Rutgers historian Jochen Hellbeck says the war in Ukraine is an information war

Historians in the News
tags: Russia, Ukraine



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Russia’s relations with the West in general, and the United States in particular, are at their lowest point since the Cold War following a year of civil unrest and open battle in Ukraine. Earlier this year, pro-western protestors in Kiev forced President Viktor Yanukovych to resign and flee the country. In eastern Ukraine, protestors and pro-Russian paramilitary groups have rebelled against the Kiev government, and Russia has annexed the Crimean Peninsula, part of Russia from the time of Catherine the Great until the Soviet government transferred it to Ukraine in 1954. Western governments have imposed trade sanctions on Russia, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has doubled down on his support – material and rhetorical – for pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine.

Rutgers Today asked Jochen Hellbeck, professor of history in the School of Arts and Sciences, to put the conflict in perspective. Hellbeck, a specialist in Russian history, did field work in Ukraine earlier this year. His new book, Stalingrad: The City that Defeated the Third Reich (Public Affairs, 2015) will be published in April 2015.

What is it that Westerners in general and Americans in particular, don’t know about the dispute between Russia and Ukraine that we should know?

That this is in large measure an information war – fought by all sides. The Ukrainian government, Russian state television, and much of Western media are complicit, knowingly or not, in the presentation of partial truths and untruths. In the West, our favorite story is that of small and virtuous Ukraine fighting monstrous Russia. The reality is more complex, and it does not conform to a morality play. We don’t hear about the Ukrainian army’s recent shelling of a school in Donetsk, about Eastern Ukrainians dying every day, because this information has no place in the scheme of good fighting evil that we seem to be so vested in. We don't hear stories that show how ethnic nationalism tears up a multi-ethnic region, cutting through individual families, with aunts and nephews, husbands and wives no longer on speaking terms. This conflict runs deeper than many popular accounts make it seem, and it will take a huge joint effort to contain it.

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