The Thin Red Line: From unthinkable to unavoidable

During an interview, in March, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said NATO should not go into Ukraine.

During an interview, in March, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said NATO should not go into Ukraine.

Published May 23, 2024


Ilya Rogachev

The wave of statements by high-ranking European and NATO officials of alleged Russian attack on NATO is ongoing.

HR/VP Borrell says a high-intensity European war is no longer a fantasy (Financial Times, April 9, 2024), while the Poles claim there is no diplomatic solution to the Ukraine conflict (Europe Renaissance, May 3, 2024).

Military and politicians in the West repeat over and over again a war will break out in (...) years and urge their people to get prepared for it.

Some accuse their leaders of fear-mongering, others take their warnings seriously, like in Sweden, where people flocked to the stores to stock up on fuel and survival kits after Sweden commander-in-chief Micael Bydén’s words that all Swedes need to prepare for a war (France 24, January 18, 2024).

But how did we get there?

What is happening in Western politics and mass media resembles attempts to “shift the Overton window” with regard to the idea of the West’s yet another war against Russia.

We are talking about the much-touted concept in sociology first introduced by US political scientist Joseph Overton. According to this theory an idea’s political viability depends on whether it falls within the range of acceptance by the general public (the ‘window’) with degrees of acceptance referred to as “unthinkable”, “radical”, “acceptable”, “sensible”, “popular” and “policy”.

One of elements of Overton’s concept is the hypothesis that the “window” can be deliberately shifted/ expanded through manipulation of public opinion – like to make some initially unacceptable idea a new normality for the given society.

We certainly do not claim scientific accuracy of this article, and use the term “Overton window” for illustrative purposes only. However, scholars do not generally question the possibility of gradually imposing a major change on public opinion through small, often unnoticeable, steps (aka “creeping normality”).

The process can be also explained through the ‘boiling frog’ metaphor: if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.

As Ukraine keeps losing the ground, Western elites grow sceptical about its victory on the battlefield, even with the hundreds of billions worth of Western military aid. Yet, given how much Washington and Brussels had politically, financially and militarily overcommitted themselves to the conflict, apparently they are more than reluctant to let Kiev lose. Insomuch as to consider putting their own troops on ground in Ukraine.

Two years ago, everyone knew the collective West was waging a proxy war against Russia; however the very idea of their direct clash in the XXI century was unbelievable – for the general population. For Western warmongers this was the zero stage of the process to convince people otherwise (the stage “unthinkable”).

The aim of propaganda at the initial stage – to convert the “unthinkable” idea of war against Russia into a “radical” one by removing the taboo that seemed to be sealing this topic.

The efforts to make it public were started in 2022–2023 when Western leaders began repeating that boots of European (NATO, American – underline) soldiers will never ever touch the ground in Ukraine.

To us, it looks like the first step to “get people used” to the idea, likely with a strong wish for it to happen behind.

General public in the West has had much fear about the looming global conflict with Russia, and their politicians had to react to their concerns.

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said in an interview in March 2024: “I don’t think NATO should go into Ukraine. Going in and making war on Russia means risking a third world war” (Press TV, March 16, 2024). In the USA, officials repeated it as a certain mantra.

Okay, but what does “not letting Russia win” look like then? And how are these two messages supposed to combine?

What really mattered was that the restrictions on discussion of the topic have been lifted, however radical it might be. Let the heavy criticism President Emmanuel Macron faced after his words about French troops in Ukraine not get you confused: yes, he had to explain himself, but the very idea of a NATO war against Russia has ceased to be “unthinkable”.

The first stage is therefore completed, and the masterminds of propaganda move on to the second, crucial phase of shifting the “Overton window” aimed at turning the “radical” idea into an “acceptable” one.

Back in January 2024, the UK’s General Patrick Sanders stressed that the British public needed a “shift” in the minds to be mentally ready for a military conflict with Russia (Politico, January 24, 2024). He couldn’t have made it clearer.

Lately, a number of military commanders and politicians of NATO countries also spoke out on a possible war against Russia. For instance, US House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries expressed the opinion that if Russia succeeds in Ukraine, Washington may have to intervene in the conflict, potentially in a military capacity (CBS News, May 5, 2024).

The majority of the population in the West still considers the war too inhumane, but this is when a new point is introduced by Western propagandists: if we do not go to war with Russians, they will attack us. Why?

Simply because this is their nature. Remember, “imperial ambitions” was how the West explained Russia’s actions in Ukraine in 2022, providing no background. Those who have different opinion and dare to voice it will be labelled “Putin’s useful idiots”.

The next stage of the process is aimed at making the already acceptable idea of the war against Russia “sensible”. The academic community may play the crucial role in this process. They will invoke twisted facts of their newly rewritten history to smear Russia as being an aggressor and “prison of peoples” throughout its history.

After all, it was not for nothing, that several generations of our ancestors tried many times to wipe out the dangerous Russian nation, European propaganda will insist.

The well-known history falsifications would fit well in this narrative: “the Russians are as guilty in unleashing World War II as Germany, if not more”, “Red Army soldiers killed and raped women in conquered territories”, “the Soviets occupied Europe after the war” and “Stalin was worse than Hitler”.

Does the “Overton window” theory work?

Judge for yourself. In a recent interview with The Economist President Macron went as far as to spell out conditions for sending French troops to Ukraine: “if the Russians were to break through the front lines, if there were a Ukrainian request” (France 24, May 2, 2024).

What is it if not an indication of the increased acceptability of the idea of the war? It turns out the war against Russia can after all be justified, and we have even been explained under which circumstances it may begin.

What pushes Western elites to this dangerous path? Most likely, mass protests of their own peoples against their economic and social policy which they rightfully link to the foreign policy.

Seems like their voters’ anger is more fearful for them than a war against Russia because they hope a war would nullify their sins.

In an interview with Radio Kossuth, Hungarian Prime Minister Orban said the world was moving further and further away from peace. In his opinion, the war means a huge deal for the defence industry of EU’s transatlantic ally – the US. There are very serious forces behind the war drive, but the people, the majority, are against the war. They do not want war, yet the European leaders are marching towards a war, Orban stressed (Hungary Today, May 3, 2024).

The entire world doesn’t have to pay for record-breaking profits of US military complex and warmonger politicians. The shift of the “Overton window” is by far not completed for most of the population.

Which means we still have time to prevent the unthinkable from becoming the unavoidable.

* Rogachev is the Ambassador of Russia to South Africa

Cape Times