Ukraine's problems haven't been caused by the West. (Photo: Getty)
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We can only stand up to Russian propaganda by being true to ourselves

Russian attempts to blame the West or Ukrainian fascists for the crisis in Ukraine are nonsense, but if we don't stay true to our values, we'll hand the Kremlin another PR victory.

Information warfare is the hot topic of the moment one year on from Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Caught off guard by the scale and audacity of Moscow’s propaganda offensive, Western governments and think tanks are straining to catch up with seminars and conferences devoted to analysing Russia’s mastery of the information landscape. The governments of the UK, Denmark, Lithuania and Estonia have tabled joint proposals for an EU response. The Ukrainian government is launching a TV news channel and mobilising an Internet army in a conscious effort to emulate Russian tactics. Matching Russia, spin for spin, seems to be the desired goal.

Some of this may be worthwhile, but much of it will be ineffective or even counterproductive unless greater effort is made to understand why Russian propaganda works. The starting point has to be an honest acknowledgement that the Kremlin’s most effective lies are built on foundations of truth. They play on the insecurities of Western societies that have become disoriented by economic crisis and the divisive legacy of the War on Terror. Messages are cleverly targeted at those who are already questioning their values and place in the world. Above all, Putin’s propagandists are adept at exploiting our mistakes and turning them against us.

Russia’s depiction of the revolt that ousted Viktor Yanukovych from power as a Western-sponsored fascist coup may be absurd, but it’s a fiction we helped to create. An intercepted phone call between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and her Ambassador in Kiev, in which they mused imperiously on who should run the country as the regime crumbled, made it seem like Washington was pulling the strings. The decision to include the Russophobic and anti-Semitic Svoboda party in the post-Yanukovych government allowed Putin to warn Crimeans that the fascists were coming. America didn’t overthrow Yanukovych, the people of Ukraine did. The far right has very little support in Ukraine; Svoboda failed to get 5% in last autumn’s parliamentary elections. Yet these mistakes enabled Russia’s information warriors to make their narrative stick.

A favoured theme of Russian propaganda is the status of ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking minorities in the ex-Soviet states. The Russian government routinely refers to the seventeen million or so ‘compatriots’ living in neighbouring countries as persecuted minorities in need of protection. Although the claim is flimsy, Ukrainian lawmakers helped to give it substance in the days following the fall of Yanukovych by voting to repeal legislation that granted the Russian language official status in certain regions. The decision was vetoed by the acting President, but the damage had already been done. The language issue still crops up in conversation with those who think that Putin’s claim to be acting in defence of human rights has some basis in fact.

The Baltic States have long been a focus of criticism from Moscow and last autumn a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official threatened them with “unfortunate consequences” over their treatment of ethnic Russian minorities. Some fear that Putin is preparing the ground for his next military adventure. The reality is that Russians living in the Baltic are far less likely to be victims of discrimination than, say, people from the Caucasus living in Moscow. Yet tough language requirements do mean that many Russians in Latvia and Estonia are unable to get citizenship and experience reduced educational and employment opportunities. More could and should be done to integrate them into society.

Given the fear of Russian intervention and the suspicion that ethnic Russians might be used as a ‘fifth column’, examples of overt discrimination and political persecution are quite rare. A particularly glaring exception concerns the treatment of Viktor Uspaskich, the Russian-born founder of the Lithuanian Labour Party, prosecuted for fraudulent accounting of his party’s finances. In a case that featured political pressure on the judiciary, the use of forged evidence and countless abuses of due process, Uspaskich was eventually sentenced to four years in prison in 2013. Only his immunity as an MEP now prevents his incarceration. Tomorrow, the European Parliament will vote on a request from the Lithuania authorities to revoke that immunity.

For once the suggestion that the judicial process has been politically manipulated doesn’t need to be inferred. A leaked US diplomatic cable records the boast of a senior Lithuanian official that he and his government “engineered the departure of Labor Party kingpin Viktor Uspaskich from Lithuania because of the latter's ties to the Russian SVR”. The SVR is Russia’s foreign espionage service, but no evidence linking Uspaskich to it has ever been produced, nor does a charge to that effect appear on any indictment. The only real connection appears to be Uspaskich’s Russian ethnicity.

Our best protection against Russian propaganda isn’t counter-propaganda; it’s the resolute defence of democratic standards. Compromising those standards plays into Putin’s hands by allowing him to blur the distinction between his methods and ours. This, in turn, weakens our capacity to resist by sowing doubt about what we are seeking to defend. A renewed attempt to restrict the Russian language in Ukraine would suggest to many people that this is not a fight between European values and authoritarianism, but between two different forms of nationalism. It’s a fight most Europeans would not wish to be part of. Weaponising the legal system to take out your political opponents is pure Putinism. If we weaken the rule of law to combat Russia, we have already lost.

We can’t defeat the cynicism of the Kremlin’s information war unless we remain true to ourselves. The European Parliament would be doing itself, Lithuania and the West in general a favour if it votes this week to uphold Victor Uspaskich’s immunity instead of handing Vladimir Putin yet another stick with which to beat us.

 

David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.

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So many teenage girls don’t want to identify as girls any more. And who can blame them?

Among internet-literate teenagers, gender has become the primary way to challenge the mores of older generations.

On the bus back from the cinema, a conversation drifted over from the back row. A mother questioning, curious, her speech accented; her teenage daughter, with perfect RP, fielding her inquiries with the exasperated patience that flourishes between the ages of 13 and 21.

“No, Mum, you’re a cis woman because you’re the gender you were born as.”

“OK. And what about Lily?”

Lily – or, perhaps, Daisy or Rose – was a school friend who was now using the pronoun “they”. The heavy overtone of the daughter’s forbearance was that these were matters her mother could not understand.

Among internet-literate teenagers, gender has become the primary way to challenge the mores of older generations. I know four journalists – London-based, middle class – whose children have announced that they do not consider themselves to be girls. It seems too many to be a coincidence. And if pained teenagers are now explaining gender fluidity to their mums on the 108 from Millennium Leisure Park West, you know the idea has truly gone mainstream.

We should welcome young people challenging gender, an arbitrary system that has acquired the status of immutable human nature. Name almost anything now associated with women – high heels, long hair, the colour pink – and you can find a time or place when it was considered masculine. And just as feminists once fought for “Ms” alongside “Miss” and “Mrs”, people should be allowed to take gender out of their honorific altogether and go by “Mx”. Getting used to “they” as a singular pronoun is harder but not impossible. Language evolves.

However, there is more to the current Gender Revolution than upending our assumptions about the “correct” names or pronouns or hobbies or appearance for men and women. In the past few years, the word “transsexual” has dropped out of favour – it is considered impolite to reference sex – in favour of “transgender”. But this obscures the idea that to cross definitively from one gender to another requires surgery and a lifetime of synthetic hormones. For trans men, it’s top surgery – breast removal – and, more rarely, a phalloplasty to make a penis, plus testosterone (“T”), which lowers the voice, hardens fat to muscle and unleashes any latent male-pattern baldness. For trans women, oestrogen (HRT, used off-label) can be supplemented with breast implants and a procedure to skin the penis and invert it, creating a neovagina and clitoris.

These surgeries are non-trivial – I have a friend undergoing the latter this summer and she will be housebound for two weeks afterwards, with a 12-week recovery period. Infection is always a risk. For her, it’s a life-saving intervention: she says she simply would not want to live in a male body.

But 80 per cent of gender-nonconforming children do not grow up to be transsexual; many emerge as happy gay men or lesbians content to live in their birth sex. A strange taboo has sprung up about mentioning this, as if the way that some people do not turn out to be trans invalidates the experiences of those who do. It should not.

But separating dissatisfaction with the social constraints of gender from body dysmorphia is vital. Because we have smudged together the categories of “transsexual” and “transgender”, is every youngster who questions their gender – and, frankly, every youngster should, because gender is restrictive bollocks – getting the message that they must bind their breasts or tuck their penis? I wince when I read oh-so-liberal parents explaining that they knew their toddler son was a girl when he wore pink and played with Barbies. Is there really anything so wrong with being a boy who wants to dress up as Elsa from Frozen? Or a girl who would rather be outside getting muddy than wear skirts and be “ladylike”? Toys and children’s clothes are becoming more gendered: when I was young, we played with Lego – not “Lego” and “Lego for Girls”. As we have shrunk the boxes, is it any wonder that more and more children want to escape from them?

In the year to March 2015, the Tavistock in London – the only specialist gender clinic in the country for under-16s – saw 697 children. This year, it saw 1,419. The largest surge has been among girls aged 14 and over and it is this group I feel most personal affinity for, because, if I were growing up today, I would be among them. A few years ago, I found a textbook from my junior school, with three sentences that floored me: “My name is Helen. I am nine years old. I am skinny.” And the truth was, I was skinny. I had a bowl haircut and wore culottes. Then puberty hit and I piled on a few stone in a year. Taut pink skin turned to lumpen fat and mottled flesh. And everyone had an opinion about it. I was trapped inside a body that didn’t feel like mine any more.

Many of my school friends felt the same way. Some tried to escape through vomiting or starving. Others were part of that charmed cohort who became lissom, beautiful, golden; their parents felt a different sort of ­worry and they were treated to sermons about getting into strange men’s cars.

I won my body back by defacing it; at least, that’s how my parents saw it. An earring, then two. And another. Then piercings that no one could see: nursing each one like a wound or a child. Salvation through pain: a metal bar through cartilage that couldn’t be slept on for a month. A tattoo that hurt like hell. Pink hair, ebbing to orange in a shower that looked like Carrie. And finally – finally – a body that felt like me.

I tell my story not to belittle anyone else’s, or to imply that they have chosen the wrong path. If you cannot live in your body, then change it – and the world must help you to do that. But if you feel crushed by society’s expectations, it might be that there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s something wrong with the world.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad