‘Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth by falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages’. That’s Samuel Johnson in November 1758 writing in his The Idler essays for the London Weekly about the growing role of journalists - ‘news-writers’. You wonder what he might have made of Putin’s news media.
‘The first casualty of war is truth’, our terse twentieth century version of Johnson. The aphorism applies to the coverage of the war in Ukraine both through what is generally omitted, what is told and untold. The ethical principles underlying journalism are accuracy, impartiality, independence, accountability, humanity and truth. They are notoriously difficult to abide by - sometimes career-threatening - in the face of strong public opinion, particularly during war when a degree of self-censorship is prudent.
Take just two examples of Western reporting. The Russians claimed they were promised in the 1990s that NATO would not expand eastwards. Denials were reported uncritically. But US National Security Archives opened in December 2017 reveal Gorbachev was indeed assured in 1990-1991, not only by US Secretary of State, James Baker, but by Thatcher, Kohl, Mitterrand, Major and Bush senior that there would be no NATO expansion. This litany of assurances – Baker's “not one inch east” - came as quid pro quo for Gorbachev’s consenting to German unification within NATO. Promises to Russia were reneged on in response to understandable pressures from Central and Eastern European countries plus lobbying by the six major US armaments corporations led by Lockheed Martin. In 1996, Congress passed legislation enabling expansion, the NATO Enlargement Facilitation Act.
The former ambassador to the Soviet Union and doyen of foreign policy within the State Department, George Kennan wrote in the 29 June 1997 New York Times with extraordinary prescience: “Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking”. As Putin was consolidating his power between 1999-2004, ten countries, four bordering Russia, joined NATO.
NATO’s expansion does not justify Putin’s criminal invasions of Ukraine nor his war crimes, nor his tyrannical rule. But it does provide him with a public rationale for attacks on his southern, sovereign neighbour (his imperial fantasies seem to have taken over now). As long as acknowledging the truth of what Kennan wrote back in 1997 about NATO expansion incurs strident media accusations of supporting Russian aggression, we are not going to learn from history - though perhaps we never do.
The second example of constrained reporting has profound implications for ending the war through a peace agreement and ceasefire. Russia’s fantasy of blitzkrieg and swift overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-western government failed. In March 2022, a month after the invasion, as a result of Turkish mediation, Russia and Ukraine appeared on the verge of finding a negotiated end to the fighting. Key elements were Russia's withdrawal to its pre-24 February positions in exchange for Ukraine’s neutrality, that is excluding any foreign bases or troops from its territory – even on joint exercises. The US, UK and other countries were to provide joint security guarantees promising to intervene in the event of Ukraine being attacked again. Crimea would be left on the back burner with an understanding that within the next fifteen-year years, while seeking a resolution, neither party would use military means to change the territory’s current status. The disputed Donbass area would also be the subject of separate negotiations.
According to Milan Rai writing in Peace News 2 April 2023 Ukraine abruptly withdrew from the negotiations because of the mass murder of civilians and prisoners of war by Russian troops in Bucha, a town just 25 kms west of Kyiv, and as a result of pressure from the US and UK (Boris Johnson made a special visit to Kviv on 9 April and refused to sign the proposed special guarantees). A few days later Russia pushed into the territories it had recognized as independent in eastern Ukraine.
Maybe events simply made steps to reach a just peace impossible. Maybe Putin was negotiating in good faith. The Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett who was engaged in the negotiations believed so and thought there was a 50/50 chance of success. We just don’t know. The point is that the two parties were at the negotiating table once discussing a plan that might have worked, but talk of negotiations now gets treated as, at worst, a betrayal of Ukraine or, at best, naiveté. Yet the chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, not known for his naiveté, was talking openly of negotiations in November 2022. He compared the trench warfare in eastern Ukraine and its appalling casualties with those of the First World War and received a customary backlash for not promoting outright victory for Ukraine.
In a comparable way, Pope Francis has been widely criticised for maintaining the neutral position required for promoting dialogue, and very recently for praising the cultural wealth of ‘great Mother Russia’. Yet on 2 August 2022 the Vatican had fiercely denounced the Russian invasion: “the interventions of the Holy Father Pope Francis are clear and unequivocal in condemning it as morally unjust, unacceptable, barbaric, senseless, repugnant and sacrilegious”.
Both Pope and President Volodymyr Zelensky find themselves caught between contending expectations and demands. On the Pope’s side, taking up a clear moral, so partisan, position versus a traditional papal role as neutral peacemaker. On Zelensky’s, the burden of rising Ukrainian casualties and openness to negotiation versus retaining his international and national support by a position of nothing- but- outright- victory and maintaining his decree banning negotiation. To pursue the former, with a consistent 90% approval rating for pursuing the latter, would be political suicide.
The intensity of the ground artillery war is prodigious. Both sides are beginning to run out of ammunition. Stockpiles of 155 mm shells held in the West are very low. The UK has resorted to sending Ukraine depleted uranium tank-busting shells believed to have caused illness amongst civilians and troops in Afghanistan. The US is supplying cluster bombs known to mutilate children and to take years of clearance post-war. The Russians are reduced to seeking ordinance and weaponry from North Korea.
On 12 September this year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke of Zelensky needing to lift his decree banning talks with Russia as a first step towards negotiations, saying that, if Ukraine was unwilling, it was for the USA to make it happen. Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, a leading member of the Sant Egidio community based in Rome, which successfully mediated the civil war in Mozambique, has just returned from Beijing. His mandate from the Pope is to "support humanitarian initiatives and the search for ways that can lead to a just peace" in Ukraine. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, indicated his willingness to have him come to Moscow on Friday.
Are we approaching another March 2022 moment of mutually felt weakness that might make steps towards dialogue, negotiation, a ceasefire and an agreed peace possible? For the sake of the Ukrainian and Russian people dying in Putin’s war let’s hope against hope we are.
See TheArticle 16/09/2023