The expression comes from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. An excerpt here, “Truth will come to light….at the length truth will out.” Today on the 31st anniversary of the independence of Ukraine from the Soviet Union, we have approached six months since the start of the war in Ukraine earlier this year. Ukrainian forces are locked in battle with the Russians, defending their homeland from aggressors who have violated international protocols by shooting prisoners and forcing adoption of Russian language on captive regions. Global corporations have reacted with stunning agility, with 1,300 departing from Russia, leaving a sizeable hole in that economy. The Russians are engaged in a massive campaign of deception and disinformation declaring Ukrainians as Nazis and Russians as liberators. Claiming that this is an act of liberation is reminiscent of Hitler’s claims in World War II as he rolled into Austria and Czechoslovakia—it is the height of arrogance and farce.
But there are true believers who still carry the torch for Russia. Among them is my Harvard classmate, Prof. Jeffrey D. Sachs, who has a long history of working with the Russian Federation, starting with failed efforts at privatization in the 90s. He has posted an unbelievable editorial this week titled “The West’s False Narrative About Russia and China.” The essence of his argument is that the U.S. and other Western nations are attempting to manipulate public opinion by creating “an overwrought fear of China and Russia….At the core of this is the U.S. attempt to remain the world’s hegemonic power, by augmenting military alliances around the world or defeat China and Russia….There is only one country whose self-declared fantasy is to be the world’s dominant power: the U.S.”
This is only part of the Russian disinformation campaign. According to a report from the Brookings Institution, the Russian narrative has taken hold in Africa through social media outlets such as Facebook, TikTok and Twitter. In the first two weeks of the war, the most tweeted Russian narrative was the fake news about the European Union “instructing” Ukraine not to let African students escape the war zone. There is a rising use of “Whataboutism,” which alleges that the world is overly concerned about the Ukraine when more attention should be paid to African food shortages or conflicts in Somalia and the Tigray region of Ethiopia. The Russians are also waging a “successful propaganda war in Latin America,” according to German media giant DW. “Half-truths, rumors, and fake news, mixed in with slimming tips, sports and showbiz, all presented by journalists….for Russian state media broadcasters Russia Today and Sputnik, there is purpose behind the mixture—targeted misinformation.” Russia Today (RT) employs 200 people in Latin America in Venezuela, Cuba, and Argentina. RT also has a YouTube channel “Ah les Va” featuring Inna Afinogenova, their most famous on-air personality, who justifies Russia’s invasion with a breathless style claiming she is telling the audience “things they don’t want you to know.”
Western governments need to recognize that the fight for Ukraine is in part a battle for hearts and minds. We need to recall the words of Hannah Arendt who wrote, “Factuality itself depends for its very existence on the existence of the non-totalitarian world.” Or Prof. Timothy Snyder of Yale, who wrote in his brilliant book Bloodlands, “The Soviet Union was a Marxist state whose leaders sought to master history itself….the crimes of Stalin were justified by the need to create a modern state….that Stalin saw history having only one course, which he understood and legitimizes his policies in retrospect.” Here is a fact to remember; Stalin’s Russia intentionally starved Ukraine, requisitioning grain from peasants, with 3.3 million Ukrainians dying of starvation and hunger-related diseases in 1932-1933. As we enter the fall with rising prices and risk of recession, it is essential to remind ourselves that we are indeed in a competition with autocracies that may require each of us to sacrifice for the common good.
Richard Edelman is CEO.
An earlier version of this column included reference to a WSJ article that has been misinterpreted. This column has thus been updated.