A Closer Look at the Prose of Caitlin Johnstone

As has been remarked widely since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, propaganda emerges from all sides of a conflict during wartime. All of us are likely to fall prey to some deceptive or fabricated information under such circumstances. The best we can do is try to maintain a critical eye as we learn about the war. It is in this spirit that I undertook an annotation of a recent essay by the Australian writer Caitlin Johnstone, who publishes frequently at the Russian state media outlet RT, as well as at Medium and substack. Manipulation and obfuscation are so egregious in certain texts, that they require close reading and even annotation in order to reveal their actual meaning. I have found that to be the case with the essays of Caitlin Johnstone, which unfortunately often garner a large following among certain segments of the online left. The primary essay I will be looking at is titled, “Ukraine Is a Sacrificial Pawn on the Imperial Chessboard,” published on March 6, 2022, on Johnstone’s substack.

Let’s examine the first paragraph, starting with the opening sentence.

“The war is not going well for Kyiv, and it would be unreasonable to expect that to change.”

In reality, the war has not gone as well as expected for Russia, while Ukraine is performing better than expected. Johnstone is tendentious and distorting and we’re only nine words in. She includes four hyperlinks in this opening paragraph. It is instructive to click on them to determine their source and their worth. “The war is not going well” hyperlink takes one to a map tweeted out by the journalist Elijah J. Magnier, who is part of the Kuwait-based AlRai Media Group, according to his Twitter profile. Scrolling down the main page of the AlRai news site, one eventually finds an article about the Russian war on Ukraine. The roughly 100-word piece is practically devoid of information, but it does use the Kremlin-approved phrase “Russian military operation,” rather than the terms “war” & “invasion.” (Those latter two terms are now outlawed in Russian media and on social media when referring to the invasion of Ukraine and their use is punishable by up to 15 years in prison).

The map itself is an item of propaganda produced by the Russian state media company Readovka. Using the Google Chrome English translation option, I clicked on the “Empire” tab (really) of the Readovka’s main page. The propaganda style of Readovka is more of a throwback to the Soviet style, in contrast to the 21st century post-modern Shurkov approach. Articles bear headlines like “Shoigu said the operation in Ukraine will last until the goals are achieved” and “Peskov: ‘Russia will complete the demilitarization of Ukraine.’ ”

I realize that to track down the origin and scrutinize the veracity of even a couple of paragraphs of Johnstone’s references requires several hours. I’ve looked into other links in the article, but to break down a Johnstone article link by link would require, at minimum, a lengthy article of its own, while this present essay-annotation is focused on looking at broader trends in two of Johnstone’s recent essays. Nonetheless, what I can glean from my brief look into Johnstone’s references is that they are often sourced directly from Russian state media. This is unsurprising, as she publishes regularly for the Russian state news site RT, at least sixteen op-eds in the last year.

Let’s continue with the annotation.

“As a vastly superior military force overwhelms the US client state reality is in the process of crashing down hard in the face of western liberals who bought into the war propaganda that the brave, sexy comedian was leading an upset victory to kick Putin’s ass out of Ukraine.”

Catch that? Ukraine is not an independent, sovereign nation, with their own language, a 1000 year-plus cultural history and long periods of sovereign statehood along the way. The Ukraine people and nation have earned no such respect in Johnstone’s mind. They are merely a “client state” of the US. This framing is important, as it is a way of removing independent will and agency from the Ukraine people – which is essential to do when disseminating the policy of an invading state. This framing is also related to Johnstone’s support of crypto-fascist Alexander Dugin’s, (Putin’s closest ideological adviser) vision of a future “multipolar world” – as opposed to an envisioned world of free, sovereign people with no hegemonic powers or a world forged through grassroots internationalism. More on the question of multipolarity later in this piece.

The referencing of idiotic reasons for supporting a policy in US mainstream media in an attempt to paint all people who may support a particular position as idiots is a frequent rhetorical tactic of Johnstone. Yes, many American dummies, in the media and in the public, like to think of wars as professional wrestling matches – but that is irrelevant to thinking people’s belief in the right of Ukraine to remain independent and to defend itself against foreign aggression – with the negotiation of an end to the war as the primary and most urgent objective.

“Zelensky is now raging at NATO powers for refusing to intervene militarily against Russia, apparently having previously been given the impression that the US-centralized empire might risk its very existence defending its dear friends the Ukrainians from an invasion.”

As the Twitterati like to say, that word “apparently” is doing a lot of work in the sentence. Does Johnstone provide any evidence for her speculation of the “US centralized empire” telling Zelensky that they would intervene on Ukraine’s behalf against a nuclear-armed power if invaded? Of course not, because there is none. The entire reason Zelensky wished to join NATO was to, in fact, gain such a guarantee of NATO protection in the event of an invasion. It is safe to assume that Zelensky knew full well the US would not rush in and risk setting off a global nuclear conflict over Ukraine.

“It must be hard, the process of learning that you were never actually a valued partner in western civilization’s fight for freedom and democracy. That you were always just one more sacrificial pawn on the imperial chessboard.”

Again, what evidence is there that the US or NATO told Zelensky they would enter the conflict in the event Ukraine was invaded? There is no evidence he expected that support or that he based his decisions on some kind of a back room promise of support by NATO. Johnstone is fabricating here. She has nothing substantial to back her claim so she harks back to the Cold War for an example.

“The US has a history of working to draw Moscow into gruelling {sic}, costly military quagmires which monopolize its military firepower while leaching it of blood and treasure. Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, author of US hegemonic manifesto The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, openly bragged about having lured Russia into its own Vietnam fighting the US-backed mujahideen in Afghanistan for a decade.”

And here, we are getting a more detailed look at Johnstone’s peculiar vision of struggles for sovereignty. Rather than a truly anti-imperialist perspective, Johnstone constantly evinces the real politik perspective of Henry Kissinger. Per this logic, there was no popular struggle by the Afghan people against the Soviet invasion of 1979. In fact, what the Afghan people wanted in the 1980s is irrelevant to Johnstone. Of course, the US did wage an insane and disastrous proxy war in Afghanistan using globally recruited muhajadeen fighters during the 1980s. However, there existed an indigenous Afghani opposition to Russian occupation prior and concurrent to any involvement by the United States. In January 1980, 34 Muslim nations from the Organization of Muslim Cooperation signed a joint statement demanding the immediate removal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Such opposition efforts are rarely, if ever, recognized by Johnstone. They simply do not fit her “narrative,” to employ one of her favorite words. Afghanistan – and all countries’ struggles – are relevant only as they relate to what the warring “polarity” powers of the US and the Soviet Union/Russia may want.

The Michael Corleone Godfather-esque notion of Russia constantly getting tricked or goaded into military misadventures by the US – even when Russia invades sovereign nations – serves another important rhetorical function for Johnstone. She is seeking to portray the Russian decision to invade Ukraine as one Putin was forced to make, as if the hand of fate directed his thinking and not the rationale he has provided in recent speeches and in recent writings, as when he said on March 3, 2022, “I will never give up my conviction that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.”

Johnstone lays out her views much more explicitly in the quote below, in which she describes her perspective on the struggle of the Syrian people against the torture-centric dictator Bashar al-Assad. The following quote is from Johnstone’s February 24, 2022 piece entitled “Civilized Nations Kill With Sanctions And Proxy Armies: Notes From The Edge Of The Narrative Matrix.”

“Empire apologists always try to distort power dynamics to make it seem like they’re the brave up-punchers sticking up for the little guy. It’s tiny Ukraine against big bad Russia, not Russia against a globe-dominating empire of which Ukraine is just one member state. It’s the brave freedom fighters of Syria versus Assad, not Assad against a planetary unipolar hegemon using proxy forces to effect regime change. It’s Israel against the big strong Muslim nations which surround it, not an entire empire of which Israel is just one member state picking on far weaker powers. Etc.”

Astonishing. The Syrians who took up arms against the mass murdering and mass torturing dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, as part of the wave of Arab Spring uprisings, possess no actual meaning or even humanity to Johnstone. They only have meaning as they exist in the battle between the “polarity” powers of East and West. This, amazingly, permits her to portray the dictator Bashar al-Assad as a patriotic victim. She then mockingly uses the phrase “big bad Russia” to refer to the nation in the context of their pre-pre-emptive* invasion by land, sea and air of Ukraine. Given what is happening in the cities of Ukraine as I write these words, this sarcastic quip is particularly disgusting. I wonder how Johnstone’s dismissive condescension might strike the elderly people and children currently facing annihilation under the punishing Russian bombing campaign.

The inclusion of Israel in her list strikes one as incongruent. Israel is a small, but powerful, state who does not relent in their cruel settler colonial project in the occupied territories of Palestine. Unlike Ukraine and unlike large parts of the anti-Asaad Syrian resistance, not to mention Syrian civilians – Israel is the clear aggressor in Palestine. This type of incoherence and confusion within Johnstone’s prose is not atypical. In her work published at RT and elsewhere, her analyses of world events tend to be identical to analyses and positions advanced by the Kremlin. However, she must write in such a way as to obscure that fact and she is extremely skilled at doing this. Including the aggressor nation Israel alongside all Syrian resistance fighters and alongside Ukraine skillfully achieves the confusion sought by Johnstone.

She starts her paragraph with the phrase “empire apologists always try to distort power dynamics.” The rhetorical sleight-of-hand Johnstone regularly performs has really begun to reveal itself. The trick is to disappear the actual victims of bloodthirsty non-US aligned regimes like Putin’s and Bashar al-Assad’s behind the “power dynamics” of leviathan nation states. Johnstone seems to be arguing that people who criticize and protest against such despots must be “empire apologists.” Her contempt for the innocent victims of so-called polarity power struggles is bracing.

And perhaps this is where we should conclude this look into a writer who uses the veneer and the jargon of radical politics to whitewash the crimes of non-US aligned dictators. The briefest of glances at the present global landscape or at history reveals the hyper-simple truth that it is possible for two or more nation states to wage imperial wars at the same time. Pausing to think for a microsecond permits one to recognize that it is possible for government leaders in countries that are not the US or its allies to commit human rights abuses, war crimes and atrocities. The prose of Caitlin Johnstone, which so often carries a tone of condescension and belittling snark, seeks to obscure these very simple facts. However, maintaining consistent condemnation of acts of oppression and aggression, from wherever they may originate, is crucial if our ethics are to have any meaning at all.

Dan Hanrahan is a musician, translator, actor and writer. He has written essays for Counterpunch, El Beisman, The Mantle, and OpEdNews. Dan’s poetry and translations appear in The Academy of American Poets, Brilliant Corners, Babelsprecht (Germany), Words Without Borders, and salamalandro.net (Brazil), and in the Instituto Moreira Salles in São Paulo. He works regularly with the Chicago-based Spanish-language theater and film group, Colectivo El Pozo. Dan’s latest album is called Radical Songs for Rough Times.