Event recap: The Russia-Ukraine War and Media

November 03, 2022

By Carmel Dowling

The Russian-Ukraine war is the most documented in human history. The role the media has played, and its manipulation to serve a variety of conflicting political ends is unprecedented. But how exactly has media shaped narratives and public opinion of the war and what does it mean for peace? Tasked with discussing this complex question, a multi-disciplinary panel of international experts met online for the second event in SFU Public Square’s series on the war in Ukraine.

The panel included:

  • Andreas Umland, Analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, and Associate Political Science Professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy
  • Vasyl Cherepanyn, Head of the Visual Culture Research Center
  • Kayla Hilstob, Ph.D. Candidate at SFU's School of Communication
  • Svitlana Matviyenko, Assistant Professor of Critical Media Analysis in SFU's School of Communication

It was moderated by Nicole Jackson, an Associate Professor of International Studies at SFU whose research focuses on Russia and post-Soviet Central Asia.

The session began with Andreas Umland and Vasyl Cherepanyn addressing antagonisms in Western media coverage. Umland focused on Europe’s central dilemma; while it is united in its sincere empathy for Ukraine, it does not want to be drawn into a direct war against Russia. However, he argued this dichotomy of empathy vs security, emotion vs ostensible rationality is unhelpful. The war is not only against Ukraine but world peace: if Russia succeeds, it will signal to countries around the world that they cannot rely on the international order for protection. The logic of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty will thus be turned on its head, with countries like Ukraine without nuclear arsenal seeking to remedy this or follow Russia in using the nuclear threat to gain territory. He argued the media must move away from well-intentioned empathy and towards a narrative where the national interest of all countries is to fight for a total Ukrainian victory.

Cherepanyn echoed Umland arguing the war is European and global in scale. He addressed the question: whose narrative matters? He argued Europe’s solidarity with Ukraine is the result of global societal pressure expressed through the media. However, Western media has also functioned as a deterrent by portraying Ukraine as a victim, while simultaneously framing Western experts as solely capable of providing the big picture framework. This mistake has diffused the political impetus of the Ukrainian resistance in the media, without whom the war would already be lost. He argues this in part because it serves the Western government’s foot-dragging but also shows how they are emotionally shielding their citizens from the true horrors of the war, which is ultimately prolonging the conflict.

Kayla Hilstob focused specifically on perspectives in the Canadian media in connection to Putin’s weaponization of gas supplies, which is leading Europe to turn towards Canada to satisfy its Fossil Fuels needs. She contextualizes this within the flawed Canadian “ethical oil” argument coined by the right-wing extremist Ezra Levant, which misleadingly promotes Canadian oil as the ethical alternative to buying from authoritarian suppliers across the world. Although this myth does not correspond to the economic realities of the oil and gas trade, it has seen a revival in the Russian-Ukraine war. Her research with the Digital Democracy Project found that 72% of Canadians support exporting gas to the EU, with 42% believing its importance outweighs its risk to climate change and 48% agreeing that not doing so will aid Putin’s cause. This poses a direct threat to Indigenous struggles and environmental activism. She argued that given that prior to the war two-thirds of the Canadian population was in favour of capping oil sands, the Fossil Fuel sector will not let the crisis go to waste. However, it will take years before the shift takes effect meaning Canadian gas does not offer an immediate solution to the war. She thus argues it is important that this narrative is proved wrong in the media.

Svitlana Matviyenko also argued that although the war is multifaceted, it is overarchingly a capitalist fossil fuel war with two main vectors. Firstly, an inter-imperial war, a deterrence that aims to shake but not break relations of power, thus preserving the capitalist regimes that have colonial and imperial legacies. Secondly, it’s an imperial war of terror aimed at the Russian restoration of imperial power.

Matviyenko also brought up the production of terror; how the effects of it are produced on the ground and voiced by the media. Within this, she explained that she is less interested in how disinformation works, and more in how the lies have become so absurd. She expanded on this translation of disinformation into terror in the context of Russia’s genocidal intent and how the Russian media’s denial of genocide following the uncovering of civilian graves was a strategic act of subject erasure, a humiliation to the Ukrainian people. Similarly, a Russian TV reporter's call for Ukrainian children to be drowned and burned shows how Russia uses terror to dehumanize the Ukrainian people.

In the open discussion, Nicole Jackson asked who is winning the media war? The panellists agreed that the facts on the ground and the overwhelming images of destruction mean no narrative can justify what Russia is doing. Matviyenko warned of narratives that try to make sense of often illogical and random situations, which gives rise to conspiracy theories. She also spoke to how the Western fetishization of leaders in their extensive coverage of the Zelensky hero narrative undermines that of the Ukrainian people who remain the most powerful force in the War. Cherepanyn added that Ukraine’s revolutionary spirit has become somewhat trapped in the optics of war. On a question relating to the role of the Russian diaspora, Matviyenko argued the lack of protests illustrates the suppression of the Russian population around the world.

The diverse scope of the debate illustrates the varied ways different media channels and perspectives have shaped narratives and public opinion on this complex war. Cherepanyn reflected on his dark vision of the future: a protracted war that has no obvious end in sight. However, what is clear from the discussion is that as the war drags on, the media must keep narrating the power of Ukrainian people who go to sleep at night reciting that “tomorrow is one day closer to victory” (Serhiy Zhadan).

This event was co-sponsored by SFU Public Square and SFU's School for International Studies