It has been a disappointing year for everyone who hoped that Vladimir Putin would lose his appetite for Ukrainian land after taking Crimea. Putin has continued to push forward, to the west, and if he is looking for a catchy marketing slogan to promote the 2018 World Cup in his country it very well could be: "Visit Russia before Russia visits you." A recent cartoon in a US newspaper pictured Angela Merkel asking Putin, "So, where do you plan to hold the final match of the 2018 World Cup in Russia?" Putin replies: "I don't know yet, maybe in Leipzig."
Russia is a nuclear superpower which has left the consensus of prospering, peace-loving nations and instead turned into the world's most dangerous aggressor. The result is that European countries now have a new geographic rule of thumb: You can't be too far away from Russia, you can only be too close - something that Poland and the Baltic states can easily testify to.
The media has become an undeclared target of Putin's hybrid warfare. His pros (RT Russia) and his Twitter trolls try to instill the Kremlin line in Europe, an aggressive interpretation "winning hearts and minds." They are successful in far too many cases.
As an editor, I deal with dispatches and political developments from the Ukrainian theater every day. News of war can be tiring. News of war is about distant cities and villages we have never heard of before, it's about the same incidents over and over again, x soldiers and y civilians killed by shelling. News of war is depressing because it never seems to stop while at the same time it never seems to stop. Nevertheless, the news of war has to be reported relentlessly.
So I have some suggestions for how we should cover this situation going forward, and how we should deal with Putin if he decides to stay a little longer, which seems like the most likely scenario.
Our humble but powerful weapon is words. We shouldn't use them lightly, especially when it comes to covering a situation that threatens our values like nothing else has since the end of the Cold War. Some people argue that it never really ended, that it was just frozen for a while and is now heating up again to the point where it can't be legitimately called "cold" anymore.
As journalists, it is our duty not to fall for the deceptive language of politics. The German chancellor, foreign minister, and other Western political leaders have framed their diplomatic efforts surrounding Ukraine as part of an effort "to prevent a war in Ukraine." Because preventing a war is such a lovely idea, we often fall in line behind those words, making ourselves complicit in disguising what is actually happening in Ukraine, where a war is already in full swing. Cities are being shelled, thousands of civilians killed and displaced, women raped, playgrounds mortared, land annexed and - to add a war crime - civilian airplanes shot out of the sky with Russian-supplied equipment, operated by Russian-trained mercenaries.
What's even more dangerous than the sneaky language of diplomacy is what experts of the trade have learned to call "word as a weapons system" or "information war," formerly known as propaganda. Being journalists, we all despise it and react with outrage to claims that we are part of it, but in too many cases we unwittingly fall for it. Calling the conflict in Ukraine a bürgerkrieg (civil war) is a good example. Most German news outlets, including my own, have done so.
But there is no bürgerkrieg in Ukraine. The word itself comes straight out of Putin's propaganda machine, which frames the war as a national issue rather than an act of aggression. Calling it a bürgerkrieg is an insult to the people who are being attacked, to our readers, and to our profession. There is no place for the language of propaganda in our publications. Propaganda keeps wars going. Propaganda provides cover for murder. Propaganda erodes the free press.
Diplomatic words of good faith are the worst and most dangerous avenue for propaganda. Yet they are reported in newspapers, demanded in comments and op-eds. My favorite example for those words of good faith? It's what we always fall for and what is conveyed by the trustworthy faces and firm handshakes of people like Kofi Annan, Barack Obama or - as in Minsk - by the dry but rock-solid likenesses of Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. It's the truce, the ceasefire, der Waffenstillstand. When we hear that a ceasefire was finally reached - again, as in Minsk - we splash the word on our front pages, we scream it out with relief and we celebrate our brave politicians for negotiating through the night.
Here's the bad news: Nothing kills people like ceasefires. They never last. Never. From experience on the front lines, covering wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Georgia, Libya, I can confidently testify that ceasefires always fall apart, and their dynamics are always the same: negotiation, celebration, collapse. Ceasefires allow the victims of war to think they can let their guard down, reappear from their shelters, try to resume life, while the aggressors prepare for the next round of fighting. For people like Milosevic, Assad, and Putin, "ceasefire" means: re-arm, re-fuel, re-supply, re-group. That is what is happening now around the Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
It is not the job of journalists to sell the mirage of diplomacy to our readers, nor is it our job to make our politicians look good by telling gloomy stories of long nights of negotiations and kartoffelsuppe (potato soup). It is our job to challenge what they tell us, to check if they are advancing peace or advancing their image. When it comes to the cynical business of politics in times of war, beautiful words like waffenstillstand rarely produce beautiful results.
Julian Reichelt, editor-in-chief of Bild.de, for Politico.eu.