As the war in Ukraine was about to drag into its second weekend, rightly dominating news coverage, I found myself craving perspective about that coverage from an expert on Russia and Ukraine. For that I turned to Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born British journalist, senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and author of two books about Russian disinformation and propaganda. Pomerantsev was born in Kyiv, spent years living in Moscow, and has friends and family in both countries. He’s been getting a lot of his information from contacts on the ground, as well as from Twitter and Telegram channels, but he’s also been following mainstream media, particularly CNN. “I like Clarissa Ward,” he said. As the bombing intensified in some of Ukraine’s largest cities on Thursday, with civilians both in Ukraine and Russia fleeing for the borders and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy declaring in a televised press conference that “the end of the world has arrived,” I asked Pomerantsev to assess how we’ve been presenting and processing the news in the U.S. Our conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.
Vanity Fair: Give me your bird’s-eye view of how the U.S. media has been doing. Overall, has the coverage been good? Bad?
Peter Pomerantsev: At the start there was a lot of apocalyptic framing, countdown framing, conveying a sense that this would be quick, which didn’t reflect reality. I had a lot of Ukrainians calling me and saying, What the hell is this? That was the main complaint. But I think that’s gotten better.
Zelenskyy has become this towering figure in the American media, taking on a hero-heartthrob image. You also see people delighting in these clips of Ukrainian grandmas making Molotov cocktails, or civilians flipping off Russian soldiers. I wonder if you think we’ve leaned a little too heavily in that direction? I’ve seen some criticism where people are reminding us, look, there’s nothing fun and happy about any of this, and things are probably going to get a lot worse.
The one problematic thing is that nobody has really made sense of what Putin’s up to. I think we’re sort of framing this as a plucky country slaying a dictatorship. But Putin is this mad stalker trying to get revenge. It’s all about undermining 1989 and what he feels was an unfair defeat of the Soviet Union. He hates Ukraine because they chose a different path, and that’s a challenge to the kleptocratic model he’s set up. But his aim is America. Listen to what the Russian propaganda is saying. It’s all about you guys. And I do wonder if this framing of plucky little guy versus the Goliath misses the fact that he’s gunning for you, he’s coming for you. He’s very clearly saying, over and over again, that he thinks America controls Europe, that it rules Europe secretly like a puppet master, and that America has been conducting nonstop war against Russia. Part of it is for propaganda purposes, but part of it clearly reflects his worldview and the worldview of those around him. Clearly, what’s happening now is the battle between a dictatorship and a country fighting for its future. But we’re kind of missing out on the big picture. It still seems like a drama from a faraway place, when actually, the drama is about us. [Continue reading…]