Foreign policy officials rake over the potential causes and consequences in immense detail but wars are justified in the simplest possible terms writes Chris Nineham

Victoria Nuland greets Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko before a meeting in Warsaw in 2014

A central role of war propaganda is to stop people trying to understand why wars happen. This is a very deliberate policy. As we shall see, foreign policy officials rake over the potential causes and consequences of wars in immense detail in internal documents and discussions. In public however, wars are justified in the simplest possible terms, normally as a response to ‘senseless’ foreign aggression.

For supporters of the Western war effort in Ukraine any attempt by critics to put the war into a historical context is virtually treasonable. From the get-go, President Biden made clear that the Russian invasion must be seen as a completely isolated, inexplicable act of evil, insisting in his first speech after the invasion, ‘the Russian military has begun a brutal assault on the people of Ukraine without provocation, without justification, without necessity.’

In Britain, the whole of the media, almost the whole of the political class and a shockingly large part of the left has gone along with this nonsense. As a result, people trying to get to grips with underlying causes are dismissed either as Putin apologists or conspiracy cranks, and often both.

The anti-war movement opposed the brutal Russian invasion on 24 February last year. There was a wave of anti-war protest in Russia when it began which was enthusiastically supported by the movement here. Within days the British movement organised a demonstration calling for Russian troops out and demanding an end to NATO escalation.

What everyone with any knowledge of the situation knows but almost no-one admits in public, however, is that this invasion kickstarted a new and dangerous phase of a war that was already being fought out on Ukrainian soil. Ukraine became riven by civil war after the Maidan protests of 2013/2014 that forcibly removed the government of Victor Yanukovych who had tilted towards closer relations with Russia.

As a leaked phone call between senior US official Victoria Nuland and the US ambassador to Ukraine shows, the US was closely involved in installing a new government. In case this call has slipped from anyone’s memory, the transcript is still available on the BBC. In the rarely mentioned but extremely revealing call, Nuland takes for granted that the US should have priority over all comers in selecting personnel of the new government, exclaiming at one point, ‘fuck the EU’. Even the BBC’s normally ultra-loyal correspondent Jonathan Marcus had to conclude nervously that the episode proved ‘the US is clearly much more involved in trying to broker a deal in Ukraine than it publicly lets on.’

This US-backed regime change led to attacks on the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine, and a civil war between pro-government forces and separatists in the Donbass region in the East. New president Petro Poroshenko steered Ukraine further towards integration with the West and clamped down on the eastern ‘rebels’, further stoking war.

Going East

Just as important, this domestic conflict broke out against the background of a historic shift eastward by NATO that began soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thirteen eastern European countries have joined NATO in the last three decades. At the Bucharest Summit in 2008, a promise was made that both Ukraine and Georgia would have the chance to join too. All this despite assurances by senior Western politicians including the US Secretary of State James Baker to Russia’s president Gorbachev that NATO would not move into the area. According to the records, James Baker promised NATO would not move eastwards three times in one meeting with Gorbachev in 1990.

Apologists for the war are so desperate to bury this history that they flatly deny that the promises were made, despite the fact that a one-minute online search reveals they are repeatedly written into the record of the US National Security Archive. Politicians and commentators regularly attack people in the anti-war movement for pointing to any of this history.

In the UK, the media loyally colludes in this dismissal of historical explanation or understanding. A recent editorial in the fiercely pro-war Guardian titled ‘Terror without Purpose’ for example, obediently parrots the Biden line that the Russian invasion was an unexplained act of evil, ‘Ukraine is the victim of an unprovoked invasion by forces whose primary tactic is terrorising the civilian population into submission by means of indiscriminate murder and destruction.’ If history is to be considered at all, it is only the history of other Russian interventions, ‘Russia did not start its territorial aggression against Ukraine in 2022, but eight years earlier, in Crimea.’

This denial of wider history is designed to conceal a host of uncomfortable facts. The reality is that in the cynical world of ‘spheres of interest’ that both Russian and Western governments inhabit, it is simple common sense that NATO’s massive push eastwards was going to be provocative to Russia. If anyone is in doubt, they need only consult the comments – in other contexts and not for public consumption – of an extraordinary roster of top US foreign policy officials who have made this point again and again.

To give just a few examples from an extensive literature, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who presided over the first steps toward NATO expansion, admitted that ‘(Russian President) Yeltsin and his countrymen were strongly opposed to enlargement, seeing it as a strategy for exploiting their vulnerability and moving Europe’s dividing line to the east, leaving them isolated.’ Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State at the time, concurred:

‘Many Russians see NATO as a vestige of the Cold War, inherently directed against their country. They point out that they have disbanded the Warsaw Pact, their military alliance, and ask why the West should not do the same.’

George Kennan, the author of America’s Cold War containment policy, called the expansion of NATO a ‘tragic mistake’, adding, it ‘is the beginning of a new Cold War. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies.’ Anyone still unconvinced should read the memo from Walter J. Burns, the current head of the CIA, warning US officials in 2008 that talk of Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO was a ‘redline’ for Russian politicians across the political spectrum. He went on:

‘Ukraine and Georgia’s NATO aspirations not only touch a raw nerve in Russia, they engender serious concerns about the consequences for stability in the region. Not only does Russia perceive encirclement, and efforts to undermine Russia’s influence in the region, but it also fears unpredictable and uncontrolled consequences which would seriously affect Russian security interests.’

Patterns of Deceit

It reflects shamefully on the state of journalism in the UK that this commentary is not regularly used to confront supporters of the West’s war effort. The existence of reams and reams of this easily accessible material is proof positive that attacks on anti-war voices pointing out NATO’s role in precipitating the crisis in Ukraine are not just hypocritical, but deliberate deceitful. It is unfortunately part of a pattern of public lying and deceit aiming to bury history that is common to many recent wars and has gone virtually unchallenged by journalists across the media.

The two biggest recent western interventions, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were both partly justified as a response to the horrific plane attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. This despite the fact that most of those involved those came from other countries and that Iraq had no connection whatsoever with the attacks, and no proven link to international terrorism.

George Bush started making a public case for invading Iraq in his 2002 State of the Union address, saying, “Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror,” he said. “The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons, for over a decade.” This was the beginning of the deliberate conflation of two claims, one that Saddam was a terrorist supporter, the other that he had ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Taken together they suggested Iraq was implicated in September 11.

Both claims were completely untrue, but facts did not deter the likes of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was adamant, “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.”

For a while these downright lies, dutifully recycled by a media that had shed all critical faculties, had the required effect in the US. In October 2002, 66% of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein had helped in the September 11 attacks.

What this massive propaganda effort helped to hide was the facts that the US had been targeting Iraq for more than a decade, first with the 1990 invasion that killed an estimated 200,000 Iraqis and second with a programme of murderous sanctions that killed as many as half a million Iraqi children.

Shockingly the attacks of September 11 were seen as an opportunity for a new attack by a group of politicians and advisors who took control of US foreign policy in the months afterwards. In the words of one of them, Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Woklfowitz, 9/11 ‘gave the US a window to go after Hussein’. National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice agreed, calling a meeting of senior advisors to discuss, in her own words ‘how do you capitalize on these opportunities’.

If we are to understand modern geopolitics then, we cannot afford to take what our rulers say about it at face value. To most normal people the level of cynicism involved both in their decision making and their public statements is almost impossible to grasp. We have however to face up to it. And we have to insist on our right to maintain an independent, critical attitude to both the causes and the consequences of the wars they want us to fight.

22 Jun 2023 by Chris Nineham

Sign Up