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Nacho Montes de Oca: “The best way to disarm the Russian propaganda is to go back to the basic point, which are values”

Time to read: 6 min
Nacho Montes de Oca is an Argentinean writer and journalist, known for his books of essays dedicated to historical research and analysis of wars and other contemporary conflicts. Throughout his career he has worked as a journalistic producer and scriptwriter on more than fifty projects for the History Channel, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, Chilevisión, and Canal Encuentro, among others.


You are doing a great job covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine and other war conflicts, such as the war against Hamas, but you do it as a freelance journalist. Why?

There are two reasons, out of necessity and out of conviction. Out of necessity because the Argentinean market became smaller from 2005-2006 in terms of the number of journalists and also out of conviction, because of the political persecution for those of us who were not in favour of the government. The few jobs that were available were poorly paid and very unstable. So, in 2015, I started with a partner to try a new path: a journalism that is sustained by the support of its readers. At first it didn't work out, but today I have a salary equivalent to that of any of my colleagues and I am very satisfied with the work I am doing. Besides, I think this is the purest style of journalism because you have to be alert at every moment, when the news comes out and no matter what time of the day it is. I don't have a timetable, I have some routines, but it's journalism at the bottom of the barrel.

It is difficult to find accurate information about what is happening in a war. In the case of Ukraine, many Western media often give a triumphalist and even contradictory version of the war and, on the other hand, there is a huge amount of "Russian propaganda" coming from the most disparate places.

There is an issue here that has to do with modern journalism. When you report on this kind of conflict it is not like reporting on meteorology, but there are a lot of implications because of its impact in terms of death, destruction, ideology... So you have to deal with the news in a different way and confront the propaganda, both the propaganda you like and the propaganda you don't like. For example, in giving casualty figures you would like to give higher figures for one side than the other, but you can't accept either Ukrainian or Russian figures, so you have to manage to get open sources and get data, and here you can already confront information with propaganda. If there is one thing that the Russians are enormously effective at, which they are not technologically or militarily effective at, it is in the field of propaganda. You have to recognise that they are great propagandists and in confronting that propaganda, you find yourself in a trench against those who seek to justify barbarism and injustice, and in that sense you are part of this war.

After every high-profile Russian failure, there is a huge deployment of thousands of social media and media influencer accounts to divert attention away from that failure with any other news. So propaganda is part of the Russian war effort.

Absolutely. There are two levels of propaganda. One is contracted, such as the official media like RT and all those who receive money in exchange for this collaboration, such as TeleSur, and whose conscience is bought. But there is another part that is ideological and agrees with the invasion and its objectives, and with Putin's authoritarianism. This part does not have to be paid, they just have to be given some guiding ideas such as the secret laboratories at the beginning of the war, the NATO soldiers in camouflage, the sale of arms and the fact that Ukraine is the most corrupt country in the world, and so on. I find it very amusing to dismantle all these hoaxes. For example, when they said that the sinking of the Moskva was caused by fire and the photographs showed the impacts of the projectiles, or when they claim that Russia does not attack civilian targets and it can be demonstrated that most of the impacts are on homes, and that the reliability and precision of Russian missiles does not allow us to say that they are looking for military targets, but rather wider targets, such as cities. That is why the work we are doing on the other side to demonstrate the facts and refute Russian propaganda is so effective. Propaganda is contrary to the facts.

However, many people take for granted propaganda that, in some cases, is hardly credible.

Yes, I remember the attack on the famous NATO bunker in Kyiv. First it was 10 metres deep, then 60, 100 and finally 400 metres. Analysing the weapons used, their power and capacity, and the evidence, the crater and the type of explosion it would cause, the work of the propaganda is dismantled. But there is always a margin, which is confirmation bias; people believe what they want to believe and follow it as dogma, as a belief, and against that, there is little that can be done.

The propaganda insists that Russia is going to win and that the West should stop supporting Ukraine because it is a waste of time and money that only serves to get more Ukrainians killed. How to refute this argument?

It starts from a few principles that are not disputed, because dogma is not disputed. The first is the inevitability that Russia has always won, but forget the defeats in Afghanistan or the first Chechen war, i.e. it has not been like that. Another dogma is that militarily Russia is invincible, not because of technology or tactics that have been discredited, but because of numbers. So you have to look for some basic facts: What was Russia's objective? The objective was to take Ukraine, that's why they were heading towards the capital. The reality, the data, shows that Russia occupied 32% of the territory and Ukraine took back 54%; this does not mean that Russia is winning, quite the contrary. Russia started with a powerful army of T-90 tanks and today the number of tanks destroyed, along with other models, exceeds 2,500 vehicles, a little more than the initial force. If Russia started with 160,000 troops and today is employing 540,000, it has evidently replaced technology with numbers. If missile strikes were 500 per month, they are now half that. The way to combat these quasi-religious beliefs is data.

There is something about the heroic narrative that also serves us well. A construction of the story that has to do with the classical structure of the hero, because it presents Ukraine, one of the poorest countries in Europe, against the second power in the world. It is an irrefutable fact that the second world power has not been able to defeat such a poor country, and it is further proof of the epic tale in which David keeps defeating Goliath. Using these literary figures helps because people understand it better as it is part of our culture. By taking different elements beyond the military, such as historical, political, economic, mathematical and even literary, we develop tools to explain and communicate the data we have.

War is not only a military phenomenon, it is not only the number of tanks or planes, you have to enter into many other fields, including the philosophical or psychological, and this gives you a margin to understand questions that go beyond the military. Where does one buy courage, for example? And yet it was the courage of the Ukrainians to resist the world's second largest army when they still had no support from the West that prevented their defeat. Courage is something intangible and cannot be measured mathematically, but has to do with history, with psychology because of what they have experienced since 2014, with economics, with a lot of issues.  

Regarding this adherence to belief, is it not also the result of a loss of moral compass?

Of course it is. In the specific case of the invasion of Ukraine, there are the "monsters of reason", i.e. the way to create a utilitarian reason that justifies madness. It is the same procedure used by the Nazis, giving a rational appearance to war and genocide in order to justify certain deeds. This is what many of those who support the invasion do, they wrap it in a logical idea, such as, for example, that NATO is advancing on Russia and that Russia has to create a security zone. It is a logical discourse that, at bottom, is justifying something irrational such as an invasion, the breaking of the sovereignty of another state, the mass abduction of children, the torture of Bucha or Izium, and so on. What happened in the Second World War is being repeated and the monsters of reason are once again disguising themselves as excuses to exercise their "reasoning", and humanity will have to relearn the forgotten lessons.

Hence the importance of values. If you have your values straight, you can listen for hours to talk about laboratories, NATO or strategic games, but killing is wrong, invading another country is wrong, torturing is wrong, kidnapping children is wrong... You always have to go back to the basic fact because it is much easier to dismantle these tricks. It is basically a rhetorical war, because that is what propaganda is based on, and the best way to disarm the adversary is to go back to the basic point, which are values.

Another event that does not seem to have stirred consciences either was the atrocious attack of 7 October. You link it to Ukraine and other conflicts.

When you look at these events, such as what happened on 7 October, you realise that there are no isolated events. Linking one event to another, it becomes clearer and clearer that something is happening in the world. If you look at what is happening in Ukraine and the savagery committed by Hamas, you find a common factor among all those who justify it. Then you see that Russia is an ally of Iran, which runs Hamas and Islamic Jihad; one commits the Bucha massacre and the other the October 7 massacre. If you go deeper into this, you see that what is at stake is an authoritarian or fundamentalist proposal, which imposes ideas through force, in an absolute struggle against the West and the idea of liberal democracy. We have to look at the phenomenon as a whole. It is not just a war that is going on in Ukraine, nor is Israel only defending its territory, it is a model of political freedom against a bloc of autocracies. If one understands this, one understands all the conflicts going on in the world today.

It is quite clear that Putin is aiming for a reconstruction of Soviet space and power, a sort of USSR 2.0, but without a socialist economic model.

There is a very important break here. This idea of strong governments allows the Left to support both Hamas and Putin, but also, and here the idea of Left and Right breaks down, right-wing ultra-conservative groups. And this allows for the effectiveness of Russian propaganda, which is very attentive to this phenomenon and has adapted its message to win supporters from the Right as well. It is an alliance that seeks to impose an intolerant world and this is where values come in and how to combat its discourse.

The problem is that many refuse to analyse this propaganda. For example, conservative Russia has the highest percentage of abortions.

They are following an unthinking mandate. The number of abortions in Russia is the fact, but it is a fact that many will not seek out because it may call into question their beliefs. And sometimes it is useless, because confirmation bias will make them refuse to accept that data and prefer to stick to the simple message of propaganda that matches their beliefs. Data kills the narrative, it is the insecticide of nonsense.

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