The current conflict between Russia and Ukraine has once again opened up the old wounds of east vs. west, continuing the long-established tradition of distrust and sometimes even open hatred from these two centers of power. This can be seen across the spectrum of media outlets in the west along with their counterparts in the east, as both sides push forth propaganda and favorable coverage so as to always show their side in a favorable light. With western media outlets, their coverage of the war has been very positive for the Ukrainians while showing the exact opposite when considering Russians. Western media quickly picks up Ukrainian propaganda pieces and repeats them for their audiences at home, who then take to social media to gloat over Russian losses and embarrassments.
Stories like the “Ghost of Kyiv,” the Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island, and others which have later proven to be inaccurate or not based in truth spread like wildfire across media outlets (Thompson, New York Times, Washington Post, etc). Certainly, a story about a Ukrainian fighter pilot shooting down several Russian jets is noteworthy and a country facing assaults from a greater power needs to boost morale every chance it gets. However, the willingness to circulate the Ghost of Kyiv tale across western media outlets displayed a clear bias for the Ukrainian side of the war in the west and, even though many have poked holes in the myth of this mysterious fighter pilot, people still disregard its “fake newsiness.” Thompson pointed out that some users on social media shared a willingness to believe in the propaganda, even knowing that it was made up: “if the Russians believe it, it brings fear. If the Ukrainians believe it, it gives them hope,” remarked one user on Twitter. This set a dangerous precedent as truth became a casualty in the war in favor of people wanting to simply find stories that would support their favored narrative and consequently ignore more accurate reporting.
Propaganda can be a useful tool for any country fighting to protect itself, but it can also lead to the spreading of falsehoods abroad and even lead some westerners to become inspired to take up arms in a conflict they probably should not get embedded within. Over 20,000 foreign fighters have signed up to fight for Ukraine in an International Brigade after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a call for help. Many of these people have little to no combat experience but were persuaded to fight for Ukraine so that they could be on “the right side of history” or combat injustice in a conflict that has been lauded as a brave underdog battle between the aggressor state Russia – longtime enemy of the west – and the small “noble” nation of Ukraine (Llana, Christian Science Monitor). Propaganda tales amplified by the media are largely responsible for bringing these foreign soldiers into a complex situation that they are not prepared for, ultimately risking an exacerbation of the war rather than a resolution of the conflict.
Stories like these have fortified in the minds of western audiences a strong dislike for Russia, its citizens, and its military. On social media channels, people were quick to put up symbols associated with Ukraine, most commonly, the Ukrainian flag, to show their support for its struggle as many, especially those in America, seemed to instinctively root for any underdog in a war. Support for Ukraine, though, naturally leads to discrimination toward Russians. Disregard for the suffering of Russian soldiers, a willingness to ignore the reasons for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the ostracizing of Russian citizens from the rest of the world – whether physically via travel or economically via sanctions – will have negative repercussions for the international community for years to come. Many celebrate every victory that Ukraine scores against Russia, heedless of the human cost of the war in general. This may very well deepen the divide between east and west before the war ends and force many average Russian citizens into a retributive hatred for those in Europe and North America who treated their country so harshly when they themselves were powerless to stop or prevent the Ukraine-Russia war.
Russian businesses have also been subject to discrimination in the west. Companies like Starbucks, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Electric and McDonald’s all announced that they were temporarily suspending their operations in Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine (Williams, Fox10 Phoenix). Sanctions laid down on Russia in an effort to stagnate its economy also extend to banks, legislators, and even oligarchs but will leave a much more powerful and profound effect on the general populace. This punishment will trickle down to Russian citizenry who have played no part in the conflict at all but will suffer the most from these economic sanctions, simply because they live in the aggressor country.
This negativity against Russia and its people already existed prior to the Ukrainian-Russian war, but was reignited by the conflict. Many people in the west find it easy to fall into the camp of attacking the long-standing “enemy” due to the history left behind by the Cold War, by the psychologically-imprinted suspicion of those across the sea who threatened us with nuclear weapons for so long. In places like the U.S., there almost seems to exist a willingness to not hear the other side’s point of view, a refusal to acknowledge the sufferings of very human foes who are not so different from their adversaries. The question of why many Americans would even feel the need to take a position in a conflict that has little bearing on their everyday lives could have more than one answer. The need to cheer on an underdog in a pitched struggle, the old hatred left over by the Cold War, or possibly a need to satisfy the age-old good guy vs. bad guy complex which has been hardwired into many people’s minds through television, movies, literature, and other parts of our pop culture. For many, there exists a need to satisfy one’s own moral superiority, a need to establish good from evil. The recent conflict between Ukraine and Russia has given many the outlet they seek for this vindication.
The question of whether this treatment of Russia is justified or not lies primarily with an individual’s perception of the country as a belligerent at the international level or a nation trying to clearly define where its sphere of influence begins and ends. Russia invading Ukraine and starting a war rife with human tragedy on both sides was not done simply because Russia as a state is a villain or it gets its kicks by starting wars randomly. A deeper examination of the “whys” surrounding Russia’s invasion is desperately needed, where the proffered reasons are given legitimate analytical consideration. So far, this type of analysis has not been done. Ultimately, why it matters is because reaching into that understanding may help prevent a country like Russia in the future from feeling the need to invade at all.