According to the western media, the Russian Federation launched an unprovoked military assault on Ukraine on 24 February 2022. This was an all out Blitzkrieg — a war of territorial expansion waged by mindless Russian ‘fascists’ whose only motivations were rape, murder, and pillage. Every missile that hit its target was proof of Russian savagery, and every dead civilian was all the evidence western governments and media needed to present this as a war of annihilation — that the war in Ukraine was a ‘genocide’ requiring an immediate interventionist response. Since the first day of the Russian invasion we have been subjected in the West to a constant refrain of ‘rape’ and ‘murder.’ The Russian ‘marauders’ are raiding banks, robbing homes and shops, and killing people’s pet dogs and cats. Our response to the Russian invader is visceral. After all, this is the behaviour of a ‘horde’ — an invasion of brutal, merciless, and animalistic barbarians. They must be stopped.
As the western media made the most of a rather suspect massacre in Bucha, Bethan McKernan, writing in The Guardian really got the rape fear narrative going, leaving her readers traumatised by the brutal descriptions of women and girls gang-raped at gunpoint by Russian beasts:
Particularly difficult for many to comprehend is the scale of the sexual violence. As Russian troops have withdrawn from towns and suburbs around the capital in order to refocus the war effort on Ukraine’s east, women and girls have come forward to tell the police, media and human rights organisations of atrocities they have suffered at the hands of Russian soldiers.
In actual fact, there has been very little evidence of sexual assault and rape in the aftermath of the Russian occuptaion of the urban centres north of Kyiv. Nastia Savchyshyn, a young woman from Bucha, posted a selfie beside a picture of a dead woman with the words: ‘Raped and killed by Russians just for being Ukrainian.’ But the dead woman in her picture was fully clothed. She had been killed, as evinced by the mangled tree beside her, by a Ukrainian shell during the fighting on the day the Russian forces withdrew from the town (30 March 2022). Ms Savchyshyn had been updating her social media throughout the occupation and yet failed to make a single mention of Ukrainian women and girls being raped or murdered by the Russians. The ‘scale of the sexual violence’ appears to be unknown even to this young woman who lived for an entire month in a Russian occupied town.
Now, it is important to stress here that nothing of this is to suggest Russian soldiers have not raped Ukrainian women and girls. Rape, while a particularly egregious and henious crime, is and has always been a feature of warfare. Women and girls face the threat of sexual assault and rape in peacetime, in every town and city in the world, surrounded by well-funtioning policing and legal institutional structures. All too often in wartime, these civilian structures are among the first things to break down; making people vulnerable to all kinds of danger, violence, and violations. Given the state of exception created by the collapse of civil and legal institutions in war, the scale of violence and sexual violence increases — and, crucially, the perpetrators are not only enemy soldiers.
McKernan even admits this in her article, though one has to read quite far into the piece to find this admission. Civilians — especially women and girls — are vulnerable to predators; who see in the break down of normal society opportunities to satisfy the basest impulses usually denied to them when the structures of law and order are functioning well. McKernan reports the experience of one women:
It is not only Russian soldiers Ukrainian women may have to protect themselves from. In Vinnytsia, a town in the west of the country, a teacher reported to police that a member of the territorial defence services dragged her into the school library and tried to rape her.
‘It is not only Russian soldiers Ukrainian women may have to protect themselves from.’ This is the single piece of factual information in the whole of McKernan’s article. Yes, woman and girls are especially vulnerable to sexual violence and rape in war — and the threat of this can and does come from all quarters. In the awful conditions of war the soldiers of one side are no more or less likely to commit atrocities than those of the other side. The same is true of civilians. We know that some Ukrainians have been caught looting in the midst of the chaos, and this is only one kind of opportunistic crime that happens in times of serious social disorder. Most soldiers, Russian and Ukrainian, are professional soldiers who are subject to military discipline. The Russian army is no more likely to tolerate rapists in its ranks than any other modern army. Yet, it will still happen and we know that it does happen. But this in no way supports this propagandistic rhetoric of ‘the scale of sexual violence.’ The scale of sexual violence in the war in Ukraine will absolutely be greater than in Ukraine in peacetime, but this heightened scale is not any greater than the scale of sexual violence experienced by women and girls in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.
Again, this is not a justification. It is a simple statement of the realities of war. Like any other atrocity committed against the civilian population by soldiers, it is a human rights violation and a war crime — and it is absolutely the case that the guilty must be brought to justice. There is no question of this. But that McKernan and so many other western journalists have put particular emphasis on the role of Russian soldiers in the scale of this violence betrays the propaganda model they are working within, and it is a style of partisan journalism that helps to construct the necessary provocation; the Russian as a mindless thug, fighting only for the reward of loot and girls.
At one level this is the purpose of partisan journalism in conflict — this is the ‘Remember Belgium!’ school of war correspondence, with all the magic of a poster depicting the silhouetted image of one of the Kaisar’s gorilla-like Huns dragging a defenceless little girl off to the trenches of the Boche to be gang-raped to death. This is the species of classic wartime propaganda that gets young men lining up at the recruiting sergeant’s desk. These lies are the locomotives of war, and it is this kind of wartime propaganda that fuels the public demand for war. In this respect, then, the partisan journalist — and that is what Bethan McKernan is — is an instrument of war. This is where the reporting of the facts crosses the line into the manufacturing of the myths required to move ordinary people to kill other ordinary people. This industry is an essential component of the war machine.
We have seen this also with the horrific pictures taken by Mikhail Palinchak of the man and three naked or partially clothed women dead under a blanket on a road 20km north of Kyiv. The state in which these bodies had been left was disgraceful. An attempt had been made to burn the bodies, presumably by their killer(s) — a person or persons unknown — before they were covered and left on the highway. Western media has, of course, chalked this scene up to another disgusting and murderous act of sexual violence by Russian soldiers, and it may well be — but, at this time, this cannot be known. There is no shortage of evidence of women being sexually humiliated by Ukrainian ultra-nationalsists and indeed by ordinary Ukrainian civilians. Roma women, looters, and those deemed unpatriotic have been subjected to this type of violence from the start of the war. There are Ukrainian far-right Telegram pages in which Ukrainian men showcase their treatment of such women. In these sickening videos women are stripped completely naked, made to rub green paint over their faces, before having large rocks smashed off their mouths.
No one has established who these women on the road are. Russian soldiers, if they are responsible, would have to have committed their crime in full public view — in front of their comrades and, perhaps, even their commanding officers. This could have happened. But this is to assume the essential badness of all Russians — that this is just how Russians behave, and this is nothing but a racist stereotyping. How would a British commanding officer respond to a group of British soldiers stripping, raping, killing, and burning three women in the middle of a motorway? It is known that in Iraq US soldiers organised nighttime rape hunts, terrorising the civiliand population. It is also known that those caught faced military justice. Are we to imagine, in all seriousness, that this crime is not every bit as repulsive to the average Russian? Again, if this is the assumption people are operating with, it is wrong and it is deeply prejudiced.
Quite rightly, this crime has shocked Ukrainians. It is a shocking crime. But it is from Ukrainians we have the only actual video evidence of this sort of behaviour towards women — not that the partisan media will give this much attention. And yet, this is only a small part of the information war arsenal on display in this war. Time and again, we have seen the propaganda model of media coverage in action. Nothing whatsoever has been said in the western media of the serious inconsistencies in the accepted anti-Russian narrative of the Bucha massacre. It hasn’t struck a single British, European, or American journalist as odd that it had an English language Wikipedia article within hours of it first being reported. Wikipedia is the internet of ‘facts.’ Once it has a Wikipedia article it enters the realm of unassailable online truth. But there has been no investigation.
It is the same story with the explosion at the Kramatorsk railway station. ‘Western politicians are in no doubt that it would amount to a war crime,’ reports the BBC. No doubt, if the missile fired at the station was an intentional targeting of civilians, this is a war crime. Without question. But the BBC and the whole of the western media lays this war crime firmly at the feet of Russia. Once again, according to this partisan journalism, Russians behave like this. But nothing has been said about the missile; that it was a type only used by the Ukrainian military and that, according to a survey of the impact area, it was fired from inside an area controlled by the Kyiv government. Is it reasonable to believe Russian troops went into Ukrainian controlled territory to launch a missile at ethnic Russians in a train station Russia wants to control? Unbiased journalism would be interested in these details. It would also be interested in the details of the Tornado battalion, a far-right militia fighting after 2014 in the ‘anti-Terrorism operation’ against the people of Donetsk and Luhansk.
McKernan and her colleagues are yet to inform their readers of how the Tornado battalion was arrested for weaponising rape against ethnic Russian women and girls. These partisan journalists are even slower to tell their readers that the Kyiv government recently released these convicted rapists and war criminals that they might once more ride out with the Ukrainian armed forces to fight the Russians. Nothing much will be said in the western media about these men.
Please do not imagine that this is in any way pro-Russian propaganda. Soldiers are soldiers, and ugly dark things happen in the chaos of war. But it simply is not the case that this war is a war of good guys versus bad guys. This is how the western media wants — needs — to present this conflict, and this is so because, as an arm of the state — and it is an arm of the hegemonic state, the function of the partisan press is to prepare a population for war. People need to be convinced their enemy is less than human before they are ready to kill them. It is easier to point a gun at another human being’s head and pull the trigger if you know the animal you are killing is nothing but a rapist and a beast. Such people deserve to die — surely. Still, this is only propaganda, and we see the effect it is having on the battlefield already. The New York Times confirmed as genuine a video of a group of Ukrainian soldiers shooting to death Russian prisoners of war whose throats they had cut.
Ordinary people can do these things only when they are certain of the inhumanity of their enemy, and this is precisely where the propaganda produced by the partisan media is needed. Otherwise respectable and trustworthy newspapers like The Guardian and The Times become instruments of war — very powerful instruments of war — when they mobilise their pages in an effort to transform ordinary young Russian soldiers into terrifying monsters who come only to steal and rape and rape and rape their way through an entirely innocent, poor, and defencless little Ukraine. These young men are not likely to be treated well when captured. After this, naturally, comes a Russian reprisal — and so the cycle goes on, fueled by the propaganda of the press, until the savagery on both sides turns what was a ‘conventional’ war into the very image of hell.
Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.
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