19 08 2022

Comical Ali gets the last laugh

We are asked to believe the Russians are shelling themselves at the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant. We are asked to believe the Russians are shelling themselves at the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kernkraftwerk_Saporischschja.JPG

For sincere journalists in the West, Ukraine presents a dilemma. There is no doubt where the sympathy lies. The war in Ukraine is seen as the good guys against the bad guys and public opinion is strongly against Russia. What then to do with news putting the good guys in a bad light, for example Ukraine losing in the battlefield, their armed forces bombing a nuclear plant in Russian controlled territory, their use of residential areas for shelling the Russians and so on? Ignore them, deny them or tell the facts as they are?

There is nothing new in this dilemma for countries at war. Ukraine is at war, there is a state of emergency and opposition political parties and media have been closed down. In Russia there is no state of emergency, but there is a Draconian law against “deliberate disinformation” regarding the “special military operation”. Not the best conditions for even mildly objective journalism.

There is no reason to be surprised that almost all media in the NATO-countries are acting as if their countries were at war too. This happened during the wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Remember the journalists ‘embedded’ in the US military in Iraq, so we could see the war from inside an American tank? The good guys against the bad guys. The heroes against the villains. What is perhaps – just perhaps – more surprising is that even normally lightly critical media have aligned themselves so completely.

For most journalists this does not present a dilemma, as it is seen as a moral duty to support the good guys. It would be immoral to disseminate information that could be seen as a helping the aggressor. But for someone trying to get an idea of what really is going on, this media coverage is frustrating. It is very difficult to find out what the facts are. In most NATO countries, Russian media outlets have been closed (as RT and Sputnik), and even access to Russian news websites has been blocked so you need a VPN to be able to confront different informations and draw your own conclusions.

In what follows are a few examples of the issues in the Western media coverage that I have found frustrating.

The Russians are losing the war

After it became clear that the Ukrainian army did not collapse in the first weeks of the war, the media shifted from predicting a swift Russian victory, to report that Russia is ‘losing the war’, or even better: they already lost. As the Ukrainian forces go from victory to victory over the demoralised Russian troops, they continue to lose territory and according to Ukrainian president Zelinsky Russia controlled in June around 20% of Ukraine. This defies all logic, but still it is the official discourse of NATO officials and European political leaders. And it is duly reported by the media. When the Ukrainian forces were driven out of Severodonetsk and Lysichansk, a battle that President Zelinsky said would determine the fate of Donbas, they were suddenly just regrouping and retreating to new and stronger defensive positions. One thing is what the journalists want to happen, and another is what is actually happening. Seems they can’t distinguish one thing from another. What do they take us for? Fools?

The Russians are deliberately targeting civilians

According to UN, 5,327 civilians have by August 2022 been killed since the war started, of which 84% in Government controlled areas and 16% in areas controlled by Russia and its allies. It is repeatedly stated, and by now taken as a fact, that the Russians are deliberately targeting civilians. We have all seen horrible footage of injured and killed civilians in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Government and Amnesty International confirms it, so this is obviously true, right? For an unbiased observer, the answer is no, it is not. Deliberately targeting civilians sometimes happens during war. It was part of the allied's strategy during World War 2, and the idea was that a devastated and demoralised ‘home front’ would hasten the capitulation of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The horrendous fire bombing of Hamburg (Operation Gomorrah), Dresden and Tokyo with hundreds of thousands of civilian fatalities were justified with this argument, as was the US dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The justification has been questioned, as it is doubtful whether these bombings actually hastened the end of the war. And anyway, there is no way to deny that it was a war crime.

The ruins of Hamburg after “Operation Gomorrah” — Imperial War Museum / Wikipedia Commons

The first question is: why would the Russians deliberately target civilians? The population in Donbas and Southern Ukraine is supposed to be sympathetic to Russia, and these are areas they want to ‘liberate’. Some suggest that they simply try to terrorize the populations into submission, ISIS style. But the narrative does not add up. A report in Newsweek gives a more sober account. It cites a senior analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency for saying that if they wanted, the Russian could cause much more damage. "The heart of Kyiv has barely been touched. And almost all of the long-range strikes have been aimed at military targets." "I know it's hard ... to swallow that the carnage and destruction could be much worse than it is. But that's what the facts show.” The strikes inside major cities (Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odessa) have not only been limited, but a retired U.S. Air Force officer points out that even when long-range aviation—Russian Tu-95 "Bear" bombers delivering cruise and hypersonic missiles —have flown strikes in western Ukraine, away from the battlefield, they have been directed at military targets.

Even when civilians are not deliberately targeted, they can end up becoming victims. The most obvious reason is that when heavy weapons are fired from residential areas, schools, hospitals etc., it automatically attracts counter fire, as also (surprisingly) noted in a report by by Amnesty International (which not so surprisingly raised a shit-storm against the organization). To this comes faulty intelligence and technical errors. When NATO bombed a refugee convoy in the Yugoslavia, nobody was implying that it was because NATO was deliberately targeting civilians, even if the Chinese were not so convinced that the bombing of their embassy in Belgrade on May 7, 1999, which killed three Chinese journalists was an accident. However, there was no doubt that NATO deliberately bombed civilian infrastructure with no military value. According to Washington Post: ‘they have devastated targets ranging from the country's two biggest oil refineries, in Pancevo and Novi Sad, to the Zastava factory at Kragujevac, which produced the Yugo car and employed some 15,000 workers. The bombing has cut all but one of the bridges across the Danube River, severely limiting communication between the agricultural region of Vojvodina in the north and the rest of Yugoslavia.’ ‘On April 12, NATO warplanes attacked a heating plant on the edge of the town (of Krusevac, a city of 150,000), reducing it to a smoldering heap of rubble and twisted metal. They went on to hit the region's biggest factory, the "October 14" plant, which produced bulldozers, excavators and other heavy machinery. What was left standing was destroyed in a second raid three days later’. And so on. The justification was that this would ‘destabilize the Milosevic regime’. Needless to say that NATO offered no help to Serbia to reconstruct the infrastructure after the war ended.


NATO bombers destroyed four bridges on the Danube in Novi Sad, Serbia’s next biggest city, so people had to use barges to cross the Danube. Photo by Darko Dozet, https://commons.wikimedia.org: link

The Russian are bombing the Zaporizhia Nuclear Plant

The irresponsible shelling of the Zaporizhia Nuclear Plant is reported as Russian shelling, or it is reported that the two parties are blaming each other for it. The Russian took control of the Nuclear Plant in the first weeks of the war, and are also in control of Energodar City, where it is located. Even so, we are supposed to believe that they are shelling themselves for some sinister reason, with the risk that the whole of Southern Ukraine under their control will become uninhabitable. This again defies all logic. President Zelinsky at the same time insists that the Russians are using the plant as a base from which to stage attacks, knowing that they cannot shoot back. He could be right, even if I doubt it, but in that case, who is then doing the shelling of the plant? You would expect a critical journalist to put the question, but alas, that is not the case.

The Russian economy is not heading for a collapse, it collapsed already

Remember Saddam Hussein’s information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, dubbed Comical Ali by the Western Journalists because he denied that the Iraqi army had been defeated by the invading US forces, something that could be checked by just looking out of the window? Well, we are in the same department here. An August 2022 study by Yale University, one of the most prestigious universities in the US, claimed that the Russian economy has already collapsed and is heading for oblivion. It was quoted by almost all media you can think of, not only Western media, but even media in remote places in Africa and Latin America. After downloading the study and reading the first couple of pages it became clear to me that this was a complete waste of time. Plausible arguments can be made for the case that the Russian economy in the coming years will be seriously damaged by sanctions, but the astonishing argument that the collapse had already happened could be checked if the Yale guys – I refuse to believe they are actually researchers – had taken a trip to Moscow and looked out of the window. Happily, the Bloomberg news site has taken the time to go through the ‘study’ and refute it point by point. It is a really long read, so my advice would be to simply ignore it, and relegate it to the comical Ali department.

After repeating a quote by the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu that ‘Deception is at the heart of all warfare’, an Al Jazeera political analyst writes: ‘Watching journalists and pundits in respected American and British journals exhaust the synonyms of fascist, evil and dangerous to describe Russia’s Putin, with little or no attempt at balance or objectivity, one is inclined to believe that Western media has largely been enlisted in NATO’s crusade against Putin’s Russia until victory’. Or to quote from an opinion piece in the Australian Spectator magazine: ‘Comical Ali gets the last laugh. Western mainstream media is a joke.

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Thorbjorn Waagstein

Thorbjørn Waagstein, Economist, PhD, since 1999 working as international Development Consultant in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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