By Daud Khan
ROME, Mar 4 2022 (IPS)
This aphorism which dates back to the late 1940s points out that one’s position on issues (where you stand) is shaped by your relationship with the events taking place (where you sit).
Since the start of the Ukrainian war I have been working in a small country very much in Russia’s shadow. Local TV channels are dominated by broadcasts from Russia. Russian is widely understood here, much more than English, and these channels provide a major source of news.
Not having any Russian, most of my information over the past week has come through listening to the BBC World Service on the radio. By chance the other day I stumbled across the English language channel of Russian state TV and was fascinated by their well-argued and highly polished presentation of the Russian version of facts. It was interesting, although not surprising, to see how differently the war is presented by the two sides.
What is seen in as an invasion of a free democratic country in the West is presented by Moscow as a necessary intervention to halt the interrupted eastern creep of NATO – an issue that threatens their very survival and on which they have repeatedly warned NATO leaders.
The West sees the events as the imposition of Russian rule on freedom loving Ukrainians, while Moscow presents it as the liberation of the Russian speaking people of the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics from Ukrainian bullying and thuggery. The West calls it an invasion and a war; Moscow calls it an operation.
Reporters from each side interview “ordinary citizens” to provide support for their point of view. News agencies such as the BBC and CNN interview ordinary Ukrainians who say how they love their country and want to live in peace but are prepared to defend their homes and families; the other side also interview ordinary people of the Donbas who offer tearful thanks to their Russian liberators.
The arming of ordinary citizens by the Ukrainian Government is seen in western media as giving patriots the means to defend their homeland; in Moscow’s version all this does in armed criminal gangs – some of these have been turning up in pickup trucks to load up dozens of machine guns and thousands of rounds of ammunitions. Moscow say 500 of their soldiers have lost the life, the other side reports a number more than 10 times that.
It is quite futile to ask who is right and about what. Maybe the Russians are right about the eastern creep of NATO but maybe they are lying about the number of deaths. Or maybe both sides are partly right – say about the distribution of arms; it may well be that ordinary patriotic Ukrainians as well as criminal gangs are arming themselves.
In the age of internet and social media, most people have access to both versions of the facts and have a choice about which narrative to believe? And there is where Miles’ Law kicks in – most people will choose the narrative that fits in with their past experiences and their current needs and desires.
At Government level the choice of which narrative to accept, and what positions to take, for example at the UN, will be based on the economic, political and strategic interests of the country or of its rulers. Did Palau (population 18,000) make any objective assessment of facts before cosponsoring the UN motion condemning Russia, or did they simply go along with the wishes of Australia and New Zealand their largest trading partners and donors? Did the Government of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka assess the evidence or did they abstain in the General Assembly vote in order to have the option to make deals with whichever side offers better terms? And did China abstain because it wants to prepare the ground for its own invasion of Taiwan? And what about Afghanistan? Is their vote condemning Russia based on what they believe are the facts of the matter, or is it simply because their representative at the UN is still the one appointed by the Ashraf Ghani Government and whose salaries and expenses are likely paid by the USA?
And what about “ordinary individuals”? What do they believe? Those who have lived in Iraq or in Afghanistan, or in other places where USA and western countries have played havoc, will tend to have sympathies with the Russian narrative. For them someone is finally standing up to western bullying; someone is prepared to give NATO a bloody nose.
In contrast many in Europe will believe the Western version of facts – that Putin is a power hunger lunatic, a megalomaniac who is single handedly driving the invasion, and he will soon be replaced by the oligarchs who see their wealth and privileges dwindling due to sanctions. Their views and predictions are based not only on cultural ties with the Ukraine but is influenced by the fact that most Europeans have benefited from closer economic links with Russia and in particular on plentiful Russian energy supplies – supplies that are at now at risk. For them the quicker the war is over and Russians booted out of the Ukraine the better for everyone. And what if the war is not over quickly? What if energy supplies are cut off, if prices go on rising, and millions of refugees continue to turn up? Will positions change?
But whatever views we hold, and however strongly we wish to argue about who is right and who is wrong, let us not forget that the vast majority of the people on the planet don’t give a hoot about who is right and who is wrong. They will simply curse the big powers whose ambitions have raised the price of food and fuel, making their life ever harder.
Daud Khan works as consultant and advisor for various Governments and international agencies. He has degrees in Economics from the LSE and Oxford – where he was a Rhodes Scholar; and a degree in Environmental Management from the Imperial College of Science and Technology. He lives partly in Italy and partly in Pakistan.