Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
We have seen “big lies” before – from the 1920s and 1930s in Europe, to the United States today.
Then this year Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his own brazen version of the infamous propaganda technique as he staged, and then carried out an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Whatever happens, Putin’s propaganda gambit failed miserably. In this post-truth era of politics, Putin has lost the global disinformation war. The loss is irreversible and will prove costly.
The Biden administration’s unprecedented, aggressive release of detailed information announcing every step Russia would take just before Moscow moved into Ukraine ultimately did not prevent Putin from starting the war. Neither did the marathon diplomatic efforts, nor the threat of forceful sanctions.
In the end, Putin did exactly what President Biden told the world he would do: He invaded Ukraine on a runway of lies.
In Russia, where most people get their news from government-controlled media, many believed Putin’s claims of a nefarious threat from Ukraine. But the rest of the world saw the propaganda fall flat in real time.
“Orwellian” doesn’t begin to describe the falsehoods. Putin announced he was sending “peacekeepers,” as he ordered his military machine to move into Ukrainian territory. His soldiers went into Ukraine to supposedly “de-Nazify” – smearing the Nazi label on a country that is a democracy, though a flawed one, whose president happens to be Jewish. Putin claimed Moscow needed to move in to defend Ukraine’s Russian speakers from a nonexistent “genocide” by Ukrainians (a tactic made infamous of World War II).
Washington succeeded in thoroughly delegitimizing not only the phony Russian justification for war, but Putin’s own credibility before the entire world. It may take some time for the Russian people, too, to grasp the depth of the deception, but eventually they will.
The Kremlin repeatedly mocked Biden’s warnings. “Hysteria” they called America’s cautioning, while continuously denying plans to invade Ukraine. And they fabricated the threat, the false flag attacks Washington warned about, claiming Russian speakers were in grave danger, as was Russia, they said, from much smaller Ukraine.
Unless it wasn’t blindingly obvious already, from now on every word out of Putin’s mouth, every statement from the Kremlin, must be taken as potentially false.
Putin’s lack of credibility, the attack’s lack of legitimacy and Biden’s successful deployment of the truth, have fortified NATO, united the world against Russia’s aggression and made Russia’s neighbors even more suspicious of Moscow. These European nations are more eager to draw close to the West, precisely the opposite of what Putin wanted. And, as he claimed Ukraine is not a real nation, Putin re-energized the Ukrainian people’s sense of nationhood and national unity.
Among the many statements he has repeatedly made deserving skeptical scrutiny is his objective is preventing Ukraine from joining NATO. Western analysts have engaged in self-flagellating introspection, blaming the West for allowing NATO to spread eastward, thus provoking Putin’s anger.
Sure, Putin doesn’t want Ukraine in NATO. And he hates that the former Soviet satellites such as Poland, Hungary and Romania are now part of the Western alliance, let alone former Soviet Republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
But anyone who thinks Putin would have been satisfied and pacified by a pledge that Ukraine would never enter NATO has not been paying attention. If they had capitulated to the demand, Putin might have held back for a time, but his designs do not end with Ukraine and are not all about NATO.
After all, the last time Russia invaded Ukraine, in 2014, the issue was closer relations with the European Union, not with a military alliance. This is not about the NATO military threat. It’s about Putin’s megalomaniacal dreams of extending the Russian Empire and making his mark in history along with the great Russian czars. It’s about keeping democracy, freedom and independence away from Russia’s borders, where they could entice a population chafing under his increasingly oppressive regime.
Putin has already carved strongholds in other former Soviet Republics. Without Putin’s support, the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko would have likely lost power to pro-democracy forces. In Kazakhstan, Putin’s soldiers recently moved in to save strongman president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. And in Georgia and Moldova, he has also carved out pro-Russian enclaves.
Former Soviet republics, especially the Baltic states Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, have every reason to worry about Putin’s aspirations. His recent speech decried their creation as independent states when the USSR dissolved itself.
The threat from a nuclear-armed dictator defying the international community and sending a massive military machine to crush its neighbor in the 21st century cannot be overestimated.
Biden has done a stellar job of uniting America’s bruised alliances despite some tactical differences. Putin may not have expected such a united front by NATO and the world’s democracies. Biden has rallied the international community to issue a forceful condemnation of Russia’s violations of the most fundamental principle of international law by attacking another without provocation or a genuine justification.
Going forward, the US should further tighten economic sanctions – including a cutoff from SWIFT – enlisting as much of the world as possible and squeezing Putin and his oligarchs. In addition, NATO should be prepared in case of an even greater escalation by Russia.
At this moment in US history, fresh from the memories of Afghanistan, Americans would not support going to war to defend Ukraine. But they do want to help Ukraine as their democracy and their freedom is stolen from them. It means bolstering their ability to resist with arms, along with diplomatic and political backing despite Putin’s ominous threats. The international community, led by the US, cannot be intimidated by a Russian tyrant who throws his critics in prison and invades his neighbors.
“America stands up to bullies,” Biden declared. “We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.” But he should also issue an explicit warning to Putin, if Russian forces move into NATO territory – into the Baltic States, Poland or elsewhere – the US will view it as a declaration of war, as mandated by Article 5 of the NATO charter. Further, Putin should be warned about how he conducts the war in Ukraine. If the world starts seeing large scale atrocities, NATO should caution it reserves the option to intervene.
In this new age of “Big Lies,” the warning would have an impact because, as the whole world has seen, Biden, unlike Putin, has been telling the truth.