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The West’s propaganda campaign against Russia is surging along on the crest of the waves and is having some success in convincing a trusting public that the Russian Bear is a massive threat to the Free World. It’s just like old times, but on occasions the psychological operations experts go overboard and sink (to continue the metaphor) in their own counter currents of disinformation.
This happened when it was decided to treat Russia’s deployment of ships to the Mediterranean as a forewarning of global destabilization, and Western governments’ briefings to their media succeeded in production of some remarkable headlines and reports.
In October Russia deployed eight ships to the Mediterranean to support Syria in its fight against Islamic jihadist rebels, a collaborative strategy condemned by the governments and media of some countries in the US-NATO military alliance.
This was not surprising, because several Syrian rebel groups are supported with money, training and weapons by Washington, and the West’s propaganda operation against the deployment made it clear that novel methods of denigration were being employed in order to portray Russia not only as a villain, but as militarily incompetent in its support of the Syrian government.
Typical of the crusade was a headline on October 21 in the ultra-right-wing British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph. It read “BELCHING SMOKE THROUGH THE CHANNEL, RUSSIAN AIRCRAFT CARRIER SO UNRELIABLE IT SAILS WITH ITS OWN BREAKDOWN TUG.” This was followed by the disparaging statement that “The ageing Russian aircraft carrier that sailed through the English Channel escorted by the Royal Navy has been plagued by years of technical problems and is accompanied everywhere by a tug in case it breaks down. The plumbing is so bad on the 55,000 ton Admiral Kuznetsov that many of its toilets cannot be used, while it has had repeated problems with its power and a string of accidents, naval experts said.” The British public were not informed that many large naval vessels are accompanied by tugs and other support craft, or that smoking funnels are not unknown, but most UK newspapers are not now, alas, given to providing facts if these conflict with policy.
Another headline was “ROYAL NAVY HEROES STALK PUTIN’S NUKE FLEET AS IT HEADS FOR ENGLISH CHANNEL” and one tabloid informed its readers excitedly that “ROYAL NAVY RACES TO INTERCEPT HEAVILY-ARMED RUSSIAN AIRCRAFT CARRIER HEADING FOR ENGLISH CHANNEL.”
All these captions and comments illustrate the difficulties of propaganda as practiced by amateurs, because the editors of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun (and Times), Viscount Rothermere’s Daily Mail, and the spooky Barclay Brothers’ Daily Telegraph found it impossible to combine spreading anxiety and alarm about a fearsome military threat from Russia with a parallel message of patronizing derision concerning Russia’s supposed lack of military competence. You can’t do both, no matter how hard you try, because if you declare condescendingly that your chosen enemy — your target — is unskilled and technically flawed, you can’t with credibility in the next breath pronounce that your country and the world are being threatened by what you describe conflictingly as that supposed enemy’s menacingly formidable military machine. You just look obnoxious, malicious and foolish, which is not unusual in the case of the proprietors and editors of the pantomime press.
The British government provided details of the impending movement of Russian vessels through international waters and Britain’s jingoistic media were encouraged to portray the event as a threat to world stability. While this was laughable, the fact remains that the British people were exposed to yet more anti-Russia sentiment, which was the object of the exercise.
It was interesting that the Kuznetsov was “escorted by the Royal Navy” because, although Royal Navy ships may have lots of lavatories, some of them have difficulty in staying at sea for extended periods. As noted by Naval Technology in November — immediately after “Royal Navy Heroes stalked Putin’s Nuke Fleet” — the Royal Navy’s Type 45 destroyer HMS Duncan “suffered a total propulsion failure off the Devon coast . . . Built by BAE Systems, the Royal Navy’s six Type 45 destroyers have experienced more than 5,000 engine faults with total loss of propulsion, as well as electrical failure.” Even the ultra-nationalistic Daily Mail newspaper had to acknowledge that “Britain’s cutting-edge £1 billion warships are breaking down in the Persian Gulf because they are not designed for the heat . . . the six warships have an engine which keeps cutting out in the middle of the sea, leaving servicemen stranded for hours in total darkness.”
It must be hoped they could navigate to the rest rooms in the dark.
In fact the BBC had reported, months before this embarrassing farce, that “the Royal Navy’s most modern warships are to be fitted with new engines because they keep breaking down. In an email seen by the BBC, a serving Royal Navy officer wrote that ‘total electric failures are common’ on its fleet of six £1 billion Type 45 destroyers. The Ministry of Defense said there were reliability issues with the propulsion system.”
Next came news that Britain’s Prince Harry, an engaging if sadly hirsute youth representing Her Majesty the Queen on a tour of the Caribbean on the same day that HMS Duncan was towed to port because of engine failure, was unable to leave the island of St Vincent.
The Daily Mail, torn between vulgar obsession with Celebs and concentration on quasi-patriotic bigotry, chose to report that “Prince Harry was left stranded after the Navy ship he is travelling on broke down . . . The Prince was due to leave the island of St Vincent on Saturday evening but the ship, RFA Wave Knight, would not start.” The newspaper did not mention availability of tugs for the Wave Knight — or that it was not alone in experiencing engine problems, because not far away, in the Panama Canal, a little-reported drama was taking place, involving a much more modern and expensive ship of astonishing combat capability.
The 4.4 billion dollar USS Zumwalt is a stealth destroyer described by the US Navy as “the largest and most technologically advanced surface combatant in the world. Zumwalt is the lead ship of a class of next-generation multi-mission destroyers designed to strengthen naval power from the sea. These ships feature . . . the latest war fighting technology and weaponry available.”
And the Zumwalt broke down in the Panama Canal on November 21.
Defense News reported that “The new, high-tech destroyer Zumwalt suffered an engineering casualty Monday evening while passing through the Panama Canal and had to be towed to a berth.” The report did not indicate if the Zumwalt had an escort tug, but it was fortunate that the Canal has many of these available for use in the event of breakdown of brand-new warships that cost 4 billion dollars.
The Zumwalt was towed to Balboa dockyard at the Pacific end of the Canal where it had to remain for repairs until November 30, when it left for San Diego, reaching there on December 7, the same day that the BBC broadcast that Britain’s only aircraft carrier, HMS Illustrious, “sailed out of its home port of Portsmouth for the final time. The Ministry of Defense announced earlier this year it had been sold for £2 million to a ship recycling company in Turkey.”
But the Free World need not despair about Britain’s lack of sea-borne airpower. The replacements for HMS Illustrious, the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales, are due in 2020 and 2022, respectively, and meantime the oceans’ waves will continue to be dominated by the US Navy which records that “On any given day, around 50,000 Sailors are deployed globally aboard any one of approximately 100 ships.”
It is to be hoped that that some of the 100 ships are tugs and that the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers will be designed for the heat of the Persian Gulf, but one sure thing is that the West’s propaganda teams will gear up to mock the next deployment of Russian ships in spite of the embarrassing fact that they seem to be able to keep going without having to be towed back to port.
A version of this piece appeared in Strategic Culture Foundation on December 13.