For weeks before its invasion of Ukraine began, Russia denied that its buildup of troops near the Ukrainian border had anything to do with a planned invasion. The lie was believed by many, including Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who criticized those who predicted a Russian invasion for stoking fear that was hurting the Ukraine economy. Russia, after it began the invasion, claimed it was not an invasion but only a “special military operation.”
For its part, since the war began, Ukraine has put out a steady flow of its own lies. In an attempt to keep up support for its war effort, Ukraine regularly exaggerates the Russian losses and overestimates the extent of its successes, even as almost four million of its own citizens have fled violence and death that they justifiably want to escape. Among the best examples of these false stories created by Ukraine are reports of heroic acts that did not happen, including one about nonexistent martyrs who died defending an island in the Black Sea and the tales of a superhero pilot who flew incredible stunts of bravery in the skies over Kiev.
Since the invasion, Russia has put out an additional barrage of lies, some of which may have a kernel of truth or be partially true, but are portrayed as absolute, unquestionable truth. Among these are lies that the top levels of the Ukrainian government are made up of drug addicts and Nazis, that the Americans are running biological warfare sites in Ukraine, that migratory birds were being used to bring deadly pathogens into Russia, and that Ukraine is bombing its own cities, including the theater in Mariupol where children were said to be hiding in the basement.
Regarding the Nazis, the description by the Russians is exaggerated, despite the very real fascist threat that does exist in Ukraine, which is more than sufficient a topic for another story. The US admits the existence of biological labs in Ukraine but says they are for peaceful purposes of research into controlling disease. In any case, only the most perverse government would convert such places into biowarfare labs — like the ones the US maintained in Maryland around the time of the Nixon administration. Such weapons labs are now forbidden by treaty, though of course it cannot be definitively stated that they do not exist anywhere in the world.
Clearly, it was the Russians who bombed the theater in Mariupol. But the Ukrainians are not free of guilt regarding past criminal use of that theater. For a long time, the theater and many other locations were used by the Azov Batallion, an openly fascist group, to train Ukrainian children in the use of arms. For too long many Ukrainian parents made what was a poor choice at best of sending their children to camps and training locations run by known fascists. Their choice does not at all justify the Russian bombing of the theater or any of the other places so used, but it would be good if the world got the whole story about what had been going on at that theater and places like it.
Russia’s claims about its intention to “purify” Ukraine of Nazis are hypocritical, however, when they send right-wing ultranationalist Russian gangs to Ukraine to fight in this war. Putin himself espouses an outright Russian imperialist and fascist philosophy. Targeting and bombing civilians sound exactly like the deeds of the fascists he claims he wants to root out.
On the other hand, right-wing neo-fascists from around the world, including the US, are traveling to Ukraine where they join up with the Azov Battalion to fight the Russians. They receive armaments training which they expect will serve them well when they get back to their home countries, including the US Heaven forbid! But it is a warning well worth heeding.
Russian lies seem to be much more accepted at home within Russia than in other countries. The Putin regime shuts down opposition newspapers and TV stations. A majority of Russians support their government’s position and believe their interpretation of events in Ukraine. Ukraine, on the other hand, makes much more sophisticated use of social media to put out its stories about the war, ranging from the horrific pictures and videos of the very real destruction to the tiniest details of the personal lives of war victims.
President Zelensky employs his formidable acting and TV skills in videos sent out all around the world. No national leader anywhere in the world can compete with him on this (although we can think of one former reality TV host.)
Russian stories in their media, even when they are total outright lies, play into a very real backdrop: the history of a NATO and the US that have long been hostile to Russia, not just during the days of the Soviet Union but in all the years since its demise. Any lies they want to tell work well when those lies connect with or seem logical against the history of things that actually did happen, going well back even to Napoleon, the Crimean War, and two world wars.
The favorable disposition that media around the world have toward the Ukrainian side, born of the reality that they are the ones being invaded, allows them to actually get away with repressive acts that people will not allow when it comes to Russia.
For example, Ukraine this week banned all political parties except for Zelensky’s ruling party. He banned the main opposition party for being pro-Russian even though the party’s leader immediately condemned the Russian invasion, despite the fact that it holds 20 percent of the seats in Parliament. The Ukrainians also shut down all newspapers, print publications, and television stations other than the single official government ones, saying it was necessary so that people will get the “truth,” rather than “Russian disinformation.” Most of the Western media has not publicized these measures or has buried news of them in their back pages.
In the face of how the truth has suffered during this war, I can’t help but think about the motto emblazoned on the outside wall of the entrance to my high school: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. ” Though someone is sure to remind me of the Greek tragic playwright Aeschylus (525-456 BCE), quoted for saying, “In war, truth is the first casualty.”