Is Western Press Finally Doing Ukraine Justice?7 min read
On an uncharacteristically warm winter afternoon for North India, my ailing grandmother, in an unusually frantic tone, said to me, “Russia has invaded Ukraine.” She then kept repeating the phrase, “Putin’s a bad, bad man”. Days before the war had begun, I explained that Russia had not done so yet. What had seemed to be an insignificant interaction at the time later made me realize that there had been a palpable shift: someone, who usually did not care about a conflict taking place miles away on an entirely different continent, suddenly did care, even before the war began.
A poll released before the invasion revealed that Europe’s citizens view the current conflict as a European one, with most Europeans encouraging NATO military action into Ukraine in response to the invasion. This is the opposite of what surveys suggested in 2014, where most European nations preferred that Ukraine receive financial support to fight against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas as opposed to military aid from NATO. What had brought about this change in public perception and why did it mirror the perspective I saw all around me?
Russia’s recent invasion — both before and after it began — seemed to make its way into every conversation in my day-to-day life. My WhatsApp messages flooded with discussion, with some friends even wanting to go as far as declaring a national holiday in support of Ukraine when the invasion began. Something had definitely changed: Ukraine had never been talked about as much as this. It soon dawned on me that most of the Indian middle-class receive information on the war from Western English-language media. Over the past few months, these sources had slowly crafted, for the most part, a uniform narrative against Russia’s war in Ukraine. While this primarily unified response from Europe and beyond is not wholly dependent on the media, by redefining the current conflict in Ukraine not simply as an international or localized conflict but instead as a European one, the Western media’s narrative has been reflected in public opinion.
Sounds like a European problem
An analysis of opinion editorials and news reports from leading Western publications such as The Washington Post, The Guardian, and Deutsche Welle reveals certain common narratives that essentially show the Europeanization of the language in reference to the war in Ukraine. Almost all articles on Ukraine mention NATO, with the majority discussing the likelihood, necessity and implications on European security of Ukraine’s possible membership in NATO in the face of an erratic Kremlin. In the vast majority of op-eds, it is concluded that Ukraine should be admitted into the military alliance in order to protect both Ukraine and Europe as a whole. Since the beginning of the year, most editorials have tended to frame the ongoing conflict in the context of the reactions and responses from Western leaders, with a constant placement of Ukraine in the middle of Europe and Russia. Moreover, the lethargy and hypocrisy of the European administrations were also subjected to a lot more scrutiny. Whether it be the hesitance to impose sanctions, or the conciliatory attitude towards the Kremlin, such “compromises” have been recognised.
Blasts from the pasts
As Ukraine moves further and further away from its Soviet tag, it has gained another historical recontextualization within the Second World War and the Cold War. It seems as though a running theme in editorials is to pit Moscow against the West, using events like the Cuban Missile Crisis as an imperfect analogy. Or, it compares the current policies of European governments towards Russia to the appeasement of the 1930s. Either way, the West has been held responsible in these portrayals. Even the comparisons of Putin to Hitler and the frequent reference to the Nazi invasions of Ukraine in 1941 make the possible dangers of further escalation terrifying.
The image of a unified West, protecting Ukraine from an onslaught of Russian aggression, is difficult to shake and has likely contributed the most to this shift in perception. It is no longer just Russia against Ukraine; it is the West’s battle for democracy. By placing the current crisis so firmly in a historical context such as World War II, which holds distinct collective trauma for so many, the current war suddenly became a problem for everyone, even beyond Europe.
Eight years ago
Ukraine has had a presence in leading headlines since 2014. As the West pulls Ukraine out of the post-Soviet space and into a global order, several events in recent years have contributed to the way the West perceives Ukraine: from the infamous phone call between Zelenskyy and Trump leading to the latter’s impeachment scandal to the European gas crisis following the German approval of Nord Stream 2. Yet considering this has been a crisis of conflicting narratives, it would be wrong to underestimate the role of the media as well.
In 2014, the annexation of Crimea and subsequent war in Donbas was referred to with a sense of ambiguity, especially in reference to the stakeholders in the takeover. The portrayal of the war painted Ukraine’s crisis not necessarily as a European one but instead an internal conflict on the international stage. Two ‘explainers’, published by The Guardian, demonstrate this shift in language. The first (published in 2014) stresses internal turmoil within Ukraine as it focuses primarily on the Maidan and the presence of Russian state actors in Donetsk and Luhansk, looking primarily at Ukraine’s ties to Russia. However, the second (published in 2021) places the conflict firmly within the European context by starting with Western responses, referencing Nord Stream 2 and discussing foreign diplomacy. Another difference is in general cultural awareness, as the first article uses the Russified “Kiev”, as opposed to the second article, which uses “Kyiv.” The overwhelming narrative surrounding the Russian President also changes from Putin being portrayed as the tactical strategist pandering to the vote bank to a delusional dictator.
Did the “imminent” help?
When Zelenskyy accused Western media outlets of creating unnecessary panic about Ukraine, one does wonder whether the Western press was right to be blamed. Before the attack, Kyiv had hosted three European heads of state and received vast amounts of military and financial aid. Looking toward the situation now, the EU has approved lethal aid to Ukraine for the very first time, along with sanctions that will majorly isolate the Russian economy, backed by overwhelming public support. While it would be unfair to say that the reaction from European governments and citizens has depended solely on the media, it’s hard to ignore how a lot of the transformation in public perception comes after a change in the language and narrative presented in our morning news bytes over the last few months. Unlike in other recent regional conflicts such as the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war, there appears to be a unified mindset and response coming from the Western world due to similar interpretations of the war, with little room for debate on who the primary victims of this war are.
Now that the war has broken out, it is safe to say that the message worldwide is as clear as it is to my grandmother: Putin is a bad man and he is the one to blame — a message which previously did not seem not as crystal clear in either the media or the minds of the masses. The West, not just diplomatically but also in its press, seems to finally have a unified voice on the issue: the future of Ukraine is with Europe and the latter must help protect Ukraine’s right to be an independent state. After all that Ukraine has suffered at the hands of the press, whether that be the badgering of Russian state media, the manipulative muddying-of-the-water tactics deployed across the world, or the ignorant misrepresentation at the hands of the global media set-up in general, it finally feels as though Ukraine is somewhat getting the narrative that it deserves when it needs it the most.