The crisis in Ukraine is becoming what I have always thought of as “a powder keg story.” This has long been my private shorthand for a calamitous event, usually a war or a revolution, which governments and news outlets bill as imminent and probably inevitable, while the reporters on the ground discover that nothing much is actually happening.
The powder keg analogy is so useful because a journalist can write about the explosive ingredients in a situation without saying if they are going to detonate tomorrow, in a decade, or perhaps never.
No deception on the part of the reporter is involved, though news consumers back home may miss the point that they are reading, viewing or listening to dramatic things that could happen, but have not yet done so and may not, in point of fact, ever occur.
I first coined the phrase “powder keg story” when I was repeatedly reporting about the oil city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq. Divided between Kurds and Arabs and claimed by both, it was the oil capital of northern Iraq and well worth fighting for. It did indeed change hands four times between 1991 and 2017, but there was surprising little violence by Iraqi standards. Nevertheless, the ingredients for a savage sectarian/ethnic conflict were certainly present, so bringing in the powder keg comparison covered one for all eventualities, without writing an untrue or exaggerated word.
The Ukraine crisis is turning into a prime example of this kind of story where disastrous things are predicted, but nothing much is happening on the ground. The confrontation so far remains largely a propaganda war. The American and British governments say that Russia is on the verge of launching an invasion. Russian and Ukrainian leaders and experts both deny this. The latter say that the 127,000 Russian soldiers, stationed close to the Ukrainian border, would need to be two or three times more numerous to launch a serious attack on a country larger than France. Even the soldiers present are not deployed in strike forces nor are they supplied with sufficient ammunition, fuel, field hospitals and other types of essential equipment.
Pressures difficult to resist exert themselves on reporters during times of war, or expectations of war. Generally the likelihood of battle is exaggerated because a hot war is exciting and a cold war is boring. News editors expect action and not a message from their man or woman in the frontline saying “nothing to see here.” And after all, nobody can prove that war is not just over the horizon.
War whoops usually drown out more thoughtful stuff. The BBC last week broadcast an interview with a Ukrainian frontline commander about what would happen if a Russian blitzkrieg struck at Kyiv down the road from nearby Belarus. A sense of menace was enhanced by noting that advancing Russian forces would pass through the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
This ominous reportage was balanced by an interview with a Ukrainian security expert in Kyiv who believed that Russia was unlikely to attack, but wanted to enhance its political leverage by threatening to do so. But this sort of prosaic realism does not easily compete with the impression made by pictures of Russian tanks churning up the snow.
War reporting is easy to do, but very difficult to do well. The same is true of potential wars even when, as in the case of Ukraine, the likelihood of them happening may be remote.
The easy bit is describing dramatic combat with bombs and shells and winners and losers. The difficult bit is that a real war is a hugely complex business in which military action is but one component. The melodrama of a night sky illuminated by the flash of exploding missiles and anti-aircraft fire obscures everything else. The Afghan war of 2001 supposedly ended with the decisive defeat of the Taliban, but I followed their retreating fighters south from Kabul to Kandahar and it was clear that they were going home and could fight again when they wanted to – as indeed they did.
A further difficulty in reporting wars, potential and actual, is that government propaganda is turned on at full volume. There is nothing new about this: the monuments of Egyptian Pharaohs 4,000 years ago are covered with hieroglyphs describing imaginary or exaggerated victories and saying rude and untrue things about their enemies.
Modern day journalists are often aware that they are being sold some sort of pup by government officials, but they cannot quite prove the opposite. They are also conscious that they will be charged with lacking patriotism if they question the official version of events or ask for evidence of some dubious claim.
A classic example of this occurred on Thursday when the US State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the Russians were considering, as a justification for invading Ukraine, the production of “a video with graphic scenes of false explosions – depicting corpses, crisis actors pretending to be mourners, and images of destroyed locations or military equipment – entirely fabricated by Russian intelligence.”
If ever there was a government claim failing the smell test it was this one, and reporters at the State Department briefing gamely battered Price with demands for evidence that the story was true. Instead, he fell back on claiming that the information came from an intelligence source that could not be revealed. Moreover, he told the reporters that “if you doubt the credibility of the US government, of the British government, of other governments and want to, you know, find solace in information that the Russians are putting out, that is for you to do.”
The opportunity to pillory critics as unpatriotic is one of the chief reasons why governments like to cultivate war hysteria. This may also explain why Washington and London have been making wild claims and talking up the prospects of a new European war. President Biden desperately needs to rebound from the damaging impression made on US voters by America’s humiliating defeat by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The same need for a patriotic boost is even more desperately needed by Boris Johnson as he battles to survive the incoming tide of scandals and resignations.
“Biden needs to look tough and Britain needs to look relevant,” said a retired diplomat to me this week, yet there is something phoney about the American and British performance. There was Boris Johnson in Kyiv this week promising retaliation against President Vladimir Putin the moment “the first Russian toecap” enters Ukraine, but, given that Russian soldiers out of uniform have been present in the Russian separatist enclaves in the Donbas for years, Boris the Brave could spring into action immediately if he wanted to.
Yet, for all their hot words, nobody sounds as if they really intend to fight so Ukraine could remain a powder keg story for decades to come.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).