In 1949, George Orwell published “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” his famous portrait of a totalitarian regime whose “Ministry of Truth” spews rank propaganda called “Newspeak” that turns historical facts on their head.
Newspeak has been alive and well in Moscow, where President Vladimir Putin flatly denied any Russian presence in Ukraine, even as thousands of Russian troops and heavy weapons invaded that country.
What’s more disturbing is that NATO leaders met recently in Wales to discuss Ukraine’s refusal to denounce Putin’s aggression as an “invasion.”
This failure ensured that the Russian leader emerged as the winner at the Wales summit, even though he wasn’t present. And it almost guarantees that the temporary cease-fire reached recently between Kiev and Ukrainian “rebels” won’t last.
As Orwell knew, language plays a critical role in warfare. Putin’s propaganda machine has been crucial in rallying support for his Ukraine policy at home, as well as in the ethnic Russian provinces of eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, the West’s reluctance to challenge Putin’s narrative has crippled NATO’s efforts to stop him from dismembering Ukraine.
When Russians were captured in Ukraine or sent home in body bags, the Kremlin insisted they had been “volunteers.” Mothers of the dead men were silenced, soldiers’ graves left unmarked, and the few brave Russian journalists who reported the story were physically attacked.
The Kremlin blatantly denied what the world could see — the satellite photos and physical sightings of columns of Russians crossing the border.
Within Russia, the Kremlin has taken total control of all national television stations from which most Russians get their news. In eastern Ukraine, Putin’s proxies cut the signal to Ukrainian stations, so Russian-speakers’ sole news source is TV propaganda from Moscow.
That means a steady diet of made-up stories and falsified video. Such agitprop has whipped up Russian support for Putin at home while terrifying ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, and enabled Putin to sell the annexation of Crimea as a rescue operation to save ethnic Russians.
But polls show that the Russian public has no appetite for an invasion, so Russian TV steadfastly denies that Russian troops have invaded Ukraine.
Meantime, President Barack Obama and other NATO leaders have also refused to call the invasion by its rightful name.
Western officials have fulminated against Russian aggression but — with the notable exception of leaders from the Baltics and Poland — have studiously avoided the I-word. The reason, as Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told The New York Times, is obvious: “If you call something less than an invasion you can feel that you don’t have to react.”
Indeed, at the summit in Wales, it was clear that — when it came to stopping the Russian dismemberment of Ukraine — NATO leaders couldn’t agree on anything harsher than expanding current economic sanctions.
Sanctions have had some impact — without them, Putin might have sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine, rather than 1,000 to 3,000. But the Russian leader has clearly developed a new form of hybrid warfare: using subterfuge to confuse Western countries. Additional sanctions won’t deter him.
The so-called rebellion in eastern Ukraine was stage-managed by Russian intelligence agents, backed with Kremlin funds and arms. This was clearly evident when I visited Donetsk in May, and interviewed some “rebel” leaders.
When these Russian proxies proved incompetent, and Ukrainian forces were on the brink of defeating the “rebellion,” Putin rushed in just enough Russian military and heavy equipment to push back advancing Ukrainian troops. The Kiev government doesn’t have the resources to withstand a Russian-backed assault, so it may be forced to bow to Putin’s dictates.
If NATO allows that to happen, Putin will have destroyed the post-World War II international order in Europe that was based on the premise that no country invaded another. However, if NATO continues to pretend there was no invasion, it can also pretend that nothing has changed.
Of course, the Baltic nations and Poland, which are NATO members, are too vulnerable to indulge in such pretenses; they fear they may be Putin’s next victims. That is why they want to call the Russian invasion of Ukraine by its real name.
A NATO rejection of Putin’s Newspeak would have opened the door to a more forceful commitment to protecting the Balts and the Poles from Russian aggression. Such protection would require permanent NATO bases in those countries. Instead, NATO proposed a small rapid-reaction force that will have little effect against Putin’s deceptive warfare.
NATO rejected the basing option because of a 1997 agreement with Russia not to put “substantial combat forces” in Central and Eastern Europe. Yet by invading Ukraine, Moscow has violated another accord, the 1994 Budapest memorandum, that commits it to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine should also nullify that 1997 accord.
Unless Obama and other NATO leaders confront what Putin does, not what he says, he will feel free to practice hybrid warfare elsewhere, secure in the knowledge that he can deny his actions to his own people and to the world. By buying into Kremlin Newspeak, NATO has given Putin carte blanche to continue unsettling Europe — and destroying Ukraine.