Many people know Russia only through postcards and tendentious headlines. Photo: Michael Siebert on Pixabay (Public Domain)
How do Western narratives work in the country that is presented as a threat here?? A lecture at the summer academy of the federal association of the network Attac
"Russia prepares to occupy the Donbass" – "The Russians interfered with the Brexit" – these are headlines you can find in the German press.
Two Mab in the Ukraine Conflict
That Russia will annex the Donbass can be read frequently. The manovers of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine or troops sent by Vladimir Putin are mentioned as evidence. The fact that NATO also holds manovers all over Russia’s borders is ignored – or that Russian exercises have been taking place on its borders for decades, even in Soviet times.
There is an enemy image here – and in order to deal with the issue in a balanced way, one should ask oneself critical questions that help to understand how the situation really is. Does Russia have the economic resources to annex the Donbass?? Here you can simply research the Russian GDP, what the country spends its money on, and very quickly get a picture of whether it is still willing to invest the additional sums that were needed for this purpose. Especially now, just before the Duma elections, which Russia is preparing for.
The next question is about the support of the Russian people. Here the answer is not necessarily clear – a part of the population will always welcome an increase in the size of the territory. Imperialist thinking – there are such people everywhere. They are a minority with a right to their own opinion, but there are not many of them. You can see it in the example of Crimea, where money has to be sent all the time – and that in the current economic situation in Russia.
Thirdly, the question arises whether it is not geopolitically advantageous for Russia that Ukraine is divided as it is now, instead of a small part of it becoming Russian. A united Ukraine could in this case join NATO. As long as Ukraine is divided, this possibility does not exist. Is it favorable for Russia to have NATO bloc states along almost its entire western border??
Brexit advantageous for Russia?
These questions do not destroy enemy images 100 percent, but when I ask them, I expand my own knowledge and become less susceptible to such statements. Similarly, in my second example, the Russians interfered in the Brexit. Here I ask again a question: Is there proof for it?? If there were, there would be an official procedure in London and not just some press reports. Moreover, the closer relationship between Great Britain and the United States, which was created by the Brexit, is not favorable for Russia.
There is also the question of whether Russia wants to compete with China without a strong Europe. But I must emphasize: This does not mean that Russia is not currently taking steps that could weaken Europe’s.
Enemy images in Russia
I did not want to sound one-sided here. Of course, there are also enemy images in Russia with regard to Europe. To be fair, I must also give an example here. An important topic that keeps coming up in Russia is the issue of sexual minorities, such as the LGBTQ movement.
Commenting on the discussion of Hungary’s controversial LGBTQ law, Russian Auben Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova says that the West is rejecting diversity by demanding that Hungary adhere to the "European" European standards. Here, a clarified image of sexual orientation is equated with a lack of support – and this is a well-known image of the enemy that exists in Russia in relation to Europe.
Enemy images as a result of the gap in interests
Why do such enemy images arise between Russia and the West?? Here I see objective and subjective reasons. An objective reason is simply the lack of convergence of national interests. As long as we live in a world where there are nation states, there are also national interests, which each country defines for itself and which vary. These inconsistencies are difficult to overcome before the real problem is solved.
There are issues that are interpreted in opposite ways from this nation-state point of view. Thus, for Western countries that are members of NATO, the expansion of NATO is an expansion of democracy. How does it affect the countries that are not members of it?? Is it a danger for these countries to have a military bloc on their own border?? The same applies to the ABM missile defense systems in Europe. Who are they directed against? This is an immanently important question – a question of the security of these countries that feel threatened. Conversely, for the countries that push it forward, it is an additional security.
A similar question arises with regard to national conflicts – each side is convinced of the correctness of its position. Russia explains its presence in Syria with the fact that it was invited by the legitimate president Assad, as it corresponds to the UN Charter. The USA and the western countries have a different opinion.
I do not want to paint a black picture here. Common security systems in Europe and the solution of global problems – one example is climate change – are in the interest of all sides. There are also many statements by heads of state on this subject. Another positive aspect is that people play a greater role in international relations than they used to – this makes it more difficult to take illegitimate actions. People are also more connected than before through electronic communications such as the Internet. There everyone gets the opportunity to express his or her opinion.
Subjective enemy images with a psychological background
There are also subjective reasons for enemy images, which play into the realm of psychology. About a fear with historical background. A negative example is the relationship between Poland and Russia. Poland has had serious experiences in the Soviet period – and corresponding stereotypes are still effective today. They poison the relations between the two countries.
Another subjective cause is simply lack of interest. If I am not particularly interested in a country, simplified information is enough for me. I do not need reviews, do not want to question anything. It’s a pity and it depends on the presentation of the country. Russia also needs to work on its image.
But when a professional journalist or a factual expert looks at a country, he must not let his view be clouded in this way. Especially with regard to simplifications. They deprive us of the possibility of discovering little things that show that the big picture is not correct.
Simplifications are unfortunately used by politicians and journalists to appeal to a broad mass of people. A superficial analysis is easier in any case. Many read them, many buy them. Only a few people are interested in or pay for a deeper analysis. They are not the subject of much discussion. Much depends here on society, on us.
Fighting the enemy through critical thinking
An honest and open dialogue is only possible when people report honestly about conditions, when critical thinking is activated. For me this consists of three components. First, I must know the positions of all sides involved, have them in front of my eyes.
Secondly, I need to understand the motivation of the main parties involved, the "Why". It should always seem strange when the government of a country takes an initially incomprehensible step, but its people support this step. This means that there is an overriding motivation that cannot be ignored.
Thirdly, it is necessary to understand the context, the global environment and the conditions in which this or that decision is made. It is also important to put aside one’s own arrogance towards the other. Thinking: "It is right with me" – "I know how it should be done with you" – and the recommendation to do it the same way. This rarely works and more often causes misunderstandings and bad feelings. One rejects it immediately, does not want to accept criticism, because it seems unobjective right from the start. It may even seem rather insulting.
Overcoming enemy thinking is a very important task. It means breaking a vicious circle in which bad journalism is produced for a grateful audience. The point is, what the audience wants causes the offer – it must be geared to its audience. If the audience wants a good, in-depth analysis, it will end up buying it.
Questions for better journalism
It must be reported as it is, not as it must be or as I see it. It must be reported with facts, details and all opinions – a broad spectrum of them, instead of copying from each other. It also depends on how many correspondents you have in the other countries. If there are only a few, they simply don’t have the opportunity to see everything with their own eyes and report it correctly. Then the copying begins, things are no longer analyzed. In the end, this damages the quality of reporting.
The subject "Criticism of the other country" The most difficult question for me is where to draw the line between constructive criticism and attempted interference? Here I would like to ask only three questions, which I also ask myself. My answers are simply my opinion – anything else would be dishonest.
Can interference from auben be impartial at all?? There are different views on this, but I do not know any example where it is so – I would be glad to know one.
Not even one example, where interference in internal affairs was successful and really brought a positive result. This is not a surprise. Because as long as we live in a world of nation-states, with a predominance of national interests, every country has its own. Impartiality is not possible – that is how the system works. In a global world without national governments it could be different.
The second question for me would be whether one can objectively judge the conditions in a country from outside. Can I form an opinion about the other country that corresponds to reality?? I find it difficult, but possible. When you visit the country, get to know the people, get to know the mentality and culture, the picture becomes clearer and you can see the reasons for what is happening.
Deciding the fate of other countries?
The third question is whether one can decide about developments in another country. This is the most difficult question. I will not answer them in relation to Russia, I cannot detach myself from what is happening in my country. But I have also thought about the situation in Belarus. The country is very close to us, we speak one language and have a very similar culture, good relations.
When there were protests in Belarus, for fair elections and citizens’ rights, many people in Russia and Europe followed enthusiastically. I think that many people in Belarus would welcome such liberalization, but they do not protest in the current situation. They are also often against sanctions, which are now imposed by the West.
Can they be condemned for that?? Can we say that they do not contribute to the development of their country?? In no case. It is the life of these people, the life they live. Whether a person decides to protest or stay at home is his own business. I can not say "You must go back to the streets and fight for civil rights". I can also not say "You have to stay at home". This is their country and their situation. Even in the case of sanctions, they are the main victims. And here I cannot and must not interfere.
Julia Dudnik is a Master’s graduate in International Relations at the elite MGIMO University in Moscow. She currently works as a freelance journalist for various German media, including Telepolis. This article is based on a lecture she gave at this year’s summer academy of the network Attac.