The ongoing information war over Ukraine

Last week, a pair of leaks to the press shined a fresh light on the extent of US assistance to Ukraine in its war against Russia. On Wednesday, Julian E. Barnes, Helene Cooper, and Eric Schmitt, of the New York Times, reported, citing “senior American officials,” that the US has provided Ukrainian officials with locational details of Russian movements that they have subsequently combined with their own information and used to target and kill Russian generals—a flow of intelligence, the Times wrote, that “has few precedents.” Then, on Thursday, NBC’s Ken Dilanian, Courtney Kube, and Carol E. Lee reported, citing “US officials,” that US intelligence helped Ukrainian officials to locate the Moskva, Russia’s flagship in the Black Sea, which they subsequently sank.

There was speculation, in national-security circles, that the Biden administration planted the pair of stories deliberately in order to humiliate, or otherwise send a message to, Russia, but Politico’s Alexander Ward (who had a busy week) and Paul McLeary reported that this was not the case; on the contrary, the leaks sparked an “internal freakout” at the White House. Various officials publicly pushed back on the stories, decrying the Times’ headline—“US Intelligence Is Helping Ukraine Kill Russian Generals, Officials Say”—as “misleading” and “irresponsible,” while insisting more broadly that intelligence shared by the US has not been directly actionable and that what the Ukrainians do with it is their business. On Friday morning, John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told CNN that “leaks like this and stories like this, they’re unhelpful to the effort to help Ukraine defend itself.” The same day, according to Dilanian, Kube, and Lee, Biden personally called Lloyd Austin, his defense secretary; Avril Haines, his director of national intelligence; and William Burns, his CIA director, and told them that the leaks should stop.

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Tom Friedman, the high-profile Times columnist, had more details of the call, reporting that Biden was “livid” about the leaks and used “the strongest and most colorful language” to make clear that “this kind of loose talk is reckless.” With his opinion hat back on, Friedman zoomed out to put Biden’s anger in context, noting fears, as some of the other stories did, that the leaks could provoke Russian president Vladimir Putin into a dangerous escalation of the war beyond Ukraine’s borders, before arguing that they should be taken seriously. “If you just followed news reports on Ukraine, you might think that the war has settled into a long, grinding and somewhat boring slog. You would be wrong. Things are actually getting more dangerous by the day,” Friedman wrote. “The staggering takeaway from these leaks is that they suggest we are no longer in an indirect war with Russia but rather are edging toward a direct war—and no one has prepared the American people or Congress for that.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. To the extent that the administration scolded the press for conveying the leaks, this was unfair. If the Times’ reporting was accurate—and officials have not appeared to dispute it—then so was its headline; if the US is providing Ukraine with intelligence that the latter then uses to kill Russian generals, then the US logically is “helping” Ukraine to kill Russian generals, even if it isn’t identifying individuals or advising Ukraine to target them. The Times story notes that the intelligence-sharing has been considered to be “a safe form of help,” as far as not escalating the war goes, “because it is invisible, or, at least, deniable.” Last week’s reporting obviously made it visible; indeed, the administration’s pushback seems to have been an attempt to reassert deniability, even if it hasn’t been thoroughly convincing on such terms. If the media has changed the landscape here, it has only done so by reporting on a US policy that is clearly of immense public interest. The risk of the policy becoming public is a problem for policymakers, not for the press. Assumptions of invisibility are dangerous.

Before the war, the Biden administration, along with the government of the UK, in particular, was remarkably open with the press about its intelligence assessments, sharing details of Russia’s troop movements and alleged plans to fabricate a pretext for the invasion—an effort to preemptively expose Putin’s disinformation tactics that was widely praised in national-security circles. It’s tempting to see the present moment, with the war well underway, as the result of a pivot, with administration officials now more inclined toward secrecy than radical transparency. But that’s too neat. The administration’s prewar disclosures were often presented without evidence, causing friction with reporters who pressed for more details. They were also selective; the Washington Post reported Saturday, for instance, that while the US publicized its assessment that Russia was about to invade, it did not share its assessment that Ukraine would quickly collapse, which in any case was wrong. And when other, public predictions did not come to pass, it was hard to say if the disclosure forced Putin to change tack, or if they were wrong, too. The US information war was already messy for the press to cover, even if it is doubly so now.

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What of the Russian side of the information war? It has always been multifaceted and hard to read, and that remains the case. Putin remains inscrutable and unpredictable, a fact, Friedman noted, that has made Biden administration officials doubly wary of publicly bragging about his military embarrassments. Analysts have long watched Russian state media for indications as to the Kremlin line, and have recently seen there—alongside the standard-issue atrocity denialism and lies about the course of the war (What sinking of the Moskva? Nothing to see here!)—some alarmingly apocalyptic saber-rattling about the onset of World War III and the threat of nuclear apocalypse, with Vladimir Solovyov, a top state-TV propagandist, telling his audience that Russian patriots would at least go to heaven in such an eventuality. 

In his recent public remarks, Putin has also invoked Russia’s nuclear capabilities, though not to the same degree. Per Friedman, US officials were particularly worried about what Putin might do or say on “Victory Day,” the Russian holiday marking the Soviet defeat of the Nazis in World War II, which fell today. Ahead of time, the Western news media was itself rife with speculation, and no little alarm, that Putin might use the celebrations to open a new phase of the actual war—channeling predictions, from officials and outside commentators alike, that he could formally declare war on Ukraine (so far, he has called it a “special military operation”), allowing him to declare a population-wide mobilization, or to gesture again at the threat of nuclear war, including via a flyover of a special “doomsday” plane designed to protect Russia’s leaders.

In the end, Putin’s Victory Day speech mostly comprised reheated bombast about Ukraine being run by Nazis and the West being terrible—The Guardian’s Shaun Walker summarized it as “revanchist historical grievance + sprinkle of Jordan Peterson”—and the planned flyover was canceled due to bad weather, even though the weather looked fine. (We can add “the sky” to the list of information-war indicators to watch, apparently.) The address was quickly characterized, in various leading US outlets, as not having announced the “escalation” many feared. Once again, it wasn’t clear if such fears were misplaced or if Putin feinted to avoid becoming predictable. World leaders, CNN’s Angela Dewan noted this morning, will “have to keep guessing” as to his intentions for now. 

Guessing, of course, is a horrible mode for the press, and one we should generally avoid. We have plenty of factual ground to stand on: Russian atrocities in Ukraine continue (yesterday, they bombed a school in the Luhansk region, killing around sixty people who were sheltering there); in the US, more details of Western assistance to Ukraine could very well leak out, no matter how much Biden might want to plug them. But we are still in the thick of an information war, and that’s still a very fraught place to be. As with the war itself, the information war does not have neat phases. Our reaction should be the same as ever: humility, and vigilance.

Below, more on the war:


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre, attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the military parade marking the 77th anniversary of the end of World War II in Moscow, Russia, Monday, May 9, 2022. (Anton Novoderezhkin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)