Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Mr. Putin and the News Cycle

The gaze of the Western media is brief, but intense. When the latest international crisis erupts, it is subjected to detailed scrutiny - for a while. Then another big story breaks, in another far-off location, and the searchlight of media news cycle attention sweeps off to that place. Meanwhile, former trouble spots recede into the shadows.

This is difficult to appreciate when you're actually located in one of these trouble spots, like Ukraine, and the local news is filled with the news of the crisis all the time. Only when you leave the country does the short attention span of the Western media become starkly apparent. Abroad, you strain to hear the latest news from the east, and every international news broadcast is a disappointment.

This is understandable, as there are lots of trouble spots in the world, and lots of disasters, crises and catastrophes for the roving eye of the media to focus on - we can't expect the world to have a unique concern for the particular problems that concern us the most.

But this is something Russian President Vladimir Putin also seems to understand well. If the spotlight of international media attention falls on his doings in Ukraine, he freezes like a fox caught in headlights. Once the light moves on, he slinks off again in the darkness to continue to pursue his objectives.

We saw this after the annexation of Crimea in March: once the echoes of the outcry against that blatant abrogation of the international order had died away, Putin in April started to work on the destabilization of eastern and southern Ukraine. When the drama of the Ukrainian presidential elections in May put Ukraine back in the spotlight of international media attention, Mr. Putin appeared to draw back from the brink of invasion with his "peace keepers" - who are, by all accounts available on Russian Facebook clone Vkontakte, hell-bent on restoring "order" to eastern Ukraine.

But by June the news cycle had moved on, Ukraine faded from view, and Putin began to implement the next stage of his "Novorossiya" project - to neutralize the Ukrainian forces' airpower advantage by supplying his proxy army in the east with sophisticated means to bring down Ukrainian warplanes - namely the BUK-M "Gadfly" surface-to-air missile system. He also pushed fresh troops and armor into the combat zone to counter the Ukrainian army's successes on the ground.

But a tragic consequence of Putin's pernicious plans - the downing by the insurgents, apparently in error, of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 - again brought the keen attention of the international media down on eastern Ukraine in mid to late July, and Putin was again forced to freeze, and adopt the aspect of the reasonable man of peace. Kremlin rhetoric was softened - Kyiv's government was no longer referred to as "the junta" and calls for a ceasefire came every day from Moscow.

But now it is August, Ukraine has slipped down the order on the news bulletins, and Putin is again moving forward with his schemes. His troops are being reinforced on the eastern border, trainloads of armor have been sent into Belarus to menace Ukraine's northern frontier. There are reports that Russian fighting machines bearing Russia's "MC" peacekeepers symbol are gathering near Ukraine's border. Putin's proxy army in eastern Ukraine is all but beaten, its two main strongholds, Donetsk and Luhansk, are cut off from each other and surrounded, and if no help comes from Russia, they will be forced to surrender. Yet Ukraine's military success ironically brings fresh danger to the country, and Putin appears to be positioning himself for his next move - open military intervention.

As Ukraine again drops out of the international news cycle, what will September bring? The Western media excel at bringing us news of events after the fact. When Ukraine again hits the headlines, I'm very much afraid it will be because Russian troops are streaming across the border to occupy Luhansk and Donetsk.

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