Controlling the Narrative
Terry H. Schwadron
Feb. 24, 2022
As we know, Russian troops were moving into Ukraine overnight, with missile strikes and explosions, and the awful story line started becoming clear. What remains is how far and how fast the Russians will go.
After days and weeks of artful dodging, we now have an answer to whether Russia would cast international norms to the side. That it would begin just as the United Nations Security Council was meeting to deter Russia made the decision seem derisive as well as dangerous on Russia’s part.
We know there will be casualties and refugees in large numbers, and a fair amount of immediate confusion. The attacks are coming from three sides of the country in the air, from the sea and on the ground. It can’t end well.
Indeed, beginning today, even as we still grapple with what is happening in scattered skirmishes in Ukraine, we may see effects on Americans in crazy financial reactions and higher gas prices. Germany and Europe will lose a source of fuel that will be difficult to replace entirely. And we may see Russian cyberattacks on any country seen as crossing Russia’s interests.
There will be more sanctions from the West, more cries for help from Ukraine and a flood of misery — all because of Russia’s need to assert its perceived territorial imperative. The conflict feels at once both a terrifying threat to suck the world into war and something that still seems totally avoidable.
Still, throughout this period, it has been up to us to figure out whom to believe and how to interpret what it means, as different voices keep struggling to control the narrative. We must await both the unfolding reality and what it means.
If the voice is that of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, none of this fussing among the United States and Europe about mere financial sanctions, however strong or weak, are going to stop his play for territory in what had been a sovereign Ukraine. It was his and Russia’s for the taking, he insisted. Even as he was moving to swallow Ukraine whole, he was still spinning about protecting Russians and “de-Nazifying” that country. Making it worse, Putin was dropping dark hints about how Russia is a nuclear power.
If that voice is Joe Biden, you’ve been hearing that we are doing our best to keep an international alliance in line to contain Russian expansion without committing U.S. troops to a wider war, insisting that economic sanctions should prove a block. If you listen to European leaders, the only question was whether some sanctions should be moving faster.
If your hero is Donald Trump, we’ve heard that Putin is a genius — and, of course, that none of this would be happening if Trump were still president. That is rich, of course, from someone who delayed defensive weapons to Ukraine for personal political gain, who re-invited Putin to international favor despite similar takeover in Crimea and who sought to undermine NATO.
For Republicans, it’s more important to criticize Biden than to block Russians. Biden doesn’t ask Republicans what they think and is more worried about the effects of $100-a-barrel oil prices coming in a time of conflict and global pressures on fuel supplies. If anything, there has been a lot of gaslighting of facts to cover our own political divisions.
To American ears expecting some degree of unity over foreign policymaking amid conflict, the diplomatic and political fallout across the globe and at home has been as teeth-gnashing as is the original aggression by Russia. Republicans are both attacking Putin and Biden either for being too weak, too slow or for caring about international bullying altogether.
Division Within Divisions
What we’re seeing play out is not only real conflict with soldiers, tanks and guns, but a fight over controlling what reality we are recognizing. Control the narrative, and perhaps you control the outcome here, the thinking goes.
Throughout, both Putin and Biden have been extraordinarily public about laying out their various stories about why Ukraine is or isn’t linked to Russia’s history and why the White House has been liberal in disseminating U.S. intelligence reports that it finds favorable to its pleas.
Remarks from global leaders were angry, but basically have not changed the direction of what is happening.
Generally, it’s almost become secondary whether sanctions alone will have any effect on shortening what is now a special military operation to force Ukraine back into the larger Russia.
One gauge of disdain or embrace may come from watching how China acts. Clearly, China and Russia have drawn closer together, developing an unusually close partnership despite a history of military and political conflict. So far, China has been careful not to describe what is happening as an invasion but keeps calling for diplomatic offramps. Meanwhile, of course, we know China is watching this play out for their own interests in doing the same thing in Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan.
Even with invasion now the focus, narratives still matter, but not as much as military strikes,