Tangled Threads of US False Narratives

Exclusive: Official Washington’s many false narratives about Russia and Syria have gotten so tangled that they have become a danger to the struggle against Sunni jihadist terrorism and conceivably a threat to the future of the planet, a risk that Robert Parry explores.

By Robert Parry

One way to view Official Washington is to envision a giant bubble that serves as a hothouse for growing genetically modified “group thinks.” Most inhabitants of the bubble praise these creations as glorious and beyond reproach, but a few dissenters note how strange and dangerous these products are. Those critics, however, are then banished from the bubble, leaving behind an evermore concentrated consensus.

This process could be almost comical  as the many armchair warriors repeat What Everyone Knows to Be True as self-justifying proof that more and more wars and confrontations are needed but the United States is the most powerful nation on earth and its fallacious “group thinks” are spreading a widening arc of chaos and death around the globe.

We even have presidential candidates, especially among the Republicans but including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, competing to out-bellicose each other, treating an invasion of Syria as the least one can do and some even bragging about how they might like to shoot down a few Russian warplanes.

Though President Barack Obama has dragged his heels regarding some of the more extreme proposals, he still falls in line with the “group think,” continuing to insist on “regime change” in Syria (President Bashar al-Assad “must go”), permitting the supply of sophisticated weapons to Sunni jihadists (including TOW anti-tank missiles to Ahrar ash-Sham, a jihadist group founded by Al Qaeda veterans and fighting alongside Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front), and allowing his staff to personally insult Russian President Vladimir Putin (having White House spokesman Josh Earnest in September demean Putin’s posture for sitting with his legs apart during a Kremlin meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu).

Not surprisingly, I guess, Earnest’s prissy disapproval of what is commonly called “man spread” didn’t extend to Netanyahu who adopted the same open-leg posture in the meeting with Putin on Sept. 21 and again in last week’s meeting with Obama, who it should be noted sat with his legs primly crossed.

This combination of tough talk, crude insults and reckless support of Al Qaeda-connected jihadis (“our guys”) apparently has become de rigueur in Official Washington, which remains dominated by the foreign policy ideology of neoconservatives, who established the goal of “regime change” in Iraq, Syria and Iran as early as 1996 and haven’t changed course since. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “How Neocons Destabilized Europe.”]

Shaping Narratives

Despite the catastrophic Iraq War based on neocon-driven falsehoods about WMD and the complicit unthinking “group think” the neocons retained their influence largely through an alliance with “liberal interventionists” and their combined domination of major Washington think tanks, from the American Enterprise Institute to the Brookings Institution, and the mainstream U.S. news media, including The Washington Post and The New York Times.

This power base has allowed the neocons to continue shaping Official Washington’s narratives regardless of what the actual facts are. For instance, a Post editorial on Thursday repeated the claim that Assad’s “atrocities” included use of chemical weapons, an apparent reference to the now largely discredited claim that Assad’s forces were responsible for a sarin gas attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013.

After the attack, there was a rush to judgment by the U.S. State Department blaming Assad’s troops and leading Secretary of State John Kerry to threaten retaliatory strikes against the Syrian military. But U.S. intelligence analysts refused to sign on to the hasty conclusions, contributing to President Obama’s last-minute decision to hold off on a bombing campaign and to accept Putin’s help in negotiating Assad’s surrender of all Syrian chemical weapons (though Assad still denied a role in the sarin attack).

Subsequently, much of the slapdash case for bombing Syria fell apart. As more evidence became available, it increasingly appeared that the sarin attack was a provocation by Sunni jihadists, possibly aided by Turkish intelligence, to trick the United States into destroying Assad’s military and thus clearing the way for a Sunni jihadist victory.

We now know that the likely beneficiaries of such a U.S. attack would have been Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the spinoff known as the Islamic State (also called ISIS, ISIL or Daesh). But the Obama administration never formally retracted its spurious sarin claims, thus allowing irresponsible media outlets, such as The Washington Post, to continue citing the outdated “group think.”

The same Post editorial denounced Assad for using “barrel bombs” against the Sunni rebels who are seeking to overthrow his secular government, which is viewed as the protector of Syria’s minorities including Christians, Alawites and Shiites who could face genocide if the Sunni extremists prevail.

Though this “barrel bomb” theme has become a favorite talking point of both the neocons and liberal “human rights” groups, it’s never been clear how these homemade explosive devices shoved out of helicopters are any more inhumane than the massive volumes of “shock and awe” ordnance, including 500-pound bombs, deployed by the U.S. military across the Middle East, killing not only targeted fighters but innocent civilians.

Nevertheless, the refrain “barrel bombs” is accepted across Official Washington as a worthy argument for launching devastating airstrikes against Syrian government targets, even if such attacks clear the way for Al Qaeda’s allies and offshoots gaining control of Damascus and unleashing even a worse humanitarian cataclysm. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Obama’s Ludicrous ‘Barrel Bomb’ Theme.”]

False-Narrative Knots

But it is now almost impossible for Official Washington to disentangle itself from all the false narratives that the neocons and the liberal hawks have spun in support of their various “regime change” strategies. Plus, there are few people left inside the bubble who even recognize how false these narratives are.

So, the American people are left with the mainstream U.S. news media endlessly repeating storylines that are either completely false or highly exaggerated. For instance, we hear again and again that the Russians intervened in the Syrian conflict promising to strike only ISIS but then broke their word by attacking Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and “our guys” in Sunni jihadist forces armed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the CIA.

Though you hear this narrative everywhere in Official Washington, no one ever actually quotes Putin or another senior Russian official promising to strike only at ISIS. In all the quotes that I’ve seen, the Russians refer to attacking “terrorists,” including but not limited to ISIS.

Unless Official Washington no longer regards Al Qaeda as a terrorist organization a trial balloon that some neocons have floated then the Putin-lied narrative makes no sense, even though every Important Person Knows It to Be True, including Obama’s neocon-leaning Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

The U.S. political and media big shots also mock the current Russian-Iranian proposal for first stabilizing Syria and then letting the Syrian people decide their own leadership through internationally observed democratic elections.

Okay, you might say, what’s wrong with letting the Syrian people go to the polls and pick their own leaders? But that just shows that you’re a Russian-Iranian “apologist” who doesn’t belong inside the bubble. The Right Answer is that “Assad Must Go!” whatever the Syrian people might think.

Or, as the snarky neocon editors of The Washington Post wrote on Thursday, “Mr. Putin duly dispatched his foreign minister to talks in Vienna last weekend on a Syrian political settlement. But Moscow and Tehran continue to push for terms that would leave Mr. Assad in power for 18 months or longer, while, in theory, a new constitution is drafted and elections organized. Even a U.S. proposal that Mr. Assad be excluded from the eventual elections was rejected, according to Iranian officials.”

In other words, the U.S. government doesn’t want the Syrian people to decide whether Assad should be kicked out, an odd and contradictory stance since President Obama keeps insisting that the vast majority of Syrians hate Assad. If that’s indeed the case, why not let free-and-fair elections prove the point? Or is Obama so enthralled by the neocon insistence of “regime change” for governments on Israel’s “hit list” that he doesn’t want to take the chance of the Syrian voters getting in the way?

Reality Tied Down

But truth and reality have become in Official Washington something like Gulliver being tied down by the Lilliputians. There are so many strands of lies and distortions that it’s impossible for sanity to rise up.

Another major factor in America’s crisis of false narratives relates to the demonizing of Russia and Putin, a process that dates back in earnest to 2013 when Putin helped Obama sidetrack the neocon dream of bombing Syria and then Putin compounded his offense by assisting Obama in getting Iran to constrain its nuclear program, which derailed another neocon dream to bomb-bomb-bomb Iran.

It became ominously clear to the neocons that this collaboration between the two presidents might even lead to joint pressure on Israel to finally reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, a possibility that struck too close to the heart of neocon thinking which, for the past two decades, has favored using “regime change” in nearby countries to isolate and starve Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestinian groups, giving Israel a free hand to do whatever it wished.

So, this Obama-Putin relationship had to be blown up and the point of detonation was Ukraine on Russia’s border. Official Washington’s false narratives around the Ukraine crisis are now also central to neocon/liberal-hawk efforts to prevent meaningful coordination between Obama and Putin in countering ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria and Iraq.

Inside Official Washington’s bubble, the crisis in Ukraine is routinely described as a simple case of Russian “aggression” against Ukraine, including an “invasion” of Crimea.

If you relied on The New York Times or The Washington Post or the major networks that repeat what the big newspapers say, you wouldn’t know there was a U.S.-backed coup in February 2014 that overthrew the elected Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych, even after he agreed to a European compromise in which he surrendered many powers and accepted early elections.

Instead of letting that agreement go forward, right-wing ultra-nationalists, including neo-Nazis operating inside the Maidan protests, overran government buildings in Kiev on Feb. 22, 2014, causing Yanukovych and other leaders to flee for their lives.

Behind the scenes, U.S. officials, such as neocon Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, had collaborated in the coup plans and celebrated the victory by Nuland’s handpicked leaders, including the post-coup Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, whom she referred to in an earlier intercepted phone call as “Yats is the guy.”

Nor would you know that the people of Crimea had voted overwhelmingly for President Yanukovych and after the coup voted overwhelmingly to get out of the failed Ukrainian state and reunify with Russia.

The major U.S. news media twists that reality into a Russian “invasion” of Crimea even though it was the strangest “invasion” ever because there were no photos of Russian troops landing on the beaches or parachuting from the skies. What the Post and the Times routinely ignored was that Russian troops were already stationed inside Crimea as part of a basing agreement for the Russian fleet at Sevastopol. They didn’t need to “invade.”

And Crimea’s referendum showing 96 percent approval for reunification with Russia though hastily arranged was not the “sham” that the U.S. mainstream media claimed. Indeed, the outcome has been reinforced by various polls conducted by Western agencies since then.

The MH-17 Case

The demonization of Putin reached new heights after the July 17, 2014 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine killing all 298 people onboard. Although substantial evidence and logic point to elements of the Ukrainian military as responsible, Official Washington’s rush to judgment blamed ethnic Russian rebels for firing the missile and Putin for supposedly giving them a powerful Buk anti-aircraft missile system.

That twisted narrative often relied on restating the irrelevant point that the Buks are “Russian-made,” which was used to implicate Moscow but was meaningless since the Ukrainian military also possessed Buk missiles. The real question was who fired the missiles, not where they were made.

But the editors of the Post, the Times and the rest of the mainstream media think you are very stupid, so they keep emphasizing that the Buks are “Russian-made.” The more salient point is that U.S. intelligence with all its satellite and other capabilities was unable both before and after the shoot-down to find evidence that the Russians had given Buks to the rebels.

Since the Buk missiles are 16-feet-long and hauled around by slow-moving trucks, it is hard to believe that U.S. intelligence would not have spotted them given the intense surveillance then in effect over eastern Ukraine.

A more likely scenario of the MH-17 shoot-down was that Ukraine moved several of its Buk batteries to the frontlines, possibly fearing a Russian airstrike, and the operators were on edge after a Ukrainian warplane was shot down along the border on July 16, 2014, by an air-to-air missile presumably fired by a Russian plane.

But after rushing out a white paper five days after the tragedy pointing the finger at Moscow the U.S. government has refused to provide any evidence or intelligence that might help pinpoint who fired the missile that brought down MH-17.

Despite this remarkable failure by the U.S. government to cooperate with the investigation, the mainstream U.S. media has found nothing suspicious about this dog not barking and continues to cite the MH-17 case as another reason to despise Putin.

How upside-down this “Everything Is Putin’s Fault” can be was displayed in a New York Times “news analysis” by Steven Erlanger and Peter Baker on Thursday when all the “fundamental disagreements” between Obama and Putin were blamed on Putin.

“Dividing them are the Russian annexation of Crimea and its meddling in eastern Ukraine, Moscow’s efforts to demonize Washington and undermine confidence in NATO’s commitment to collective defense, and the Kremlin’s support of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria,” Erlanger and Baker wrote.

Helping ISIS

This tangle of false narratives is now tripping up the prospects of a U.S.-French-Russian-Iranian alliance to take on the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other Sunni jihadist forces seeking to overthrow Syria’s secular government.

The neocon Washington Post, in particular, has been venomous about this potential collaboration which while possibly the best chance to finally resolve the horrific Syrian conflict would torpedo the neocons’ long-held vision of imposed “regime change” in Syria.

In editorials, the Post’s neocon editors also have displayed a stunning lack of sympathy for the 224 Russian tourists and crew killed in what appears to have been a terrorist bombing of a chartered plane over the Sinai in Egypt.

On Nov. 7, instead of expressing solidarity, the Post’s editors ridiculed Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for not rushing to a judgment that it was an act of terrorism, instead insisting on first analyzing the evidence. The Post also mocked the two leaders for failing to vanquish the terrorists.

Or as the Post’s editors put it: “While Mr. Putin suspended Russian flights on [Nov. 6], his spokesman was still insisting there was no reason to conclude that there had been an act of terrorism. While Western governments worried about protecting their citizens, the Sissi and Putin regimes were focused on defending themselves.

“Both rulers have sold themselves as warriors courageously taking on the Islamic State and its affiliates; both are using that fight as a pretext to accomplish other ends, such as repressing peaceful domestic opponents and distracting attention from declining living standards. On the actual battlefield, both are failing.”

Given the outpouring of sympathy that the United States received after the 9/11 attacks and the condolences that flooded France over the past week, it is hard to imagine a more graceless reaction to a major terrorist attack against innocent Russians.

As for the Russian hesitancy to jump to conclusions earlier this month, that may have been partially wishful thinking but it surely is not an evil trait to await solid evidence before reaching a verdict. Even the Post’s editors admitted that U.S. officials noted that as of Nov. 7 there was “no conclusive evidence that the plane was bombed.”

But the Post couldn’t wait to link the terrorist attack to “Mr. Putin’s Syrian adventure” and hoped that it would inflict on Putin “a potentially grievous political wound.” The Post’s editors also piled on with the gratuitous claim that Russian officials “still deny the overwhelming evidence that a Russian anti-aircraft missile downed a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine last year.” (There it is again, the attempt to dupe Post readers with a reference to “a Russian anti-aircraft missile.”)

The Post seemed to take particular joy in the role of U.S. weapons killing Syrian and Iranian soldiers. On Thursday, the Post wrote, “Syrian and Iranian troops have lost scores of Russian-supplied tanks and armored vehicles to the rebels’ U.S.-made TOW missiles. Having failed to recapture significant territory, the Russian mission appears doomed to quagmire or even defeat in the absence of a diplomatic bailout.”

Upping the Ante

The neocons’ determination to demonize Putin has upped the ante, turning their Mideast obsession with “regime change” into a scheme for destabilizing Russia and forcing “regime change” in Moscow, setting the stage for a potential nuclear showdown that could end all life on the planet.

To listen to the rhetoric from most Republican candidates and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, it is not hard to envision how all the tough talk could take on a life of its own and lead to catastrophe. [See, for instance, Philip Giraldi’s review of the “war with Russia” rhetoric free-flowing on the campaign trail and around Official Washington.]

At this point, it may seem fruitless even naive to suggest ways to pierce the various “group thinks” and the bubble that sustains them. But a counter-argument to the fake narratives is possible if some candidate seized on the principle of an informed electorate as vital to democracy.

An argument for empowering citizens with facts is one that transcends traditional partisan and ideological boundaries. Whether on the right, on the left or in the center, Americans don’t want to be treated like cattle being herded by propaganda or “strategic communication” or whatever the latest euphemism is for deception and manipulation.

So, a candidate could do the right thing and the smart thing by demanding the release of as much U.S. intelligence information to cut this Gordian knot of false narratives as possible. For instance, it is way past time to declassify the 28 pages from the congressional 9/11 report addressing alleged Saudi support for the hijackers. There also are surely more recent intelligence estimates on the funding of Al Qaeda’s affiliates and spin-offs, including ISIS.

If this information embarrasses some “allies” such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey so be it. If this history makes some past or present U.S. president look bad, so be it. American elections are diminished, if not made meaningless, when there is no informed electorate.

A presidential candidate also could press President Obama to disclose what U.S. intelligence knows about other key turning points in the establishment of false narratives, such as what did CIA analysts conclude about the Aug. 21, 2013 sarin attack and what do they know about the July 17, 2014 shoot-down of MH-17.

The pattern of the U.S. government exploiting emotional moments to gain an edge in an “info-war” against some “enemy” and then going silent as more evidence comes in has become a direct threat to American democracy and in regards to nuclear-armed Russia possibly the planet.

Legitimate secrets, such as sources and methods, can be protected without becoming an all-purpose cloak to cover up whatever facts don’t fit with the desired propaganda narrative that is then used to whip the public into some mindless war frenzy.

However, at this point in the presidential campaign, no candidate is making transparency an issue. Yet, after the deceptions of the Iraq War and with the prospects of another war based on misleading or selective information in Syria and potentially a nuclear showdown with Russia it seems to me that the American people would respond positively to someone treating them with the respect deserving of citizens in a democratic Republic.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

How Russians See the West and Russia

The U.S. mainstream media’s recent depictions of Russia amount to little more than crass propaganda, including the inside-out insistence that it is the Russian people who are the ones brainwashed by their government’s propaganda. Author Natylie Baldwin found a different reality in a tour of Russian cities.

By Natylie Baldwin

After a year and a half of conducting research on Russia, the world’s largest country, mostly for a book I co-authored on the history of post-Soviet U.S.-Russia relations and its context for the Ukraine conflict, it was time for me to finally go see this beautiful, fascinating and complex nation in person and to meet its people on their own terms and territory.

On this maiden voyage to Russia, I visited six cities in two weeks:  Moscow, Simferopol, Yalta, Sevastopol, Krasnodar and St. Petersburg. In each city, I talked to a cross-section of people, from cab drivers and bus riders to civil society workers, professionals, and entrepreneurs of small- to medium-sized businesses.

I even had an opportunity to hear what teenagers had to say in two of those cities as my travel mate and I participated in a Q&A session with students of a private high school in St. Petersburg and teens who were part of various youth clubs in Krasnodar. Their questions reflected a thoughtful engagement with the world as they led to discussions on environmental sustainability, socially responsible economics and how to promote initiative, goodwill and peaceful conflict resolution.

Many of the adults were no less thoughtful during the formal interviews and informal conversations I had with them. Admittedly, I wondered how I would be received as an American during one of the most acrimonious periods of U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War.

It helped that my travel mate has been going in and out of Russia since the 1980s, lives part-time in St. Petersburg, and has developed good relations with many Russians across the country. Once most Russians realized that I came in goodwill and did not approach them or their country with a superiority complex, they usually responded with some combination of curiosity, honesty and hospitality.

Below is a summary of what Russians that I spoke to thought about a range of issues, from their leader to their economy to the Ukraine war, Western media’s portrayal of them and what they wanted to say to Americans.

What Russians Think About Putin 

In every place I visited in Russia, there was a consistent attitude among the people on a number of significant issues. First of all, there was consensus that the Yeltsin era in the 1990s was an unmitigated disaster for Russia, resulting in massive poverty, an explosion in crime, the theft of the Soviet Union’s resources and assets by a small number of well-connected Russians who went on to become the oligarchs, and the worst mortality crisis since World War II.

As Victor Kramarenko, an engineer and foreign trade relations specialist during the Soviet period and, more recently, a years-long executive with a major American corporation in Moscow, explained the Yeltsin era: “The Russian economy was devastated. We went from being an industrial power that defeated the Nazis, showed resilience, rebuilt quickly, and had great achievements in aviation and space to a place where morale collapsed and a lack of trust and a pirate mentality emerged.”

I learned from my interviews that Russians credit Vladimir Putin with taking the helm of a nation that was on the verge of collapse in 2000 and restoring order, increasing living standards five-fold, investing in infrastructure, and taking the first steps toward reigning in the oligarchy. Many stated that they wished Putin would do more to decrease corruption.

A couple of people I spoke to said they believed that Putin would like to do more on this front but has to work within certain limitations at the top. However, according to a recent report by Russian news magazine, Expert, Putin may be initiating a serious anti-corruption drive using a secret Russian police unit that is outsmarting corrupt officials who are used to evading investigation and accountability. Time will tell how successful and far-reaching this turns out to be.

Russians also think Putin has been a good role model in certain respects. As Natasha Ivanova told me over lunch at an Uzbek restaurant in Krasnodar, “He’s fit and doesn’t drink alcohol or smoke. Now you see young people more interested in sports and fitness and not smoking and drinking.”

After the mortality crisis of the 1990s when millions of Russians died premature deaths from heart problems and complications from alcoholism, this development is celebrated. Natasha Ivanova’s friend, Anna, chimed in, “Putin’s also orderly and has common sense.”

Natasha Shidlovskaia, an ethnic Russian who grew up in western Ukraine and now lives in St. Petersburg, admires Putin’s sharp mind: “He’s very smart. His speech is very structured and organized. When a person speaks, you know how he thinks.”

Jacek Popiel, a writer and consultant with first-hand experience in Russia and the former Soviet Union, has commented on the Russian historical experience of constant invasions and periodic famines and how it has shaped their view of government and leadership: “Russians will readily accept an authoritarian government because such is needed when national survival is at stake — which, in Russia’s history, has been a recurring situation.”

But Russian acceptance of powerful central authority also includes a check on it. This is the concept of Pravda. The literal translation of this word is “truth,” but it has a deeper and wider significance — something like “justice” or “the right order of things.” This means that while accepting authority and its demands, Russians nevertheless require that such authority be guided by moral principle. If authority fails to demonstrate this they will, in time, rise against it or remove it.

A group of professionals in Krasnodar echoed this when they insisted during a discussion one evening that a strong leader was needed to get things done, but the leader needed to be responsible to the people and their needs. Most believed that Putin successfully met this criteria as is confirmed by his nearly 90 percent approval rating. Moreover, when the subject of freedom and its definition was raised, one participant asked, “Does freedom presuppose a framework of rules and order? Or does it just mean that everyone does whatever they want?”

One criticism I heard from two women in Krasnodar was disappointment that Putin had divorced, particularly in the same time frame as when he’d declared “The Year of the Family.”

Another four women, who were involved in civil society work, were upset that some authentic Russian non-governmental organizations (or NGO’s) were getting caught in the dragnet of the foreign agents law — legislation they understood was motivated by a desire to crack down on provocateurs associated with the National Endowment for Democracy.

But, due to the effects it was having on genuine NGO’s in the country, they believe the law is ultimately a mistake. Three of the four were prepared to continue their work, including reform of the law’s implementation, while the fourth was considering leaving Russia.

Economic Conditions

Russians acknowledge that they are in a recession and attribute it to a combination of sanctions, low oil prices and lack of economic diversity and access to credit. But they generally do not blame Putin and did not express despair, or resentment that money was being invested in Crimea. Instead, they are putting their heads down, adapting and getting through it.

As the participants at the Krasnodar meeting of professionals explained, Russian entrepreneurs were becoming more creative by forming cooperatives to get new ventures off the ground; for example, finding one person in their network who has access to raw materials and another who has needed skills.

Despite what some commentators in the western corporate media have said, Russians are not going hungry. I saw plenty of food in the markets and some Russians told me that there were pretty much the same everyday products on store shelves as before, they just noticed higher prices due to inflation, which has started to come down. That downward trend is expected to continue into 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund.

We ate out frequently during our stay and most restaurants were doing decent business while some were very busy, including during non-rush hours. I did not notice any significant number of vacant or shuttered buildings, although many were under renovation. Russians in every city I visited were as well dressed as people in American cities and suburbs and looked as healthy (although, I noted fewer overweight people in Russia).

And, alas, the smart phone was nearly as ubiquitous among Russian youth as American.

Ukraine, Crimea and Foreign Policy

Almost everyone I spoke with strongly supported what they view as Putin’s calm but decisive policies of standing up to major provocations from the West, including attempts to exploit historical ethnic and political divisions in Ukraine, resulting in the illegitimate removal of a democratically elected leader.

Kramarenko explained a sentiment I’ve often heard from Russians about the high hopes they had after the end of the Cold War and how Russians have subsequently become disillusioned over the years with the actions of Washington policymakers. It also helps one to understand the more negative attitudes toward the West that the independent polling agency, Levada Center, has reported in recent months:

“’Back to the civilized world.’ That was the motto. Russians were fairly open about wanting to cooperate and integrate [with the West]. But they have gotten three wake-up calls over the years. The first was the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. It was painful and wrong but we figured ‘let bygones be bygones.’ The second wake-up call was the Sochi Olympics. I worked with a sponsor and there was a flood of anti-Russian sentiment, Russia was always in the wrong. Russians asked why do they characterize us so black when it doesn’t correspond to reality? Ukraine was the third wake-up call. We were under no illusions about Yanukovyich’s corruption, but the turning point came when the [Maidan] protests became violent and the police were attacked. There was a split among Russian intellectuals at that point, but the general people turned against it.”

Volodya Shestakov, a lifelong resident of St. Petersburg, agrees:

“Yanukovich was extremely corrupt and ripe for a revolt. The original Maidan protesters wanted to get rid of oligarchy, but they didn’t get less oligarchy. The Ukrainian economy is in very bad shape. Western corporations like Monsanto planned to go in. There are also shale gas deposits. It will be an environmental nightmare. [Current President Petro] Poroshenko is a puppet of Washington.”

The conclusion that Kiev’s current leadership consists of Washington lackeys came up often in conversations with both continental Russians and Crimeans. Tatyana, a professional tour guide from Yalta, a resort city in Crimea, told me:

“No one asked us if we wanted to go along with Maidan. There are Russians as well as people who are a mix of Russian and Ukrainian here. We are not against Ukraine as many of us have relatives there, but Maidan was not simply a spontaneous protest. We are aware of the phone call with Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt, we saw the photos of her with Yatsenyuk, Tiagnibok [leader of Svoboda, the neo-fascist group that was condemned by the EU in 2012], and Klitschko on television. We saw the images of her handing out cookies to the protesters.”

Crimeans saw the violence that erupted on the Maidan as well as the slogans being chanted by a segment of the protesters [“Ukraine for Ukrainians”] and became very concerned. The citizens of Sevastopol, a port city in Crimea and longtime home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, had meetings on what they should do if events in Kiev spiraled further out of control, possibly creating dangerous consequences for the majority ethnic Russian population there.

They believe that those dangerous consequences were prevented when Putin intervened and agreed to requests from Crimeans to be reunited with Russia. Crimeans and continental Russians believe that this intervention protected Crimea from those extremist elements that had hijacked the Maidan protests and risen to power in Kiev, threatening Crimeans’ safety and interests.

Moreover, Crimeans that I interviewed who participated in or were witness to events that led up to what is variously referred to as the “Crimean Spring” or the “Third Defense of Sevastopol,” did not expect the Russian government to step in and assist them or to accept their requests for reunification. This was due to the numerous times since the 1990s when Crimeans voted, either directly or through their parliament, for reunification, which Russia had always ignored.

According to Anatoliy Anatolievich Mareta, leader (ataman) of the Black Sea Hundred Cossacks, a turning point came after the Feb. 21, 2014 agreement (in which Yanukovych agreed to reduced powers and early elections) was rejected by armed ultra-nationalists on the Maidan and the Europeans subsequently abandoned their role as guarantors:

“A one-day meeting of anti-Maidan supporters was held in Sevastopol. Thirty thousand Crimeans gathered in the center of the port city to resist and declare that they didn’t recognize the coup government in Kiev and would not pay taxes to it. They then decided to defend Sevastopol and the Crimean isthmus with arms. They chose a people’s mayor, Aleksai Chaly, and checkpoints were set up. After extremist Tatars and Ukrainian ultra-nationalists showed up in Simferopol, throwing bottles, teargas, and beating busloads of ethnic Russians with flag poles, our help was requested.”

As the situation deteriorated further, with a standoff between local residents and local police officials who were beholden to and taking orders from Kiev underway, Mareta admitted that the Cossacks realized that theirs was a revolt that amounted to a suicide mission if Kiev gave the order to put it down with full force. “Their hearts were in it, but their minds knew they might lose,” Mareta said.

This was confirmed by Savitskiy Viktor Vasilievich, a retired Russian naval officer and resident of Crimea who served as an election monitor during the Crimean referendum in Sevastopol.  “The Russian military was very cautious and waited for the order to intervene,” he said. “It was an unexpected gift.”

From Feb. 28-29, 2014, Cossacks from parts of continental Russia, including Kuban and Don, began to arrive to reinforce the isthmus after Ukrainian planes were blocked from landing at the local airport as Russian soldiers, stationed legally in Crimea under contract, manned the gates.

Crimeans told me that it was understood at the time that the “little green men” who appeared on the streets in the coming days were Russian soldiers under lease at the naval base who had donned unmarked green uniforms. The people viewed them as protectors who allowed them to peacefully conduct their referendum without interference from Kiev, not invaders.

The population expressed gratitude to the Russian president for protecting them. I saw billboards throughout Crimea with Putin’s image on them, which read: “Crimea. Russia. Forever.” I asked several residents if this represented the general sentiment among the population. They confirmed enthusiastically that it did.

While in country, I attempted to get an interview with a representative of the Crimean Tatars, an ethnic minority population in which there is reportedly division in terms of support for the reunification with Russia, but was unsuccessful.

But the overall support for reunification with Russia should not come as a surprise to those familiar with Crimea’s history. The Russian naval fleet has been based at Sevastopol since Catherine the Great’s reign in the Eighteen Century. During the Soviet era, Premier Nikita Khrushchev — who was Ukrainian — decided to move Crimea from Russian administration and give it as a gift to Ukraine.

Since both Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union at the time, the possible future consequences of such a decision were not considered. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Crimea remained in Ukraine as an autonomous region while Russia kept its naval base there as part of a legal agreement (lease) with the Ukrainian government.

Not only is Sevastopol Russia’s only warm water port, it is the place where the Soviet army blocked the Nazi advance for eight months during World War II. By the time, the siege was over, around 90 percent of the city had been devastated.

Kramarenko summed up continental Russians’ view of the reunification: “Most people, both Crimean and Russian, think Crimea is Russian. The referendum, along with the lack of violence, gives it legitimacy.”

Surveys of Crimean and Russian opinion by Pew, Gallup and GfK within a year of the referendum show consistent support for Crimea’s reunification with Russia and the legitimacy of the referendum itself. See herehere and here.

Western Media

When I asked Russians if they had access to Western media, they all said they did, through both satellite and the Internet. But they did not find the Western media to be accurate or thorough in their coverage of Russia in general and the Ukraine crisis in particular.

Volodya Shestakov told me, “The Western media narrative of Russia is distorted. The corporate media distorts news in its own interests … and to suit politics. Americans are the first target of corporate propaganda.”

Nikolay Viknyanschuk, originally from eastern Ukraine and also a resident of St. Petersburg explained further: “There are certain patterns used [within the Western media] and they prefer to stay within those patterns. What they cannot explain, they cut off or ignore. If Russia is an aggressor, why didn’t it take Kiev?”

He also lamented Western media’s over-reliance on a short news cycle, sound bites and talking heads who lead the audience in what to think, “Commentators and so-called journalists’ interpretations are relied upon instead of presenting primary source material.”

Lack of context was another complaint about the Western media’s presentation of the Ukraine issue. I can personally attest to this as the conversations I had with educated Americans about the Ukraine crisis reflected little to no historical understanding of the country as having been under the control of different political and cultural entities, creating divisions that, combined with poverty and deep corruption, made it vulnerable to instability.

As Shestakov explained: “Russia, Ukraine and Belorussia [Belarus] are ethnically and culturally the same. There are only mild differences. Russia started in Kiev [Kiev Rus] but expanded and the capital moved to Moscow. When Ukraine got independence in 1991, a fictitious narrative was pushed in school textbooks of an independent people who were repressed by Russia. The Ukrainians have been manipulated. Russians don’t hate Ukrainians. There is no hostility on our part. We regret what has happened.”

Vasilievich reiterated these historical points: “There was resentment that Ukraine was always viewed as the ‘little brother’ in the relationship after Russia united to become its own independent nation. Parts of Ukraine were always under the rule of Russia [in the east], Poland or the Austro-Hungarians [in the west]. Ukraine is a vast area with rural villages and there is an ideology of small rural areas with Polish influence in the western most regions. The Americans knew what divisions they were manipulating.”

According to the extensive research of Walter Uhler, president of the Russian-American International Studies Association, there was no historical reference to even a clearly defined, much less independent, territory called Ukraine until the Sixteenth Century when the term was used by Polish sources, but “with the demise of Polish rule, the name Ukraine fell into disuse as a term for a specific territory, and was not revived until the early Nineteenth Century.”

Tatyana confirmed that Western media is freely available online in Crimea as well for those who understand English, but it is often seen as distorted.

Additionally, most Russians find the demonization of their president by Western media and politicians to be childish and a reflection of the observation that Washington policymakers seem to have assigned Russia the role of enemy long ago for their own reasons, regardless of what Russia actually is or does in reality.

As Valery Ivanov, a 25-year old college graduate who earns a living as an emcee and a translator in Krasnodar, said, “The Western media and government portrays Russia as an aggressor because Russia is a strong country and a potential competitor.”

What to Say to Americans

One thing that stood out in my discussions with Russians was how they almost always made a point of differentiating between the American people and the government in Washington. They like and admire the American people for their openness and achievements, but they find Washington policymakers’  penchant for interfering in other parts of the world in which they don’t understand the consequences of their actions to be profoundly misguided and dangerous.

At the end of my interview with each person, I asked them if there was one thing they could say to the American people, what would it be. It was interesting how, even though they all worded it differently, the essence of their answers was identical: we are all the same; we may have minor differences in language, culture and geography that influence us but we all want the same things — peace and a stable, prosperous future for our children and grandchildren.

Several Russians underscored the point that if Russians and Americans got together and related to each other as regular people, there would be no real conflict. Valery Ivanov said, “If we were to meet in a bar for a drink, over American whiskey or Russian vodka, we would become good friends.”

Nikolay Viknyanschuk added, “Let’s be friends on a personal and family level. We should strengthen friendship between San Francisco and St. Petersburg. You are people and we are people. We all have five fingers on each hand.”

Volodya Shestakov offered this insight about his own transformation in how he saw Americans during the Cold War versus how he saw them afterward, when he was able to travel and to meet them: “When I looked at U.S. people, I saw them as alien, like from another planet. When I met American people, I no longer saw them that way. The liquid in our bodies is all from the same ocean.”

They also would like more Americans to come visit Russia and open themselves up to what Russia has to offer. Marina and Irina, two of the civil society activists in Krasnodar emphasized, “Let’s cooperate. Let’s share experience and meet each other. We have a rich history and culture to share and we want to invite Americans to come and meet us.”

Natylie Baldwin is co-author of Ukraine: Zbig’s Grand Chessboard & How the West Was Checkmated, available from Tayen Lane Publishing. In October 2015, she traveled to six cities in the Russian Federation. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various publications including Sun Monthly, Dissident Voice, Energy Bulletin, Newtopia Magazine, The Common Line, New York Journal of Books, OpEd News and The Lakeshore. She blogs at natyliesbaldwin.com.