The Ukraine flyer hoax was a perfect mix of American propaganda tropes

It happened so quickly in the mainstream American imagination. Russia went from being merely part of the rogues’ gallery of American adversaries to an opaque, Oriental Reich bent on global conquest. Russia is on its way to being another North Korea—a country about which people will believe anything, as long as it’s bad. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, people are seriously discussing whether or not Russia is about to conquer Scandinavia. Russia didn’t even invade all of Ukraine, but the US Pacific Northwest better watch out.

The Russian Empire tried to dominate North America before, it will do it again!  Flag of the Russian-American Company, 1806  Wikimedia Commons

The Russian Empire tried to dominate North America before, it will do it again! Flag of the Russian-American Company, 1806 Wikimedia Commons

Despite liberal fetishism of the idea that “knowledge is power,” information doesn’t confer power or spread based on its quality alone. Stories about the depravity of America’s enemies are amplified because of how they serve the interests of the powerful. A bellicose Russia is an ideal vector for stories that make America look good. It gives the US a chance to perform concern for high-minded ideals. For additional traction, these narratives are reduced to the simplest moral binary. When these elements are married, it guarantees that you’ll be hearing that story–whether it’s true or not. All of these elements came together this week in a widely circulated hoax, concerning anti-Semitic flyers being handed out by Russian-allied separatists in Donetsk. The hoax encapsulates American propaganda’s favored tropes: whitewashing the actions of America and its allies and ascribing Nazi-like behavior to America’s enemies.

The story was that pro-Russian elements had disseminated flyers in the separatist-friendly Ukrainian region of Donetsk, ordering local Jews to “register.” The letter, with its threatening, anti-Semitic nature containing overtones of the Holocaust, caused “an international scandal.” The American mainstream media, from Drudge Report to ThinkProgress, took it up and amplified the story. The letter made its way to Secretary of State John Kerry, who called it “grotesque.”

It certainly would have been grotesque, if it had been true. However, the letter was a hoax, fabricated for as-yet-unknown ends. The content of the letter itself should’ve raised questions. A portion within accused local Jews of collaboration with the “Bandera Junta.” A group aligning themselves with Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian figure who collaborated with the Nazis, would be an unlikely ally for Donetsk’s Jews. The American media loses its already anemic critical faculties to make America’s enemies look identical to the Third Reich. Beyond the American media’s receptiveness to this message, this narrative is very friendly to America’s interests in the Ukraine. At this point, aligning the pro-Russian separatists of Ukraine with right-wing anti-Semites accomplishes a whitewash of America’s support of Ukraine’s neo-Nazis.

There’s some dispute about how much of the Ukrainian opposition is comprised of fascist elements. Even the most state-friendly media establishments concede that it is “small but significant.” The EuroMaidan protest that ultimately ousted Moscow-friendly Victor Yanukovych were marred by right-wing and openly fascist elements. Oleg Tyahnybok, the leader of ultra-nationalist party Svoboda, met numerous times with John McCain and called for the liberation of Ukraine from “Muscovite-Jewish tyranny.” When armed EuroMaidan protestors seized Kyiv’s city hall, Confederate flags and neo-Nazi symbols went up. America’s involvement goes deeper than meetings with John McCain, though. This “significant” far-right element is part of the opposition that State Department spokescreep Victoria Nuland boasted had received “more than $5 billion” in US aid.

It should be said that most protestors in Ukraine who came out against Yanukovych simply want decent lives in a less-corrupt country. There are also probably huge numbers of anti-Semites in the pro-Russian camp—Eastern Europe has plenty of anti-Semites. However, the US and the EU aren’t interested in helping democracy, or combating anti-Semitism. Helping Ukraine “into Europe,” to borrow Nuland’s words, is part of a 20+ year project to bring as much of the former Soviet bloc into the Washington consensus as possible. Inevitably, one of the IMF’s first orders of business following Yanukovych’s ouster was mandating crippling austerity measures.


Beware of Russian aggression: NATO accession since the fall of the USSR. h/t Phil Greaves Twitter

The Donetsk hoax comes at a fortuitous time for Washington. Economic deprivation and austerity measures have led to a resurgent far-right in Europe. If Ukraine’s fascist problem is just beginning, this is a perfect opportunity for a much-needed whitewash. One well-amplified hoax later, America and the EU’s backing of neo-Nazis suddenly becomes Russia’s crime. It also fits in with the most popular American propaganda trope of all: the idea that America’s enemies are basically the Nazis.

Less than a decade after World War II, as part of a propaganda war against Iran, both The New York Times and the Washington Post were comparing Mohammed Mossadegh to Hitler. A couple years later, Gamal abdel-Nasser of Egypt earned Hitler comparisons for the temerity of nationalizing the Aswan Dam, the construction of which claimed the lives of 20,000 Egyptians. Comparing enemies of Western profiteering to Hitler has gotten plenty of use since then. The standard template is that every situation is Munich, 1938: opposing imperialism is always Chamberlain’s appeasement, the US’s enemies du jour are the Third Reich reincarnated, the consequences of not being bellicose enough is always an imminent second Holocaust.

With this ubiquitous template, it’s easy to get people to believe America’s adversaries are planning the Holocaust. From the beginning, the Donetsk hoax sounded most like a strange story from 2006. In 2006, Canada’s National Post ran a story titled “Iran eyes badges for Jews.” The Post claimed that Iran was going to force its Jewish population to wear stars in order to identify them. The fact that Iran was allegedly considering something ripped verbatim from Nazi Germany’s Nüremberg Laws should’ve been a sign that the story was a lie. Before the author was identified as a member of a neocon PR mill, Stephen Harper had condemned Iran, and AIPAC was using the story as part of a push for a US attack on Iran.

The 2006 Iranian sumptuary law controversy could exist only because of this concerted push for war with Iran. By 2006, the Bush administration was engaging in a full-bore effort to demonize the Islamic Republic in preparation for a possible attack. A March 2006 National Security Strategy document read like a declaration of war against Iran. A month later, Seymour Hersh reported that the Bush administration was considering a nuclear first-strike. What, short of Iran restarting the Holocaust, could justify this sort of unprovoked aggression? When the United States begins a demonization campaign, all sorts of absurdly evil scenarios suddenly become plausible, even likely.

Compare invented discrimination by America’s enemies to some real discrimination practiced by its friends. There were several groups sent en masse to death camps during the Holocaust. Members of one of those groups actually are listed in secret state registries, used by the police for nefarious purposes. In September, 2013, it was discovered that the Swedish police were keeping an illegal list of over 4,000 Swedish Roma. The Roma, who number several million throughout Europe, suffer from some of the worst, most systemic racism on Earth. Even the New York Times openly speculates about whether the Roma are subhuman in “News Analysis” pieces with titles like “Are the Roma Primitive, Or Just Poor?” (10/19/2013). It’s common police practice in the EU to break up Roma families and target them for harassment—which is why the Swedish police decided to make their jobs easier and secretly list members of the local Roma community.


After speculating about subhuman status and a cultural proclivity for criminality, Bilefsky concluded they are poor, though some are rich criminals.

Obviously, the purpose of pointing out Europe’s systemic anti-Zigantism (anti-Roma racism) isn’t to imply that no one can condemn anti-Semitism, or that anti-Semitism doesn’t remain a problem. The point is that certain forms of discrimination are amplified by design and others aren’t. In 2005, Bulgaria declared “a decade of Roma inclusion,” an initiative intended to better integrate the Roma into society. It was a failure, because more powerful EU countries like the UK, Germany, France, Italy, and Ireland decided it wasn’t a priority. The continuing legacy of European anti-Zigantism is an indictment of the European Union. Since Brussels is firmly within the Washington consensus and Moscow firmly outside, we learn about only about Russian discrimination. That’s why during the Sochi Olympics, Americans heard all about the 19th Century genocide and diaspora of the Circassian people, but still only know the Roma by the widely used slur “gypsies.”

Among the left, there is a utopian belief in the power of information—that information is its own good. One of the lessons from the state-friendly nature of the Snowden saga is that information doesn’t do anything on its own. Information itself won’t effect change, and illuminating information doesn’t get disseminated solely based on its own merits. Information has to be married to political will to do anything, and it’s infinitely more likely to get around if it helps those in power.

The Donetsk hoax got around like it did because it’s helpful to those advancing Washington’s interests. The EU’s brutal, systemic anti-Roma discrimination goes largely unreported because Europe is a faithful ally of the US. In contrast, all of Russia’s crimes—real and fabricated—get broadcast and shared by the American public. This hoax got around because it has easy-to-follow tropes that comport with American exceptionalist myths, and that’s useful to the powerful.