Russia could be planning to attack Ukraine prior to end of Olympics."
Within an hour, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was forced to knock down the former claim, telling reporters that "we are not saying Putin has made a final decision." Sullivan reverted to the administration's standard playbook of fear-mongering via suggestive innuendo, urging U.S. citizens to flee Ukraine because the "risk is now high enough, and the threat is now immediate enough" of a Russian attack.
To hype the growing probabilities of a Russian invasion, the US has gone from telling reporters one week ago that Russia has amassed 70% of the forces that it needs to invade, to now offering an update figure of 80% today. At current rates, this gives us just two weeks until the 100% mark -- unless the media's anonymous sources decide to introduce decimal points.
Sullivan's quick denial of what the US "believes" might have been inspired by recent embarrassments. On February 2nd, the White House stopped declaring that a Russian invasion was "imminent" after two weeks of doing so finally ran out of steam. "I think it sent a message that we weren’t intending to send," Press Secretary Jen Psaki explained. (Despite Psaki's misgivings, the current messaging is not exactly a wholesale rebranding: "White House Warns Russian Invasion of Ukraine Could Happen at Any Time," the New York Times declared on Friday..)
Also last week, State Department spokesperson Ned Price resorted to McCarthyism by suggesting that an Associated Press reporter was finding "solace" in Russian statements. The reporter, Matt Lee, committed the grave (and journalistically rare) offense of insisting on evidence rather than accept the Biden administration's claims that Russia is planning to stage a video, complete with crisis actors, to justify an invasion.
Price's treatment of Lee elicited a rare outburst of dissent from the normally pliable US media class. But within days, it was back to normal: when US intelligence officials promptly leaked "assessments" predicting that Russia could seize Kiev within days and cause millions of refugees, media outlets blasted the warnings with dire headlines such as this from the Washington Post:
The number of qualified statements packed into the story's opening sentence may qualify as an all-time record in the annals of media fear-mongering: "Russia is close to completing preparations for what appears to be a large-scale invasion of Ukraine that could leave up to 50,000 civilians killed or wounded," the Post wrote.
The "muscular" US "poodle" in London
The establishment media's dedication to promoting the Biden administration's fear campaign in Ukraine is so devout that not even a blatant lie can interrupt it.
Late last month, the White House and intelligence officials were caught laundering their own allegation of a potential Russian coup in Ukraine via the UK government. The US pretended that it was the British, not Washington, that had discovered a purported plot to install a pro-Kremlin leader, and the entire media played along. The spectacle came just days before the 19th anniversary of a similar pro-war disinformation campaign: the February 2003 British "dossier" on Iraq WMDs, which the Blair government tailored to fit the Bush administration's pre-invasion propaganda campaign.
The claims of a Russian coup plot in Ukraine surfaced on Jan 22 via a statement from the British government. "We have information that indicates the Russian Government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine," UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss declared. The news media quickly followed suit. "The British government said Saturday that the Kremlin was developing plans to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine — and had already chosen a potential candidate — as President Vladimir V. Putin weighs whether to order the Russian forces amassed on Ukraine’s border to attack," the New York Times reported the same day.
In interviews with the Times, anonymous US officials went out of their way to claim that the allegation was discovered by London. "In Washington, officials said they believe the British intelligence is correct," the Times' Michael Schwirtz, David E. Sanger and Mark Landler wrote. "Two officials said it had been collected by British intelligence services." [emphasis added]
When Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the rounds of the Sunday news shows on NBC, CBS, and CNN the next day, each anchor asked about the supposed "new British intelligence" of a Russian coup plot.
The Times' Landler was so impressed with the Brits' supposed intelligence coup about a Russian coup that he devoted a follow-up article to the UK's "More Muscular Role in Standoff With Russia on Ukraine." By going public with the coup plot, Britain has "instantly thrust it on to the front lines of the most dangerous security crisis in Europe in decades," Landler wrote.
"Where the Russians are concerned, you’ll always find the U.K. at the forward end of the spectrum," Karen Pierce, the UK ambassador to the US, declared. Lest anyone suspect that Britain is "being unduly subservient to the United States," Landler closed with the assurances of Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations: "They have to work carefully not to be seen as a poodle. They want to show that they are an extra-regional player."
It took less than one week for officials to quietly admit that the UK had in fact been acting as a poodle: contrary to their initial claims, the "intelligence" of a Russian plot in Ukraine had not been "collected by British intelligence." Instead, the Washington Post reported, the "intelligence underlying" the UK's Russian coup allegation was in fact "collected and declassified by the United States, according to multiple people familiar with the matter." The US had chosen to launder it through the British government, by asking Downing Street "to publicly expose the Russian plotting."
Asked about the discrepancy, a Times spokesperson told me: "We are confident in the accuracy of our reporting and do not discuss sourcing in articles."
US allies make for unreliable war-mongers
While the US media has proved to be a reliable partner for the Biden administration, the same cannot be said for the supposed targets of Russian aggression in Ukraine and beyond.
In Kiev, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly rejected Washington's claims that a Russian invasion is "imminent." Zelensky even took the extraordinary step of calling out his US patrons in a news conference late last month, urging them not to sow "panic" and insisting that the Russian troop build-up on Ukraine's border is no different than a similar deployment last spring. Just today, Zelensky reiterated that there is no indication of a Russian invasion.
"There is a growing sentiment that the United States is exaggerating the threat for political reasons," a Zelensky aide recently told the Washington Post.
In Berlin, the German government has refused to ship weapons to Ukraine and has asked for an exemption on any sanctions imposed on the purchase of Russian gas – a significant hindrance to bipartisan clamor in Washington for "wreaking havoc on Russia's economy." Germany's navy chief, Vice-admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, was forced to resign last month after daring to state that Russian President Vladimir Putin "deserves respect." As an added affront to Western sensibilities, Schönbach also offered the inconvenient opinion that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is unlikely.
In Paris, French President Emanuel Macron has taken the lead in pursuing talks with Russia, meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week. In a nod to Russian concerns, a senior French official told the New York Times that "the extension of NATO and the inclusion in it of countries from the former Soviet space," has created "an area of volatility that has to be reduced." Diverging from Washington, Macron has said publicly that the "there is no security for Europeans if there is not security for Russia" and that a "Finlandization" of Ukraine was "one of the models on the table." Though he did not provide specifics, Putin said that he sees Macron's proposals "as rather feasible for creating a foundation for our further steps."
Testing "Washington’s dominance of transatlantic security"
With the administration's own allies interfering with the Russia-panic, a frustrated Biden administration and its media partners have occasionally let slip their real attitudes toward their European underlings. As part of the venting process, media outlets have openly, albeit quietly, expressed Washington's real goals in Ukraine.
"The [Ukraine] crisis," three Washington Post foreign correspondents wrote on January 28th, "is a major test of Biden’s presidency as Putin challenges Washington’s dominance of transatlantic security." (This passage has since been deleted – a recognition, perhaps, that it was out sync with the overarching strategic communications campaign).
Unfortunately for Washington domineers, Putin is not the only test. Writing that same day, three top New York Times diplomatic correspondents decried "one challenge" plaguing Biden's Ukraine agenda: "the lack of a European leader to help pull the rest of the continent into line." Missing in action, they explain, is "the role former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain played for [George W.] Bush" in attempting to marshal support for the invasion of Iraq.
These statements from the two premier US newspapers' top correspondents capture the prevailing agenda in Ukraine: ensuring "Washington's dominance" of a "transatlantic security" order that requires a reliable lackey to pull the rest "into line."
Biden’s Ukraine push fuels “instability in Europe”
The challenge to keeping unruly Europeans in line has been most pronounced in Germany, which is deeply integrated with Russia's economy and energy supplies. "Russia accounts for over half of Germany’s gas, and a quarter of oil imports, making Germany highly vulnerable in the current crisis, which happens to be unfolding in what is still early winter," the Wall Street Journal notes. This means that not only Germany, but "Europe as a whole," would "struggle to cope with the colder months if Russian gas supplies were to stop… Germany could find itself scrambling for emergency shipments and even rationing the industrial use of gas."
As a result, Germany has blocked NATO weapons deliveries to Ukraine and refused US demands to cancel the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline in the event of a Russian invasion. This has sparked, in the New York Times' rendering, a "wrenching debate over where precisely German loyalties lie."
When German officials are posed this "wrenching" question, they quietly offer the inconvenient suggestion that their "loyalties" lie with their country's self-perceived interests, not those of Washington neocons.
According to German aides, the German Chancellor's "caution isn’t driven by fear of Russian retributions or by concerns about gas supplies," the Journal reports. "Instead, they say America’s push to bring Ukraine into the Western sphere and supply it with weapons is adding to the instability in Europe."
Based on public behavior alone, the Germans' fear that the US is causing "instability" is easy to understand. At a joint news conference on Feb. 7, Biden vowed that if Russia invades Ukraine, "then there will be no longer" a Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. "We will bring an end to it."
Asked by a reporter how he would end a pipeline that "is within Germany's control," not Washington's, Biden was adamant. "I promise you we'll be able to do it." Biden’s confidence was undeterred by the fact that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was standing next to him, who conspicuously declined to play along. Nor was Biden apparently concerned by the "principles" extolled that same day by his Secretary of State, who told a DC news conference that "one country can’t simply dictate to another its choices, its decisions."
Unless that one country is ensuring Washington's dominance, of course.
Ukraine “gift” to US fuels disaster at home
Because Ukraine has also declined to play along with the narrative of a looming Russian invasion, President Zelensky too has been on the receiving end of Washington’s ire. The Ukrainian leader "is by turns annoying, infuriating, and downright counterproductive," one reliable Russiagate stenographer reports, citing conversations with US officials.
The protracted fear-mongering campaign about a Russian invasion has given more opportunities for the real background to emerge. In overlooked interviews, top Ukrainian officials have offered a revealing window into why Zelensky went from campaigning on making peace with Russia to threatening to retake both Crimea and Donetsk, and pushing to join NATO. Their comments also underscore the consequences to Ukraine of living under Washington's dominance.
In 2020, Simon Shuster of Time magazine reports, Russia offered "to supply Ukraine with millions of doses of its [COVID] vaccine, and to allow Ukrainian labs to produce it free of charge." The offer was secured by Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian oligarch and close Putin ally who chairs Ukraine's largest opposition party.
Russia's offer was rejected not only by Kiev, Shuster reports, but the State Department as well, which "accused Russia of using its vaccine as a tool of political influence." Why State Department bureaucrats feel entitled to exert such political influence as deciding the fate of Ukraine's vaccine supply is left unexplained.
After Kiev followed the State Department's dictates and rejected Russia's vaccines, "the death toll mounted in Ukraine — and no vaccine shipments arrived from the West," Shuster adds. With this mounting death toll, "voters turned away from Zelensky in droves." By late 2020, Zelensky's "approval ratings fell well below 40%, compared with over 70% a year earlier." By December, some polls even showed that "Medvedchuk’s party" – a Russia-friendly one – "was in the lead."
In February 2021, Zelensky offered his response: shutting down leading opposition television channels. Two weeks later, he followed up by seizing the assets of Medvedchuk’s family, including “a pipeline that brings Russian oil to Europe.”
At the time, the US embassy cheered the move -- an odd reaction by a Biden administration supposedly concerned with defending democratic rights in Ukraine. It turns out that the US not only applauded the crackdown, but in fact inspired it. Speaking to Time's Shuster, Zelensky's first national security adviser, Oleksandr Danyliuk, revealed that the TV stations' shuttering was "conceived as a welcome gift to the Biden Administration." Targeting those stations, Danyliuk explained, "was calculated to fit in with the U.S. agenda."
Russia soon offered its own reaction to Zelensky’s U.S.-earmarked “welcome gift.” Two days after after its ally’s assets were seized, Russia “announced the deployment of 3,000 paratroopers to the border with Ukraine… the first in a military buildup that has since grown to more than 100,000 Russian troops.”
In interviews with the Wall Street Journal, Zelensky aides made another revealing admission: in deciding to publicly request admission to NATO, Zelensky is "under no illusions that Ukraine would be offered membership." Instead, Zelensky "wanted to expose what he saw as the West’s insincerity and to appear strong by making demands rather than pleading."
Behold the fruits of Washington's "political influence" on Kiev: a higher COVID death toll, a draconian crackdown on the political opposition, and a military standoff with Russia as a result of both the "welcome gift" offered to the Biden administration and a desire to "appear strong" in its eyes.
In stoking a geopolitical crisis just to "appear strong", Zelensky is only following the lead of his DC patrons. When the Biden administration dispatched 3,000 troops to Eastern Europe earlier this month, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby acknowledged that they "are not going to fight in Ukraine," but instead to "send a strong signal to Mr. Putin and the world that NATO matters."
Left unexplored is how U.S. soldiers may feel about being separated from their families and shipped abroad for the cause of sending a "signal" that "NATO matters."
By continuing to amplify the US "strategic communications campaign" that encourages such militarism, it is clear that US establishment media is an eager participant — no matter the consequences to those unlucky subjects, on both sides of the ocean, who fail to benefit from Washington's transatlantic dominance.