Main Image Credit On the front line: reporters filming a bombed-out building in Kyiv, Ukraine on 2 March 2022. Image: Abaca Press / Alamy
As the war in Ukraine reaches its half-year mark, RUSI’s Jonathan Eyal (JE) speaks to Shashank Joshi (SJ), The Economist’s Defence Editor, about his perceptions of the media’s performance in covering and interpreting the conflict.
JE: Months before the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we witnessed an unprecedented release of intelligence information, much of it very accurate and very detailed, with the intent of either preventing or deterring the Russian attack. Was the media comfortable digesting this quantity of information from US intelligence sources?
SJ: It’s worth contrasting the information picture we faced in January or February this year with that in 2013 during the Syria chemical weapons crisis because that, too, reflected some of the post-Iraq hesitancy around the handling of Western intelligence claims. Western governments at that time were forced into much more aggressive disclosure of intelligence than they would have preferred in the past. And we saw that in the form of dossiers published by the David Cameron government, which failed to persuade the House of Commons and a large share of the UK public. What was different this time? It was partly the sheer weight of evidence. It wasn’t just claims of arrows on maps, or of puppet governments; it was a wealth of kaleidoscopic data on everything from ‘false flags’ to the identification of particular Russian military units in specific places.
It was challenging to manage this information when even some European governments with access to more granular intelligence than the media were sceptical. The French and Germans were sceptical. Even some governments in Central and Eastern Europe were not completely sold on the central premise, which was that Russia was planning a major invasion rather than a smaller attack on Donbas. But the most significant distinguishing factor of this crisis was that government-released information could be partly corroborated with open source intelligence that was much more limited in previous crises. The Americans would tell us: ‘this many battalions are gathering in Belarus and Ukraine’, and we didn’t have to take their word for it; we could go to Maxar and Planet, and we could go to organisations like Janes and other military experts, including RUSI, and count the number of vehicles and observe fresh tracks in the snow. This ability to triangulate with open source information significantly lessened the degree to which we had to rely on trust alone in handling released intelligence material.
JE: Still, did you ever wonder whether you were manipulated?
SJ: Any journalist listening to extraordinary claims made by a government, mainly when there is no ability to corroborate them – such as the idea that Russia had prepared ‘false flag’ operations involving corpses and fake mourners to justify its invasion – has to approach such material with a high degree of scepticism and scrutiny. What made me more receptive to some of that evidence in February was that it fitted with what I saw on the order of battle, the military side, and my own belief that this was not likely to be a coercive bluff because it could not be kept up indefinitely.
We all know that the Anglo-American intelligence community was scarred and traumatised by the experience of Iraq. It underwent a number of reforms, and we neglect the fact that the intelligence community itself understands it committed grave errors in the past. It reformed some of the methodologies it uses – the way, for example, it looks at ‘red-teaming’ to challenge groupthink. So, when I saw senior politicians and ministers in countries such as the UK and the US making very definite statements about Russian intentions toward Ukraine, I believed that they would not be putting their reputation on the line in this way unless they were pretty confident about the basis of the assertions they were making. To me, the painful experience of Iraq and the measures I knew the intelligence community had taken to avoid its repeat made the revelations about Russia’s military preparations against Ukraine more persuasive, not less. Moreover, unlike 2003, the government had no vested interest in the case it was making: it did not want Russia to invade.
The Ukrainian army has not had the same relationship with foreign correspondents as some journalists were accustomed to from the days of Iraq and Afghanistan
JE: Let us turn to the media coverage of the conflict. Few journalists were embedded with fighting forces. There was plenty of reporting of attacks on civilian centres and coverage of war crimes, such as those in Bucha, but little reporting from the front line.
SJ: I bow to the work of my colleagues who were in Ukraine – to professionals like The Economist’s Oliver Carroll and Tim Judah and to many others who were in Kyiv and other cities under attack in February. Since then, there have been several journalists who have been at the front lines. It’s also worth pointing out that The Washington Post has done some very, very good reporting from Donbas, as has The Wall Street Journal, particularly Yaroslav Trofimov. Scores of journalists have died covering this war.
Nonetheless, it is true that the Ukrainian army has not had the same relationship with foreign correspondents as some journalists were accustomed to from the days of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Ukrainian military, which is engaged in a high-intensity war of national survival, is understandably quite secretive in many respects, so the number of reports casting a more critical eye on the performance of the Ukrainians is limited. Open source intelligence analysts have also paid less attention to Ukraine’s armed forces, in part because there is less footage of their losses and setbacks. Moreover, Western governments have tended to avoid publishing or amplifying information that would be derogatory towards their Ukrainian ally. The result is that overall, there has been less insight into the Ukrainian armed forces than we would generally like.
Take the example of casualties. I am not sure it was deliberate, but we paid more attention to the losses sustained by Russia’s armed forces than the Ukrainian ones. That probably resulted in underestimating just how badly the Ukrainians had been mauled in the first phase of the conflict in the initial months. That has been rectified to some extent. The superb accounts that have come out of Ukraine from your colleagues Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds have been candid. The heads of the CIA and MI6 have both made public comments on Ukrainian casualties in the last month. Nonetheless, it is a fact that we concentrated far more on the egregious Russian errors – the lack of combined arms, the incredible misuse of elite units like the VDV, the botched logistics, and the abysmal morale – and that this crowded out some of our attention on the state of Ukraine’s forces and its military strategy. As we look to a potential counteroffensive towards Kherson, this is now changing.
Lately, the Ukrainians have been more candid about their casualties, but this has resulted in a different problem. We have to strike a balance between probing the Ukrainians to get a true sense of their weaknesses, and also realising that they sometimes have an incentive to play up their casualty numbers to appear a weakened force in desperate need of immediate Western assistance. It is our job to try to probe that. Sometimes that has to be done through old-fashioned reporting of people talking to us anonymously and giving us assessments. And sometimes, it has to be done analytically. So, for example, some of the most interesting work I have been doing in the last month has been trying to think about typical wounded-to-killed ratios in conflict and using those to try to get a sense of what the Ukrainians are telling us about the number of Russian dead. My own view is that the very highest Ukrainian estimates of Russian casualties are implausible.
JE: The UK’s Defence Intelligence has taken to running those famous daily slides since the start of the war. And there has been no secrecy about the fact that officials are briefing reporters in various countries. How do you assess the interaction with governments?
SJ: While I have to be careful here not to go into detail about the sources that we rely on, many Western governments have indeed spoken to journalists and given them updates on the military situation. The most prominent example of this is, of course, the Pentagon briefings, which are conducted by what is known as a ‘Senior US Defence Official’. What is interesting in many of these off-the-record briefings is the unprecedented level of transparency and communication, often providing quite granular information about the movement of forces from particular places, which we can then corroborate independently in the same way we corroborated the pre-war claims about a Russian build-up.
It is inevitable that if Ukraine is unable to recapture territory in the coming months and simply keeps chipping away without moving the front lines in substantive ways, this is going to have an impact on public perceptions
You mentioned the UK Defence Intelligence daily slides. They were vital updates in the first phase of the war when there was a genuine lack of information. More recently, these very operational military updates have become broader on strategic issues, including social and economic ones, and sometimes they appear to shadow open source intelligence rather than introduce intelligence into the public domain. They are part strategic communication, part information warfare, and have to be read as such.
JE: As the war continues and becomes an attritional confrontation, how can you maintain public interest and your readers’ attention?
SJ: I am lucky to write for a publication where my readers want pieces with a degree of depth and detail. And there are always fresh and important angles. I am currently preparing a piece on manpower issues on both the Russian and Ukrainian sides; I’m also interested in electronic warfare, military medicine and the cyber dimension to the conflict. But I know that not all readers of all publications will be as interested in such detail. And the problem of war fatigue faces not only journalists but also Ukraine, which has to maintain Western support in a conflict that remains a matter of life and death for that nation. This is perhaps why we have seen some spectacular military operations lately, such as the attack on the Saki Russian air base in Crimea, which was beyond the publicly known range of Ukrainian weapons. Overall, it is inevitable that if Ukraine is unable to recapture territory in the coming months and simply keeps chipping away without moving the front lines in substantive ways, this is going to have an impact on public perceptions.
JE: At this preliminary half-year mark, what did the media get right, and what did it get wrong in its war coverage?
SJ: On reflection, one of our collective weaknesses – and I hold my hands up personally – was a fixation on individual elements of the nature of war in Ukraine without seeking a holistic view. The classic example of this is the sense we gave our audiences that this war is being settled by light infantry, anti-tank weapons, Stinger missiles, and asymmetric warfare. And while that was not necessarily wrong, we have now seen more clearly how more conventional traditional weaponry, notably artillery, has played a fundamental role. We then talked a lot about artillery and HIMARS rocket launchers, but did we fully get the sense that the electronic warfare contest was vital in whether reconnaissance drones could fly or not? Warfare is an incredibly complicated interplay of all these systems, and we have to try better to explain its complexities to our readers rather than reducing combat to one or other dimension.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Advisory Board Member, Defence Editor of The Economist