Russia, Ukraine, and the Desert of the Real
What we are seeing is the USA-NATO nexus reacting to the new reality of multipolarity in the world system by desperately attempting to control the flow of information.
The instantaneity with which the entire western political spectrum was whipped into line during the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has no match, from a media-narrative-discourse point of view, in my opinion. With relation to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Palestine the narratives are put forward in a similarly quick fashion, yet none of these places have the military might of Russia and thus pose varying degrees of threats to the American-NATO status quo. What I have noticed is the absolute foreclosure on the possibility of the timeline of events being older than 10 days. People will point to the Euromaidan as evidence that the conflict is at least 8 years old, but this is countered by the claim that Crimea, Donetsk, and Lugansk are Russian puppets and that the popular will of Ukraine was announced and lived out in Maidan. If one points to the neo-Nazi elements who have their hands on the levers of control post-2014, they are told that Zelensky is a descendent of Holocaust survivors. If one points to 1991, the dissolution of the USSR, and the expansion of NATO, they are met with the assertion that NATO has served a progressive role in the region: i.e. the carpet bombing of Yugoslavia as 'progressive' because Milosevic was a bad man. Thus we are faced with a distinctly virtual understanding of the war. Here, Jean Baudrillard’s essay “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” is crucial for understanding the media narrative in the Occident.
According to Baudrillard: "We are all hostages of media intoxication, induced to believe in the war just as we were once led to believe in the revolution in Romania, and confined to the simulacrum of war as though confined to quarters"(1). This is so visible in this case: immediately after the Russian operation, we saw all of the signs of a manufactured narrative in something which felt quicker than real-time. Infographics, the 'Ghost of Kiev', Zelensky as 'war bae', quippy one-liners from Zelensky that read as if they are from the latest Call Of Duty installation: "I don't need a ride, I need ammunition". In a much darker vein, Pornhub's number one search is ‘Ukrainian women’, the 'refugees are welcome here' discourse from the liberals, 'anti-war' protests being staged (in reality they are pro-war and pro-sanctions). One person went as far as to create a list of fascist flags for people to avoid at pro-Ukraine rallies across the USA. All of this created the conditions for more sanctions on Russia in less than a week. It’s not sanctions just on "The Oligarchy", but on Russian cinema and sport as Russia was suspended from F1 and FIFA. The ruble crashed and is now worth less than one cent. Interesting to note is that the US' own oligarchs (Bezos, Musk, Zuckerburg, Branson, etc) are not called as such. Oligarch is a term the US reserves for the likes of Putin who belong to the "oriental despotism" that seeks to undermine American freedom and democracy.
Baudrillard continues: "our virtual has definitively overtaken the actual and we must be content with its extreme virtuality which, unlike the Aristotelian, deters any passage to action"(2). By this, he means that the event exists primarily in the media (even though real bombs drop). We can see this through the use of the same images to signify different things for either side. Videos of wounded soldiers claimed to be Russian and Ukrainian at the same time show us that.
It seems that this obsession with the passage to action today governs all our behavior; obsession with every real, with every real event, with every real violence… [a]gainst this obsession with the real we have created a gigantic apparatus of simulation...which allows us to pass to the act "in vitro"...[we] prefer the exile of the virtual, of which television is the universal mirror, to the catastrophe of the real(3).
This war is taking place on television for those in the occident, and as such, it assumes the relations of television. The Harry Potterification of the conflict, the Star Warsification of the event. "Thus 'real time' information loses itself in a completely unreal space, finally furnishing images of pure, useless, instantaneous television where its primordial function irrupts, namely that of filling a vacuum, blocking up the screen hole through which escapes the substance"(4).
When one tries to speak of Russia's military operation in Ukraine in power-political terms, they are called a Putin apologist or a shill for authoritarianism. Anouar Abdel Malek spoke about this tendency within the Western socialist camp 40 years ago:
The basic approach towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century was, and remains to a very large extent, an ethical approach. Violence, armaments, were viewed as an 'evil' pursuit, and peace, disarmament, as a moral, humanistic, endeavor. Any attempt at a content analysis of speeches, resolutions, writings, and expositions on war, violence, peace, or disarmament would reveal a very heavy load of moral considerations and a much lower percentage of power-political analysis. (5)
This shows how important it is that we focus on the real material implications of the event, not on the moral character of the players involved. The occidental media has created a scenario in which the Ukrainian government can put out a call for mercenaries that is answered by those who have been duped by the media message. These ragtag mercenaries who want to go defend Ukraine have no scruples in regards to the type of people they will fight alongside to ‘defend Ukraine’. Another piece of evidence against bringing this occidental, protestant morality into the mix when speaking of geopolitics is the fact that some are saying Putin is both the next manifestation of Adolph Hitler and a Soviet revivalist. History is relegated to the shredder, and the martyrs of the Red Army who died fighting Nazism have their legacy denigrated in the desert of the media.
In sum, what we are seeing is the USA-NATO nexus reacting to the new reality of multipolarity in the world system by desperately attempting to control the flow of information. Russia has been removed from SWIFT, as stated earlier the ruble has crashed and is now worth less than a penny. Yet, China and Russia have already been in talks to create a system parallel to SWIFT for some time now, and earlier this year announced an era of ‘friendship with no limits’. Multipolarity and the de-dollarization is one step towards dismantling the US-led financial regime of the IMF and World Bank which is militarily insured by NATO. According to Michael Hudson: “While America’s allies are told to bear the costs of US sanctions, Russia and China are benefiting by being obliged to diversify and make their own economies independent of reliance on US suppliers of food and other basic needs”6. How this multipolarity will shape up is not yet known, but the current military escalation between Russia and Ukraine shows us that we are definitely moving towards a world in which the United States can no longer reign unchecked and unchallenged, even within its massive media narrative control system.
1. Baudrillard, Jean, 1995 The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana.
5. Abdel Malek, Anouar Nation and Revolution: Volume II of Social Dialectics. Macmillan Publishers. London. 1981.