The Narrative Turns. Now What?
Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century.
Cross-posted from Scheer Post
utin’s Russia is closing in on a devastating victory. Europe’s foundations are trembling.”
This was the headline atop a Dec.9 commentary in The Telegraph, the farthest right of the major London dailies. The subhead elaborated the theme in yet graver terms: “Kyiv’s counteroffensive has ended in failure. This could be NATO’s Suez moment.” The piece that followed included all sorts of goodies in this line.
It is not official, not yet, that Ukraine’s grand counteroffensive, the great Russophobic hope of the Zelensky and Biden regimes earlier this year, has proven a bust and that defeat is in the offing. The closest we have to such an admission came from Volodymyr Zelensky earlier this month, when the Ukrainian president declared that the counteroffensive “did not achieve the desired results.” I loved that moment, to be honest. It reminded me of Emperor Hirohito’s famous declaration on August 15, 1945, when he announced the surrender on Japanese radio. “The war,” he told his desperate subjects, “has not necessarily progressed to our advantage.”
O.K., let’s leave Zelensky to Zelensky, Joe Biden to Joe Biden, and Antony Blinken to Antony Blinken. We can count news of failure unofficially official when mainstream media start dropping such news on their readers and viewers. The Telegraph, so far as I know, was the first big daily on either side of the Atlantic to make such blunt admissions. Others have already followed, if in gentler, more oblique language—in Zelensky-speak, this is to say.
A significant moment may be upon us. What will follow once it is acknowledged that the Nazi-infested crooks in Kyiv have failed? President Biden, as is his consistently unwise wont, radically overinvested in the proxy war he chose to start with the Russian Federation as soon as he took office three years ago next month. Having defined the Ukraine conflict as a war in the name of democracy and freedom —“values” rather than interests, this is to say—he has left the U.S. and its European clients no room for compromise and nearly none even for negotiation. What is the next move when defeat is too obvious any longer to deny?
If we are about to enter uncharted territory, will it prove dangerous ground? It may, but this is not yet clear. It will be uncertain and probably unstable: This we know. Of the many things I do not like about this circumstance, I will mention a few straightaway. Biden may be the stupidest president of the postwar era on the foreign policy side: He exhibits no capacity whatsoever for nimble or imaginative thought. He is a warmonger of long standing, an election year is upon us, and he is by now in obvious danger of being impeached. His mental incompetence, atop all this, is plain for all to see.
There are also the national security people around Biden to consider. With the exception of CIA Director William Burns, who seems to dedicate himself to his career advancement, these are lockstep ideologues who share a Manichean vision of the world and how it works. And we had better think long and hard about these people now. I urge this because of an item in Politico two weeks back. The piece reported on the policy cliques’ thinking after recent Houthi attacks on U.S. warships in the Red Sea. Some officials urge a vigorous response, but the reigning view favors restraint for fear of enlarging Israel’s barbarity in Gaza into a wider war.
Then, well down in the story, this paragraph:
The military’s job is to present a variety of options to senior commanders, but the ultimate decision is up to the president and the administration’s political appointees. In multiple high-level meetings this week, the Pentagon has neither briefed President Joe Biden on options to strike Houthi targets nor recommended that he do so, two of the officials said. All were granted anonymity to detail sensitive internal deliberations.
The jaw drops. It is not uncommon for the mainstream media to bury vitally important news that reflects poorly on The American Way. In this case we appear to be on notice that the commander-in-chief is no longer commanding because, as Politico suggests, those around him think he is too trigger-happy and they would rather not hear from him. The topic is the Middle East, but netting out this extraordinary revelation, we can no longer be certain who is running the Biden regime’s Ukraine policy—or any other policy, for that matter.
Do we count this as some kind of palace coup? Don’t let the question surprise you: The Deep State did this kind of thing to Biden’s predecessor time and time and time again. In Biden’s case, it may be no bad thing if he is cut out of the thinking on Ukraine to one or another extent, given his retrograde obsession with Russia as the root of all evil. But the thought of the president’s lieutenants, with their cowboys-and-Indians sensibilities, deciding what comes next in post-failure Ukraine is not soothing.
Less than a week after Daniel Hannan published his biting commentary in The Telegraph, The New York Times came across with a pair of pieces, a sort of one-two punch, that are four-square out of character for a newspaper that has spent the past 23 months trying to persuade us that Ukraine was on the way to triumph against those brutal—always brutal—Russians. The first of these, ‘“People Snatchers:’ Ukraine’s Recruiters Use Harsh Tactics to Fill Ranks,” appeared Dec. 15. In it, Thomas Gibbons–Neff describes how plainclothes goons have taken to kidnapping draft-age Ukrainian men, some with mental or physical disabilities, and forcing them into the military induction process. This is sometimes done at gunpoint. People are taken off the streets, at factory gates, from inside shops.
Gibbons–Neff’s work is too often compromised, as noted previously in this space. But this is very good reporting. Here is a passage from his piece, published after he reported from numerous Ukrainian cities and towns:
Recruiters have confiscated passports, taken people from their jobs and, in at least one case, tried to send a mentally disabled person to military training, according to lawyers, activists and Ukrainian men who have been subject to coercive tactics. Videos of soldiers shoving people into cars and holding men against their will in recruiting centers are surfacing with increasing frequency on social media and in local news reports.
The harsh tactics are being aimed not just at draft dodgers but at men who would ordinarily be exempt from service — a sign of the steep challenges Ukraine’s military faces maintaining troop levels in a war with high casualties, and against a much larger enemy.
Lawyers and activists say the aggressive methods go well beyond the scope of recruiters’ authority and in some cases are illegal. They point out that recruiters, unlike law enforcement officers, are not empowered to detain civilians, let alone force them into conscription. Men who receive draft notices are supposed to report to recruitment offices.
We are reading here about a desperate regime that has sent too many of its able-bodied to their deaths and is now running out of bodies.
A day later, Carlotta Gall, with several colleagues sharing the byline, published “Ukrainian Marines on ‘Suicide Mission’ in Crossing Dnipro River.” Here we read about incensed grunts at the front condemning the Kyiv regime’s incessant propaganda as to the military’s progress against Russian forces. Again this is very effective reporting:
Soldiers and marines who have taken part in the river crossings described the offensive as brutalizing and futile, as waves of Ukrainian troops have been struck down on the river banks or in the water, even before they reach the other side …
In the case of the Dnipro, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and other officials have suggested recently that the marines have gained a foothold on the eastern bank. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted a statement last month claiming they had established several strongholds.
But marines and soldiers who have been there say these accounts overstate the case.
“There are no positions. There is no such thing as an observation post or position,” said Oleksiy, who withheld his last name. “It is impossible to gain a foothold there. It’s impossible to move equipment there.”
“It’s not even a fight for survival,” he added. “It’s a suicide mission.”
Gibbons–Neff and Gall, as the archives show, know very well where the fence posts lie, beyond which they have dared not stray as they have reported from Ukraine. We have to conclude now that the fence posts have moved. The Times is not yet prepared to state plainly that Kyiv is not far from defeat. But, in that way, The Times thinks American readers must be gently prepared for bad news, as if we are a nation of kindergartners—well, let’s not “go there”—we are being so prepared.
A few days before publishing his piece from the field, Gibbons–Neff gave us a report of the kind we have come to expect of him. “U.S. and Ukraine Search for a New Strategy After Failed Counteroffensive,” published Dec. 11, is written in the cotton-wool English The Times has long favored, leaving us with the familiar impression we are being told something but we do not know quite what:
The Americans are pushing for a conservative strategy that focuses on holding the territory Ukraine has, digging in and building up supplies and forces over the course of the year. The Ukrainians want to go on the attack, either on the ground or with long-range strikes, with the hopes of seizing the world’s attention.
In plain English, the kind you and I speak: The Biden regime has no idea what to do in the face of failure, but, as failure cannot be admitted, it must be dressed up as a new strategy. Kyiv would dare not do anything without the Biden regime’s permission—stealing most of the aid and military equipment the U.S. sends being the exception—but it must look as if it is fighting the life-or-death fight because the Zelensky regime is balancing on the head of a political pin at this point.
You have to love the Big Guy’s comment as these new realities take shape. “We can’t let Putin win,” Biden said in Congress as he pleaded for a vote authorizing a new round of aid. Is this big-time geopolitical strategy or what?
I hear a little Lady Macbeth in that remark in that Biden doth protest a touch too much. If “Putin” was not somewhere on the road to victory in Ukraine, there would be no need to say such a thing, would there? As it is, Zelensky flopped during his most recent trip to Washington, the new aid package did not pass, Hungary just blocked the European Union’s proposed new assistance, and Ukraine is altogether yesterday’s flavor as the reality of failure emerges from the mounds of, please excuse the language, bullshit that have propped up Western enthusiasm all these months. Israel may be genociding the Palestinians of Gaza, but at least here is the gruesome prospect that it will succeed and the West will for once prevail.
Until recently the orthodoxy required that “Putin’s Russia,” meaning the Russian Federation, was losing a war it waged with drunks, incompetent officers, and baby-snatchers. All of a sudden we read that Putin’s Russia has made the most of the sanctions regime the West imposed upon it and has a large, clear advantage on the battlefield—more soldiers, more artillery, more everything. In his year-end press conference last week, the Associated Press reported “an emboldened, confident Putin” announced that the war will end when Russia has achieved its objectives and these —the demilitarization and de–Nazification of Ukraine—have not changed. So does “the narrative evolve.”
Telegraph writer Daniel Hannan remarks that if any prospect of peace talks arises between Kyiv and Moscow, or between Kyiv and its trans–Atlantic backers and Moscow, “we risk a Suez-level disaster for the Western democracies.” Hannan, a Tory and a former member of the European Parliament, referred, of course, to Egypt’s defeat of British, French and Israeli forces after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal. It was an historic humiliation for the British and French.
“While we are not ourselves at war this time,” Hannan writes, “we are so invested in the Ukrainian cause that a Russian victory—and absorbing conquered territory is a Russian victory, present it how you will—would mean a catastrophic loss of prestige for the West and the ideas associated with it: personal freedom, democracy and human rights.”
Hannan has the magnitude of the balance of power in Ukraine exactly right. Joe Biden appears to be primarily concerned with going down as the worst president in postwar American history, and he seems to me to have little chance avoiding this distinction. But the larger significance here cannot be missed. Biden cast the campaign against Russia via Ukraine as his Great American President moment, and the rest of the West foolishly followed.
Now comes the bitter task of acceptance. It leaves us, for now, in a twilight zone. We have to hope that Joe Biden, as his political fortunes crash, is indeed cut out of the West Wing conversation such that he cannot make some desperate move to salvage himself. Go, Deep State, go, strange as the thought is.
None of what is now acceptable to say about the West’s failing fortunes in Ukraine can be at all news to those who have looked past the propaganda these past two years. The significance of the moment is in large part in the collapse of the propaganda. The Atlantic world rarely accepts the truths of the 21st century, typically denying them outright or blurring them beyond legibility. But this is always a question of expedience, it seems to me, and can in no case be sustained indefinitely.
“I was one of those who expected Ukraine to break through to the Sea of Azov, a move that might well have ended the war,” Hannan writes in a passage I find amusing. “Why did I get it wrong? I had been talking not only to Ukrainians, but to British military observers with direct knowledge of the battlefield.”
My dear Hannan, in your question lies your answer, as so often proves the case. You had been talking to Ukrainians and British military observers.
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