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    What Is Vladimir Putin’s Endgame?

    After a series of horrific events, I am sat wearing four layers of clothing while penning this piece. Other than at the time I was writing the article, “Is Moscow Turning Off the Gas Tap?” — when the heating was coincidently not working at my office — I decided to turn off my radiator on purpose.

    Ending the War in Ukraine

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    Ridiculous as it might sound, it is my tiny attempt to act against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to somehow fight this sense of helplessness, being forced to watch the events unfold, without being able to do much.

    Building Up to War in Ukraine

    It all started a couple of days before February 24, which is when Russia invaded Ukraine. I was preparing for a trip to Kyiv to check on my friends in the Ukrainian capital. Following the latest developments, I tried to find any information that would confirm what the Russian ambassador to the EU had stated on February 16. Vladimir Chizhov said there would “be no escalation in the coming week, or in the week after that, or in the coming month.” Saying one thing and doing another has long been part of the Russian political playbook. Yet the cynicism in saying that wars in Europe “rarely start on a Wednesday” — in reference to US intelligence reports — just to actually invade eight days later is unacceptable.

    On Sunday, February 20 at around 10 pm, I ultimately decided not to set the alarm for later that night in order to arrive at the airport on time. I went to bed with a heavy heart and a sense of cowardice: I decided not to travel to Kyiv. I felt as if I had betrayed the Ukrainian people, especially my friend, who assured me that everything was fine and everyone was calm. Over the next few days, I tried to drown out the voice in the back of my head saying, “You should have gone” by repeating this mantra to myself: If you bring an umbrella, it will not rain.

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    And then we all heard the news. I can only imagine how it must have felt to be actually woken up by air raid sirens — it’s unfathomable. I saw a map of Ukraine showing where the Russian bombs hit. I reached out to friends and colleagues in these places. So far, they are fortunately all fine. I admire their strength and bravery for remaining in Ukraine.

    Back in the office in Vienna, I sat with my colleagues. While we tried to at least grasp what this meant for all of us, we began to realize that this was not just another crisis; this was a decisive development in history. This is war in Europe. It is not the first conflict in Europe since the end of World War II. It is not even the first in Ukraine; the country has been at war since 2014. Back then, during the Revolution of Dignity, the Euromaidan, Ukrainians gave their lives for democracy, our democracy.

    That is precisely why it is only logical for Ukraine to apply for membership in the European Union. Although there is no shortcut to joining the EU, under certain circumstances, it can become possible. Membership in the union should not only remain symbolic. I have written more about this here. In fact, I have been arguing with colleagues about granting such rights to all eastern partnership target countries since 2009. This would, of course, not have prevented anything today. Other actions might have, such as reducing the import dependency on natural resources after the Russia–Ukraine gas crisis of the same year.

    But there is no use in dwelling on the past. Instead, I want to think about the future. Therefore, I have compiled five different scenarios about how the situation in Ukraine could develop. None of them must become a reality, and some of them, hopefully, will not.

    1: All-out (Nuclear) War

    Nuclear war is certainly the worst-case scenario for all sides. An increasingly frustrated and isolated Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, decides to use tactical nuclear weapons to submerge the Ukrainian resistance. Even if it will “only” involve non-nuclear attacks continuing the obliteration of whole cities and committing war crimes, the democratic international community seriously asks themselves if they can allow this to happen.

    Even if they do, the probability that Putin will stop at the border with Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Baltics or Finland is delusional. Consequently, NATO, sooner or later, has to get involved, resulting in World War III.

    I believe that we are actually already at war since February 24 but haven’t realized it yet. It might also continue as a war of attrition and continue indefinitely.

    2: Novorossiya

    This second scenario refers to what Putin himself mentioned in one of his infamous television Q&As in 2014. It has been used in various contexts, with reference to Alexander Dugin, but also as an idea raised by the so-called People’s Republics in Donetsk and Luhansk of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. The planned confederation was ultimately not implemented.

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    The reference dates back to a more or less geographically same area referred to as “New Russia” during the Soviet era until the turn of the century. In any case, Putin mentioned the cities of Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odessa — essentially the whole Black Sea coast of Ukraine, linking up the Russian Federation with Transnistria. Since the Transnistria War in 1992, Russian troops have been stationed in the breakaway territory, which is officially part of Moldova.

    This scenario involves the creation of many more “people’s republics,” which are under the influence — politically and economically — of the Kremlin and dependent on it. Recognition of such republics by Moscow or even integration into the Russian Federation is also a possibility.

    Further separatist regions beyond Ukraine are also declared, expanding Russian influence even more. This takes place mostly in the Caucasus, but also in the direction of the former spheres of influence of the Soviet Union.

    3: Fragmentation

    In a more hopeful scenario, Putin’s aggression leads to destabilization within the Russian Federation. While having to devote a majority of the country’s military capacities but also attention and political capital toward Ukraine, old separatist attempts resurface.

    The control over Chechnya is substantially weakened due to the de-facto defeat of Ramzan Kadyrov’s forces. But also further disintegration occurs. Not necessarily violently, but more economic-based toward dependence of Siberia on China or Vladivostok on Japan. The resulting fragmentation and volatility have major consequences for the whole neighborhood but also geopolitically.

    4: Coup d’état

    There have been (too optimistic) rumors about a possible coup being planned by the Federal Security Service (FSB) of Russia. Leaks from the “Wind of Change” lead to an ousting of Putin and his closest circle.

    While it cannot be ruled out, there should not be any false hope. If the security forces and/or the military carry out a coup d’état, we will not see any democratic regime change.

    Most likely, the people belonging to the closest circle of power are replaced, but the mafia system continues with a new godfather who ends the war but distributes the spoils. It is also possible that we will see a military hard-liner taking charge, which could then end in scenario one.

    5: Democratic Revolution

    The most optimistic, but unfortunately most unlikely, scenario would foresee the sanctions against Russia and the isolation of the federation as leading to the people bringing regime change and possibly democratization.

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    In a Maidan-style occupation of the Red Square, Putin is unable to suppress the opposition any longer. It takes a lot of time to account for past actions, reconciliation and anti-corruption measures, but the missed opportunity of the 1990s is finally taken up. Coupled with the enlarged EU economic and security cooperation, there is now a counterpart to the geopolitical volatility caused by China’s ambitions and the political instability of the United States.

    The Outlook

    Regardless of which direction the situation takes (although I most certainly have a preference), it is necessary to be prepared for all eventualities. It is a good sign that there has been enough awareness for Ukraine as well as the necessity to think about the economic requirements to rebuild after the war.

    Nevertheless, it is possible to achieve peace, especially with regard to the importing of oil and gas from Russia. Far too often, we are focused on the immediate costs and do not look at the possibilities. A transition to renewable energy is more necessary than ever, but the hesitancy has kept us dependent on Moscow. Just imagine what the situation would have looked like if a transition had been sped up in 2009.

    Hopefully, we have finally learned the lesson. After all, the price we pay is just money. Ukraine is paying with its life, its infrastructure and, ultimately, its future.

    *[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    The Prospects of Peace in Afghanistan

    The Doha Agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban on February 29, 2020, not only set a date for the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, but it also included certain obligations for the Taliban.

    Under this agreement, the Taliban are obligated to take measures to prevent terrorist groups from threatening the security of the US and its allies and to engage in a comprehensive intra-Afghan dialogue that would produce a political settlement. The hasty US troop withdrawal in August 2021 emboldened the Taliban to disregard their obligations under the deal and encouraged them to prioritize political takeover instead of a sustainable peace mechanism for Afghanistan.

    Afghanistan’s Public Intellectuals Fail to Denounce the Taliban

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    The Doha Agreement and its contents undermined the sovereign government of Afghanistan at the time and provided an upper hand to the Taliban in both war and peace. Certain assurances in the deal enabled the Taliban to become stronger in both battlefield action and narrative propagation.

    These include the agreement’s references to a “new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government”; clauses on the release of Taliban combatants referred to as “political prisoners”; indirect legitimization of the Taliban shadow government by virtue of stipulations such as “the Taliban will not provide visas, passports, travel permits, or other legal documents”; and a complete lack of any mention of human rights protections in Afghanistan.

    Another Case of Failed Peacemaking

    The agreement is not the only pact that was expected to bring a peaceful end to the conflict in the country. In 1988, the Geneva Accords concluded under the auspices of the UN between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the US and the Soviet Union serving as state guarantors, provided an overall framework for the settlement of the Afghan conflict and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Likewise, the Bonn Agreement in 2001 — irrespective of whether it is categorized as a peace deal —established a process to manage the political transition in the post-Taliban Afghanistan. It briefly outlined steps from the formation of an interim administration to the development of a new constitution and holding elections.

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    However, neither the Geneva Accords nor the Bonn Agreement were successful and ultimately failed to foster conditions necessary for enabling a comprehensive settlement to Afghanistan’s complicated problem. More recently, the Taliban’s abject disregard for their commitments under the Doha Agreement, combined with the United States’ rushed exit, sped up the Taliban’s reemergence, once again closing an already narrow window of opportunity for achieving a durable political solution to the protracted conflict in Afghanistan.

    There is indeed a qualitative difference between the Geneva Accords, the Bonn Agreement and the Doha Agreement. However, one of the key reasons for their failure, among other factors, is that they are silent on the main cause of the conflict in Afghanistan — i.e., ethnic conflict.

    Afghanistan is a multiethnic country where the various ethnic groups are also geographically fragmented. Historically, divisions over who should lead the country and how have been among the core contentious issues in Afghanistan. Disagreements on this matter have manifested in violent ways in the 1990s and non-violent ways in the outcome of four presidential elections held based on the 2004 constitution. Overlooking of the main cause of the conflict and an absence of a viable mechanism for power redistribution among ethnic groups is a common thread that connects each of the three agreements that failed and continued to fuel instability.

    The Current Situation

    Less than two years since the Doha Agreement was signed, in August 2021, Kabul, the Afghan capital, fell to the Taliban. In the aftermath of this development, residences of several former government officials, particularly those from the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), were raided and these personnel members were either killed or imprisoned. A UN report found that over 100 personnel from the Afghan security forces and others associated with the former Afghan government have been killed in the country, despite the Taliban announcing a general amnesty. 

    Moreover, despite the demands from the international community for the formation of an inclusive government, respect for human rights and counterterrorism assurances, the Taliban have refused to make any concessions. They have brazenly continued suppressing all dissenting voices, severely limiting women’s rights and persecuting civil society members and journalists.

    Peace in Afghanistan?

    It was apparent from day one that the prospects of the post-July 2018 efforts for a political settlement in Afghanistan were uncertain at best. The Doha Agreement simply laid out a possible schedule for the US withdrawal instead of guarantee or measures enabling a durable political settlement or peace process. The Taliban too negotiated the deal with the US with the aim of winning the war rather than seeking a peace deal or political settlement with their opponents.

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    The chaotic withdrawal of American forces and the mayhem at Kabul airport — which was reminiscent of the US pullout from Vietnam — has not only damaged the image of a powerful country like the US around the world, but has also established its reputation as an unreliable ally in times of difficulty. Given historical patterns and the Taliban’s track record, in the absence of any qualitative change of circumstances on the ground, the international community’s positive overtures to the Taliban might be yet another folly.

    As it stands, the prospects for peace in Afghanistan will remain distant for as long as the Taliban own the entire political apparatus rather than participate as a party in an inclusive and representative government and respect dissenting voices. In the meantime, the international community should use sanctions mechanisms and official recognition as the few remaining tools of leverage to hold the Taliban accountable to their commitments and to international legal standards.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Ending the War in Ukraine

    Vladimir Putin has a very clear strategy for ending his war in Ukraine. He intends to wipe the country off the map.

    Initially, he’d hoped to do so by seizing Kyiv, replacing the government and absorbing as much of Ukrainian territory into Russia as he thought feasible. Now, after the resistance of the Ukrainians, he is looking to eliminate their country by a different method. He will bomb it into submission from the air and depopulate the country by turning millions of its citizens into refugees.

    Is Peace Possible in Ukraine?

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    The outflow of Ukrainians has the additional benefit, from Putin’s point of view, of putting pressure on the rest of Europe and sowing discord among NATO members. Putin saw how effective Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko was last year in using several thousand desperate migrants from the Middle East as a weapon to provoke European countries. Putin is calculating that a wave of refugees several orders of magnitude larger will swell the anti-immigrant sentiment that has strengthened far-right parties and put the European project at risk.

    So far, neither of these strategies is working. With a few exceptions, the European far right has abandoned Putin, and the EU has embraced a double standard on immigration by extending a welcome to Ukrainians that few countries were willing to offer to those fleeing from Afghanistan or Syria.

    Meanwhile, NATO is emerging from this crisis with greater cohesion. Putin has forgotten an elemental lesson of geopolitics: a common threat serves as the glue that holds alliances together.

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    For all of these reasons, Putin is not interested in ending his war in Ukraine. Simply put, as Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov recently verified, the Russian president has not yet achieved his aims. But he might be forced to end his war for other reasons.

    The View from Kyiv

    Volodymyr Zelensky has a very clear strategy for ending the war in his country. The Ukrainian president is mobilizing his defenses at home and his supporters abroad. He hopes he can achieve a stalemate on the ground and force Russia to compromise at the negotiating table.

    So far, in the first month of the war, both strategies have met with success. The Ukrainian military has blocked the Russian advance on all the major cities, forcing the Kremlin to rely more heavily on an increasingly indiscriminate air war.

    The Russian military has expanded its control over the Donbas region in the east. It has taken one major city, Kherson, in the south. But it has not been able to overcome the defenders of Mariupol, a port that represents the last major obstacle to connecting the Crimean peninsula by land to Russia proper.

    According to Western intelligence estimates, the Russian army has so far lost at least 7,000 soldiers while 20,000 more have been wounded, which would mean that Russian forces inside Ukraine have been reduced by a third. Unless the Kremlin can send in a lot of reinforcements — Belarussians, Syrians — it will have difficulty taking any major Ukrainian cities, much less hold on to them for any period of time. Ukrainians are returning to the country to take up arms, and volunteers are signing up to fight alongside Ukrainian soldiers, so David is starting to bulk up against Goliath.

    Meanwhile, on the international front, the sanctions have attracted widespread support, although some powerful countries like China and India continue to support Putin economically. Some of the sanctions target the lifestyles of the rich and powerful, such as asset freezes and travel bans for top officials. Other measures are beginning to affect ordinary Russians, such as all the job losses from Western businesses like UpWork and Starbucks pulling out of the country.

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    However, a number of companies are suspending operations in a manner that tries to avoid hurting their Russian staff, like McDonald’s continuing to pay their employees even if the restaurants are closed. Also, the sanctions do not target essentials like medicines. Still, the sanctions are expected to drive Russia into a significant recession, with the economy shrinking by as much as 7%. In 2020, the Russian economy contracted by 3 percent as a result of the COVID shutdowns, which at the time was considered a major setback.

    Losses on the battlefield and in the global economy are what’s likely to force Putin to end his war before he gets what he wants. No diplomatic solution is possible without this kind of pressure.

    Terms on the Table

    The major issue going into the war will likely be the major compromise coming out of the war: Ukraine’s status in the European security system.

    Putin not only wants NATO membership off the table for Ukraine, he would like to see the security alliance rewind the clock to 1997 before it expanded into Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. However bone-headed NATO expansion was — and it truly was a major blunder on the part of the West — Putin is not going to be able to negotiate a significant drawdown of the alliance’s footprint. Indeed, as a result of the invasion of Ukraine, NATO may well expand to include Finland and Sweden, for starters.

    Ukrainian neutrality, on the other hand, is very much a possibility. A report last week about a 15-point draft of a preliminary deal included “Kyiv renouncing its ambitions to join NATO and swear off hosting foreign military bases or weaponry in exchange for security guarantees from countries such as Britain, the United States or Turkey.”

    Security guarantees? That’s precisely what NATO membership is supposed to provide. And it’s difficult to envision any of the countries mentioned agreeing to come to Ukraine’s defense in the case of a subsequent Russian attack. They are quite clearly not doing so now. Still, if renouncing NATO membership gets Russia to pull back and stop its air attacks, it would be a worthwhile quid pro quo to pursue.

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    But then the other major sticking point enters the picture: territory. How much would Russia actually pull back? Would it give up the gains it has made so far in the war? Would it stop championing independence for Donetsk and Luhansk? Would it give back Crimea?

    Ukraine to date has refused to acknowledge even the loss of Crimea, so compromise will be challenging. But Zelensky has hinted at the potential of rethinking Ukraine’s borders, contingent on a referendum on the necessary constitutional changes. Perhaps an agreement to return to the status quo ante — with some strategic ambiguity about the final status of Crimea and the Donbas — might be a feasible interim agreement.

    The last major question is the composition of the Ukrainian government. Putin has called for the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine. In the best-case scenario, he might be willing to accept some restrictions on the participation of the Azov Battalion in the military. In the worst-case scenario, Putin will not stop until he has installed a “friendly” government in Kyiv.

    The threat of Russian influence in Ukraine was a main motivation for Zelensky recently to ban 11 political parties, including the largest opposition party, the pro-Russian Opposition Platform for Life. On the one hand, Ukraine’s democracy is one of its main selling points, so any restrictions on that democracy tarnishes its image. On the other hand, Putin has no qualms about exploiting divisions within Ukrainian society and would rely on these opposition parties to staff any future “friendly” government. Some democratic governments like Germany and Spain have banned political parties that pose a national security threat to their democratic governance.

    Zelensky is also well aware of the three foiled assassination plots on his life, all sponsored by Russia. The likelihood that anti-war elements within Russia’s own intelligence services tipped off the Ukrainians suggests that Putin has as much to worry about hostile elements within his political ranks as Zelensky does.

    Getting to Yes

    The various peace deals that are leaked to the press could signify combat fatigue, particularly on the Russian side. Or it could be a ploy by Putin to lull his interlocutors into thinking that because they’re dealing with a reasonable negotiating partner it’s important to hold off on another round of sanctions or arms sales.

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    While I have no illusions about Putin — I think he’s a ruthless fascist — it’s still important to offer him diplomatic off-ramps. There’s nothing more dangerous than a cornered dictator with nuclear weapons.

    The goal must be to stop the war and preserve what’s left of Ukrainian sovereignty. Russian troops must leave; the Ukrainian people must decide their leadership, not the Kremlin. Meanwhile, it’s likely that the vast majority of Ukrainian refugees want to return home and rebuild their country, just as the bulk of Kosovars did after the end of the war with Serbia in 1999. The West must be at least as generous with resettlement and reconstruction funds as it has been with arms deliveries.

    The Kosovo case is instructive for another reason. Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, a communist apparatchik turned political opportunist who became a vehement nationalist when circumstances propelled him in that direction, over-reached in 1999 in an effort to prevent Kosovo from becoming independent. His military campaign failed, and the very next year, the opposition swept him from power in elections. By 2001, he was arrested in Serbia and then delivered to the war crimes tribunal in the Hague. He died in disgrace.

    Putin certainly wants to avoid that fate. Megalomania, however, has nudged him in that direction. So, now begins the challenge of peeling away Putin’s sense of his own invincibility—first in Ukraine, then in Russian politics, and finally in the court of international law.

    *[This article was originally published by FPIF.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Afghanistan’s Public Intellectuals Fail to Denounce the Taliban

    Unlike most societies, political alignment in Afghanistan is not divided along the right and the left axis. Most of the policy debates in the last two decades of the so-called republic were shaped by the right — either Afghan/Pashtun ethnonationalism or political Islam. At times, both these political strands were amalgamated with naive populism. 

    Currently, political fragmentation and polarization under the Taliban have become an existential conflict over culture and ethnicity. The Taliban are a terrorist group, having successfully synthesized both Islamic extremism and Pashtun/Afghan ethnic chauvinism as their ideology. Ironically, they rule over one of the most diverse countries in the world.

    What the Taliban’s Constitution Means for Afghanistan

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    The Taliban use two vague criteria to dismiss all progress made in the past two decades or, for that matter, any undesirable but transformational changes that occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s: Afghan and Islamic values. The first category denies internal social diversity while the second rejects Islamic pluralism. After usurpation of power by force, the group proudly boasted of committing over a thousand suicide attacks. Now, it is officially forming a suicide bombers brigade within its security agencies. 

    Organic Intellectuals

    The exponents of Afghan ethnonationalism desperately aim to present a benign image of the Taliban. Having fundamental, political and social ties with the Taliban, in the words of Antonio Gramsci, they form the Taliban’s “organic intellectuals.” Unlike the traditional intellectuals, Gramsci argues, organic intellectuals are linked with a social class. Contrary to Gramsci, I use it as a negative term as they represent the extreme right. Their genuine undeclared mandate is to articulate and represent the interests and perceptions of the Taliban and to downplay the risks of the group’s rule.

    In other words, these organic intellectuals are systematically engaged in PR for the Taliban. The irony is that the same people are recognized as the voices of Afghanistan rather than of the Taliban in Western academic and think-tank circles. Afghan ethnonationalism and its exponents are only challenged by the Persian-speaking Tajik and Hazara intellectuals, whose voices have been relegated to the margins due to acceptance of the Taliban order as the new normal.

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    The organic intellectuals have the nature of a chameleon, speaking in two different languages to address different audiences and constituencies. On the one hand, they praise and welcome the establishment of the so-called “order,” albeit Taliban-centric, but, with a liberal audience, they speak the language of peaceful coexistence, “cultural particularism,” relativism and political pragmatism. To incorporate such a self-contradictory stance, they adopt a fence-sitting position.

    The justifications of the Taliban made by these organic intellectuals contradict both the realist and moralist approaches in political philosophy. First, let us address the five justifications before returning to the philosophical questions.

    The Taliban Order

    To begin with, treating the Taliban-centric order as default and ignoring the ideological dimension of the Taliban, it argues that the group is adaptable to political and policy reforms. Thus, it tries to undermine the possibility of a thorough transformation of the current scenario through violent means.

    The telos of political reform is expanding the horizons of rights and liberties. In a totalitarian regime, the goal of reform is not to improve the condition of individuals and communities but to consolidate the regime’s power. To suggest political reform essentially means to work with the existing political framework, not its transformation. This entails admitting the terms and conditions of the totalitarian regime.

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    Compared to reforms in an authoritarian regime, the prospect of successful political reform and change toward emancipation in the totalitarian regime is limited because, in the latter, the state is based on a rigid doctrinal ideology. An ideological state does not accommodate change and reform unless there is an alteration in the constituent ideology. The longer a totalitarian regime stays in power, the less likely the possibility for political transformation. Thus, change in a totalitarian regime is easier to achieve in the early stages, when its power is not consolidated. 

    The Taliban government currently installed in Afghanistan is not simply another dictatorship. By all standards, it is a totalitarian regime. A totalitarian regime, according to British philosopher John Gray, is not the one that negates liberal democracy — it is one that brutally suppresses civil society. The Taliban have created a monstrosity equivalent to that of other totalitarian states. 

    Political Pragmatism

    The second justification of Taliban apologists is political pragmatism — the Taliban is a reality that could not be done away with and thus it shall be acknowledged. As part of my research on the Afghanistan peace process, I conducted an opinion poll in 2018 that showed the Taliban’s popularity as below 10% across the country. Thus, this so-called pragmatism is constituted upon a false assumption. But the Taliban are a reality, like racism, Islamic fundamentalism, bigotry and slavery. Also, they are a reality fostered by sponsors: the Pakistani establishment.

    Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning that bigotry, racism and fundamentalism could not be eradicated through endorsements by the intellectuals and those who have a moral commitment to fight them. Irrespective of the logic of morality, one cannot buy the argument to accept bigotry or extremism just because they were a reality. Endorsing the Taliban is equivalent to recognizing their wicked acts. 

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    Third, it is proposed that if we accept the Taliban as a reality, the costs of establishing political order would be reduced. For example, it can prevent another civil war. This argument is built based on a false assumption regarding the nature of the Taliban. Historically, the group has been extremely violent by nature: War, jihad and suicide bombings are an integral part of its ideology. What country in the world prides itself on having suicide squads?

    In the seven months of their rule, the Taliban have killed, tortured and humiliated numerous civilians, former security officers and women’s rights activists, primarily minority groups like the Tajik and Hazara. Moreover, they maintain strong ties with an international community of jihadists, including al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Turkistan Islamic Party, among others. 

    There is an inherent contradiction in the nationalist stance advocating for so-called reconciliation. The nationalists argue that war is costly and hence we should accept working with the Taliban. However, countless civilians being slaughtered or abused by the Taliban on a daily basis is ignored as the human cost of Taliban rule. A doctrinal state imposes its ideology on every single individual even if it is at the cost of the individuals’ lives. 

    Naïve Intellectualism

    Fourth, the naive social-media public intellectuals suppose that they can hold the Taliban accountable by citing some verses of the Quran or some articles of the law of Afghanistan. It is not that ideological totalitarian regimes do not understand what law is; rather the Taliban misuses the law to further limit the sphere of civil society and expand the regime’s control. Hannah Arendt argued that totalitarianism is primarily a denial of law, the emergence of a state in the absence of law. By this standard, the Taliban are simply a totalitarian entity.

    The assumption that the Taliban would be held accountable through a Twitter post is naïve. The issue is not negligence in the application of the law by the Taliban; rather, the fundamental issue is the group’s illegitimate rule. The Taliban have suspended a functioning state apparatus by military takeover of the state that led to the collapse of the republic, purging many technocrats from bureaucracy and creating an environment of terror, intentionally undermining the Doha peace talks.

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    Lastly, cultural particularism suggests that the Taliban represent a specific culture and shall be given time to adapt and develop according to its own history and context. Taking a relativist stance, it is said that there is no ultimate truth and no one is a final arbiter. Thus, relativist logic fails to recognize evil in its totality. The truth about the evil nature of the Taliban could not simply be dismissed by reducing the issue to a matter of a difference of opinion.

    Unlike relativists, cultural pluralists are not naïve enough to engage with evil. According to their line of thinking, although ultimate values are diverse, they are knowable; any order which negates and denies peaceful coexistence is outlawed. The Taliban eschews all forms of coexistence. They treat the Persian-speaking Tajiks, Hazaras and other nationalities as second or third-class subjects. They campaign against Persian cultural heritage such as Nawroz celebrations, the Persian language and much of the country’s pre-Islamic heritage.  

    The Realist/Moralist Challenge

    Exponents of the Taliban have to respond to both a moralist and a realist question in politics. From a moralist standpoint, by neglecting or dismissing any moral standard, they adopt a peace activist cover. They aim to humanize the Taliban in order to make the group pleasantly acceptable. 

    The question here is, what is a morally correct stance against a terrorist group that has a track record of deliberately inciting ethnic hatred, racism, ethnic supremacy, oppression, mass atrocities and terror? The answer is clear: Any act that demonizes humans and perpetuates violence for the sake of subjugation of others is condemned. The perpetrator would thus be fully responsible.

    On the contrary, any single word that misrepresents the Taliban and presents a false benign image of the group is a betrayal of the moral principle of justice, liberty and claims of intellectualism. Any responsible citizen and public intellectual has a moral obligation to not just renounce them publicly but to denounce totalitarian regimes and any act of terror.

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    Denunciation not only entails a public condemnation of evil in its totality but also an avoidance of any word or deed that contributes to the consolidation of the regime. By any standard, a terrorist group does not have a right to rule. Anyone who advises or applauds terrorist statements or policies is morally bankrupt. When faced with a totalitarian regime, one can only be either for or against it.

    Lastly, the realist question is what British philosopher Bernard Williams calls the Basic Legitimation Demand (BLD): “the idea of meeting the BLD implies a sense in which the state has to offer a justification of its power to each subject.” This is the very first question in politics.

    Before any other virtues, a state has to present an acceptable answer to those that it rules. Otherwise, the people who consider themselves alien to the rulers and have a basic fear of subjugation, humiliation and persecution, as well as those who are radically disadvantaged, have every right to disobey. As Williams says, “there is nothing to be said to this group to explain why they shouldn’t revolt.”

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    A Fictional Debate Between a General and a Journalist

    Washington Post reporter Brandon Dyson emerges from the shadows in a street near Foggy Bottom after he recognizes General Edwin Moran leaving the State Department building and walking toward his car. Brandishing a microphone, Dyson rushes up to intercept him.

    FADE IN:

    EXT. Georgetown Street — Late Afternoon

    DYSON: General, if you could spare a minute, I’d like to get your take on how the Ukraine war’s going. Are you satisfied we’re achieving our objectives?

    MORAN: You’re a reporter. Read the papers.

    DYSON: I write for the papers, so I don’t necessarily trust everything I read. I’d like to get it from the horse’s mouth.

    MORAN: Look, you’re asking the wrong stallion. Address your questions to the politicians. The military’s job is to obey orders, not give interviews. Our opinion means nothing.

    DYSON: I’ve been talking to the politicians. I know what they’re saying, which is why I’d like to hear your thoughts. I’m interested in the military perspective, the feelings you guys have about your mission.

    MORAN: We don’t have feelings. We have orders. Orders lead to actions. Feelings come later.

    DYSON: OK, but everyone is acting like we’re engaged in a war. And you know much more about war than any politician.

    MORAN: Officially we’re at peace. So I have nothing to say.

    DYSON: We’re definitely in a major economic war that sits on top of a local shooting war. That’s a unique situation. The media are whipping the public into a frenzy of war fever. Do you feel you’re being sidelined?

    MORAN: Do I feel…? I told you, don’t ask me about my feelings.

    DYSON: Well, you and your colleagues must be wondering about what this frenzy means. You can see everybody in the media itching to take on the Russkis. Anyone who thinks a war isn’t necessary can be called a traitor. But at the same time, the official message is that we’re not going to battle.

    MORAN: We’re ready for any action that’s required. That’s all. For the moment, it’s the State Department’s war, not ours. Their weapons are sanctions and they have quite an arsenal.

    DYSON: So you admit that applying sanctions is the equivalent of war?

    MORAN: Sanctions actually kill people more surely and on a more massive scale than any non-nuclear weapons.

    DYSON: That’s the point. Critics point out that they target civilians and disrupt the survivors’ lives, people who have nothing to do with politics or combat, whereas war is supposed to be about opposing armies. Are you saying you consider sanctions a legitimate way to conduct war?

    MORAN: Well, if you really want my opinion, I’ll tell you. Sanctions make a mockery of the idea of war, which is always has been and should always be considered a noble pursuit. Politicians have no idea what true war is all about. They say they have a strategy, but they have no sense of operational goals.

    DYSON: If you admit they have a strategy, how would you assess their tactics?

    MORAN: We don’t try. All we can do is hope they come out victorious.

    DYSON: Have they given you military people any idea of what victory would look like?

    MORAN: From what I can tell, it’s bringing down the evildoer, Vladimir Putin.

    DYSON: So, it’s regime change?

    MORAN: That’s what it looks like.

    DYSON: Blinken absolutely denied that last week on “Face the Nation.” But he does say it’s about provoking the devastation of the Russian economy.

    MORAN: Pretty much the same thing.

    DYSON: The French minister Bruno Le Maire said something similar, about provoking the total collapse of the Russian economy. It’s beginning to sound like “Carthago delenda est.”

    MORAN: Is that French?

    DYSON: No, Latin. You know, Cato.

    MORAN: Are you telling me the French minister works for the Cato Institute here in DC?

    DYSON: No, it’s what Cato the Elder said during one of the Punic wars.

    MORAN: It’s disrespectful to call any of our wars puny, even if we have to admit there were a few failures.

    DYSON: I’m talking about ancient Roman history. Cato was a Roman politician who preached the destruction of Carthage around 200 BC. He ended all his speeches at the Senate with the catchphrase, “Carthage must be destroyed.” You must have studied the Punic wars? The Romans went ahead and definitively wiped Carthage off the map in 146 BC, killing or enslaving every one of its citizens.

    MORAN: Oh, yeah. I remember hearing about that in my history classes at West Point. That was a time when politicians knew how to finish off the quarrels they started.

    DYSON: So, is that what we’re talking about now? Destroying Russia?

    MORAN: Don’t see how that can work without a nuclear attack. But if they can bring down the regime with sanctions, more power to ‘em. After the habitual “mission accomplished” moment they always love to stage, they’ll probably call us in to clean up the mess. That generally doesn’t go very well, but we’ll make the best of it.

    DYSON: As you always do, I guess. Well, thanks for the valuable insight. I’m very grateful.

    MORAN: You’re not going to quote me on any of this? You do and I’ll make sure every officer down to the rank of lieutenant knows your name. You’ll never get another story from the Pentagon.

    DYSON: Hey, I was only interested in your ideas. And, don’t worry, I won’t take any direct quotes or mention your name. Trust me, I work for The Washington Post.

    Disclaimer: This fictional dialogue exists for entertainment purposes only. The ideas expressed in it are totally imaginary. Its eventual inclusion in any Hollywood movie or television script will be subject to negotiating authoring rights with Fair Observer. That is nevertheless highly unlikely for the simple reason that some of the reflections in the dialogue appear to contradict the widely held beliefs spread in the propaganda that now dominates both the news media and the entertainment industry.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Is Peace Possible in Ukraine?

    The Russian invasion of Ukraine — an attempt to end the independence of a sovereign nation by force — would, if successful, set a precedent that might frighten smaller countries across the globe. It is an attack on the system of international law that has given us 80 years of relative peace in Europe and allowed international trade to develop, thereby raising living standards.

    The United Nations Charter established the principles of the inviolability of borders, respect for the territorial integrity of states and the prohibition of the use of force. When Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1991, its borders were formally guaranteed by Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. Now, one of those guarantors is deliberately breaching those borders — for a second time.

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    The Helsinki Conference of 1975 reaffirmed the respect of borders in Europe, and it gave birth to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which Russia is a member of. Its charter confirms the above-mentioned UN principles. The Helsinki Final Act goes on to say: “They [states] also have the right to belong or not to belong to international organizations, to be party or not to bilateral or multilateral treaties including the right to be party or not to treaties of alliance.” The Russian pretext for war — to stop Ukraine from joining NATO and the European Union — is a direct contradiction of this Helsinki principle.

    Many, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, hoped the conflict would be a short one. Yet it looks increasingly like becoming a long war of attrition, much like World War I, where most of the deaths were caused by missiles and shells falling for the sky. This sort of conflict can grind on for months and even years until all is ruined.

    The Impact Beyond Ukraine

    The devastation will be felt far from Ukraine. Between them both, Ukraine and Russia grow 25% of the wheat traded in the world. Around 12% of all calories consumed around the globe derive from crops grown in Russia and Ukraine. It is impossible to sow and harvest crops on a battlefield. Indeed, both belligerent nations are likely to keep any crops they can grow for the use of their own beleaguered people.

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    The effect of this on bread prices will be dramatic. Some 75% of all the wheat consumed in Turkey and 70% in Egypt comes from Russia or Ukraine. Israel and Tunisia are also dependent on them for half of their supplies from the same sources. We can expect bread riots and renewed political instability in these countries.

    The effect of the war will be increased social tensions everywhere. The higher fuel and food prices that are flowing directly from the conflict will affect poorer families much more than richer ones as these items are a bigger share of the weekly budget in low-income households. They will also hit rural households much harder because people have to rely on a private car to obtain the necessities of life.

    The cost of replacement motor vehicles will rise because of shortages of minerals like aluminum, titanium, palladium and nickel, of which Russia is a major supplier. This will hit Germany’s car industry hard. Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Finland will be disproportionately hit by the loss of Russian markets for their exports.

    China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — creating a land-based route for Chinese exports to Western Europe — is being radically disrupted by a war that cuts right across the BRI’s road westward, and whose effects are being felt all the way from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The continuance of this war is not in China’s interests.

    The Possible Way to Peace in Ukraine

    The longer the conflict goes on, the more the sanctions on Russia will begin to sap its war-making capacity. Supplies of missiles and shells will become progressively harder to pay for. Those supplying weaponry to Ukraine have deeper pockets. This is the significance of Russia’s overtures to China.

    These overtures are an opportunity. China has an incentive to broker a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine, and so does Turkey. Of course, timing will be crucial. But the ingredients of such a deal, where there is no trust at all between the parties, are much harder to describe.

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    Ukraine could perhaps find a formula to give up Crimea, but it can hardly concede an inch in eastern Ukraine. Russian-language rights in Ukraine could be guaranteed, but what has Russia to offer in return? Perhaps reparations for the physical damage that the Russians have done to Ukraine’s infrastructure. Ukraine could join the EU but not NATO, with Russia’s encouragement, which would be a major U-turn for Moscow.

    None of these compromises are palatable, but they are preferable to a war of attrition that could go on for years until all the participants are exhausted or dead.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    On Ukraine, Turkey Is Moving Cautiously Toward the West

    Just days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the chief commentator of the Turkish daily Sabah, Mehmet Barlas, summed up his assessment of the situation with the sentence, “If we had to reckon with a war, President Erdogan would not have left today for a four-day trip to Africa.” He added that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, is in constant contact with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

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    “All experts,” the avowed Erdogan supporter continued, agreed that Washington was escalating the crisis to solidify its dominance in Western Europe. With that, Barlas also echoed the general mood in Turkey. It is fortunate, he said, that Russia’s president is much more reasonable and wiser than his American counterpart, Joe Biden.

    The Bond Between Erdogan and Putin

    This positive image of Putin and Erdogan’s familiarity with the Kremlin leader is no accident. Particularly since the failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2016, Erdogan has, with Putin’s help, been able to position himself independently of — and sometimes even against — the United States and Europe on key foreign policy issues.

    In Syria and Azerbaijan, Ankara and Moscow succeeded in marginalizing Western actors. In Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey acts as a competitor or even adversary to member states of the European Union.

    Turkey’s flirtation with Moscow led to concerns that Ankara might turn away from Europe altogether. That contributed to the EU’s kid-glove approach to Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus. It also resulted in Washington’s belated reaction to Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system with sanctions. It is true that Turkey has experience with Putin as a cool strategist and ruthless power politician in conflicts such as the one in Syria. But Erdogan has always seemed to succeed in avoiding escalation.

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    Despite all of Ankara’s tension with Moscow, Erdogan’s rapprochement with Russia has brought him much closer to his goal of strategic autonomy for his country from the West. Turkey skillfully maneuvered between the fronts of global rivalry and was able to considerably expand its scope and influence in just a few years.

    In this seesaw policy, however, Turkey is behaving much more confrontationally toward Western states than toward Russia. For years, the government press has painted a positive picture of Russia and a negative one of the United States and Europe. This is not without effect on Turkish public opinion. Around a month before Russia attacked Ukraine, in a poll carried out by a renowned opinion research institute, a narrow relative majority of 39% of respondents favored foreign policy cooperation with Russia and China instead of Europe and the United States.

    In the first days after Russia’s invasion, Ankara’s policy followed exactly the aforementioned pattern. Turkey condemned the attack, but it is not participating in sanctions against Russia. In the vote on suspending Russia’s representation rights in the Council of Europe, Turkey was the only NATO state to abstain and, as such, is keeping its airspace open to Russian aircraft.

    The West is paying particular attention to whether and how Turkey implements the Treaty of Montreux. The 1936 treaty regulates the passage of warships through Turkey’s Dardanelles and Bosporus Straits into the Black Sea. It limits the number, tonnage and duration of stay of ships from non-littoral states in the Black Sea. In the event of war, the convention stipulates that the waterways must be closed to ships of the parties to the conflict, and it entrusts Ankara with the application of the treaty’s regulations

    Ankara Swings Around

    It took Turkey four days to classify the Russian invasion as “war.” However, Ankara is still reluctant to officially close the waterways — as the treaty stipulates — to ships of parties to the conflict, Russia and Ukraine. Instead, Ankara is warning “all countries, Black Sea riparian or not,” against sending warships through the straits.

    In the literal sense, this step is not directed unilaterally against Moscow, but it also makes it more difficult for NATO ships to sail into the Black Sea. According to the treaty, however, the waterways may only be closed to warships of all countries if Ankara considers itself directly threatened by war. Consciously creating ambiguity, Turkey has triangulated between the West and Russia.

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    Almost imperceptibly at first, however, a reversal has now set in. There are four reasons for this. First, the West is showing unity and resolve unseen since the Cold War, and its sanctions are undermining Russia’s standing in the world. Second, Putin is losing his charisma as a successful statesman and reliable partner. Third, Ankara realizes that Putin’s vision of a great Russian empire could provoke more wars. Fourth, the ranks of the adversaries are closing and it is becoming more difficult for Turkey to continue its seesaw policy.

    Thus, strongly pro-Western tones have emerged from Ankara in recent weeks. Turkey will continue to support Ukraine in consultation with the West, according to the president’s spokesman. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu now claims to have contradicted Russia’s wishes for the passage of warships through the Bosporus “in all friendship.” President Erdogan is also in favor of admitting Ukraine to the European Union and Kosovo to NATO.

    Moreover, Ankara is not contradicting reports by Ukrainian diplomats that Turkey is supplying more armed drones and training pilots to fly drones. On March 2, Turkey joined the vast majority of states in the UN General Assembly’s condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that asked Russia to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces.” Two days later, during the extraordinary meeting of NATO’s foreign ministers, Turkey supported the deployment of NATO’s Response Force to NATO countries neighboring Ukraine.

    It looks like Putin is not only bringing long-lost unity to the EU, but he is also reminding Turkey of the benefits of its Western ties. Western states should realize that only more unity among themselves and more determination will make Turkey reengage with the West.

    *[This article was originally published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), which advises the German government and Bundestag on all questions relating to foreign and security policy.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    How to Write New York Times Propaganda

    The Russian invasion of Ukraine has ushered the Western world into an innovative moment of history managed by the media, who aim at nothing less than erasing the public’s perception of history and historical processes. Welcome to the age of nonstop propaganda. Any curious person seeking news about the war in Ukraine, let alone its background and causes, faces the permanent challenge of determining whether whatever story they happen to be reading is news or propaganda, or more likely some kind of witch’s brew containing some of the former and a preponderance of the latter.

    For the past month, the most respectable news outlets in the West have channeled their energy into perfecting a novel journalistic phenomenon that goes well beyond traditional propaganda. It has become so concentrated it now deserves an official name. I propose calling it “Obsessive Accusatory Reporting” (OAR). The message of any item in the news meriting the OAR label is to magnify an already present feeling of confirmed hatred in the reader. In principle, it can target nations, peoples, ideas or religions. But it works best when it focuses on a single personality.

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    The current version of OAR began with an idea already built into the cultural woodwork of American media: the perception that Russia — whether in its historical Soviet version or in its modern post-tsarist form — is the natural and eternal enemy of the United States and, by extension, to Western civilization as a whole. Inherited from the Cold War as a set of feelings that Americans find natural, establishment Democrats in the US gave it new impetus thanks to the artificial association they managed to establish with the man they believed could play the role of a true American evildoer: Donald Trump. Now, thanks to a specific event, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the practice of OAR can focus on a universal target by whom, unlike Trump, no American should be allowed to be seduced. It’s the new Hitler, Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

    Anyone who has ever witnessed a rowing event knows that to gain speed and ensure hydrodynamic efficiency, all rowers must have their oars strike the water at the same precise moment and achieve an equivalent depth below the surface of the water as their collective effort pushes the boat and all it contains forward. This repeated, disciplined, rhythmically coordinated energy creates the inertia strokes that produce increased momentum. 

    The media’s propaganda campaigns appear to work in much the same way thanks to the equally disciplined and repeated OAR phenomenon. Obsessive repetition, the alignment of an infinite series of examples of despicable behavior and the journalistic talent for turning each example into an emotion-stirring story are the three elements that sum up the art of OAR. The momentum the media has created around hatred for the person of Vladimir Putin has become a spectacle in itself. The danger the media has no time to worry about as its effort continues developing potentially uncontrollable speed is that it may reach the point where it triggers actions leading to a potentially thermonuclear conflagration. Call it the media’s brinkmanship that multiplies the effects of politicians who themselves, persuaded it is now the key to successful electoral marketing, have turned it into an art form. Voters want their leaders to be aggressive decision-makers.

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    There are undoubtedly plenty of reasons to distrust, despise and morally condemn Vladimir Putin that existed well before he decided to invade Ukraine on February 24. Putin has, as befits a country ruled for a century by autocratic tsars, developed a particularly thuggish form of governing his nation. Russians at least are used to it and fatalistically accept it, with no illusion about its pretention to any form of virtue other than the ability to keep things under control. 

    Putin is clearly guilty of every sin — from brutal repression to aggravated narcissism — that accrues to anyone who achieves his level of control that embraces military power, finance and technology. His ability to repress any serious opposition and manipulate electoral processes, his commitment to cronyism and self-enrichment, and his immunity from a basic moral sense concerning the value of human life and the dignity of the average citizen constitute attributes of his office. Unlike some autocratic leaders, he also has a high level of strategic intelligence. 

    Westerners have become habituated to leaders who seek to seduce broad segments of the population thanks to slogans rather than the demonstration of their clout or the display of their intelligence, which in fact is never required and, when it exists, may get in the way of their ambition. Western political leaders focus on developing the essential skill of deploying charm to win elections. To Westerners, Putin’s style of governing marked by the arrogance of power is worse than distasteful. It challenges their own belief in the illusion they need to feel of possessing political power in a democracy thanks to their ability to vote at regular intervals. They need to imagine their vote has an impact on policy, an illusion the media encourages them to believe in. All it really does is limit the degree of repression a democratic government may get away with. Putin has no qualms or regrets about manifestly unjust actions carried out against his own people. Western democratic leaders actually worry.

    Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was unambiguously illegal, morally shocking, paradoxical to the extent that he is attacking the population he claims to wish to protect and downright brutal. It may even be self-defeating, potentially tarnishing his image as a strong leader. It would, however, be premature to draw conclusions on that last point, as many in the Western media have already started doing. But for anyone susceptible to being seduced by today’s OAR culture, the temptation to believe in the inevitable failure of Putin’s enterprise is overwhelming. For the past two weeks, Western media have been joyously proclaiming that Putin’s armed assault is on the verge of defeat. 

    Journalism and Democracy

    The traditional belief about journalism in a democracy included the idea that the press plays a role closely attuned to the interest and the voice of the people. Ideally, the media exists to provide essential information about the real world and a modicum of independent insight about the topics treated. By showing restraint and focusing on discernible facts, media in a democracy could be trusted to help citizens understand complex events and make informed decisions after drawing their own conclusions about the possible relationship between causes and effects.

    That has long been the theory concerning the role of what people still call the fourth estate, a linguistic hand-me-down from 18th century European history that designates the free press. The fourth estate was deemed to be closest to the third estate (the people, or the commoners) and furthest from the first two estates (the clergy and the nobility). The advent of democracy made the theory of the estates obsolete, to the extent that the clergy lost its status of “estate.” In reality, the totalitarian drift of the 20th century revealed that the first and second estates merged as democratic governments assumed they could project the moral authority the clergy traditionally exercised.

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    The idea of a free and independent press embodied in the fourth estate continued to persist as a necessary but increasingly intangible ideal. Alas, history tells us that whenever an ideal makes contact with reality, it is likely to become distorted. With the rise of democracy in the West in the 19th century, the press permitted the expression of variable points of view. But over time, no ethical system could prevent those voices from being influenced by political parties, commercial interests, pressure groups and the government itself. The key to honoring the ideal was variety, not just tolerance but also the encouragement of a range of views. Financial concentration eventually limited and finally captured and confined that variety.

    The media has been trapped by forces it no longer tries to control or resist. It is virtually impossible even to imagine, let alone create anything resembling the ideal news outlet for which objective presentation of the news would be the inviolable norm. Perhaps the proponents of government by artificial intelligence believe they can one day put that in place by eliminating human agency. They too are victims of an illusion because manipulative human agency can work — and in fact works best — through artificial systems that include and mechanically promote the interests that created them. This is as true of political systems as it is of computer programs. The failure of humanity to even begin addressing the impending catastrophe of global warming can simply be attributed to systemic inertia, not to the idea that no leader is willing to make an appropriate decision.

    So long as diversity in the media was still possible, truth for the public at large could emerge not from a spontaneous or enforced consensus, but through the highly interactive process of recognizing and eliminating the distortions of the reality that became visible after comparing the various representations of it. By definition, the truth about human institutions and historical facts is dynamic, organic and interactive. It is not a statement and cannot be contained in statements. It exists as a perception. Perceptions can be shared, compared or contradicted. No single perception sums up the truth.

    In the traditional democratic idea of journalism, a good article avoided explicit judgment. In many instances, the standard practice became to avoid even mentioning specific interpretations or judgments. Good reporting limited itself to acknowledging dominant perspectives on a topic without choosing to endorse one or another. In stories about crime, for example, it has become a general rule — before a verdict rendered by a court of justice — to use the epithet “alleged.” This rule holds even when there is no doubt about the existence of the crime and the identity of the author of the crime (though the real reason for this precaution may be the media’s fear of being accused of libel). In contrast, when it comes to political issues, the opposite trend dominates. Journalists or their editors now routinely jump on the occasion to name the culprit and inculcate the belief of guilt in their audience. Knowing their niche audience, it enables them to offer their public what they want to hear or understand.

    Russian Agency and the Havana Syndrome

    One prominent case in recent years illustrates how easy it is for journalists to play fast and loose concerning real or imaginary political crimes. Over a period of five years dedicated to reporting on the “Havana syndrome,” The New York Times, The Washington Post and other respectable media consistently described reported health incidents as “attacks.” That word alone presumed criminal agency, even though the reality of cause and effect was closer to a “heart attack” or “panic attack” than to an assault.

    Articles on the syndrome typically insisted that, even when no evidence could be cited of any human agency, Russia was the prime suspect. Sentences such as this one from The Washington Post were clearly intended to distort the reader’s perception: “Current and former intelligence officials have increasingly pointed a finger at Russia, which has staged multiple brazen attacks on adversaries and diplomats overseas.” It is worth noting that the only act in this sentence that should qualify as news is what the intelligence officials have done: “pointed a finger.” All the rest, the “brazen attacks,” are either imprecisely anecdotal from a random past or simply imaginary.

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    Five years after initially pointing fingers, those same officials finally admitted officially that there was nothing to point their finger at. When the ultimate negative assessment by the CIA itself of Russian attacks was published in January of this year, did The Post or The Times (or any other media) apologize to their readers for their erroneous reporting over the years? Obviously, not. Perhaps they felt that might oblige them to do the unthinkable: apologize to the Russians.

    When there was finally no choice left but to reveal the CIA’s negative assessment, The New York Times tried to save face by insisting that everything it had pinned its hopes on might still have an element of truth in it. “A directed energy weapon,” Julian E. Barnes wrote on January 20, “remains the hypothesis that a number of victims who have studied the incidents believe is most likely.” If that fact is true, a serious reporter would have delved into the interesting question of why the victims continue to believe something that their superiors have determined to be untrue. Does this reveal that CIA operatives and their families have lost their trust in the truthfulness of the agency? The rest of us are left wondering why journalists like Barnes himself think it necessary to print such meaningless observations as significant facts.

    Now that the entire thesis of Russian-directed energy attacks has been discredited, a new article delving into the motivation of intelligence officials who made repeated unfounded claims might prove informative. But, miraculously, there are no new articles on the Havana syndrome, except maybe the article you are now reading. But none in The Times or The Post. With hindsight — something the legacy press studiously avoids — the articles of these papers appear to reveal the equivalent of “brazen attacks,” not by Russians but by US intelligence services. They were attacks on the public’s access to the truth. The journalists were simply willing conscious or unconscious accomplices in these brazen attacks. What this entire episode truly reveals is a lesson in how our culture of hyperreality works. It depends entirely on the media.

    Finally, a Serious Case of a Brazen Attack: Ukraine

    This inevitably brings us back to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This time, Russia is indeed guilty of a brazen attack that isn’t an imaginary hypothesis dreamed up by intelligence operatives. Nevertheless, the media have turned it into something far more brazen by systematically excluding or ignoring other less brazen but equally troubling attacks that have been going on for years. They include a decidedly brazen coup d’état in Ukraine supported, if not engineered, by the United States in 2014.

    The carefully managed act of regime change in which the US gratefully accepted the assistance of neo-Nazi extremists to produce the commensurate level of violence used the deposition of one democratically elected leader to enable the comforting fiction that the two Ukrainian presidents elected since those events — Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky — are somehow more legitimate than the president overthrown in the Maidan Revolution. That fiction depends on discarding the fact that Ukraine is not just another “sovereign nation” of Europe, but a historically, culturally and linguistically divided country that also has a conflicting but highly charged symbolic meaning for both Russia, its next-door neighbor, and the United States, a distant hegemon that has used NATO to spread its military dominance across Europe.

    Most reasonable and reasoning people admit the principle that complex political entities such as Ukraine require delicate diplomatic treatment. But, as the Bush wars revealed, US foreign policy rarely acknowledges the need for rationality. Even basic diplomacy appears to be inconsistent with the culture of enforced hegemony. At best, it might serve the purpose of catastrophe avoidance. But catastrophes are increasingly welcomed rather than avoided. Instead, we can observe a growing trend of catastrophe provocation that is difficult to explain, since the cost is heavy even for the perpetrators. For the US, it appears to have something to do with the idea that world hegemony is the only possible source of global stability and that catastrophes such as war are somehow good for business (which of course they are, but not for everyone’s or even most people’s business).

    In such a geopolitical environment, propaganda becomes a way of life and serves as the core activity in the construction of public culture. Selecting the facts the public will react to in a predictable way according to the interest of those who understand the secrets of geopolitical stability has become the basis of legacy journalism in the US. The ultimately comic example of the Havana syndrome perhaps served as a kind of temporary placeholder in times of relative peace. It upheld the mythological construct of a permanent Cold War, which seems to be essential in the definition of US foreign policy. Now that things have become seriously degraded in a nation that journalists have begun calling the “civilized” part of the world — meaning that it is worth being concerned about, in contrast with the Middle East, Asia and Africa — propaganda has to focus not on pure hallucinatory hyperreality but events that are taking place in the real world.

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    We are only beginning to see the dominant strategies involved. It is too early to assess them with any historical distance. What we are witnessing is the need to whip up the blind hatred that leads to the OAR phenomenon described earlier. But there is also a more basic approach that applies especially to situations that are historically and culturally complex. It includes the decision to forget to mention or even categorically deny the obvious for as long as possible. When the obvious does become visible, thanks to the indiscipline of some rare investigators interested in the truth, the strategy consists of devising ways of downplaying it and treating it as marginal.

    The Neo-Nazi Syndrome

    When Putin launched his assault on Ukraine, he defined a mission of denazification of Ukraine. He may have presumed that all Westerners can relate to that theme. Nazis are, after all, the personification of historical evil. So, if we can agree on a common enemy, we should at the very least offer one another friendly support. Putin apparently underestimated the Westerners’ ability to remain ignorant of very real and already documented facts, thanks to the deliberate forgetfulness of their media. Not only did commentators laugh at the notion that a neo-Nazi threat existed in Ukraine, they mocked the idea that it could exist in a nation whose president is Jewish.

    Four weeks into the war, The New York Times has published an article acknowledging that the neo-Nazi question is worth mentioning. The article bears the title, “Why Vladimir Putin Invokes Nazis to Justify His Invasion of Ukraine.” The title alone is extremely clever. It focuses attention not on the Nazis, who are never seriously identified, but on Vladimir Putin, whom Times readers understand as being evil incarnate. The first sentence reads as pure mockery of phrases Putin has used. “Ukraine’s government,” Anton Troianovski writes, ”is ‘openly neo-Nazi’ and ‘pro-Nazi,’ controlled by ‘little Nazis,’ President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia says.”

    The implication is that if Putin said it, it must be a lie. It is only in the 12th paragraph of the article that the question of the actual presence and actions of neo-Nazis in Ukraine is even grudgingly entertained. “Like many lies,” the paragraph begins, “Mr. Putin’s claim about a Nazi-controlled Ukraine has a hall-of-mirrors connection to reality.” Ah, Troianovski appears to admit, there is a connection to reality, but of course it is hopelessly distorted, like a fun park’s hall of mirrors.

    The following paragraph attempts to convince the reader that the phenomenon is so marginal there is definitely nothing to worry about. “Some fringe nationalist groups, who have no representation in Parliament, use racist rhetoric and symbolism associated with Nazi Germany.” In other words, talk of neo-Nazis is all fiction.

    Many paragraphs later, Troianovski reveals the real reason why this article of clarification became necessary for The Times rather than simply neglecting to mention neo-Nazis. It’s the fault of Facebook, which created something of a scandal when it “said it was making an exception to its anti-extremism policies to allow praise for Ukraine’s far-right Azov Battalion military unit, ‘strictly in the context of defending Ukraine, or in their role as part of the Ukraine National Guard.’” The Russians seized on this as proof of complicity between the Ukrainian resistance and the neo-Nazis. To counter dangerous Russian propaganda, The Times is stepping up to clarify the issue, even though it would have preferred not having to mention it.

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    Unfortunately, the article spends paragraph after paragraph clarifying nothing. It somewhat precipitously ends with a quote about how Jews are now among those fleeing the war. Some of them may never return, implying that Putin’s intent of denazifying Ukraine is in itself a deviously anti-Semitic act. This reversal of perception of blame illustrates one of the key techniques of New York Times-style propaganda. The journalist finds a devious way of turning the supposedly moral motivation of the enemy into its opposite.

    Troianovski briefly hints at the uncomfortable paradox that Israel has refused to condemn Russia, a fact that might comfort the idea of Putin’s concern with neo-Nazis. But the journalist leaves that question aside, apparently convinced that the subtlety of that debate unnecessarily complicates his mission as an OAR specialist focused only on highlighting Putin’s evil nature. Surprisingly for those familiar with modern Ukrainian history, Troianovski has the honesty to mention the historical Nazi sympathizer and Ukrainian nationalist, Stepan Bandera, still celebrated by many Ukrainians.

    Troianovski even has the merit of providing a link to a fascinatingly instructive 2010 Times article, written at a time when the paper had no particular commitment to churning out propaganda in the interests of celebrating Ukraine’s democratic purity and constitutional integrity. The author of that article, Clifford J. Levy, highlights the problem that Viktor Yanukovych was facing as he bravely attempted “to address the ethnic, regional and historical passions that divide the country.” Yanukovych was, of course, the Ukrainian president that Victoria Nuland helped to depose in 2014.

    Understanding the Culture of Propaganda by Comparing The Times in 2010 and 2022

    All New York Times readers and indeed all American journalists owe it to themselves and the sanity of the world we live in to read Levy’s article from 2010, if only to compare it to the image of Ukraine that American media are putting forward today of a unified people, imbued with liberal European values and united in their hatred of tyranny in all its forms. Levy’s article that applies the now-forgotten practices of straightforward journalism presents facts, cites contrasting points of view — including admirers of Bandera — and takes no sides. In so doing, it gives a clear picture of a terrifyingly complex social and historical situation that Western media have decided to simplify to the extreme in their wish to follow the dictates of US President Joe Biden’s State Department.  

    Any objective observer today, however rare their voices are in the media, must realize, as Barack Obama did in 2016, according to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, that “Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one.” Obama’s State Department that sent Nuland to Ukraine to manage the Maidan Revolution appeared at the time unaware of what Goldberg called the “Obama Doctrine.” That same objective observer should also be aware of the fact that the Ukraine described by Levy in his 2010 article still exists, despite the State Department’s 2014 coup d’état. There is much more about the history of the last eight years and beyond that, despite the terrifying consequences playing out day after day, US and Western media have now chosen to studiously ignore, if not suppress.

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    One salient point that readers of Levy’s article will relate to today, however, is the remark of the director of the Stepan Bandera museum in Lviv: “For Ukrainian nationalists, there is no such word as capitulation.” That is even truer when those same nationalists dispose of a billion dollars worth of American weaponry to keep the war of resistance going as long as possible. The citizenry of Western Ukraine will follow the lead of the nationalists — not all of whom are neo-Nazis — and refuse to capitulate, while suffering what deserves to be called severe if not sadistic cultural, political and military abuse from two enemies fighting a proxy war on their land: Russia and the United States.

    But if the continuing destruction of Ukrainian cities and loss of thousands of lives is the price to pay for the pleasure of reading reams of Obsessive Accusatory Reporting, then, as Madeleine Albright might say, “the price is worth it.”

    ​​The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More