The US, Russia, and Ukraine: 75 Years of Hate Propaganda

“It is not a matter of what is true that counts, but a matter of what is perceived to be true.”

– Henry Kissinger

“But the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”

– Adolf Hitler

“We lied, we cheated, we stole. We had entire training courses [on deceiving the public].”

– Mike Pompeo on his time as CIA director

What is state propaganda? It is a disciplined and coordinated discourse using mass persuasion on behalf of state interests. It’s one instrument of what’s called realpolitik – foreign policy designed to advance “national interests,” which in a neoliberal economy like the US means corporate interests. The oligarchs, the billionaire class in the age of neoliberalism, in their unfettered greed have employed both US political parties and their accessories in the media, the intelligence community, and Congress and turned them into a collective ministry of (dis)information and subalterns of empire. Propaganda as a tool in foreign policy commonly relies on hate-laden ideology to mobilize public consensus.

Enemies

A key to successful mass mobilization of the public mind is the enemy construct. One of the key studies on the subject found that the US has had a permanent need for enemies, and when not “readily available, we have created them” (Finlay, Holsti, and Fagen, cited in Murray & Myers, 1989, p. 555). Russia as enemy (Russophobia) works just as well if not better when it’s conceived in demeaning ethnic rather than political economic terms. That’s because hierarchical race and ethnicity ideas are closer to the surface of public prejudice than those focused on, for example, effigies of socialism or communism. In other words, it is easier to orchestrate hatred toward Russia and Putin when there preexists a deep distrust of Russians, their history, and (orthodox religious) culture and its people based on “difference” and a perceived civilizational threat to the West. Under such collective psychological conditioning, this has led to a rejection of Russia membership in the congregation controlled by white European Christian nations.

The US has manufactured innumerable enemies during the course of its existence, and it has had to in order to become a world superpower. Since 1776, there have been only 16 years when the country was not at war. In the pantheon of America’s villains during its 247-year history, one of the most prominent portraits is that of the demonic Vladimir Putin, whose “enemy” status among Americans was pumped up to 70% by March 2022, soon after the start of Russia’s “special operation” in Ukraine.

The “liberal” Democrats are found to be far more inclined to carry out a proxy war against Russia than Republicans and much more supportive of supplying Ukraine with advanced weapons and US troops: tanks (67% to 48%), long-range missiles (60% to 41%), fighter jets (56% to 39%), direct invasion (33% to 22%) (Frankovic and Orth, 2023). Former CIA director and defense secretary under Obama, Leon Panetta bluntly declared, ‘It’s a proxy war with Russia, whether we say so or not” (Bloomberg, 2022).

The massive US “proxy” assault on Russia, more like a full-scale invasion but without its own troops physically on the ground and in the air, is only the latest episode of a hundred-year-old effort to impose Western hegemony over that country. It started with the joint “expedition” that the sanctimonious Woodrow Wilson (“I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men”) sent to Siberia and northern Russia in a failed attempt, along with mainly European allies, to back the White Russians in the civil war and overthrow the Bolshevik government. Anti-communism was toned down during the Second World War, as it was the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, tactically allied with the US and the British Empire, that bore by far the heaviest burden, suffering 27 million deaths, in defeating the Nazi regime. It’s a sobering reality of historical proportions that is rarely acknowledged in the US. Immediately following the war, the US quickly converted the USSR/Russia from ally to enemy (and their enemies to allies) and worked closely with anti-communist groups in Ukraine and the larger Soviet region in efforts to break apart the Soviet state.

The then newly formed CIA, established in 1947, covertly supervised underground far right organizations in Ukraine, in particular the pro-Nazi Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the anti-Soviet Ukraine Insurgent Army (UPA), as part of its “psychological warfare activities directed against Polish, Czechoslovakian, and Romanian targets bordering Ukraine” and Ukraine itself (CIA, 1950). Under CIA guidance, these organizations carried out acts designed to sabotage, divide, and destabilize the Soviet Union, of which Ukraine had been a core republic since 1922 and before that a part of the Tsarist empire for centuries. This was a prologue to the more recent past and present.

The OUN, in particular the faction, OUN-B, led by the Nazi ally Stepan Bandera and his second in command, Yaroslav Stetsko, was a violently anti-Semitic, anti-communist, and anti-Russian organization, which collaborated with the Nazi occupation of Poland and Ukraine and actively participated in the slaughter of millions of Poles, Ukrainian Jews, and ethnically Russian and Ukrainian communists in the region. Stetsko depicted Russians as a barbarian, non-European race, descended from Mongols and Huns (Reif, 2022). Nonetheless, the Washington Post described Stetsko as a national hero, a “lonely patriot” (Riccardi, 1981).

Hate and enemy status directed at Russia were core propaganda weapons that aligned with Ukrainian radical nationalism. At the outset of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the OUN put up posters in the western Ukrainian city of Lvov that read: “Do not throw away your weapons now. Take them in your hands. Destroy the enemy.… People! Know! Moscow, Poland, the Hungarians, the Jews are your enemies. Destroy them!… Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes! Glory to the Leader! [Bandera]” (Sussman, 2022b).

A more contemporary expression of fascist hatred was articulated by Ukraine’s notorious Azov Battalion founder, Andriy Biletsky, a member of the Ukrainian parliament from 2014 to 2019. Ukraine’s mission, he said in 2010, was to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen [subhumans]” (Kuzmarov and Brown, 2021). In March 2022, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced Volodymyr Zelensky (virtually) to an assembly of a standing Congress with the standard ultranationalist watchword, “Glory to Ukraine!”

Once the Soviets virtually eliminated the UPA, the CIA moved Bandera and his closest associates initially to Munich to help set up propaganda radio (the Agency’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) aimed at eastern Europe and Russia. Next, with the Soviets on their tail, OUN leaders and their accomplices were shuttled off to America, where they were given new names, jobs in the service of Cold War propaganda apparatuses, homes, income, and citizenship. By that time, the CIA dropped their interest in the troublesome Bandera, whose wing of the OUN a US government study described as a “militant fascist organization” (Breitman & Goda, 2010, p. 74). The British MI6, however, more virulently anti-Russian than even the CIA, continued to work with Bandera. Today, through the intense lobbying of devoted pro-fascist followers, Bandera statues and street names are seen all over western Ukraine – and with the support of former presidents Yushchenko and Poroshenko (Yanukovych objecting), the former Nazi ally was bestowed the title of “national hero.” The subtext of the honor was hatred of Russia and subjugation of the country’s ethnic Russians.

Dropping Bandera, the US turned to another Ukrainian Nazi, a co-founder of OUN, Mykola Lebed, who was trained by the Gestapo in the most advanced methods of torture. Lebed was known by the US Army counterintelligence to have participated in the mass murder of Jews and Poles and was described in the military report as a “well-known sadist and collaborator of the Germans” (Roberts, 2010). After the US refused to inform Moscow of Bandera’s whereabouts, the KGB found and eliminated him on their own. The CIA’s close collaboration with former pro-Nazi Ukrainian groups is more fully discussed elsewhere (e.g., Sussman, 2022a; Sussman, 2022b). For the CIA, the postwar Nazis were acceptable then as Ukraine’s neo-Nazis are today, the agency having secretly trained the fascist-oriented Azov battalion starting in 2015 for anticipated insurgency against Russia and ethnic Russians in the eastern provinces (Rogg, 2022).

From the outset of the Cold War, the US began and continued to use Ukraine as a staging ground to destabilize and isolate the USSR/Russia, an aspiration recently revived by several US officials, including defense secretary Lloyd Austin, state secretary Antony Blinken, and national security advisor Jake Sullivan. Adam Schiff, then chair of the House Intelligence Committee said, “United States aids Ukraine and her people so that we can fight Russia over there, and we don’t have to fight Russia here” (Politico, 2020).

Except for the post-Soviet interlude in Russia in the 1990s when the Yeltsin regime invited in American economists, led by the Harvard Institute for International Development, to bring the disastrous “shock therapy” program to the Russian economy, the US has actively treated the country and its leaders as de facto enemies for nearly 80 years – even longer than the shameless embargo against Cuba. But no Russian leader has been discharged with more hateful contempt than Vladimir Putin, not Nikita Khrushchev nor even US wartime ally, Joseph Stalin. This is quite incongruous given that Putin, by any honest assessment, is by Russian historical standards the most liberal leader to have ever ruled that country.

But in “political realist” thinking – from Machiavelli to Henry Kissinger to John Mearsheimer – reality and an open-minded perspective do not necessarily matter. Since the Reagan era, US foreign policy has been essentially run as a psyops operation, the CIA, NSA, Homeland Security, FBI, other agencies of the state, including the intelligence-fed mainstream media, being the principal organs of government propaganda, hate-mongering, and mass deception. They create the “reality.” During the US invasion of Vietnam, a CIA agent based in that country, Frank Snepp, by his own admission routinely fed the media false information about the US invasion and worked with other governments to back up the fake narratives (Lauria, 2022). It isn’t that reporters are ignorant of the CIA’s notorious reputation for lying and spreading propaganda and disinformation; many simply see using CIA sources as instrumental in their career trajectories.

The mainstream media filters, described by Herman and Chomsky (1988), work very well in altering public perception, but beneath the surface of institutional control is a long-standing culture of moral superiority that enables hate propaganda to be readily accepted by large segments of the population conditioned over centuries by the idea of racial and national supremacy. They wrote (p. 35): “unworthy victims will merit only slight detail, minimal humanization, and little context that will excite and enrage.” From the outset, racialism and notions of racial inferiority were integral to the imperialist imagination and its cultural hegemony in lending moral (i.e., Christian) justification for conquest and colonization. And they remain deeply embedded in how Western media racially demarcates the world in terms of the worthy and the unworthy.

Recent (2022) examples include American, British, and French journalists’ shameless race-based scoring of tragedy in comparing the plight of “worthy” white Ukrainian refugees to “unworthy” victims of the West’s wars in the Middle East (see Sussman, 2022a). The mainstream (white-controlled) media have become so accustomed to distancing themselves from the West’s atrocities against nations of color that they can’t constrain their shock at seeing white Ukrainians fleeing across the borders, while dismissing the pain and suffering of Middle Eastern and African victims as something quite normal.

As of 1 September 2022, the US had approved for the year 123 applications for refugee status.  Almost all came from the Middle East or Latin America and had to pay a hefty fee of $575. Meanwhile, 68,000 Ukrainians were admitted to the US during that period without any fee. It’s another indication of the underlying institutionalized racism in US foreign policy and echoes the way the mainstream media (MSM) treat “worthy” and “unworthy” victims of US-organized violence in the world. The racialization of victimhood supports the one-sided depiction of the conflict in Ukraine, which requires a barbaric protagonist. Casting Russians and Putin in that role fulfills the MSM’s reductionist good guy-evil guy codification of political actors. It of course has a corollary in domestic politics.

Hate propaganda: The current Ukraine theater

Transnational hate propaganda is any form of organized communication intended to degrade people based on their race, religion, nationality, or ethnicity. It is recurrently a constituent part of state propaganda. In the US case, having no real foreign enemies, it has to be (re)manufactured.

The US-backed Maidan protests in 2014, which Ukraine’s armed far-right groups and snipers (Katchanovski, 2021) turned into a bloody coup against Yanukovych, and the militant response in the largely Russian-speaking eastern provinces to Kiev’s new Ukrainian-only language policies opened a floodgate of US media misreporting and anti-Kremlin propaganda. The power of Ukraine’s far right in turning the anti-government protest into a coup was generally ignored by the MSM. Public disapproval of Russia by Americans shot up to 38%, from 14% the previous year (Pew Research Center, 2020). As a very small fraction of Americans have held studied views of Russia or personally experienced life in that country, it was not difficult for the neoconservative mind managers in the corporate media and their handlers in the State Department and military and intelligence apparatuses to wield their collective influence over public opinion and hide the facts of the Obama administration’s guiding hand in the overthrow.

The MSM also provided cover for Poroshenko’s and later Zelensky’s program of derussification, waging what in any other country (except Israel) would be considered “cultural genocide.” Human Rights Watch, no friend of Russia, criticized a Ukrainian law, passed in 2019, that required that statements by public officials and schooling beyond the primary grades must be conducted in Ukrainian and that all foreign language media, must provide a Ukrainian edition – with exemptions given to English and EU languages, but not Russian. According to Richard Sakwa (2016), 9 of the 10 largest cities (all but Lvov) in Ukraine are primarily Russian-speaking.

Thirty percent of Ukrainians speak Russian as a first language. Indeed, Zelensky himself did not speak Ukrainian until he decided to run for president and opportunistically began language training. The TV program in which he had starred, “Servant of the People” (and the name of his political party) was broadcast in Russian. By early 2021, facing approval ratings of 22%, Zelensky turned to the right-wing nationalist groups, which favored conflict with Russia, defying his electoral promises to seek peace (Baysha, 2022). He expanded his control over the country by banning 11 political parties, including the leading opposition formation, Eurosceptic Opposition Platform for Life (OPZZh) and having its leader, Viktor Medvedchuk, arrested and tortured.

In early 2021, more than a year before the Russian invasion, the Zelensky government shut down three TV stations deemed to be “pro-Russia.” The following year, Zelensky signed a law that nationalized and merged all television news broadcasting into a government-controlled 24-hour propaganda channel, “United News,” in order to “tell the truth about war” (Blumenthal and Krishnaswamy, 2022). The goal of the government is to make Ukraine russenfrei, with resonances of the pride with which several eastern European countries, including Ukraine, eliminated the Jewish population (judenfrei) during World War II. Ukraine’s right wing derides the Donbas region as being full of Sovoks, a slur on Russians carried over from the Soviet era.

In 2022, the parliament enacted two more media bans against the Russian and ethnic Russian populations, one prohibiting them from publishing books unless they give up their Russian passports and assume Ukrainian citizenship. The other bans post-Soviet Russian music on television and radio and on public transportation (taxis and buses). Exceptions are made for ethnic Russian performance artists who publicly condemn the Russian invasion, the exemption list overseen by Ukraine’s national security service (Antonenko, 2022; Burchenyuk, 2022).

Zelensky: The “Winston Churchill of Our Time” (George W. Bush)

In the Western symphony of propaganda, the hated Putin, the “autocrat,” is contrasted with the heroic Zelensky the “democrat” (Time magazine’s 2022 “person of the year”). But how democratic is Zelensky? Mayors accused of Russian ties have been assassinated. A bishop from the Russian branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox church was one of 33 Orthodox priests arrested as of December 2022, accused of being Russian agents. The climate of repression involves vigilantist groups such as Myrotvorets, a blacklist website, which produces what is tantamount to a kill list and has targeted Roger Waters, Scott Ritter, Gerhard Schröder, and hundreds of journalists among many others. NBC’s Keir Simmons, who provided a report from Crimea acknowledging the support for Russia in the region was also put on the list by virtue of simply being present in the territory.

In the long run, Zelensky’s value to the US is his role of helping to marginalize Russia and behaving like a good neoliberal ward of the West and showing the world that his country is open for business, even if that requires a large share of the hundreds of millions in kickbacks given to himself and his generals and even buying fuel from his enemy, Russia (Hersh, 2023). To date, he’s accomplished little on the first count but put forward significant neoliberal reforms.

Under Bill 5371, he has banned several unions, which together covered 70% of the Ukrainian workforce, reduced trade unions’ right to organize, blocked unions from acting in defense of arbitrarily dismissed workers, and legalized zero-hours contracts (i.e,, no obligation of the employer to provide minimum work hours, though workers must be on call). Labor rights activists have been jailed. And to show he really meant business, in early September 2022, he rang the bell to open the New York stock exchange (Blumenthal, 2022; Rubinstein, 2022).

His man-of-the-hour image had help from international friends. Zelensky’s global perception management team is run by a well-connected London-based British firm, The PR Network, that helps him prepare messages for global consumption. Also having his back is “a network of PR professionals, lobbyists and former government officials” from the US, including a special Washington legal advisor, who work the American public and politicians to get military and economic assistance to Ukraine (Fuchs, 2022). To draw Western corporations and investment bankers into the selloff Ukrainian state assets and exploiting its low-paid labor force, Zelensky in 2022 hired the world’s largest PR firm, WPP.

The larger context of the conflict is that the US has been escalating the tensions in the region bordering Russia by expanding its Cold War military legion, NATO, to that country’s gates. America’s aggression may not be well understood by liberals who support US interventions, falsely portrayed as “humanitarian,” but it is well understood by the rest of the world, which confided to a Gallup poll (66,000 sample in 65 countries) in late 2013 and more recently via a Latana poll (53,000 people in 50 countries) the belief by very large margins (44%, compared to 28% for Russia) that the US is the biggest threat to world peace.

What would help in the nuclear war-in-the-making now facing the world, would be, were it conceivable, a moratorium on lies, propaganda, and hate speech and an international restraining order on US threats and activities aimed at dismantling the Russian state and other false enemies that it conjures to justify its imperialist and white supremacist world outlook.

Note: Parts of this piece were taken from my article for CovertAction Magazine. See citation, below.

* This article is part of a forthcoming book chapter in Media, Populism and Hate Speech, edited by Savaş Çoban and Yasemin Giritli İnceoğlu.

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Gerald Sussman is a professor of urban studies and international communications at Portland State University. He is the author or editor of several books, including Branding Democracy: U.S. Regime Change in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe. He can be reached at sussmang@pdx.edu.