Home / Opinion / Columns /  The war has unacknowledged shades of grey

Even after several rounds of Russia-Ukraine truce negotiations, the war rages on. Russian forces continue to pound Kyiv and other cities, and Ukrainian refugees swarm the borders. On Wednesday, in a virtual address to the US Congress, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky invoked Pearl Harbour and 9/11 and again urged the US and Nato to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, a request they have flatly refused. A no-fly zone will force Nato to engage Russian fighter aircraft, something that Nato has no stomach for.

Ukraine has also been refused air support and even access to old Warsaw Pact MiG fighters parked in Poland. US President Joe Biden has announced another $800 million of military aid but also admitted that it is getting “exceedingly difficult" to get supplies into Ukraine. And since Russia’s invasion began on 24 February, the European Union has paid Russia around €14 billion for oil, gas and coal imports, in effect helping finance Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war.

Zelensky’s speech included a two-and-a-half-minute video (bit.ly/3qera9c), with scenes from an idyllic era followed by graphic images of death and destruction. Several Western news outlets described the film as “heart-breaking".

Yes, it is. All war is ghastly, but Zelensky has possibly been led by false assurances from the West into an avoidable disaster. All he can do now is bank on the resilience of his soldiers, plead for support and produce emotive memes. Of course, his showbiz background is serving him well. It is estimated that as many as three dozen senior members of his government are from the film and TV world, most of them friends and colleagues from his TV and stand-up comedy days. These include his chief of staff, head of the presidential administration, chief policy adviser and the vice-president of his intelligence service. If only the people of Kosovo or Iraq had some film producers and screenplay writers as their leaders.

Zelensky has been winning the narrative war from day one, helped immensely by Western platforms like YouTube banning Russian news channels, and Facebook and Twitter blacking out pro-Putin voices. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government is churning out clever videos and memes by the dozen every day, many of which have gone viral. While some of these do depict the truth, others include videos from Palestine, scenes clipped from video games and tweets claiming that 200 Russian tanks had been destroyed the previous night.

This is not to deny the grit and courage of Ukrainians. The point is that Zelensky and his team have used their evident storytelling talent brilliantly to sway world opinion in their favour.

In this war, Western media platforms have become willing geopolitical weapons. Some days ago, YouTube took down a 2016 documentary, Ukraine On Fire. After protests, it is now available again (bit.ly/3tgSDsQ). Directed by Ukraine-born Igor Lopatonok, with Oscar-winning film maker Oliver Stone as executive producer, it offers a perspective on the violent 2014 uprising that overthrew its former pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych.

It has long been alleged that the regime change was planned and executed by the US to create a “client state" right at Russia’s doorstep. Ukraine On Fire provides compelling evidence that this may indeed have been the case. Putin would not allow this and it is Ukraine that suffers.

The film also clinically documents the country’s chequered history—a powerful fascist movement, whose leaders like Stepan Bandera are still national heroes for many; Ukrainian Nazi regiments joining Hitler’s army against the Soviets; the terrible massacres of Ukrainian Jews; the role of neo-Nazis in the 2014 uprising and the influence they still have, including the notorious Azov militia that works closely with the Ukrainian army (oh yes, all of us know that Zelensky is Jewish).

And while Western media portrays Zelensky as a heroic figure, his record on press freedom is dubious (bit.ly/3uofkuL). A statement that his office made soon after he was elected president in 2019 was that it “doesn’t need journalists". This has been reflected in pressure on media owners to toe the government line, physical assaults and flimsy criminal cases against media outlets and journalists, shutting down pesky TV channels, and a bill—not yet passed—that threatens media independence. Zelensky is no paragon of liberal democratic values.

Zelensky may be a shoo-in now for a Nobel Peace Prize, but he should know that all the blood spilt and lives destroyed will be Ukrainian. The West wants to keep the war “contained" while protecting its own economic interests and make profits out of arms sales, while Putin aims to win. Yet, Putin must also have realized that even if he manages to install a puppet regime in Kyiv, he may set off a years-long cycle of attrition, pain and economic haemorrhage.

Zelensky needs to worry much more about his people’s future and his fair-weather allies than his global image. This is not a TV show. Putin surely wants to end this war as quickly as possible, as long as his primary condition of Ukraine’s neutrality is met. The West must admit that its unprecedented sanctions on Russia—from freezing sovereign funds and seizing private property to banning Russian pianists and sportsmen—may end up turning Russia into a giant North Korea, one that’s far more dangerous for the world. Good sense should prevail.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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