Is Russia an aggressor in the Ukraine conflict? "The political facts speak a different language"
Interview with journalism researcher Florian Zollmann
[This interview published on 12/23/2021 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.nachdenkseiten.de/?p=79327.]
"Russia is being built as an enemy for peace. With its Ukraine policy, Russia is actually reacting to NATO's policy of expansion." This is what journalism researcher Florian Zollmann says in an interview with NachDenkSeiten. Zollmann, who deals a lot with political propaganda in the media, says the media are "turning reality upside down" when it comes to classifying the tensions between Russia and Ukraine. "The Russian side, which perceives a progressive eastward expansion of NATO in disregard of agreements reached at the highest political level, is marginalized in the media," said Zollmann, who teaches at Newcastle University in England. By Marcus Klöckner.
Mr Zollmann, the media is currently focusing again on Russia in connection with Ukraine. Recently, it was reported that Russia had gathered 175,000 troops on the border with Ukraine. What is happening right now?
Representatives of leading NATO states are outraged because Russia has allegedly moved troops to the border with Ukraine. A look at the facts, however, shows that Russia is acting as any other state in a similar geopolitical situation would act.
For a long time now, there has been no question in the "reporting" of major media: Russia is the aggressor! What does your analysis look like?
Exactly. The media coverage gives the impression that Russia is an imperial power and that the West must protect itself and its allies from it.
What does this view have to do with reality?
Nothing. Reality is turned upside down. Because the historical context is hardly adequately illuminated in the media. The Russian side, which perceives a progressive eastward expansion of NATO in disregard of agreements reached at the highest political level, is marginalized in the media. Imagine the following hypothetical facts: Russia would have included Latin American states such as Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras in its international military alliance Organization of the Collective Security Treaty (CSTO) and claimed to install nuclear weapons in these countries. Imagine, furthermore, that the CSTO launched military cooperation with Mexico and tried to include the country bordering the south of the USA in the CSTO. In this case, wouldn't it be expected that the US would move troops to the border of Mexico? And exactly this scenario is currently taking place, but on the border with Russia.
Anyone who only follows the "reporting" of the leading media is likely to be irritated by your remarks.
The media suggests that Russia is the aggressor. Der Spiegel writes: "Like fear, violence is a legitimate means for Putin to achieve political goals. Whether he uses them depends on whether he has other means at his disposal. But when alternatives dwindle, the temptation to act militarily grows in the Kremlin." (from: Der Spiegel 49/2021, page 103)
You mentioned it: in order to classify the conflict, it is important to understand what the "eastward enlargement" is all about.
A look at history can help. In 1990, the administration of US President George H. W. Bush made a categorical assuranceto the then President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev: If Gorbachev agreed that a reunified Germany belonged to NATO, then NATO would not expand further east and would not accept former Warsaw Pact states into the alliance. Declassified U.S. government documents, available through the National Security Archive, show how then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker (and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl) assured Gorbachev that NATO would not expand its sphere of influence eastward.
So this commitment is clear and unambiguous?
There are reports in the media in which the meaning of these commitments is interpreted differently.
What does that mean?
For example, an article from the Fact Finder on tagesschau.de of 3 December 2021 states that Baker's commitments of 1990 were only about the territory of the former GDR and not about NATO enlargement that would include other Warsaw Pact states. "What was meant, however, was the territory of the GDR – NATO membership of states of the Warsaw Pact, which still existed in 1990, was out of the question at the time," tagesschau.desaid.
It is suggested in such articles: The negotiations at that time were only about the GDR territory. Therefore, promises from the West to Russia regarding NATO expansion to state territories outside the former GDR territory could not be broken at all. After all, state territories outside the former GDR territory were not part of the negotiations.
That sounds dubious. If one puts oneself in the situation of Russia, it is obvious that Russia, presumably, wanted to have a commitment that goes beyond the territory of the GDR.
Of course, it was also about the GDR, because the negotiations revolved around reunification. Nevertheless, it seems plausible at first glance that the Soviet side also had to be concerned with more far-reaching security guarantees. And this is exactly how experts who evaluated the government documents on the diplomatic talks on German reunification see it. In a Briefing of the National Security Archives, Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton wrote on December 12, 2017: The documents showed that many national leaders between 1990 and 1991 rejected NATO membership of Central and Eastern European countries, that discussions about NATO during the negotiations on German reunification were by no means narrowly limited to the territory of the GDR, and that subsequent Soviet and Russian complaints on being misled about NATO enlargement in written minutes of high-level talks.
According to this reading of the official documents, these were therefore commitments made to the Russian side. And those pledges were basically broken by the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton and all the Republican and Democratic U.S. administrations that followed Clinton. Clinton initiated a policy of NATO expansion in the 1990s. The former Warsaw Pact countries (Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Albania) were absorbedinto NATO in the following years, along with the three Baltic states of Estonia,Latvia and Lithuania.
And now Ukraine?
That's right. NATO is now concerned with including Ukraine in the alliance or at least keeping this option open. Military cooperation between NATO and Ukraine has existed for years. NATO also claims the right to install nuclear weapons on the territories of new member states. Russia is thus under pressure from NATO, a hostile military alliance, on its western flank. Russia's military movements on the border with Ukraine are troubling but must be seen in this context.
Before you elaborate, first of all: Ukraine is of geostrategic importance. Both for the USA and NATO, but also for Russia. What are the interests on the respective pages?
Everyone involved wants to improve their geostrategic options. Ukraine is on the threshold between Europe and Asia (Eurasia). Those who control Ukraine will also have easier economic access to Europe and Asia. Mineral resources, gas and access to the Black Sea also play a role. In his book The Only World Power: America's Strategy of Supremacy, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to US President Jimmy Carter, described Ukraine as a geopolitical linchpin on the Eurasian chessboard. For Russia, however, Ukraine is probably of greater importance than for the USA and NATO.
What do you mean by that?
The US is already an imperial world power. With their extensive network of military bases, they control virtually every corner of the earth. The USA is closely intertwined with the most important EU states. Russia, on the other hand, is struggling to gain access to the Eurasian continent. Brzezinski wrote that a loss of Ukraine would drastically curtail Russia's geostrategic situation. In addition, there are historical and ethnic factors that speak for a certain proximity between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine was part of the former Soviet Union until its independence in 1991. Ukraine is also a riparian state of Russia and is home to a large ethnic Russian minority. But there is one issue that is even more important.
John J. Mearsheimer, one of the leading US experts on international relations, wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs that Ukraine serves as a buffer state with enormous strategic importance for Russia. From a geostrategic point of view, major powers have always been sensitive to potential threats near their home territory, Mearsheimer wrote. Nor would the US accept remote major powers stationing military forces in the Western Hemisphere or incorporating neighboring states such as Mexico and Canada into their military alliances. This is part of the geopolitical basics. Mearsheimer also pointed to an important historical context: Ukraine is a large plain of flat land that has already been crossed by Napoleonic France, the German Empire and Nazi Germany to attack Russia. Therefore, no Russian leader can tolerate a military alliance, which until recently could be regarded as Moscow's archenemy, invade Ukraine.
In the media, the impression is given that only Russia has interests and pursues them coldly. Your analysis paints a different picture.
Yes. Russia is accused of calculating power and bellicose behavior. As far as the situation in Ukraine is concerned, however, the political facts speak a different language. The geopolitical basics just outlined do not seem to have penetrated the media. Russia is being built as an enemy for peace. With its Ukraine policy, Russia is actually reacting to NATO's expansionist policy.
In your research, you also deal with propaganda in the media. Do you see the use of propaganda in the media coverage in Germany with regard to Russia?
Unambiguous. In the German media, Russian behavior and misconduct are often instrumentalized in accordance with political interests. Russian actions are quickly dismissed as aggression, even if they follow rational realpolitik motives. The dangerous expansion of NATO, on the other hand, is hardly called a similar outrage in the media. This serves the interests of NATO as well as the hegemony claims of the USA and the Western confederation.
Would you please describe this propaganda in more detail?
This propaganda is selective and ignores basic historical facts. One can also speak of demonization propaganda. Militarily, Russia is no match for the US and NATO. Only as far as the dangerous nuclear arsenals are concerned can one speak of a balance of power. The U.S. currently operates with about 800 military bases on foreign territory, with 250,000 U.S. troops stationed in about 160 countries. Russia, on the other hand, operates with only a handful of military bases outside the territory of the former Soviet Union.
The US spends about ten times as much money annually on military and armaments as Russia (for 2022, the US has estimated an arms budget of 752.9 billion dollars). If you look at the NATO countries without the US, they have a combined defense budget three times as large as Russia. Any combination of NATO countries Germany, France and the UK has significantly higher defence spending than Russia. So Russia poses no threat to the West.
Nevertheless, it must also be said that Russia is an oligarchy. There are domestic political repressions and foreign policy claims to power. Russia can indeed harm Ukraine. Western propaganda, however, obscures the fact that Russia's offensive approach to Ukraine has a lot to do with NATO's offensive policy. The Ukraine conflict could be resolved diplomatically if the US and powerful NATO states such as Germany kept their historic promises.
Florian Zollmann is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University in the UK. Recently, on the subject of Russia and Western propaganda, he published the essay: 'Manufacturing a New Cold War: The National Security State, 'Psychological Warfare' and the 'Russiagate' Deception',published in the Handbook of Global Media Ethics, edited by Stephen J. R. Ward at Springer International Publishing, pages 985-1012.