‘Barbaric’ Russia and the ‘civilised’ West

The French philosopher Voltaire was supposed to have written the celebrated phrase: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Whether or not he actually pronounced them, these words are often cited to describe the principle of freedom of speech.

Free speech, and by extension, freedom of the press, is always held up as one of the cornerstones of democracy. It is what is said to separate the proud citizens of the western world from all other, less fortunate nations. It is supposed to be the red line that distinguishes civilization from barbarism. Above all, in the present moment in world history, it is said to distinguish us civilised, democratic, freedom-loving peoples of the western world from Russian despotic barbarism.

For East is East…

Let us spare a moment to consider the sorry plight of the long-suffering people of Russia. In the Realm of Darkness and Evil, which is the Kingdom of Tsar Vladimir the Bloody, these unfortunate people are denied that most wonderful gift of every true democracy: a free press.

Unlike ourselves, they are unable to read, see or listen to anything that differs even remotely from the Official Line. All oppositional, or semi-oppositional news outlets are closed down without contemplation. And all other media are subject to the closest scrutiny and censorship.

Consequently, the poor Russians can never be trusted to hold any opinions, other than the opinions dictated to them by the Man in the Kremlin. Or so we are led to believe.

In reality, though, the power of the media, though very great, is never invincible, and sooner or later, people will become suspicious that their government is not telling the truth, and that the official media is only telling them as much as it considers to be good for their health.

The anti-war demonstrations that have erupted in many Russian cities, and which have been subjected to heavy-handed repression by state forces, are a clear indication that many people do not trust Tsar Vladimir or his official media. That mistrust, and the mood of rebellion, will undoubtedly grow if the war drags on.

… And West is West

The contrast with the civilised West could not be clearer. Here, one does not read of mass demonstrations against the government and NATO. Quite the contrary, in fact. Public opinion appears to be firmly united behind the government line. It can be expressed very simply in the following way: Russia bad, Ukraine good. End of story.

This remarkable display of national unity is, of course, an expression of the fact that, unlike the unfortunate Russians, we citizens of Western democracy possess ample information from the most varied sources that convince us that our leaders are right, and our enemies are wrong.

Let us take democratic Britain as an example. I switch on my television set in time for the 6 o’clock news. The newsreader informs me in great detail that the Russian military offensive has been halted by the heroic action of the Ukrainian army, with the disinterested help of Britain and the United States. They then proceed to describe in great detail the latest atrocities – real or imaginary – committed by the barbarous Russian invaders, followed by a litany of indignant condemnations by a series of Western leaders.

Russias turn Image WSJUnlike the "barbaric East", the "civilised West" is blessed with the virtues of a "free press"... all of which echoes the same Official Line / Image WSJ

The news segment finishes up with scenes of appalling human suffering, huge numbers of refugees, and a few interviews calculated to produce a natural feeling of human sympathy and solidarity for anyone suffering the horrors of war. So far, so good.

I then switch to ITV, where exactly the same news is repeated, with exactly the same interviews and statements. After that, desirous of obtaining some solid news, as opposed to opinions, I turn to a supposedly serious news source, Channel 4 News. But instead of learning anything new, I am regaled with precisely the same story, backed up at precisely the same sources.

A couple of weeks ago, it was still possible to access Russia Today – the one and only news outlet that put a different case. Now, any educated person will readily understand where Russia Today is coming from. One doesn’t have to believe anything that it says – any more than one has to believe what is on all the other channels. But at least, it provided one with different opinions, which allowed one to begin to form something resembling an objective viewpoint.

No more! Our champions of democracy, in the government of that Boris the Bumbler, lost no time in howling and bawling for this single solitary dissident voice to be shut down without delay. This demand was met with admirable alacrity, to the general applause of all the lovers of democracy in the House of Commons, and loudest of all from Sir Keir Starmer and Labour’s ultra-right-wing frontbench, which is now completely indistinguishable from the Tories in every respect, except that it constantly demands ever-more belligerent action against Russia – up to, and including, World War Three.

So, having effectively silenced all opposition, our champions of democracy can now be quite sure that national unity has been achieved, and they can continue with their bellicose propaganda campaign, relieved of any risk of contradiction.

But wait a minute! Wasn’t this supposed to be a fundamental difference between the democratic West and Putin’s tyrannous regime? And wasn’t freedom of the press supposed to be one of these differences? If it is true that in Russia, people are forced to listen to just one line on the war – the official line – then it is also true that people in the West are also subjected to the same thing.

Simple souls may well conclude that there is absolutely no difference between the two. But this would be an extremely naïve misconception. There is, of course, a very fundamental difference. And it is this: in Russia people are forced to follow the Official Line, whereas in democratic Britain and other free countries, we choose, of our own free will, to listen to the only news sources available to us.

The fact that these sources are merely a reflection of the Official Line, dictated by our rulers and cynically manipulated by them is another question entirely.

Let us consider this now.

The strange case of the maternity hospital

On 9 March it was reported that a Russian strike had hit a maternity and children’s hospital in the city of Mariupol.

Like a perfectly oiled machine, the propaganda department immediately sprang into action. All the news media focused on one issue: the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky immediately called the attack a war crime. He called the attack “the ultimate evidence of genocide.”

Volodymyr Zelensky Image president gov uaAfter an attack on the maternity hospital in Mariupol, President Zelensky immediately denounced what he described as not just a "war crime", but "the ultimate evidence of genocide". Meanwhile, certain questions about the attack remained unanswered in the media / Image: president.gov.ua

But there were a number of things that did not add up. He also posted footage apparently from inside the hospital, which appeared to be a total wreck. If that was the case, the numbers of dead and injured would surely be considerable.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of the Donetsk regional administration which includes the port city of Mariupol, said no deaths had been confirmed, and he specifically stated that there were no confirmed injuries amongst children.

The Mariupol city council said the strike had caused “colossal damage”, and published footage showing burned-out buildings, destroyed cars and a huge crater outside the hospital. The BBC verified the location of the videos, but not the exact number of victims.

I waited for some hard information. But the news seemed to be strangely vague, as were the images shown on television. They showed several clearly distraught women trying to comfort their crying babies. It was enough to arouse the sympathies and indignation of any normal person.

Dmitry Gurin, a Ukrainian MP, told the BBC that the complex was bombed.

“It’s all one complex — a maternity and children’s hospital,” he said.

“A lot of dead and wounded women. We don’t know about children and newborns yet.”

The chorus of righteous indignation intensified to a crescendo. “reckless”, “barbaric”, “abhorrent”, “evil”, are some of the more moderate epithets employed.

The rhetoric was all quite predictable. The White House condemned the “barbaric” use of force against innocent civilians. Boris Johnson tweeted “there are few things more depraved than targeting the vulnerable and defenceless”. And so on, and so forth.

But the initial reports remained very vague and, oddly, did not refer to any deaths at all. Seventeen people had been injured, including staff and patients, local officials said. But that was only an initial estimate, and it was also stated that people were trapped under the wreckage.

Surely, the figures of dead and wounded would mount significantly…?

But they did not. Later, the initial story was changed. They now said that three people including a child had been killed. I asked myself: how was it possible that such a large building could be completely devastated, and yet reported casualty figures so low? Only one explanation is possible: that at the time of the bombing, the building was either empty, or mainly empty.

Why would the Russians bomb an empty building? The Russians answered by stating that Ukrainians have been using the tactic of emptying buildings like hospitals of their patients, which are then occupied by ultra-right-wing nationalists,in this case from the Azov Regiment, who fire on the Russians, deliberately provoking an attack. In fact Russian media reports from before the attack indicated that Azov forces had already taken position in this particular hospital. Is this not something plausible which should at least be taken into consideration?

The argument was, of course, immediately dismissed by the Ukrainians and their American and British allies as propaganda. No real consideration to the different possible explanations is given in our so-called free media. Should it not be the role of journalism to investigate the facts from all points of view and then to report them? But as a journalist once said: “why let the facts spoil a good story?”

Many voices have been raised demanding that Russia be put on trial for alleged war crimes and even genocide. Let us be clear about this. An American general once said war is hell. War, by definition, is about killing people. And in a war, many innocent civilians will die, whether this is intended or not.

Therefore, not the slightest credence should be given to the disgusting avalanche of propaganda, which reeks of insincerity, cynicism and hypocrisy of the worst kind, as I now propose to demonstrate with facts.

The American war crime that never was

On 3 October 2015, US airstrikes destroyed the Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) trauma hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. This is a well-documented fact that cannot be contradicted.

US plane Image public domainThe outrage of the West about "war crimes" is the rankest hypocrisy considering the clear war crimes committed by these imperialists, including the 2015 bombing of a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, which killed at least 42 people / Image: public domain

On that night, a US gunship fired 211 shells on the main hospital building, an attack that lasted for around an hour, despite MSF teams desperately calling on military authorities to hold fire.

The Americans were perfectly aware that the intended target was a hospital. MSF provided their GPS coordinates to the US Department of Defence, Afghan Ministry of Interior and Defence, and US Army in Kabul days prior.

At least 42 people were killed, including 24 patients, 14 staff and 4 caretakers, and 37 were injured.

MSF later reported:

“Our patients burned in their beds, our medical staff were decapitated or lost limbs. Others were shot from the air while they fled the burning building, one eye witness said.

“The view from inside the hospital is that this attack was conducted with a purpose to kill and destroy. But we don’t know why.”

The US military later claimed they had received reports that the hospital building was holding active Taliban militiamen. But MSF staff reported no armed combatants or fighting in the compound prior to the airstrike.

In the end, General Votel, the head of US Central Command, explained the attack away as an ‘error’ and said that the fact the attack was unintentional “takes it out of the realm of being a deliberate war crime.”

So that is OK then. If Americans attack hospitals and kill innocent people, that is an unfortunate accident and therefore not a war crime. But if the Russians do the same thing, it is a war crime.

George Orwell would understand this twisted logic, straight out of the Ministry of Truth. And since all our information comes from that same source, we must believe it. For we have no reason to believe anything else…

Of War Heroes and War Villains

The UK’s armed forces minister James Heappey, speaking to BBC breakfast, is in no doubt whatsoever that the bombing of a hospital constitutes a war crime, for which Mr. Putin should be dragged before a court. Who precisely is going to do the dragging remains a mystery.

The same story has since been repeated with tedious regularity by others, far more significant than Mr Heappey.

But even the most cursory glance at the historical record is sufficient to expose the hollowness of this synthetic indignation, given the truly horrific record of British imperialism.

High on the list of Britain’s past crimes is the annihilation of the city of Dresden by unprovoked carpet bombing during World War Two, which was completely indiscriminate, and which caused a terrible firestorm that devastated the city. Historian Donald Miller describes the hell unleashed: 

“People’s shoes melted into the hot asphalt of the streets, and the fire moved so swiftly that many were reduced to atoms before they had time to remove their shoes. The fire melted iron and steel, turned stone into powder, and caused trees to explode from the heat of their own resin. People running from the fire could feel its heat through their backs, burning their lungs.”

An entire city was engulfed in flames. Hospitals, schools, kindergartens, churches, libraries, museums, residential areas, thousands of men, women and children – all perished in that orgy of deliberate destruction.

Dresden, a world-famous cultural centre, had no value as a military target. The only aim was to cause terror in the civilian population, to break their will to resist. But this proved to be a miscalculation. Arial bombing alone can never win a war. After Dresden, the Germans continued to fight ferociously to the bitter end. The bombing of civilians merely served to drive them further into the arms of their rulers.

It is thought that some 25,000–35,000 civilians died in Dresden, though that may well be an under-estimate. Other calculations are as high as 250,000, given the influx of undocumented refugees that had fled to Dresden from the Eastern Front. Most of the victims were women, children, and the elderly.

They suffered a horrible death, not just from being burned alive, but also from suffocation. Miller points out that 70 percent of the victims actually suffocated from carbon monoxide discharged by combustion. It is no surprise that the German author, Jörg Friedrich, chose to title his controversial book on the Allied bombing of Dresden and other cities simply Der Brand (The Fire).

Was that an accident? Not at all, it was deliberate policy. Was it a war crime? There is absolutely no doubt about it. And who was responsible for that crime? Basically, two men: Sir Arthur Travers Harris, 1st Baronet, the head of the Royal Air Force, known as “Bomber Harris”; and Sir Winston Churchill, the then Prime Minister of Britain.

Were these two men prosecuted for war crimes? Of course not. Were they even investigated? They were not. The crimes were conveniently airbrushed from the historical record. Nobody talks about it anymore, and their statues can be found occupying pride of place in Parliament Square, Westminster: the living, breathing heart of what is known as British democracy.

So, that is quite clear. There is no absolute morality here. Truth is relative, to be twisted and turned into its opposite, according to the interests of the powers that be. George Orwell got it right again. One man’s war criminal is another man’s war hero. QED.

Remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

As to the list of America’s war crimes, it is far too long to catalogue here. Ask the people of Vietnam, to whom the Americans introduced the charms of napalm, carpet bombing and Agent Orange: the poisonous chemical that is still causing endless pain and suffering today.

But let us forget about these little details, and deal with a far more significant event, which, regrettably, tends to be forgotten. I refer to the total obliteration of two Japanese cities in 1945 by atom bombs dropped by US aircraft.

An estimated total of 199,000 people were killed by the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Thousands more would perish horribly due to the lingering effects of radiation left by the bombs in the following years.

Here again, the loss of many civilian lives, the wanton destruction of hospitals (including maternity ones), schools, homes for the aged etc. were not even objects of minor interest for Washington and the Pentagon.

Atomic bombing of Japan Image public domainThe list of American war crims is too long to catalogue here, but includes the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which took an estimated 199,000 lives / Image: public domain

The reason frequently given for this abhorrent act of barbarism was that “it speeded the end of the war and saved many (American) lives.” But this is a lie. By that time, Japan had already lost the war and was suing for peace.

The real reason why President Truman ordered the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to demonstrate to Moscow that the USA now possessed a new and terrifying weapon of mass destruction, capable of blowing away whole cities with a single bomb. It was the official start of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR that lasted for decades.

After the end of the Second World War, US imperialism has continued to pursue an aggressive foreign policy, waging wars on foreign soil, bombing and slaughtering countless innocent people.

In the 20 years from 2001 to 2021, the United States alone dropped 326,000 bombs and missiles on people in other countries including, but not limited to, more than 152,000 in Iraq and Syria. In Afghanistan and Pakistan alone, NATO operations killed 241,000 people between 2001 and 2021. The official figures set the number of civilians amongst those at more than 71,000.

In Yemen, the Saudi regime, with direct support from the US and Britain, has been carrying out a brutal one-sided war that has kept more than 10 million people on the edge of starvation for years.

According to the latest estimates, in 2020, this ally of the west had carried out more than 20,000 bombing raids, with up to 300 air raids a day in some periods. A United Nations report, published in November 2021, projected the death toll from Yemen’s war to reach 377,000 by the end of 2021. 

During the 78-day NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, 2,300 missiles were launched and 14,000 bombs were dropped, including uranium bombs and cluster munitions. Besides thousands of lives lost, NATO strikes hit schools, libraries, hospitals and tens of thousands of homes. In one incident, the coalition bombed a column of refugees, reportedly killing over 60. Such events were merely explained away as mistakes and “collateral damage”.

There is no need to say anything more on the bloody record of US imperialism – the most vicious counterrevolutionary force on the face of the earth.

“Shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine”

Let us now shift our attention from the heat of battle to the calm of the debating chamber of the House of Commons in London.

On the evening of 8 March, MPs crammed into every corner of the chamber. Members of the House of Lords packed the public galleries. Parliamentary staff huddled close, to peer through the stone arches, almost up to the roof, to watch the show. It must have been like going to the movies, or, better, the front stalls at the circus. For that, after all, was what it was.

After a few minutes of chatter, MPs fiddling with their headsets to ensure they would be able to hear the translation of the speech, there was a hush as a vision appeared, like a man speaking from another planet.

There, alone at his desk, only a Ukrainian flag for company, President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared on screens to speak to MPs and, of course, to the audience at home. It was the first time any foreign leader has addressed the House of Commons directly.

As a coup de théâtre, it was perfect. As a political and diplomatic move, rather less so. But hey! When everyone present was expecting to receive the cathartic effect only a good tragedy can evoke, who was going to complain?

Ukraine’s leader obligingly plucked at the heart strings of the assembled rows of hardened liars and professional cynics – people not generally noted for sentiment of any sort. He spoke movingly of his country’s pain as each day, a war “we did not start” progressed.

It was all perfectly rehearsed and expertly delivered. All present and correct: Bombs falling on schools. Churches destroyed. Children’s hospitals attacked. Food and water running low in some places.

But, he said, spirits were high, and the people had the will to fight to the end: “we will fight on the beaches, in the streets, in the woods”, he proclaimed, with more than a nod to Churchill, getting slightly carried away with his own rhetoric. He even posed a question from Shakespeare: “To be or not to be?”

Ukraine, he said, had decided “to be free”.

Great stuff! But now came the punchline.

Zelensky thanked the UK for its support, but then rather spoilt it all by hinting that, well, it was not really enough. He urged Her Majesty’s government to tighten sanctions still further. (But, Good God, haven’t we done enough? Our economy is heading for a fall and there are limits to all things!)

Sir Winston Churchill Image Yousuf KarshAs Zelensky invoked Sir Winston Churchill, who was responsible for the war crime of indiscriminate anihillation of life in Dresden, MPs could only fidget nervously: they were certainly prepared to give Zelensky repeated standing ovations, but that was the limit of their 'generosity' / Image: Yousuf Karsh

Above all, he pressed the point, you have to protect Ukraine's skies, “even though enforcing a no-fly zone is a step – a risk – that the UK and its allies just aren't willing to take yet.”

(Oh yes, that… Well, there would be a slight risk if we try to impose a no-fly zone. That would mean shooting down Russian planes. That would mean direct military confrontation with Russia. That would mean starting a third world war. That would mean nuclear annihilation, and the destruction of civilisation as we know it.)

At this point, the MPs started fidgeting in their seats. They all know, when they go through the entrance to the Commons they are walking through the arch rebuilt from scarred stone damaged by World War Two bombs. Fortunately, the speech was about to end – and not before time!

At the end of the speech, MPs and Lords in the galleries stood again, to applaud. The president touched his palm to his chest to acknowledge their heartfelt support, then slumped down for a moment in his seat. Then his composure snapped back. Mr Zelensky raised his fist in defiance, stood up, and left the desk.

His words visibly affected many MPs, some with glistening eyes, some nodding fervently along. So, they awarded his performance with two standing ovations: one before, another after. And they would have given him a third or fourth, if he had wished.

What they would not give him – and will never give him – is what he really wanted, which is meaningful military aid, in the form of a no-fly zone. Applause – as much as you like, but no-fly, no-go! Zelensky must have ended the day with his ego inflated, but his hands quite empty. Not a very satisfactory balance sheet from a practical point of view.

If further proof is needed of the blatant dishonesty and hypocrisy of Messrs Johnson and co., one can cite their shameful record on the issue of Ukrainian refugees. To date, about two million people have fled the war. Of these, more than half have been received by Poland, large numbers are in Hungary and other neighbouring countries.

The UN says that, as of 9 March:

  • Poland has taken in 1,412,502 refugees
  • Hungary 214,160
  • Slovakia 165,199
  • Russia 97,098
  • Romania 84,671
  • Moldova 82,762
  • Belarus 765

More than 255,000 people have gone to other European countries.

But what about Britain? The number of Ukrainian refugees granted visas to come to the UK under the new family scheme has risen from a miserable 50 to a still miserable 300.

Ukrainian refugees who have turned up in Calais, hoping to reach relatives in the UK, were turned back. Home Minister Priti Patel brazenly lied to the House of Commons by claiming that she had set up a visa office in Calais, which was untrue. It turned out that the ‘surge’ office consisted of a fold-up table staffed by three men giving out packets of ready salted crisps… but visa applications were not being received.

Then, Ukrainian refugees were told they could board a Eurostar train from Calais to Lille, where their visa applications would be processed. Another cynical lie. There are in fact no Eurostar services from Calais to Lille and there is no visa UK office in Lille either! In fact, it turned out that the visa office was to be located in Arras, 30 miles from Lille, and that it has not yet been opened. So, that is it. Britain stands shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine – as long as Ukrainians stay on their side of the channel. That is the true nature of the support of Ukraine by Britain’s ruling class and its government.

How the West fans the flames of war

It is true that the West is supplying Ukraine with weapons. These might be sufficient to prolong the war for a time, but not to create conditions for a decisive Ukrainian victory. This is emphatically not the kind of “help” that will alleviate the suffering masses of Ukraine. The very opposite is the truth.

The longer the present conflict in Ukraine continues, the more innocent men, women and children will lose their lives uselessly.

It is NATO – especially the Americans and British – that pushed Ukraine into the present conflict with Russia for their own ends, and then cynically stood back and watched as the Ukrainian people drowned in a sea of blood. They were responsible for this unnecessary war – and they are now responsible for deliberately prolonging it for their own interests. What they want to achieve is to bog down Russia, and delay the inevitable final result, which will be a Russian victory, at the cost of extending the agony of Ukrainians.

Our sympathies are entirely on the side of the suffering Ukrainian people, who are the innocent victims of this cynical game of great power politics. But the suffering will only end when the war itself is brought to an end. Those who continually press them to continue fighting, when they know perfectly well how this will end and have not the slightest intention of lifting a finger to help militarily, are no friends of the Ukrainian people. They are their worst enemies.

London, 11 March 2022