March 16, 2022 (OrinocoTribune.com)—In the midst of the Russian military operation in Ukraine, we spoke with Gerald Sussman, the author of Branding Democracy: US Regime Change in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe. Sussman has also contributed relevant book chapters such as “Systemic Propaganda and State Branding in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe” and “The US Media, State Legitimacy, and the New Cold War.”
Given his extensive body of research dedicated to studying the inner workings of US propaganda in the former Soviet Union, Orinoco Tribune asked him about his experiences as an academic and how his work aids in understanding the development of events in Ukraine. Especially for younger readers who did not experience the first cold war, his responses provide insight into how US propaganda, and the resistance to it, have evolved over the years. Throughout his answers below, Sussman singles out the many fronts of the US information war, while connecting this history to the current situation in Ukraine.
Question: Can you describe the current atmosphere amongst professionals like yourself in North America, specifically regarding the potential backlash associated with countering the dominant narratives surrounding, for example, the situation in Ukraine?
Response: It’s hard to know exactly what percentage buy into the US government’s narrative on Russia-Ukraine, but looking at online liberal social media sites, I can say that most American intellectuals—academics, professional journalists, think tank researchers, and others—take the US side. On the other hand, there are a number of intellectuals who have a nuanced understanding of the situation, or who essentially see the crisis as largely inspired by the US and its NATO allies. In the academy, however, there is an unmistakable climate of censorship and a “cancel culture,” which ostracizes anyone who shares the more critical view of the US/NATO narrative. In my university, Portland State University, no such critics dare to speak out at this time, in part because of political backlash but also in the context of a retrenchment that is occurring as a result of the growing use of business model metrics in measuring departmental performance.
Q: Considering the censorship being carried out by the EU and social media platforms, the targeting of everything Russian, and the blatant bias in the coverage of the Ukraine conflict, what is your opinion on the anti-Russia media campaign?
R: It’s a very complex issue, and as most people in the West receive their information by way of the mainstream media, and the social media that feed off of the former, they are not especially informed about how the present situation came about. No one can know how effective the anti-Russia media blitz actually is on EU and North American citizens, except perhaps through polling. In any event, polling tends to yield a short-term snapshot of public opinion.
I wrote a book, Branding Democracy, about the “color revolutions” in post-Soviet east Europe and the US role, particularly that of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), in America’s regime-change efforts in the region, including Ukraine, so I think I have a relatively informed understanding of what has transpired in that country since the end of the Soviet Union. To this day, a small percentage of Americans are even aware of the NED and its constituent members, including the overseas branches of the two major political parties.
I’m old enough to remember the Cold War period, and the degree of propaganda and personal hostility toward the Soviet, now Russian, leader today is unprecedented. Even in the heat of the Cold War there were some voices in the media that spoke out against the more virulent forms of anti-Soviet hatred. The McCarthy era, racial segregation, and the US invasion of Vietnam all incited skepticism among broad swaths of Americans about the country’s commitments to democracy and respect for the principle of sovereignty in other countries.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, the US embarked on a global strategy to establish itself as the head of a unipolar world. Any leaders in the world, such as Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych, that tried to establish a degree of non-alignment from this US-run world order, were subject to regime-change efforts for which American NGOs like Freedom House, the NED, the US Agency for International Development, individuals such as George Soros and his Open Society Institute, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, and in the dark recesses, the CIA, served as the “shock troops.”
In 2004, these groups forced Yanukovych out of power, but in 2010, he was again elected as president. The US was bent on pushing its forward perimeter against Russia into Ukraine, and it backed a violent 2014 coup that forced him out of power and his flight from Kiev. The State Department had hand picked his successors even before he left office, a prime minister and a president who were both subsequently charged with fraud, and in one case with treason. Ethnic Russians living in the eastern Donbass region, alarmed by the draconian efforts of the new government to shut down Russian language schools, broadcast media, courts, even official public notices, began a movement for autonomy, while the heavily Russian region of Crimea, opted (as Kosovo did in 2008 but without controversy in the western media) for secession and annexation by Russia. The war (Russians call it a “special operation”) didn’t simply start in 2022; it began with Kiev’s invasion of the eastern provinces in which by early 2022, some 13,000 to 15,000 people had been killed.
For Russia this advance by NATO to its border is not only a violation of agreements made with the George H.W. Bush administration not to advance the military alliance even “one inch” east of Germany, it represented the greatest threat to Russian since the Nazi invasion in World War II. As every country is entitled to secure borders, the US made sure during the “Cuban Missile Crisis” of 1962, Russia is well within its rights to demand the same. But the US and NATO would not countenance any restraint on its imagined prerogative to threaten Russia with forces and missiles within minutes of reaching Moscow.
The mainstream media propaganda assault, along with unending economic sanctions, are together de facto acts of war. It is unfortunate that Russia felt compelled to violate the borders of Ukraine, but it certainly was not, as Joe Biden insists, “unprovoked.” The US and NATO easily could have prevented this from happening with a simple written declaration that Ukraine is a neutral country and will never become a member of what has long been an obsolete organization, NATO.
Q: You wrote Branding Democracy: U.S. Regime Change in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe in 2010. Since then the situation, especially that of Ukraine, has changed dramatically. How do you see the current situation as being influenced by the processes you describe in your research?
R: There is a direct line between the US efforts to push Yanukovych out of power in 2004 and its intervention in 2013-2014 to finally force him to abandon his presidency. The mainstream media, despite all the available evidence, is ignoring the aggressive behavior of the US and NATO toward Russia.
The National Endowment for Democracy, which is essentially a regime-change organization and almost invisible to the American public, is one of several instruments for carrying out the overthrow of governments that don’t defer to US power, or which have what the US sees as unproductive positive relations with Russia. In 2014, the US did not rely on peaceful resistance tactics, as espoused by the guru on non-violent regime-change tactics [Gene Sharp], but made use of, if not trained, far-right organizations and paramilitary groups in Ukraine, such as Right Sector and the Azov battalion. Without US intervention, it is unlikely that we would be seeing the present events unfolding. Ukraine is a pawn in the West’s game of asserting global hegemony over Eurasia and Asia.
Q: In the chapter you contributed to Branding Post-Communist Nations: Marketizing National Identities in the “New” Europe (2012), you mention the widely recognized global primacy of US “digital capitalism.” Yet today, the scale and intensity of the largely one-sided information war launched against Russia has surprised many critical observers. How do you interpret US superiority in this dimension of warfare? Is the current propaganda and PsyOps campaign any different from the previous ones?
R: Of course, the US and its allies have long dominated global news distribution through such agencies as CNN International, BBC, Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, and others. In more recent years, the digital platforms Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and others are primarily American and wield enormous influence in the world as news and rumor distribution systems and as social media, even helping to instigate the various “color revolutions” in various capitals, including those of the “Arab Spring” protests. Although governments have found ways to offset foreign influences in social media, it nonetheless represents a formidable instrument for subverting the legitimacy of political leaders deemed unworthy. These are also tools for surveillance within the United States and have the effect of indirectly policing and censoring speech that may be used against critics and directly censoring individuals and groups that are deemed to violate the communication corporations’ behavioral and thought standards. A casual critical remark about Israel or a positive comment about Putin could easily end the career of a politician, professor, or journalist, for example.
With regard to the conflict in Ukraine, we can see how the social media platforms are working closely with the US government to sanction Russia and cut off online communication between Russians and their friends, associates, and family abroad. They have also shut down the voice of RT to much of the world, thereby blocking alternative voices in the propaganda wars.
Q: In the context of your analysis of “nation branding” and “selling societies” in Eastern Europe, how do you view the question of Ukrainian statehood?
R: This is too complicated a question to try to answer here. So many, if not all, states have been artificially conceived and constructed in history, including modern history. Ukraine is particularly complex in light of the strong ethnic identities that have emerged in that country since it became an independent republic during and after the Soviet Union. Nation states, as Benedict Anderson wrote, are “imagined communities,” and those community identities shift over time and over different circumstances. The US is clearly exploiting the nationalism of sections of Ukraine to wage a broader war against the independence of the Russian state.
Q: It would appear that Russia is finally giving Radio Free Europe the boot. Would you describe the current moment as a turning point? Given the scale of US propaganda and PsyOps, what options do aspiring sovereign nations have other than to seal themselves off from US propaganda?
R: In a world committed to cooperation and peaceful international relationships, RFE/RL would not be a problem if the US permitted RT, for example, access to the broadcast frequencies in the US. But that’s not the case, as it has been rare to find cable and satellite networks in the US and other parts of the West that included RT in their packaged offerings. That said, the current information war that is being carried on predominantly by the West against Russia and one-sidedly in favor of Ukraine, is leading to a deeper war psychosis whose results no one can predict. It has set the world back decades. Even the Cold War was not as intense as this period, as dissenting voices in the US at least had marginal public outlets. The current climate in the US has induced the feeling of living in an anti-intellectual discursive dictatorship where Orwellian rules apply.
Q: How does the question of Ukrainian statehood relate to Ukrainian nationalism(s), and how do other cultural identities, not just the majority Russian-speaking regions but other groups, such as the Roma, fit into this picture?
R: There are reports by Human Rights Watch of attacks on the Roma people in Ukraine. The Western media have under-reported the culture of ethnic cleansing in the country. The acts carried out against ethnic Russians, closing down the use of the Russian language in schools, media, and other public institutions speaks to the extreme nationalism that is a major part of Ukrainian political culture and had been leading to cultural genocide.
Gerald Sussman is professor of international and global studies at Portland State University. He is the author or chief editor of six books, including his single-authored book, Branding Democracy: US Regime Change in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe.
Featured image: Two police officers walking down the Red Square in Moscow with the Saint Basil Cathedral in the background. Photo: Getty Images.
Special for Orinoco Tribune by Kahlil Wall-Johnson
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