When the war in Ukraine started, opinions on how it would end were very different. Many prominent military analysts expected Ukraine’s capital to fall soon during the initial stage of the Russian invasion (1). News stories from major western media followed the trend (2) and so did public opinions. When it turned out that Ukraine was able to resist and cause heavy losses for the invaders (3) relying only on existing heavy weapons and with very little foreign aid, news followed focusing on Ukraine’s superior tactics and Russian incompetence (4). As the frontline was taking shape5 and negotiations began, the same media began releasing opinions on how the war would end even though said negotiations barely resembled an actual peace process and didn’t involve nations’ leaders with Russia famously sending its Minister of Culture, ambassador to Belarus, head of a sham opposition party, deputies of Foreign Minister and Minister of Defence (6) as members of its delegation, meeting in non-neutral Belarus (7). Then the Russians, continuing to suffer heavy losses in the north, withdrew their forces and focused on the east and south where they had had their biggest successes at that point, getting close to Mykolayiv, fully encircling Mariupol and capturing north of the Donbas (8). The media followed and along with reports on evidence of horrific war crimes being discovered speculations of a potential Ukrainian victory began in the media (9). Even one of the biggest Ukrainian media figures, Oleksii Arestovych then suggested Russia’s offensive might end within «two to three weeks», the phrase becoming an internet meme (10) because it obviously hasn’t happened until months in.
The analysis presented in those news stories and following opinion pieces was anything but useless. The problems with command competence, logistics and internal integrity of Russian forces persisted to this day, going as far as causing a mutiny potentially turning into a coup in June 2023 (11). Ukraine was indeed able to stand ground and eventually recaptured more ground in the following months and Russia haven’t had any major successes since capturing Sievierodonetsk-Lysychansk agglomeration in July 2022 (12). The rapid turns in news narratives reflected rapid turns in the war itself.
With the second year of war in Ukraine dragging on with brutal trench warfare, with the only strategic change during this summer being Russia getting completely stopped at its main direction of attack in Bakhmut and Ukraine going on the offensive, it seems big western media are getting desperate for headlines and stories that draw attention.
Let’s just look at some of this summer’s stories that managed to get traction. At this point I have to disclose my bias and say that I am a Russian person who supports Ukraine in this conflict.
A recent article from The Washington Post «U.S. intelligence says Ukraine will fail to meet the offensive's key goal» (13). The headline presents this article as a news story even though most of it is analysis based on quotes from different sources. The first one that makes the headline is an anonymous source familiar with an intelligence report that says Ukraine is not currently able to reach Melitopol, a key supply hub for Russia. Next anonymous officials are quoted saying:
«Ukraine’s forces, which are pushing toward Melitopol from the town of Robotyne more than 50 miles away, will remain several miles outside of the city».
It’s a ridiculous assessment as Ukrainian forces currently fighting at Robotyne are nowhere near «several miles» of the city. Predicting that they will be able to specifically get there but not further during the current push is strange although the rest of the analysis makes sense even if it misses some important details such as the role of Ukraine’s counter-battery fire (14) or the role of Russian helicopters. It’s not the only strange statement from «U.S. officials» as their quote about allies being slow in providing long-range missiles and fighter jets is:
“The problem remains piercing Russia’s main defensive line, and there’s no evidence these systems would’ve been a panacea”.
This implies the source doesn’t understand the actual role of those weapons and instead just makes a «straw man» argument that it isn’t a «panacea». The value of western fighter jets is the ability to carry weapons that can counter radars, helicopters and other targets protecting Russian defence lines (15) especially since Ukraine had to use modified Soviet MiG jets in order to use AGM-88 HARM weapons against the Russian air defence system which wasn’t a perfect solution (16). Same goes for long-range missiles. Since Ukraine got British air-launched «Storm Shadow» missiles they have been effectively using them to destroy Russian command posts, ammunition depots and train connections (17) all of which is extremely important when fighting against well-defended positions as late 2022’s Kherson offensive has shown with Ukraine using newly acquired GMLRS munitions to destroy bridges across the Dnipro river (18).
So, this article presents normal military analysis using quotes from actual people The Washington Post names and yet they also decide to insert anonymous commentary from seemingly poorly informed official sources, make them the main focus of the article, put them in the headline, and essentially turn a military analysis piece into a flashy news story that then got widely quoted and misquoted, including by Russian propaganda specifically picking points unfavourable to Ukraine (19).
Soon after that CBS News cited another «U.S. official» who said that Ukrainians have broken through Russian mine fields and were «now engaging with the first line of Russian defences holding the city». (20) There is no other source to suggest Ukraine’s armed forces were past the Russian mine fields, evidence of them engaging the first line of defence was published as early as July 23rd (21), and they are nowhere near Tokmak at the moment. Either the supposed source knows something no analyst does or they are wrong. Yet, the news was widely reposted by all kinds of media, including major Ukrainian media such as RBC-Ukraine, Telegraf, and UNIAN (22) (23) (24).
Not only are most big news stories regarding frontline updates in western media based on misinformed or dishonest anonymous official sources, sometimes the news based on them contradict each other despite being published back-to-back. On July 27th the New York Times released a big piece about how Ukraine was actually launching its big assault: «Ukraine has launched the main thrust of its counteroffensive, throwing in thousands of troops held in reserve» (25). This time it wasn’t just abstract «U.S. officials» but two «Pentagon officials», whatever that means. Most of the article is, again, fairly dry and largely correct, though shallow, military analysis and overview of recent statements from sides involved (none of which shared any significant updates). Yet at the heart of the article that was supposed to transform usual analysis into a big news story was the supposed statement of «Pentagon officials» which could or could not be true. The news was shared by major international media such as The Guardian (26) and Al-Jazeera (27), as well as both Russian state media (28) and US-funded Russian Radio Liberty (29). Bloomberg reported the same, again citing U.S. officials (30). So did CNN with its own «U.S. official» sources (31).
Nonetheless, the very next day NYT released a piece questioning their own assessment, again citing military analysts, this time without any anonymous «Pentagon sources» (32). They pointed out there was «minimal, and sometimes contradictory, information about how many troops and armoured vehicles Ukraine had committed so far to its attempt to punch holes through Russia’s daunting defensive network», and no concrete evidence of any «new phase» beginning. Strangely, they immediately decide instead to stick to their argument that some kind of big newsworthy story was indeed happening rather than another assault being on or just new units being committed to the offensive. To defend it they cite Putin commenting on the intensity of combat despite him rarely giving updates on the course of the war.
This is especially strange since it was the NYT themselves that had reported on declassified U.S. intelligence stating that Putin was misinformed on the course of the war (33). It has also long been known that Putin got information through printed digests of media reports (34) and that even included print-outs of internet memes (35). In just the second week of this Ukrainian offensive he said Ukraine had lost 160 tanks while Russia lost 54 (36) which makes no sense and doesn’t correspond with any existing evidence from either side.
I think it’s very much possible that in this case Putin simply read reports of intensifying combat through Russian media’s reports based on western publications in turn based on anonymous statements. So, as there was nothing else to legitimise those statements, NYT turned to citing Putin which continued the cycle. Unsurprisingly, no evidence of any «new phase» beginning on July 26th has appeared since and the very media that created the story went silent on it. As it turned out, new forces were indeed committed but the approach hasn’t changed (37).
Another similarly widely shared article from NYT on the counteroffensive called «Ukrainian Troops Trained by the West Stumble in Battle» also has a bright headline, presents a newsworthy-sounding message, and cites anonymous U.S. officials (although sparingly) (38). In truth the narrative presented is fairly weird. The main point is Ukrainians, after being trained for offensive operations and figuring out that they can’t just kick out the Russians with one big push, have resorted to artillery combat and attacks with small forces which is true. The intention of the authors is to blame this on short and low-quality training by NATO. The statements of Ukrainian officials right in the same article though show it’s about the generally slow provision of aid in both armaments and training, and the Russians having time to establish defences as Ukraine’s allies were slowly sending aid in only small packages. The article says «Ukraine may well return to the American way of warfare» which is frankly idiotic as the American way of warfare depends on necessity for air supremacy (39) which obviously isn’t possible for Ukraine to achieve as the airspace stays contested. The implication then is that there’s some victorious «American way of warfare» and Ukrainians simply haven’t mastered it enough to do their own version of the Gulf War at the moment. A charitable interpretation of their words is that Ukraine might turn to using big combined arms assaults as they were supposedly taught to do in western training even though the article doesn’t really touch on the substance of how training was conducted despite being focused on it. The piece also cites analysts from open-source intelligence group Janes saying that a small-unit attack strategy «could result in mass casualties» despite no signs of Ukraine losing more equipment than in the initial attack.
The main problem with the article isn’t just authors’ seemingly poor understanding of American warfare and them focusing on just training, the main message is presented as news even though it has no news and instead talks about a change in tactics that happened pretty much as soon as the offensive started (focusing on putting continuous pressure on defending troops using small forces while targeting Russian supply lines and artillery). In other words, there was no recent change in tactics or «second wave» to talk about as a reader of this article might think, and the focus on artillery combat and smaller scale attacks was reported on in western media before it, such as in a Financial Times article from July 27th (ironically, around the time of the erroneous reports of a «new phase») (40).
So, what are some of the common problems we see in the articles and why do these big and widely cited media with access to the best military analysts continuously fail to correctly report on the general course of the war? Why are they instead creating questionable pessimistic or optimistic news stories based on statements from bad sources and turning slow continuous trends into «news»?
An interesting article from the New Lines magazine titled «Russians see Ukrainian progress where others don’t» (41) also finds fault with the kind of western media coverage similar to what’s described there and suggests that it is a product of the media following the prevailing narrative. The description of changing narratives is correct, and it’s fair to say that Ukraine has become a «victim of its own mythologized success» after going from being an underdog to a comparable military power in news media discourse. However, the problem itself can’t be explained with that, only the general narrative we tend to see in such stories. If later we see a stream of articles on how Ukraine is winning and the war is about to be over, similarly citing anonymous officials, that wouldn’t change the more substantial causes.
The first and most obvious problem is dependence on sources. If there’s nothing tangible to constitute news, it’s always easy to do the dirty trick and cite a source. The media in question such as NYT, The Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, CBS have standards and don’t tend to outright manufacture sources or trust emails from people pretending to be officials, so the messages from sources are backed by these media’s reputation and by messages being corroborated in other reputable media. That seems to ensure the sources are indeed real but says nothing of the quality of their messages. The examples cited here show that editors generally don’t seem to call out their sources on wrong or uninformed statements or question their legitimacy, perhaps because otherwise they might lose them, or because discrediting the very thing that allows them to create news stories when there’s little news would defeat the value of their work as a news story. «Pentagon official says X… but they’re wrong and incompetent so it doesn’t matter» is not news material. Also, the kind of people who talk anonymously to the media from institutions such as the Pentagon are probably not the kind that makes important decisions there and knows much about the topic in question.
As a result we have people with an often poor understanding of particular issues being cited by the media that have to present their words uncritically in order to make a story. This, however, is not the only thing that leads to poor international reporting on this war and wars in general. To understand it further, we have to go a bit deeper on the philosophical side of things. In Graham Harman’s 2018 «Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything» the author discusses the American Civil war in order to illustrate his concept of «objects» as a metaphysical category (42). In his concept, one characteristic of an «object» is that it can’t be reduced to any other. As such, while we can retrospectively understand the incidents of violence and systemic conflicts preceding the war, we can’t reduce it to them, and the war might have not happened regardless of any of them. Also, while it’s easy to pick any important event and declare it the beginning of the war, we can easily imagine the war being prevented at many points and becoming an «odd footnote of American history». The moment when it definitely started was when first artillery was first used but even the significance of this particular moment can only be understood in view of later events. The end of the war, when it ceased to exist as an object, came when Southern general and commander of the Army of Northern Virginia Robert E. Lee surrendered. Violence continued but this was the single transformative event ending the conflict.
In Harman’s view a key phase in the cycle of an object's existence is it reaching the «maturity» phase where «it has no room for further symbiosis», its form becomes unambiguously defined and there’s nothing else that could change its ultimate form. In the case of the American civil war it was the rivalry between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. After that, while the war continued, its end was already decided. The most transformative events aren’t always the «biggest», especially when dealing with the complex reality of war involving hundreds of thousands of people directly, involving millions indirectly, and connected with all sorts of complex dynamic processes across the globe.
In the case of war in Ukraine we can retrospectively see how its own «symbiosis» is happening and retrospectively understand when qualitative change happens. HIMARS, first long-range precision multiple launch rocket system, arrived on 23rd of June 2022 (43). At the moment Russian forces were continuing their offensive in the central part of the Donbas region, fighting for the city of Sievierodonetsk, enjoying a great advantage over Ukraine in barrel artillery and ammunition for it. On June 25th the city fell (44). While Ukraine said their forces were retreating across the river to a neighbouring city of Lysychansk to engage the Russians using its high ground advantage, that city also fell after one week of fighting (45).
At the same time as Russians kept taking city after city, Ukrainians were hitting Russia’s artillery ammunition depots one after another, now finally having the capability to capitalise on all reconnaissance they had done before they got their hands on HIMARS. On August 14th (46) The New York Times carefully reported that Ukraine has «succeeded, at least for now, in slowing Russia’s advances». As it turned out, Ukraine hasn’t just slowed down Russia’s advances. In fact, Russia hasn’t captured a single city in the Donbas since with the exception of Bakhmut getting mostly under their control after months of extremely brutal fighting (47), with the battle for the city ongoing as Russian forces haven’t secured the city and were kicked back from its suburbs in recent months (48). At the same time as the battle for Bakhmut was raging, Ukraine was able to kick Russia out of almost all of Kharkiv region, west bank of Kherson and border districts of Luhansk region, after Russia had seemingly secured it.
Who would have thought a real transformative event changing the course of the war from Russia’s artillery-led slow but sure advance to sides achieving relative parity was Ukraine getting HIMARS and repeatedly hitting Russian ammunition depots? Of course, last autumn’s widely publicised offensives were also important and had significant consequences but this only exposes the complex nature of war that by its nature defies any kind of discrete, narrative-driven analysis of current events. When you’re covering national politics in a democratic country, you’re dealing with an event highly performative in nature: «X was appointed Y, A is in a contest with B». You can get away with making news about it, as most moments of uncertainty happen in designated contexts such as competitive elections. This already falls apart when news media begin analysing politics in non-democratic regimes where a catering billionaire can march on the capital with an army of mercenaries, then get pardoned, threaten to invade a neighbouring country, move his goons to Africa before getting killed in a suspicious plane explosion not far from said capital (49). Today there’s a fair bit of proper political science literature dedicated to studying these regimes and they can create models and conduct analysis of events instead of news which usually requires extensive knowledge of particular institutions which don’t make headlines: when parliament sessions begin, what are the recent trends in local law, and other «boring» stuff. One thing political science doesn’t do is predictions: they can only roughly suggest which systems are more stable and which aren’t.
That said, wars are even more complicated. They aren’t decided until they’re over, and the same goes for events and trends within them. First you have Russia slowly advancing towards Bakhmut and despite it happening for months, at a random point you have a big western media reporting that this is 21st century battle of Verdun. Then other ones share the message that the frontline is basically static and it’s just like western front in World War I (50). Then Russians stop and focus on villages around. Then they manage to take all supply roads in the range of their artillery by capturing surrounding suburbs and villages. Then you get messages that Russia is about to win, and Ukrainians are in danger and have to leave (51) (if they’re generous they might even provide commentary from a U.S. official). Then Ukrainians stay and Russians go against the mentioned narrative by abandoning the encirclement plan and instead resorting to assaulting the city street by street, suffering heavy casualties for two months, reaching last streets after the media made their big news that Ukraine was about to lose (52). Of course, just a couple weeks later the big news would be about Ukraine moving to encircle the city (53) (54).
Reading news at that time might’ve made it look that the whole war was revolving around ruins of an average-sized regional city, and that the situation there was evolving rapidly, with major turnarounds happening roughly every two weeks and making headlines across western media. However, the map of confirmed territorial changes over time reveals that changes there were in fact very small and not strategically significant, that the only thing important about this place was the intensity of combat due to it being Russia’s main direction of attack and Ukraine committing to stopping Russia’s offensive at that particular point (55). Another curious thing one might find looking at the map is how things presented as news stories, usually by a dozen newspapers at once, were actually slow, continuous and concurrent processes, probably initiated and supported by commanders on a tactical level. Those big news about things happening now in Bakhmut look silly in retrospect because it was a localised and highly complex and chaotic process, in which the whole operation was important (Russia aiming to regain the initiative by smashing its head against one city and Ukraine aiming to prevent it by any means necessary in order to create opportunities for own offensives) but the chaotic, multilateral and multidirectional tactical details clearly didn’t deserve to be put into narrativized international news stories. It is a lot like Verdun after all as one narrative puts it.
So, how does one follow the course of the war without falling into the trap of attention-grabbing headlines presenting a complex process with many factors contributing to uncertainty (including those very headlines) as a series of discrete news-worthy events and unidirectional trends, often supported with statements from bad sources? One obvious solution is not reading newspapers at all and focusing on military analysis. There are a whole lot of independent military analysts and journalists using publicly available data to make conclusions, the OSINT community. There are big projects such as Oryx’s catalogue of equipment losses (56), CIT’s daily situation reports (57), DeepState map (58), Ukraine Control Map (59), and more loosely-organised Twitter channels like Def Mon (60), and Tatarigami_UA (61). There is also a now-popular Australian journalist specialising on military-industrial complex and defence economics, Perun, who makes long lecture-style presentations, often on the topic of this war on strategic scale (62), and many other figures and who can talk non-stop about war-related topics that probably mostly wouldn’t interest a wide audience. Of course, all these sources sometimes disagree with each other but they generally tend to provide level-headed and cautious notes on things happening on the frontline at the moment, as well as fresh news with a minimal amount of narrativizing. The problem, of course, is they don’t provide extensive context for events mentioned in each publication, and most things they provide would probably sound boring to an outside reader. They’re fairly specialised in war coverage and it would probably be fair to say that OSINT readers are mostly people committed to reading OSINT. Military analysts aren’t usually the ones making headlines despite being sometimes featured in big newspaper articles. So, while they are useful and their tools can be helpful outside of the Ukraine war context (like geolocation, art of identifying coordinates based on photos and videos), they will probably never be able to compete with traditional news-style coverage.
Another solution for a curious reader is to learn media literacy and analyse publications critically, comparing data presented in them with data from other sources such as journalist investigations. For example, recently a New York Times piece cited a U.S. official saying that the total number of casualties in the war approached 500 thousand, and that Russian losses included 120 thousand dead while Ukrainian losses included 70 thousand dead (63). This number isn’t supported by any other source, including older leaked U.S. official estimates of around 17 thousand dead Ukrainians and 40 thousand dead Russians (64) in early spring of 2023. The number of confirmed dead Russian combatants is over 30 thousand based on open data from obituaries found by dissident Russian journalists (65), although such data presents only a baseline number as not every soldier will have an obituary post. An analysis based on excess mortality statistics shows a higher baseline number of 47 thousand dead (66). Those are low estimates but those are numbers of the same order, and the NYT number just doesn’t sit well among them. Also, NYT numbers suggest that the dead-to-wounded ratio for both sides is somewhere between ⅔ and ½. These numbers don’t make sense as they suggest that the dead-to-wounded ratio in this war is closer than in World War I (67) despite obvious advances such as cars being used for medical evacuation, combat application tourniquets, and body armour. Of course, it’s hard to expect an average reader to know that historical context, those other numbers and the media that provided them, so this suggestion isn’t also a general solution. Also, doing research, I noticed that an AP article from April on the leaked Pentagon documents still cites a fake, photoshopped version of the «total assessed losses» page that was spread on Russian telegram channels with 71 thousand dead Ukrainians and 17 thousand dead Russians instead of the real document (68), a truly impressive mistake.
So, is there a solution to this? This is a difficult question. As discussed here, such problems of covering wars are quite fundamental to the nature of news stories as a concept which usually cannot capture the complex reality of war. The same generally goes for source journalism: if you need to make news stories, sometimes it can be inevitable. The issue lies with incentives of the media themselves: they want to create sensational stories that would at the same time be about the continuing course of the war. Hypothetically, they could switch to more regular updates with military analysts giving updates on frontline changes and notable events, along with careful predictions and opportunities: what seems more or less possible for either side in a given time in a given place. Then, stories could focus on the human side, on telling stories of the people involved, or on critically comparing and analysing official statements. Neither of those solutions would achieve the same level of sensationalism but they would present a more level-headed and more personal view of the war.
There is still however one option that can be both sensational and true in relation to the war: investigative journalism. War is full of mystery, ignored yet useful data, actors who have things to hide, overlooked important events. Projects like Bellingcat (69), Proekt (70), Important Stories (71), Ukrainska Pravda (72), Der Spiegel (73) and many others have all published a lot of masterfully conducted investigations that made international headlines. The Economist made a great investigation on how Ukraine was able to sink Russia’s Black Sea fleet flagship (74). The New York Times, despite often providing poor news story coverage of the conflict, have also published a huge, elaborate investigation of Russia’s army responsibility for atrocities in the Ukrainian town of Bucha (75). The investigative role of journalists in this war has proven as invaluable as the hard labour of military analysts following leads and doing dozens of small «investigations» every day. Nothing stops major western media from dropping news stories about the moves of the frontlines and units, delegating it to professionals, and focusing instead on providing news stories about investigations, as well as, of course, the terrible human cost of this brutal invasion.
39. A HOUSE BUILT ON SAND:
42. Harman, G. (2015). Object-oriented ontology. In The Palgrave handbook of posthumanism in film and television (pp. 401-409). London: Palgrave Macmillan UK. pp. 114-134