"Real war, propaganda war."
The case of Mariupol.
The Scrum is pleased to introduce Tony Kevin to its pages. He has given us a piece of great distinction concerning one of the pressing questions of our time. It is famously said that truth is war’s first casualty. In the Ukraine case, it has been a cruel, gruesome death. In our estimation, the Western press has just made a paradigm shift: It is now fully and with no apparent compunction committed to serving as the propaganda arm of the invisible government, as Bernays so directly put it in Propaganda, his 1928 classic on the dark art he did so much to perfect.
Anthony Kevin served for 30 years as a career diplomat in the Australian foreign service, 1968 to 1998. His postings included the Soviet Union (1969–71), the U.N. in New York (1974–76), Poland (as ambassador, 1991–94), and Cambodia (as ambassador, 1994–97). Since retiring from the foreign service, Tony Kevin has been active as an independent commentator and author. His two most recent books, Return to Moscow (University of Western Australia, 2017) and Russia and the West (published privately, 2019), have defended the values of East–West détente and a stable U.N.–based world order against increasingly hostile anti–Russian and anti–Chinese Western narratives.
We run this exceptional piece, of great documentary value, at length. Due to gmail’s technical limitations, to read the whole click here or on the headline above. This will make the piece available in its entirety.
This is the first in a two-part series.
— P. L.
By Tony Kevin
6 APRIL—The fate of Mariupol has come to symbolize and epitomize the larger question of the fate of Donbass and Ukraine as a whole. This has hung in the balance not only since the Russian military operation that began on 24 February; the crisis in Ukraine and the breakaway republics in the east has been coming slowly to a boil since the coup d’etat in Kiev eight years before this, in February 2014. This coup removed an admittedly imperfect but elected, pluralist government and replaced it with a violently anti–Russian nationalist regime, which thereafter enjoyed United States protection and support. There were momentous consequences in Crimea, Donbass and Odessa, during 2014 and subsequently.
This essay considers the context and course of the battle for Mariupol, now hopefully drawing to a close, and the illuminating case study of the mysterious major explosion on 24 March that wrecked the beloved Mariupol Drama Theatre, risking the lives of allegedly hundreds of people sheltering in its basements. It also suggests how the Mariupol story demonstrates the politically significant dynamics between the real war and the information war in and around Ukraine.
As a friend recently commented:
The success of “disinformation warfare” often stems from an initial, massively coordinated presentation to world media of a simple but false story, which no amount of scientific and rational argument can later dislodge. Such a story is framed to appeal to emotional triggers that enrage and incense people before they have the chance to see if the story is true….
We are now seeing this play out again, in respect of Bucha and other towns and villages to the north of Kiev, where a tactical or diplomatic withdrawal by previously occupying Russian forces has created opportunities for a skilful and profoundly evil Ukrainian government disinformation warfare blitz, involving carrying out disguised mass murders then wrongly blamed on Russia.
In Bucha during the night of 31 March–April 1, two days after Russian main forces had left the area, and during an obligatory curfew and announced purge of “saboteurs and collaborators,” Azov Battalion death squads went house-to-house on a killing spree, dragging out and killing almost 200 local civilians on a preselected kill list. They then dressed and rearranged the freshly killed bodies in the streets as props to support false claims that these were local civilians killed by Russian soldiers as they withdrew. The international media had meanwhile been primed and ready to run this story in real time and without time for checking or delays.
The international outrage created by this temporarily successful disinformation warfare offensive has had immediate negative effects. It has confused some wavering governments and peace groups as to which side to believe. It has diverted attention from the Russia–Ukraine peace talks, and possibly damaged them.
I do not know whether these effects will be long-lasting. In a few days, the war in the East will progress toward military resolution, and more reliable information about what happened in Bucha may emerge. Real wars prevail in the end over false information wars. When the dust settles, I will publish here a follow-up piece on Bucha.
My sources for the following essay on Mariupol are various. I finished a month in Russia on 7 March. I have studied this war fulltime on the internet since returning to Australia. I have consulted national presidential, foreign and defence ministry websites; official news agencies such as TASS and Donbass Amalgamated News, as well as semi-official sites close to governments, such as RT, the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Xinhua. I have also made use of a variety of independent media I have come to trust.
The battle for Mariupol in context
MARIUPOL, A MAJOR Russian-speaking seaport on the Azov Sea, with a population estimated at 460,000 prior to the Russian intervention, was Ukraine’s tenth-largest city and Donbass’s third-largest city. It was theseaport serving the Donbass, the shorthand term for the Lugansk and Donetsk cities and oblasts, or provinces. These two resource-rich provinces are often compared with the Ruhr, Germany’s major industrial region. They are the most industrialized and populous parts of Ukraine, blessed with highly fertile black earth soils, rich deposits of iron ore and coal, and with major steel industries. The Donbass was depopulated and devastated during fierce Soviet–Nazi battles in the Great Patriotic War. The three cities were completely rebuilt from rubble after the German defeat, as handsome Stalinist-style planned cities. They were repopulated with returning prewar inhabitants and with new immigrants from other parts of Ukraine and nearby southern Russia. Their majority language was Russian.
The coup in Kiev in February 2014 triggered the subsequent incorporation of Crimea into Russia and destabilized the whole Donbass region. A popular protest movement quickly developed for civil rights for the Russian-speaking local majorities. As these regions did not support the coup, as was their right, this grew into separatist movements centered on the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk. They sought Russian protection, speaking even of secession and joining the Russian Federation, and they took up arms against Kiev.
In May 2014 Kiev reacted with a brutal military campaign of repression. The rebel cities at this point violently resisted. Kiev ordered full-scale artillery bombardments. Many civilians died in 2014, but this war has never ended. It has caused 14,000 civilian deaths in Donbass, according to data from the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The OHCHR reports a total of 1.6 million displaced persons.
A shaky, internationally monitored ‘line of contact’ was established in late 2014, indicated by the dotted line on our map. Even now, deadly shelling of Donetsk continues from the Kiev-controlled western part of Donetsk province, where the pride of the Ukrainian army—60,000 men in uniform, including from its nationalist battalions—now sit in concrete fortifications encircled by Russian forces. Their continued shelling of civilian areas in Donetsk city, sporadic but lethal, constitute militarily useless, pointless acts of malice. In coming weeks, these Ukrainian troops, which Russian forces have now trapped, will either surrender and evacuate under agreed terms or will be eliminated.
Just 70 miles to the south, Mariupol had the misfortune after the 2014 Donbass insurgency to find itself occupied by a powerful Ukrainian nationalist military force, units of the notoriously Russia-hating Azov Battalion. For the next eight years, the Azovs have garrisoned a sullenly hostile city. The local economy slumped, as Mariupol lost its main function as the Black Sea port for the now cut-off rebel Donbass cities. Inevitably, the Azov garrison attracted a Ukrainian population of opportunistic carpetbaggers and compradors, who filled city administrative posts. The citizenry made the best of a bad situation. Russian-speaking locals hated their Azov–Ukrainian overlords, and vice versa.
After the war began on 24 February, Russian forces from Crimea and the Donbass quickly encircled Mariupol and laid siege to the city. Both sides knew that if Russia took the city, there would be a continuous land bridge between Crimea and mainland Russia. Kiev thus called on the Azovs to resist to the last man.