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A minor informational oddity regarding Russia and Ukraine
Which country is more open on how the war is currently going? What does that tell us?
It’s been a very, very good week for Ukraine. Even as their forces press on to Kherson in the south, their offensive to the east of Kharkiv has been a stunning success. Ukrainian forces have retaken close to 2,500 square miles of territory, far exceeding what Russia has been able to accomplish since April. This includes retaking the key transport hubs of Izyum and Kupyansk along with a whole mess of abandoned Russian equipment. The Financial Times’ Roman Olearchyk reports that Ukrainian forces are pressing on to Lyman. The Washington Post’s Paul Sonne, Dan Lamothe, and Mary Ilyushina points out how dire Russia’s near-term situation really is:
American officials cast the Russian failures in northeast Ukraine as something that was only a “matter of time,” considering the Kremlin’s months-long failure to organize, command, equip and sustain its forces on the battlefield — and Ukraine’s growing arsenal of weapons from the West.
The Russian military was “riven with all kinds of weaknesses that were not apparent to the leadership and probably should have been” at the outset of their Feb. 24 invasion, according to a senior U.S. defense official, who, like some others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“A lot of the key elements of a strong defense are the capabilities of your soldiers, the capabilities of logistics, and command, and we’ve seen fractures in all of those elements, and they played out in many places over time in the east,” the senior U.S. defense official said.
This will bolster Ukraine’s standing in the West. But in all this reportage there was an interesting incongruity that is worth unpacking: the ways that Russia, a far more closed, autocratic regime, has seemed more transparent about the situation on the ground than Ukraine, a more open, democratic regime.
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Consider, for example, another paragraph from that WaPo story:
Disgruntled by the way Russia is faring in Ukraine, pro-war Telegram bloggers who boast a huge following, state media figures and even some officials have come out with rare criticism of Putin’s decision to not launch a general mobilization and attempt to portray the war as a limited operation.
The Post is hardly the only source on this. The Daily Beast’s Julie Davis keeps reporting on what Russian state media (there really is no other kind at this point) is saying, and it sounds surprisingly frank: “With state TV studios full of doom and gloom, prominent pundits and experts seem to be preparing Russian audiences for future losses of occupied Ukrainian lands, which are being painstakingly reclaimed by the Ukrainian military.”
Contrast this with reports from Ukraine. In the past week there have been a lot of excellent tick-tocks about how the offensive was planned and so forth. Which is great. But exactly one week ago, the Washington Post’s John Hudson filed an extraordinary report on Ukrainian soldiers wounded during the Kherson offensive:
In dimly lit hospital rooms in southern Ukraine, soldiers with severed limbs, shrapnel wounds, mangled hands and shattered joints recounted the lopsided disadvantages their units faced in the early days of a new offensive to expel Russian forces from the strategic city of Kherson.
The soldiers said they lacked the artillery needed to dislodge Russia’s entrenched forces and described a yawning technology gap with their better-equipped adversaries. The interviews provided some of the first direct accounts of a push to retake captured territory that is so sensitive, Ukrainian military commanders have barred reporters from visiting the front lines…..
“We lost five people for every one they did,” said Ihor, a 30-year-old platoon commander who injured his back when the tank he was riding in crashed into a ditch.
The whole story is worth reading, not least because it was reported at all. As Hudson notes, “Ukraine has discouraged coverage of the offensive, resulting in an information lag on a potentially pivotal inflection point in the nearly seven-month conflict…. A clear picture of Ukraine’s losses could not be independently assessed.”
Does this mean that Russia is more transparent about is current difficulties than Ukraine? I don’t think so. For one thing, good-news stories tend to have a shorter half-life than bad-news stories, so the Russia stories right now seem more compelling. For another thing, I think what we are seeing is a quirk of Russian and Ukrainian nationalism.
Most people cannot speak freely in Putin’s Russia. Human Rights Watch rightly observes, “Today, Russia is more repressive than it has ever been in the post-Soviet era. The authorities crack down on critical media, harass peaceful protesters, engage in smear campaigns against independent groups, and stifle them with fines.“ But the nationalist and the military bloggers have special dispensation because they have been largely cheerleading Putin’s invasion. If anything, they have been using the current situation to agitate for a general mobilization.
That is the kind of criticism Putin can handle… up to a point:
Russia’s regime will tolerate criticism right up to the point when it become awkward for Vladimir Putin. And the current situation is approaching that point
As for Ukraine, the war’s effect has been to create something that young Americans may not quite comprehend: genuine national unity. According to RFE/RL’s Aleksandr Pallikot, “opinion polls indicate growing unity on key issues among Ukrainians and a widespread unwillingness to make any territorial concessions to Moscow…. Six months after Moscow's failed assault on Kyiv, the Ukrainian armed forces and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy enjoy the record-high confidence of society.” More than 95 percent of Ukrainians support joining the European Union; 91 percent favor membership in NATO.
With this kind of strong civic nationalism, it is relatively easy for Ukraine’s government to keep a lid on information that it would prefer not make it to the Western press. There is little need for coercion or censorship, because Ukrainians are unlikely to share bad news about the war. Even the injured soldiers interviewed by Hudson largely supported the grueling Kherson offensive. This was how Ukraine could keep its actions in Kharkiv a secret its armed forces surprised the Russians.
Vladimir Putin clearly believes in the power that comes with autocracy. The war in Ukraine is teaching him that a united nationalist populace is an even more powerful adversary.