Propaganda from the East and Skepticism of the West
We in the West are riveted by images pouring out of Ukraine. We daily share the experience of grisly photographs and the inspiring speeches by President Zelensky. Regardless of political affiliation, the vast majority of citizens from London to LA view those images through the same frame of reference. Putin is a thug and a tyrant. The Russian military’s behavior is despicable. We are rooting for the courageous underdogs defying Moscow.
But this is not necessarily what the rest of the world sees. The lack of global moral consensus on the Russian invasion bodes poorly for Western interests and values. For example, only 93 countries voted to suspend Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council. Amazingly, 80 countries either voted “no” or abstained. The United States and its allies are not winning the public diplomacy war in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
One reason for this disjuncture is Moscow’s savvy propaganda campaign. Citizens from Eastern Europe to Beijing see highly edited footage of Ukrainians attacking Russians and belligerent Western powers stoking conflict, roiling energy markets, and bullying Russia.
Russian media casts the conflict as a “special military operation” to protect the well-being of Russian citizens left on the wrong side of a post-Cold War boundary (e.g., Crimea). It is illegal for Russian journalists to criticize the war effort. China’s media likewise uses Moscow’s “special military operations” language.
The West is portrayed as aggressively extending NATO and the EU beyond the agreements of the 1990s. The implication is that Ukraine’s leaders brought this war on themselves by provocatively courting membership in Western institutions rather than adopting neutrality.
In 2014, Ukraine’s pro-Russian government was overthrown by the Maidan Revolution, which Russia says was covertly financed by the U.S. This overstated framing portrays a relentless Western appetite for expansion that has backed poor little Russia, with its 145 million people, into a corner. Russian propaganda paints a need for a defensive posture: “Who can stand up to the 800 million people allied in NATO and the EU?”
China’s media focuses on the financial aspects, arguing that the West’s heavy-handed response is pushing the world toward economic depression. According to the World Bank, many leaders in poor countries such as Mexico and Kenya worry that the COVID-19 recovery will stall due to this conflict. The Chinese Communist Party’s main news organ calls the Western sanctions “financial terrorism.”
Moscow and Beijing’s argument of “Western encroachment” has an aura of authenticity in other capitals around the world, where there is a sense that the West’s business enterprises, Hollywood culture, and radical sexual ideologies are bludgeoning their cultures and politics. Newsweek recently reported on Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s diplomatic entreaties to Brazil and India, warning that the United States could deploy the same “unprecedented economic warfare” against them in the future.
Finally, there are those who agree that Russian aggression is unlawful but do not directly benefit from Western involvement in the first place. As TIME reports, this is why so many Arab countries initially failed to criticize Russia or increase oil production. The most colorful of these voices weave imaginative conspiracies about the West controlling all the levers of global power. The United States and NATO, this argument goes, have sinister motivations, such as pushing Russia out of oil markets to benefit North American producers, provoking regime change in Moscow, or taking over UN institutions for Western benefit.
In short, the world is watching the war in Ukraine but seeing it through different, carefully structured narratives leading to very different conclusions. Tehran clearly sees that nuclear weapons are necessary for its survival: if Kyiv had nukes, Russia would have never dared to attack. China is weighing what it would face if it were to attack Taiwan: perhaps the West will respond too late to save Taipei. Poor countries watched President Biden abandon his Afghan allies and hesitate on Ukraine, so which great power should they befriend?
The U.S. needs a new public diplomacy strategy. We could borrow elements from the Truman Doctrine, and re-inspire confidence that the U.S. will support democracies against internal and external aggression. President Biden must stop droning about what he won’t do (send troops, no-fly zones) and emphasize the extraordinary amount of military materiel shipped to Kiev. The U.S. also must re-double its diplomacy to national capitals outside the West, particularly in-person visits by the Secretary of State and his lieutenants to rising powers such as India, Brazil, and Indonesia.
Finally, Washington must be very clear as to what its strategic redlines are beyond NATO’s borders, including aggression against South Korea, Taiwan, or elsewhere in Eurasia. The stakes are high, not just for Ukraine, but for demonstrating our resolve to stand up for freedom.