‘Putin’s war’ it has been called. The Russian invasion is another of its names. Seldom do we speak of it – because out loud we cannot obviously add the inverted commas – as the “special military intervention”.
Russia’s media machine, shaped, as we are led to believe, by a narrative-first, designed-from-on-high approach, wants its readership to believe in the just drive behind their push into Ukraine.
Russia media bad:
Putin and his politicos want Russians, and any other audience it can capture, to believe that this war is one of liberation. State-endorsed media outlets made much of the presence of neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian military and of the plight of pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions. These separatists, fighting for the freedom of the Donbas region (a combination of Luhansk and Donetsk) are a subjugated class, it has been and still is argued.
The “special military intervention” is, according to the Russians, a mission outside of their own agenda; it is a moral crusade, driven by the need of others and the capacity – even responsibility – of the Russian state to do them the good they deserve.
Western media good:
The media machine of the West, as it reported on the origins of the war, sought to undermine this Russian narrative. It presented alternative readings: the war as expression of Putin’s power-mongering; the war as illustrative of Russian wariness at the advance of Nato influence; the war as an attempt to appease a political elite nostalgic about their previous imperial boundaries.
In its presentation of this alternative reading, often in the same articles, Western media sought to undermine the validity of its competing story. Much was made of Russia’s well-evidenced harsh treatment of dissenting voices. Reminders were made that Russian media is entirely state-controlled.
The purpose of this article is not to suggest that the Russian media is not all of these things and that the story it produces is anything other than entirely one-sided. The purpose of this article is to analyse Western media’s assumption that it is not.
The purpose of this article is to illustrate that there is more than one way to skin the censorship cat.
State censorship and self-censorship: there is more than one way to censor your stories
In the West, just as here in Kenya, it is common knowledge that the big media outlets are almost all owned, one way or another, by those wealthy, ever-present families whose names are spoken of whisperingly. Despite this, in our more suggestively democratic societies, there is greater belief that the stories given to us are offered up and shaped because of and by the interest that we have in the subjects reported.
In this belief, we convince ourselves that the stories we consume are less susceptible to the encroach of falsity, or at the least hidden truths, than are the ones Russian’s read.
That is not the case, however. Even if we want to believe that, by in large, those shadowy owners are wont to step back and let the story shape itself, there is machinery within these story-first media machines that makes them almost as one-sided as Russia’s state-controlled media.
Firstly, there is the fact that the media machines of democratic societies position themselves as the ‘other’ to Russian and other state-controlled outlets. ‘Othering’, in this context as in so many others, is reflexively combative. In this combative relationship, there is an alluring righteousness to the fighting fire with fire idea; to the idea that the only way to combat a narrative so obviously one-sided is with a one-sidedness of our own.
Secondly, there is the ‘we’re all in this together’ notion that has managed to exert increasingly obvious influence over globally-connected Western democracies in recent years.
Western media, perhaps owing to movements requiring mass action – most obviously influential in this category being the ‘halt climate change’ movement – has become increasingly pliable to the exertive influence embedded in a need for consensual action.
Global heating, we’ve been told, is a desperate, near inevitable eventuality that could bring upon us untold, planet-wide destruction to habitats and the species within them. It is a future we must avoid and the avoidance of it requires a communal pulling together: a concerted, heads-down-and-dogged drive.
Really, it’s a simple – however scary – problem with a simple – however sacrificial – solution.
There have been ebbs and flows to the way climate change and the halting of it have been reported on. In some of those ebbs there have been occasions to ask questions but, in some of the more powerful and uncompromising flows, there has been the palpable presence of an atmosphere that suggested ‘if you’re asking questions, you’re holding back the movement’.
Mass action movements such as the one bidding to halt global temperature rise have had the result of making the media believe in another addictively-enticing moral argument: keep it simple, stupid.
There is another reason why Western media is so simplified right now: we censor from below. We want to believe in the uncomplicated evil of Putin and, if not the Russian people, then the Russian state. We want to know that Putin’s justifications are lies and that the Ukrainian military is morally uncorruptible.
Wanting that to be true means we are more inclined to reading stories that suggest it is. Stories that suggest otherwise get a lower readership and are therefore less likely to be followed up on. In the internet age, with each article’s view count so easily counted, online news journals know what sells. What sells in the context of the Ukraine conflict are the stories that illustrate Russia’s evil.
The complicated picture created of the continuous asking of questions has been replaced by binarily simple readings: Russia bad, Ukraine good.
Now, this is Russia’s war. Putin has made his country into an invading force that the people of Ukraine have every right to fight tooth-and-nail to push back. Russia has still, in the eyes of this commentator, given the moral righteousness to Ukraine and its people.
That still shouldn’t stop us from presenting the more complicated picture.
What part does Kenya play in the complicated origin of Russia’s war with Ukraine?
One of the reasons for the writing of this article is the fact that we, the residents of Kenya, know intimately of the moral ambiguity embedded in the Donbas region conflict.
Long before Russia’s war with Ukraine, before any of the names it now has ever featured as headlines on our phone screens, our national news headlines were near-constantly dominated by stories of terror attacks. Most if not all were orchestrated by the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Shabaab group. Often before even the stories broke, reporters had access to statements from spokespersons for the group.
On June 17th 2014, Al-Shabaab spokesperson spoke of how the terrorist cell’s “commandos have fulfilled their duties and returned peacefully to their base”. Their duties, in this case, were the killing of 20 people near the village of Mpeketoni in Lamu County. The 20 people were, according to that same spokesperson, “mainly police and Kenyan Wildlife wardens”.
Less than a month later Al-Shabaab would have claimed responsibility for another attack on Kenyan soil. Gunmen were reported to have killed 29 people in the Mpeketoni area again, this time on the 6th of July. Al-Shabaab spokesperson Abdulaziz Abu Musab satisfied himself with claiming responsibility for the group and informing us that the “attackers came back home safely to their base.”
It was a period of great, mounting and seemingly out of control insecurity in the country. Heads rolled. In December of 2014, the Cabinet Secretary for Internal Security, Joseph Ole Lenku, lost his job. He was followed soon after by Police Inspector David Kimaiyo. There had been vocal calls for the resignation of both.
They’d overseen this period of mounting insecurity and had both been in their respective positions, presiding over internal security, during the Westgate shopping mall terror attack.
For many reasons, entirely unconnected to the conflict in Ukraine, Westgate was a uniquely national affair. Reports emerged of how the siege in search for terror suspects had turned into gunfights between military forces. We later learned of the embarrassment that was the fact of Kenya’s military forces looting the stores they had come to secure. These issues are our own and should be considered, learnt from, and moved on from as such.
However, what was out of our control, and worthy of not forgetting, was that this attack on the Westgate mall was perpetrated and organised by foreign agents in the desire of destabilising our country. At the time, and indeed in the aftermath, one of the principal suspects wanted in connecting with the Westgate shopping mall attack was the infamous Al-Shabaab operative known as the ‘White Widow’.
Samantha Lewthwaite, alias the ‘White Widow’ first came to notoriety through her connection to the London 7/7 bomber, Germaine Lindsay. She was his wife before the bomber’s death and was reported as a high-ranking member of Al-Shabaab during the Westgate attack.
Samantha Lewthwaite went unpunished for the crimes she organised on Kenyan soil. She went underground after the Westgate attack and was not heard from again until reports emerged that she was dead.
She had been killed, it was reported, by a Russian sniper. Of course the reports rose eyebrows. It was told to us that she had died fighting for a Ukrainian volunteer defence force. This volunteer force, the Aidar Battalion, were fighting against pro-Russia separatists in the Donbas region.
Samantha Lewthwaite makes for an absurd connection between terror in Kenya and the conflict in Eastern Europe. The placing of her within this complicated origin of Russia’s war is not done to undermine the validity of Ukraine’s fight for independence. Indeed, it may even be taken as illustrative of the desperation inherent in that fight: desperate times call for desperate measures.
Complicating this too-often too binary account is not done to damage the drive of one or, indeed, the other side. It is done to prove that narratives are complicated and the complication of them should be protected for complication’s sake.
For complication’s sake, it can be true that this is Putin’s war and that there are peoples in the Donbas who are indeed seeking liberation. For complication’s sake, it can be true that there is a political elite in Russia that wishes the Soviet Union had never been reduced and that there are some particularly nasty military and para-military arms contributing to the conflict in Ukraine. For complication’s sake, we can believe in the bigness of movements whilst still asking questions on how best to accomplish them.
If you are interested in this story and the wider implications of Russia’s war in regards to how it impacts Africa, consider reading:
‘How does Russia’s war impact Africa?’