“Who ya gonna believe, me, or your lying eyes?” Groucho Marx probably never uttered that famous line, but sometimes it seems like he should have.
Americans are experiencing one of those who-ya-gonna-believe moments. Yet another full-fledged war scare is upon us with reports that Russia will invade Ukraine. This one involves an adversary possessing considerably greater military capabilities than Afghanistan or Iraq, where, you will recall, our side did not fare well. It bears remembering that Russia possesses the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
As is common in these situations, all parties involved proclaim their earnest hopes of avoiding bloodshed. Russian leaders emphasize their devotion to peace. So, too, do their counterparts in Washington and various European capitals. Who ya gonna believe?
The available facts are these: Substantial Russian combat forces appear poised to attack Ukraine, should President Vladimir Putin issue orders to do so. According to Western press reports, Russia has “massed” — a favored media characterization — an estimated 130,000 troops along Ukraine’s perimeter.
This formidable force, which includes dozens of armored vehicles repetitively featured on network news reports in the United States, would almost certainly suffice to defeat the Ukrainian army and to capture Kyiv. It comes nowhere close to being enough to occupy and pacify a country that is roughly the size of Texas, with a population of approximately 43 million.
Should Russia invade Ukraine, in other words, it will almost immediately confront the question that US forces faced following the fall of Baghdad in 2003: Now what? Reflecting on the subsequent trials that beset US troops (not to mention the Soviet army’s experience in Afghanistan during the 1980s), members of the Russian general staff will probably view that prospect as a flashing red light.
So is Putin bluffing? While we cannot know for certain, in all likelihood he is engaged in hard-nosed negotiating. His aim? To signal that the years when the United States and its European allies could get away with exploiting Russian weakness to the West’s advantage have ended. In practical terms, Putin is demanding comprehensive security guarantees. More specifically, he wants assurances that Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, will not be joining NATO at any time in the foreseeable future.
Now, as a practical matter, almost nobody in Washington (including Pentagon leaders) thinks that admitting Ukraine to NATO is a sound idea. Nor is that proposition popular within NATO’s own ranks. Given their proximity to and past history with Russia, Poles or Lithuanians may entertain a different view. Even so, opinions in Warsaw and the capitals of the Baltic republics don’t carry as much weight as, say, opinions in Berlin. As it happens, the German government has no interest in Ukraine becoming a casus belli pitting Russia against the West.
In short, while the danger of miscalculation persists, a nonviolent resolution of the ongoing war scare is eminently plausible. It may even be closer at hand than members of the general public appreciate — which makes the incessant warmongering of the American media all the more disturbing and repugnant.
As the saying goes, when it bleeds, it leads. When it comes to news, nothing beats mayhem, and when it comes to mayhem nothing beats a real live shooting war. Twenty years ago, media cheerleading lent credibility to the George W. Bush administration’s false claim that Saddam Hussein possessed an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Press gullibility played a not insignificant role in paving the way for an unnecessary and disastrous war.
Well, here we go again, with a reputed Russian “false flag” operation standing in for Iraqi WMD. According to The Washington Post, unidentified US officials have uncovered a Russian plot, “approved at high levels in Moscow,” that would “create a pretext for invading Ukraine by falsely pinning an attack on Ukrainian forces that could involve alleged casualties” on Russian soil. The New York Times reports that in addition to “staging and filming a fabricated attack by the Ukrainian military,” Russian authorities intend to “use the video to accuse Ukraine of genocide against Russian-speaking people.”
The proof? According to the Times, US officials refuse to “release any direct evidence of the Russian plan” since doing “so would compromise their sources and methods.” The message from these anonymous government functionaries: Trust us.
Deception and disinformation are integral to the practice of statecraft. And Putin is unquestionably a liar. However, it does not follow that those who staff the Biden administration are truth-tellers, as The Washington Post and The New York Times should appreciate.
So who ya gonna believe? Not Vladimir Putin’s lying eyes, for sure. But media outlets that willingly serve as a compliant messenger service for the US government are equally undeserving of trust.
Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.