How to Craft a Narrative

There’s no Soviet Union anymore, but the principle is the same (from, via

If you’ve ever wondered how to go about creating a narrative to drive public perception about a story, I’m here to help. I’d like to start, if I may, with a couple of examples.

Back in January, NATO began major troop movements as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, a mission begun in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which in itself was a response–an overly aggressive and disruptive response–to a Western-supported overthrow of the elected president of Ukraine. Somewhere on the order of 4000 NATO troops have been deployed to Poland and the three Baltic states–each of which borders some part of Russia (Kaliningrad counts, dammit). Here’s how the deputy commander of US European Command, Lt. General Timothy Ray, described this deployment when it began:

Lt Gen Tim Ray, deputy commander of US European Command, said: “Let me be very clear, this is one part of our efforts to deter Russian aggression, ensure territorial integrity of our allies and maintain a Europe that is whole, free, prosperous and at peace.”

Putting thousands of NATO troops on Russia’s border is part of our efforts to deter Russian aggression. Or, if you prefer, it’s a “demonstration [of] solidarity,” according to the US Embassy in Poland:

NATO’s eFP is a clear demonstration solidarity and determination to defend Allied territory against possible aggression.  The deployment is defensive, proportionate, and conforms to the Article V commitment of the treaty to prevent conflict, protect our Allies, and preserve peace throughout the region.

Just this week, the US deployed a couple of F-35s to the Baltic nation of Estonia, again right on Russia’s border. Why? Two words–commitment and unity:

Two of the U.S. Air Force’s newest and most advanced jets landed in the Baltic state of Estonia for the first time on Tuesday, a symbolic gesture meant to reinforce the United States’ commitment to the defence of NATO allies that border Russia.

The visit of the F-35 stealth fighters, which flew from Britain and spent several hours in Estonia, is part of broader U.S. jet pilot training across Europe as the NATO alliance seeks to deter Moscow from any possible incursion in the Baltics.

Russia denies having any such intention.

“This is a very clear message,” Estonia’s Defence Minister Margus Tsahkna told Reuters. “The United States is taking the show of unity very seriously,” he said of the jets that are designed to avoid detection by conventional radar.

All of this is fine, really. Poland and the Baltic states all joined NATO voluntarily and have welcomed these deployments. Russia might have some concerns about a potentially hostile military force primarily made of up US, Canadian, and Western European soldiers being deployed in countries it borders, but we know those concerns are unfounded and irrelevant–this NATO deployment is defensive in nature, and anyway it’s none of Russia’s business how NATO and its member states work out troop deployments, even when they’re happening in Russia’s near abroad.

Now, here’s a story I just came across this morning

Estonia’s defense minister said on Thursday that Russia may use large-scale military exercises to move thousands of troops permanently into Belarus later this year in a warning to NATO.

Russia and Belarus aim to hold joint war games in September that some North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies believe could number more than 100,000 troops and involve nuclear weapons training, the biggest such exercise since 2013.

Defence Minister Margus Tsahkna said Estonia and other NATO governments had intelligence suggesting Moscow may leave Russian soldiers in Belarus once the so-called Zapad 2017 exercises are over, also pointing to public data of Russian railway traffic to Belarus.

Tsahkna cited plans to send 4,000 railway carriages to Belarus to transport Russian troops and gear there, possibly to set up a military outpost in its closest ally.

“For Russian troops going to Belarus, it is a one-way ticket,” Tsahkna told Reuters in an interview in Malta.

“This is not my personal opinion, we are analyzing very deeply how Russia is preparing for the Zapad exercises,” he said before a meeting of EU defense ministers.

Oh my God, large-scale military exercises and Russian troops stationed permanently in Belarus! As a warning to NATO! This is terrifying! What? There’s more from last week?

American and Canadian fighter planes scrambled to intercept two Russian TU-95 “Bear” bombers Thursday night, marking the fourth consecutive night of Russian probes near the Alaskan coast, U.S. defense officials said Friday.

At no point did the Russian aircraft cross into American or Canadian airspace, but the incursions into the Air Identification Zones — which extend beyond the territorial waters of the U.S. and Canada — represent a sharp increase in activity in the area, which has seen no Russian activity at all since 2015. The flights may also herald the return of Moscow’s 60-year-old nuclear capable bomber to the international stage, after the entire fleet was grounded in 2015 after a rash of accidents.

Holy shit, Russian aircraft are “probing” near American airspace! They’re “buzzing” Alaska (that’s the headline of the piece)! What the fuck is Moscow playing at?

Well, look, I’m no expert, but it doesn’t seem like Russia is doing anything that the US and NATO aren’t doing. Actually they’re not even doing that, yet, since that alarming story about Russia and Belarus is pretty much purely speculative. But if Moscow does leave troops in Belarus, presumably it will be with Minsk’s blessing. Now we can argue the legitimacy of Aleksander Lukashenko’s dictatorial government vis-a-vis the governments of Poland and the Baltic states, but apart from that what’s the difference between this and NATO stationing forces in those places? Is there one? If we can all agree that Operation Atlantic Resolve isn’t intended to be a threat to Russia, why must we assume that a permanent Russian deployment in Belarus would be a threat to NATO?

Similarly, what are those Russian planes doing in Alaska that America’s F-35s (with spy planes tagging along) aren’t doing in Estonia? If Russia is “probing” “near” American airspace (which doesn’t even make much sense grammatically) in the one instance, then isn’t America doing the same thing to Russia in the other?

Back in 2012, Glenn Greenwald identified this same pattern in how the US media reports on Iran:

The propaganda at play here is intense indeed. For several years, the U.S. and Israel threaten on an almost daily basis to aggressively attack a country, all while engaging in multiple acts of war against them, and then when their leaders suggest they may not acquiesce to such an attack with passivity and gratitude, those vows of defensive retaliation are used to depict them as the threat-issuing aggressors. And the American media, as always, eagerly implants the propaganda. Thus, if such a war breaks out, NBC News‘ Mik announces, “the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet would be the world’s first line of defense,” though those crazed Persian leaders have threatened to use “Iran’s massive stockpile of ballistic missiles” and to “launch those missiles at U.S. targets.”

And, of course, The Onion got this all the way back in 2003.

In this case, nobody is making any threats about attacking Russia, but they are stationing a lot of military assets on Russia’s borders. Russia has responded by stationing military assets, well, on their own borders, but also on a few of NATO’s borders, and may be about to put assets in Belarus. Are Russia’s intentions aggressive? Yes, Russia annexed Crimea, which was aggressive and deeply troubling, but there’s a pretty big difference between annexing a piece of a non-NATO state and invading a NATO member. Is there any evidence suggesting that Russia is ready to take the latter step? Any evidence to suggest that it’s acting proactively against NATO and not reactively to moves that NATO is making? Yet the US government and our media regularly describe NATO actions in terms of defense, commitment, and solidarity, while describing similar Russian actions in terms of warnings, threats, and aggression. That’s how you craft a narrative.

2 thoughts on “How to Craft a Narrative

  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this and have also thought the narrative regarding Russian air operations as a bit breathless.

    But as you say in the last paragraph, tens of thousands of Russian troops in Belarus is not equivalent to 4,000 American troops spread throughout four countries. I think Estonia’s defense minister worry about adequate defenses is warranted. After all, as NATO members the Baltics were never encouraged to defend territory, but to specialize in a way that assists larger NATO allies in foreign deployments.

    You’re right that annexing Crimea is not the same as invading a NATO member, but I think Estonia and the rest of the Baltics with their sizable Russian-speaking population is rightly worried that Russia has the capability to inspire a Donetsk-style breakaway with the assistance of a plausibly deniable Russian military apparatus nearby.

    One can and perhaps should be worried about something that may never happen—that’s the nature of security.

    1. There’s no indication that they’re going to leave tens of thousands of troops in Belarus. They’re bringing in tens of thousands of troops for an exercise–which, again, the US and NATO conduct in provocative places all the time–but they’re not all going to stay behind.

      I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with Estonia being concerned, but there is absolutely a double-standard as to how these things get reported in the Western media.

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