UKRAINE NARRATIVES – A Weapon of War
By Mike Burnard – Analytical Strategist at dia-LOGOS
As author of this article, I would like to start with the following disclaimer:
This article is not an attempt to minimise the impact of the war and the tremendous suffering of millions of citizens in Ukraine – along with Russians and foreigners alike. The suffering of those who are displaced and the pain of those whose lives have been irreversibly dismantled cannot be quantified and should therefore never be exploited and used as a narrative of manipulation, as it has become. My heart is as much broken for every traumatised soul as any other observer who shares the heart of a God who is known as the Father of all compassion. Furthermore, this article is also not an attempt to shift blame or to put blame on any person, nation or group; proving who is right and who is wrong will never bring about a peaceful solution. It is also not written to accuse, point fingers or defend the insanity of war. Wars never prove who is right, it only weeps with those who are left. It is also not written with the intent to manipulate readers into a pro-Russian approach nor is it written to provoke those who share an anti-Russian sentiment.
So, please approach this article with a “scout” mentality. Read with a willingness to discover and identify what might apply to the news that you have observed. Be open to being challenged in your own approach as to how the process and the narratives shaped your thinking. You might not agree with some of the points, but don’t discard all of the points.
CHOOSING A NARRATIVE
Life’s events, especially wars, conflicts and divisions don’t have fixed narratives. We all start from a neutral position and are then manipulated, both in good and in bad ways, to develop a narrative that most truthfully represents our convictions. But, whatever we believe to be true, there is always another narrative to consider and weigh up against our own interpretations. Choosing a balanced narrative may be one of the greatest skills we can develop in life.
In modern communication, with social media and technological information available at the press of a button, “truth” is no longer the first casualty of a war, “balanced truth” is now the victim. Creating Conventional Narratives and making people believe what they want to believe is not just a by-product of the war in Ukraine, it has become a weapon of war.
In modern warfare, fighting an enemy is no longer a military conflict between two nations – it now involves expanded allies, pooled resources, common territories, shared politics and punitive economies. The first step in modern warfare is therefore to establish allies, to build up a global base of sympathisers and to enlarge your follower base worldwide. This is an intentional process and should be recognised and analysed by all who seek a balanced truth and an inclusive justice. Before we know it, we have chosen sides, not because we have witnessed the war first-hand but because we have believed the narratives presented to us by those who seek our alliance. Both sides will aim to do this. Neither Russia and its allies, nor Ukraine and its allies are innocent in their manipulation and narrative-driven propaganda.
This article will focus on the narratives we are presented with from a Western perspective. This does not ignore the narratives presented by Russia but aims to identify the picture we are presented in the West and the process we are subject to.
The power of narratives are established in the following steps
- DIVISION – “THEY” are fighting an evil war but “WE” are fighting a good war.
The first step towards territorial warfare always starts with the simultaneous act of creating an enemy and forming alliances. There has to be an evil villain on the one hand and a heroic saviour on the other. The dualistic thinking of humanity has little room to comprehend or tolerate the complexity of geopolitics and the causes of war. It is far easier to find a scapegoat than it is to find solutions, especially in the eyes of the observer
The preconditioning of war is always to assemble a narrative that builds on an already established prejudice. This narrative will fit the conventional stereotype of an audience unused to critical thinking. It is an essential step in getting this audience to accept at face value anything that is put before it, regardless of how manipulative the facts of the story are and how it feeds on gullibility. With Russia and decades of being a “cold-war enemy”, it was a simple exercise to build on preconceived ideas and generations of prejudice. And let’s be clear – the Ukrainian narrative of the events, given to us in overdose by ALL Western media outlets, seems to stretch independent and non-biased credibility to the utmost.
The first warning sign for any observer should have been the fact that Russian TV (RT) was removed from all Digital TV platforms, YouTube and Microsoft Apps within the first week after the invasion. This was not accidental. The power of division lies primarily on silencing one party and providing the other party with a megaphone. Regardless of what Russian propaganda was – and would have been – broadcasted on RT, it would have provided the observer with the opportunity to obtain and understand another point of view and another vantage point as well.
By silencing one voice and enhancing the other, Western Media has succeeded in not only building a mutual love for Ukraine but also a mutual hatred for Russia. Constructing such a division stretches beyond the simple act of building an alliance. Evil has to be personified and once a leader is labelled as evil and irrational, it becomes less problematic to build a global alliance of mutual hatred. Consider a few headlines:
- On March 17, in Times of Israel, it was reported that “Putin is not crazy, stupid, or demented, but evil, and on his way out”
- An article in Yahoo News proclaimed that “Putin Isn’t Just Insane. It’s Far Worse Than That.”
- President Joe Biden from the USA called Mr. Putin a “Butcher” and need to be removed from power
- Boris Johnson from the UK referred to Mr.Putin as “Barbaric”
- An article in The mirror on 2 April went one step further and referred to five chilling signs that “Vladimir Putin may be suffering from thyroid cancer or Parkinson’s disease.”
On the other hand, Mr Volodymyr Zelenski is portrayed as exactly the exact extreme opposite.
- The Washington Post referred to: Zelensky: The TV president turned war hero
- The Los Angeles Times wrote: Waging war, wielding words: Zelensky’s speeches have made him a folk hero
- THE PRINT, was a little bit more explicit in their division: Vladimir Putin’s strategic mistakes are making Zelensky a war hero
All of these remarks were intentional and systematic approaches to obtaining global sympathy and emotional engagement by presenting one party to be evil and the other to be good – “We are fighting a good war and they are fighting a bad war” so to speak – which is clearly a false narrative.
Once the media allowed observers to choose sides, the next step of provocation is set in motion
- PROVOCATION – They PLAN evil, therefore they ARE evil
Once an enemy is identified and established in the hearts of a global audience it needs to be solidified through PROVOCATIVE news. Provocative narratives happen through a psychological process by which a person guides another person’s desired thoughts, set beliefs, and predicted behaviours by presenting stimuli that will prompt reactions instead of relying on a conscious response.
Consider the following news reports post-24 February where news reports relied on speculation to provoke sympathisers into a deeper level of animosity:
- March 9, 2022: ‘Be on lookout’ for Russia to use chemical, bioweapons in Ukraine
- Feb 27, 2022: Russia war threats EXPLODE as Putin vows to battle Finland & Sweden in horror NATO warning –
- MARCH 18, 2022: Russia likely to threaten nuke attacks, says US defense intel chief –
- March 28, 2022: Biden’s suggestion that Putin must go causes anxiety in Europe
- April 6, 2022: Biden Pushes For World War 3 In Unscripted Remarks
Through provocative news, the observer is now manipulated into a conscious choice between good and evil. For Christians, the choice seems to be non-optional because we are by default prone to choose the side of good as we pursue justice. Provocative news manipulates people deeper and deeper into a spiral of animosity and even hatred. It creates the illusion that we support justice while in essence, we want revenge. The line has been crossed and the observers enters a point of no return
The toxic combination of suggestive and provocative news will eventually lead to perceptions – “thinking so will make it so”.
- PERCEPTION: “I THINK they are evil, therefor they ARE evil
From an article by EEBEN BARLOW – who retired in 1991 as Lieutenant-Colonel in the South African Defence Force
Perception, i.e. how we perceive the domestic and international political environment influences and shapes both our reality and behaviour. Forces engaged in conflicts and wars have added the powerful weapon of perception and the shaping of public opinion to their arsenal. It has little to nothing to do with the truth and it’s all about gaining, maintaining and exploiting dominance of the informational environment, regardless.
This makes it difficult for non-participants to give or make an informed decision as a specific narrative is driven to benefit the originator, and that narrative is aimed at misinforming the public and driving domestic and international public opinion. This is aided and abetted by subliminal individuals who, utilising mainstream and social media platforms, attack anyone who does not agree with the prevailing and propagated narrative that is aimed at strengthening or eroding public opinion.
Perception and public opinion are powerful weapons and in many instances, act as force multipliers. They can be exploited in numerous ways to either subdue an enemy or develop and increase resistance against an enemy or threat. It can unify or divide a nation. It can be used to collapse a nation’s economy and government or erode its legitimacy, or vice versa. It can be used to develop and generate anger, militancy, racism, xenophobia, and marginalisation policies. It can lay the foundations for unrest and anarchy, and so forth.
As perceptions govern peoples’ reality—and subsequently public opinion—it becomes increasingly more important when targeting people staffing all branches of government, including the security forces. If they harbour negative thoughts resulting from perception against their government, they will passively sabotage whatever they can.
The reach and speed of mainstream and social media messages exceed that of an artillery or rocket strike. Perception, therefore, becomes a pre-emptive weapon that is used and exploited prior to any offensive actions. It provides the pretext for domestic or international outrage and negates accountability. It lays the foundations for sanctioned action.
Consider how often our perceptions are manipulated negatively when it comes to Mr. Putin
- Is Vladimir Putin a Wimp or a Russian Hitler?
- Cunning and confounding, an unchecked Putin charts erratic path
- Ukraine attack: Putin target may be democracy, near and far
The power of perception must never be underestimated, as its impact can be spiritually debilitating in our pursuit for souls. Consider the words of Peter to the Church: (1 Peter 2:17) Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor. For the church in Ukraine the scripture today would read: Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour Mr.Putin.
We show respect to EVERYONE, including Mr.Zelensky and Mr. Putin, not because they deserve it but because they are valued by God. The emperor was as much an object of the cross as we were. Because God fixed a value on souls, to the extent that He sent His Son to redeem us, we understand that respect should be given to all people, without any strings attached.
This perception comes from Scripture, not from Western Media sources.
- OSTRACIZING: If “THEY” are evil and YOU don’t speak out against them, then “YOU” are also evil
At this point, the war of narratives has been won and the media takes a step back while followers continue to battle. Those who do not support the conventional narrative, which apply to both sides, are labelled ignorant, appeasing, spineless and war apologists.
On the one hand we vigorously oppose the “Cancel Culture” that has gripped Social Media through the past decade. We complain when our posts are removed from Facebook when we speak against the conventional liberal narrative and yet, when we are part of that narrative, we applaud the principle. When RT was unceremoniously removed from digital platforms because of “sanctions” and “Russian Propaganda”, the world should have recognised the dangers of a one-sided narrative scenario.
A number of countries, including South Africa, who chose to remain neutral also suffered the wrath of Western Media:
- South Africa Criticized for Abstaining on UN Ukraine Resolution
- Ukraine war: India to face significant cost if aligned with Russia, US warns
Ostracizing those who think differently will not provide solutions, listening will
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
Be impartial and don’t be divisive in your comments
- James 3:17 – But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and not hypocritical.
- Romans 2:11 For God shows no partiality.
Regardless of which narrative we believe to be true and regardless of how strong our convictions are, we need to be careful how we communicate it. Someone once said, “If you can’t control your mouth, there’s no way you can hope to control your mind.”
This is why ‘right’ speech is so important in seasons of war. Our words can connect and heal people who are traumatised through conflict, but it can also alienate and harm people. Words not only produce powerful, lasting effects on the listener but especially on the speaker. Sometimes those effects are unintended, but if words are not well calculated it can destroy relationships and lives, starting with ourselves.
Whether we are aware of it or not, every word we say relating to the war, has the potential to ease or afflict ourselves and others.
Do not provoke people into anger but into doing good
- Galatians 5:25-26 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
- Hebrews 10:24 And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works:
Provoke people unto love! What a powerful guideline in a season of war. Yes, we need to provoke one another, but we need to be careful to what our provocation leads. We need to awaken love when we communicate, not fear and intolerance. The art of Christian communication is communicating truth without provoking hatred, addressing issues without slandering people.
Recalibrate your perceptions
- Proverbs 12:15 “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.”
- Colossians 3:2 “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
When we observe the war we need to set our minds on eternity. The challenge is mainly for us to change the lenses through which we observe the war. If we only see perpetrator and victim we will be unable to find peaceful solutions. But if we look through lenses of redemption we will find ourselves standing next to Mr Putin and Mr. Zelensky in need of a Saviour. Yes, we are all sinners and in need of a Gracious and forgiving God, not only Mr. Putin. In this war there is not an US and a THEM, only a WE
Allow people to think differently than you
Acts 10:11 tells the story of Peter who sees heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter was reluctant. He knew and believed this was WRONG. “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
Chapter 10 teaches us that God can be full of surprises. God can step in and turn our world upside down even when we think we have all the answers and that we know and obey “the truth”. God’s purpose with this revelation had nothing to do with food but rather to further the building of His kingdom. The events of Acts 10 need to challenge our way of thinking, our prejudices, and even our convictions and “truths”. There is much to learn about how God uses people, whom he chooses to use and why.
One of the main reasons for a conflict in narratives is that when people think they have the “right” answer to something, they tend to stop listening to other perspectives, knowledge, experience and ideas.
So, let us, therefore, make a conscious decision not to be manipulated into actions and discussions that would be unfitting to a gracious, loving and forgiving Saviour. Remember that manipulation, regardless of how authentic the events and how accurate the facts are, will always lead to anxiety and fear and scared people lose the ability to think rationally, and then look for a way out indicated by a manipulator. Events and figures should not decide what narrative we follow, our allegiance to Christ should be the only motivation.