Putin’s Real War & His War of Words
Sian Norris considers Martha Gellhorn’s classic 1966 examination of propaganda, Real War And War Of Words, and updates it for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine
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In 1966, the renowned war reporter Martha Gellhorn travelled to Vietnam, where she bore witness to the long-running conflict in the country, just as she had in the Spanish Civil War and on the battlefields of France, Germany and Italy during the Second World War. The veteran journalist’s reportage explored the human stories behind this “new kind of war”: hospital patients, refugees, nuns, journalists and defectors.
But the final report Gellhorn filed from the war in south-east Asia looked at a different aspect of the conflict. Real War and War of Words explored how the US employed propaganda to bolster support for its role in the war, which killed 58,220 US soldiers and more than three million Vietnamese people.
“There are two wars in South Vietnam,” Gellhorn wrote. “The real war and the propaganda war.” The latter, she argued, could be split into two categories – “the fear syndrome” and “the cheer syndrome”.
Such fear and cheer syndrome propaganda have been a feature in Vladimir Putin’s war of words, which has run alongside the real war that Russia has waged against Ukraine.
In recent weeks, that war has turned against Russia. Ukrainian forces have pushed the Russian Army back towards the border, liberating swathes of the Kharkiv Oblast as they do so. Russian propaganda has, unsurprisingly, doubled-down, offering fear and cheer to Putin believers, in the hope that even as the course of the war turns, the Russian people and his Stalinist cheerleaders in the West won’t turn away from him.
For Gellhorn, reporting from Vietnam in the heat of war, “the fear syndrome… magnifies the Vietcong’s threat to everyone in Vietnam, civilian and military”. This, she wrote, is “immensely dangerous” as it “misplaces the real pain of the real war”.
Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s regime was employing fear to amplify the threat both of its neighbour and the wider West.
Central to its fear syndrome propaganda has been the allegation that Ukraine is overrun by Nazis and that, through its invasion, Russia can ‘deNazify’ the country.
This was signalled by the huge surge of media mentions of Nazism in relation to Ukraine in the run-up to the invasion: a Semantic Visions dataset, shared by the New York Times, monitored 8,000 Russian news websites and found a massive uptick in references to Nazism in the weeks leading up to the 24 February invasion, having been fairly flat since 2014.
Headlines in mainstream Russian newspapers before and after the invasion focused heavily on the supposed Nazi threat in Ukraine. ‘Nazis in Ukraine Launch Reprisals’ stated one; while another falsely accused Ukrainian Nazis of “slaughtering priests”. One particularly lurid accusation called “Ukrainian Nazism” an “explosive mix of paganism and satanism”, itself a far-right conspiracy theory. State TV juxtaposed footage purportedly of far-right rallies with 1930s German Nazi footage, as did pro-Putin Tik-Tok channels.
It seems to me that propaganda is a sign of fearMartha Gellhorn, 1966
The phrase “UkraNazi” or “UkroNazi” took off on social media. Telegram channels monitoring “ukranazi” activity shared conspiracist content accusing Ukrainian forces of crimes against humanity – crimes deliberately intended to invoke Nazi atrocities in the Second World War, such as setting fire to people. One Russian state TV programme stated that there were concentration camps in Mariupol. There is no basis for these claims.
This content often focused on violence against children – a TikTok account using the pro-Putin hashtag “DontAbandonOurOwn” shared fake news that an Ukrainian missile had “for the children” written on it while a far-right Telegram channel falsely accused Ukrainian soldiers of child sexual abuse.
The Nazi fear syndrome propaganda is powerful in Russia due to its Second World War history – known in Russia as the ‘Great Patriotic War’ in which 25 million died in battle or as a result of the sieges. Nazi Germany was seen as the antithesis of Soviet Russia, with the war an existential threat to the Russian nation, rather than linked specifically to the persecution of Jewish people.
Russian media and politicians therefore see no contradiction in claiming that a nation with an elected Jewish leader is a Nazi state.
To Russia, German Nazism was about the threat to the USSR, not the genocide of Jewish people. Now, its fear propaganda falsely claims that the country faces a similar existential danger from ‘the West’.
This links to the second line in fear syndrome propaganda that puts Russia in a war for survival against Ukraine’s allies: NATO, the US, and the European Union.
Such a narrative has been enthusiastically picked up by members of the Western left, who are keen to position NATO and the US as the aggressor instead of Putin. ‘Tankie’ and Stalinist leftists have gamely repeated fear syndrome propaganda, referred to the conflict as a “US proxy war”, and accused Ukraine forces of bombing their own civilians.
Fear syndrome propaganda, according to Gellhorn, “leads to hysteria, to hawk-demands for a bigger war”. This has certainly been the case on Russian state TV, with RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, asking if there is infrastructure that could be targeted to “incapacitate this enemy nation”, effectively pushing for war crimes. Her fellow panellists said that many of the Ukrainian people are “serving the US” to bring about Russia’s destruction.
The use of this fear tactic in its propaganda riles up Russian citizens to back the war and to view it through a prism of a genocidal threat to Russia. In truth, it is Ukraine’s existence that has been constantly under threat and Ukrainian people at risk of genocide. Putin and his followers have happily said that Ukraine should not exist and that it is not a real country.
This brings us back to Gellhorn’s statement: that fear syndrome “misplaces the real pain of the real war”. Both the manufactured Nazi and existential threat allow for Putin’s supporters to, at best, turn a blind eye to the atrocities of mass rape, civilian killings and torture in places such as Bucha, Kherson and Izyum – and at worst allows them to deny this cruelty and violence altogether.
In Gellhorn’s 1966 report, she defines cheer syndrome propaganda as that which “optimistically falsifies the conditions of Vietnamese civil life”. In the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it relates to the false narrative of success and liberation its propaganda serves up to its willing audience – that, as Simonyan said, in a “hot war we will defeat Ukraine in two days”.
Of course, the danger with cheer syndrome propaganda is it’s a lie – and one that is eventually questioned by the mothers grieving their sons who are not supposed to be dead.
Cheer syndrome propaganda has manifested in numerous ways during Russia’s war of words.
The first is symbolised by a grotesque benevolence to the Ukrainian people. This is the ugly mirror of the Nazi fear syndrome: the claim that Russia is ‘saving’ the Ukrainian people from Nazi leadership; that the war is an “operation of peace”; and that Russia is “a senior partner helping a junior one”.
This tactic did not last long – not least with Simonyan and her colleagues calling for more war crimes against the “enemy state”.
The second example is one that is rooted in jingoistic and militaristic pride. This too is the ugly mirror to the Nazi fear syndrome – it calls on a nationalist sentiment to revive the armies that crushed Germany in the Great Patriotic War and can hold out against this new ‘threat’ from the West.
Simonyan directly references the Second World War in her cheer propaganda tweets, writing that “Hitler’s main mistake was… in his misjudgment of us. Because the Great Patriotic War was won by our sense of duty. And we see this sense of duty everywhere now. It is our people who sacrifice themselves, shed blood, open monuments, save people. They are restoring not only historical, but human justice in general, because we have such a sense of duty”.
Such propaganda may help to stir up anti-Ukrainian feeling at home, but whitewashes the cruelty and violence of Russian occupiers, who have allegedly beaten and stripped adult men, raped women, and targeted civilian infrastructure.
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Cheer syndrome propaganda also focuses on celebrating Russian soldiers “working on the spot, shedding blood, risking their lives,” as Simonyan has tweeted. In a separate tweet, she wrote that “our goal is peace, tranquillity in our home and the inevitable victory over this enemy, with God’s help. Whatever it takes, we believe in it”. Whatever it takes, it would seem, includes “finishing off this reptile with a single fist”.
Her tweet brings together all aspects of cheer syndrome propaganda: a rallying, jingoistic call, a celebration of Russian soldiers, and a lie that peace is the aim. All of it whitewashes Putin’s aggression and the horrific violence committed by Russian forces against the Ukrainian people.
Perhaps closest to Gellhorn’s concerns about cheer syndrome propaganda is the insistence on Russian military success in Ukraine.
Writing in the New Yorker in March, Masha Gessen noted that, on state TV, “remarkably, there was no mention of Russian military casualties, even though on Wednesday the Defence Ministry had acknowledged 498 deaths… The state’s 24-hour news channel, Rossiya 24, drones on about villages and towns that have been ‘liberated,’ but they name small towns that are unfamiliar to most viewers”.
Vladimir Putin’s Western cheerleaders engage in spreading the victorious Russia/hopeless Ukraine narrative too. A hard-left website claimed in July that “the steady advance of the Russian Army into the Donbass makes it clear… that the outcome of the war is now beyond all doubt”. Now, with Ukraine reclaiming territory, how will those parroting Russian propaganda sell its potential defeat?
Gellhorn concluded her report with the following reflection: “It seems to me that propaganda is a sign of fear.” True of the US in Vietnam in 1966, even truer now in Russia in 2022.