A week of whiplash and the need for cool heads over Russia and Ukraine

“With Buildup on Land and Sea, Russia Closes Noose on Ukraine” (two columns, below the fold). “RUSSIA MAY START UKRAINE INVASION IN DAYS, US SAYS” (all caps, one column). “Biden Tries To Sway Putin, Warning of ‘Severe’ Costs” (two columns, two lines deep). “Amid Threats, Ukraine Is Led By an Optimist” (one column, below a big photo of the Super Bowl). “IN SHIFT, MOSCOW ADOPTS NEW TONE IN UKRAINE CRISIS” (all caps, one column). “PUTIN OFFERING TROOP PULLBACK AND DIPLOMACY” (all caps, one column). “WEST SEES BUILDUP OF RUSSIAN FORCE, NOT A DRAWDOWN” (all caps, two columns, three lines deep). “FEAR OF WAR RISES AS SHELLING PELTS EASTERN UKRAINE” (all caps, two columns, three lines deep).

If you follow the news solely by looking at front-page headlines in the New York Times, this is how you will have perceived the past week in American-Russian-Ukrainian relations, from last Friday through this morning. This is not a recommended way to follow the news. Even those with a broader diet, however, might recognize, in these cascading headlines, a sense of whiplash and confusion as to whether Russia will invade Ukraine, and if so, when. Much of this sense has been downstream of official pronouncements among the key players, with anonymous briefing further muddying the picture, but the press has struggled to clear it up. Last Friday, PBS reported, citing “Western and defense officials,” that the US believes Putin had already decided to invade, but when he was asked about that report the same day, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, denied that that was the US assessment. The same day, sources told various reporters that the US had briefed its allies that Russia might invade on Wednesday of this week. In its story, the Times stressed that Russia may have floated a specific date as part of a “disinformation effort.” Not every outlet included that crucial context.

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An especially muddy media moment came on Monday, when Volodymyr Zelensky—the Ukrainian president who had, to that point, pushed back on panic-laden reports of an imminent invasion—said in a message posted to Facebook (in Ukrainian) that “we are told that February 16 will be the day of the attack.” Numerous US news organizations and journalists immediately reported that Zelensky had echoed or “confirmed” the Wednesday invasion warning; the reports rattled the markets, while, in Washington, reporters put Zelensky’s comment to John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, who seemed blindsided by it. (“That doesn’t really say anything. I don’t even have a Facebook account. But I don’t… I don’t know.”) Aides to Zelensky, who used to be a professional comedian, quickly told US outlets that he wasn’t changing his assessment, but rather satirizing foreign media reports that Wednesday would be the day, leading a number of US reporters, in turn, to report that Zelensky had “clarified” or “walked back” his comment, or otherwise to scold him for his ill-timed joke. Other observers pointed out, however, that Zelensky’s sarcasm had been clear to his Ukrainian-speaking audience, and that American journalists were the ones who were at fault.

Wednesday came and went with no invasion; indeed, the coverage entered something of a lull after Putin suggested a partial troop drawdown, despite US skepticism that he would follow through. Russian state outlets mocked Western media alarmism, with hosts feigning sadness at “the day of no invasion” and rerunning an old comedy clip from “the scene of where nothing happened”; a government spokesperson, meanwhile, requested that the “mass disinformation outlets of the USA and Britain” consider “announcing the schedule of our ‘invasions’ for the coming year, as I’d like to plan my vacation.” Ukrainians condemned the alarmism, too, with David Arakhamia, a top lawmaker allied to Zelensky, accusing outlets like CNN and Bloomberg of worse disinformation than top Russian propagandists, and calling for an eventual postmortem of the coverage “because these are elements of a hybrid war.” A Russian state TV host gleefully broadcast dull footage from a camera that Reuters set up to monitor central Kyiv. The livestream apparently annoyed residents, too. Someone flew a drone in front of the camera. It carried a sign with the words “garage for sale” and the phone number of the Russian embassy.

Officials in the US and UK reacted differently. Speaking to Politico, a British government source pushed back on the narrative that the Wednesday threat had been overhyped and cautioned pundits against “parroting Kremlin talking points,” claiming, per Politico, that the US warning had been couched only as a possibility and that “the whole point of releasing this information to the media was to try to dissuade Putin from invading.” Meanwhile, the US government intensified its warnings, telling reporters late on Wednesday that Russia had lied about the troop drawdown. Yesterday, as reports emerged of shelling attacks by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, warned the United Nations that Russian state media was already spreading “false alarms” about goings-on in Ukraine that could serve as a pretext to invade—echoing past US warnings about a possible “false flag” operation. Also yesterday, Biden told a gaggle of reporters at the White House that his “sense” is that Russia will attack “in the next several days.” The resulting headlines looked very similar to last Friday’s.

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A week is a long time in the news business but a short time in the sweep of history; the incessant warnings of imminent Russian invasion may start to feel, well, not very imminent, but we’re talking about a timeframe of weeks so far, if not days. The risk of war is clearly very high and should not be downplayed. Just as reporters must rigorously interrogate US intelligence claims about an imminent attack, as I’ve written here already in recent weeks, they must also interrogate the less alarmed stances of various European powers and Ukraine itself, and not simply present these counterclaims as evidence against each other. Every player here has its own diplomatic and economic interests to protect. (In decrying hysterical Western coverage this week, Arakhamia, the Zelensky ally, claimed that it was costing his country two to three billion dollars a month, in part by making borrowing harder.)

He and others do have a point, however, when they call the current US media coverage alarmist—very simply, much of it is sounding the alarm, loudly and incessantly so. Again, this tone is often entering coverage downstream of American politicians’ own alarming statements, and alarm might be warranted. But our job is to do more than write down what officials are saying, and alarm, when not immediate and independently corroborated, can be an unhelpful—even harmful—mode in media coverage. The facts here are murky, but journalists should know full well by now that the media is in the crossfire of an information war, and that fact, at the very least, should be a prominent and omnipresent caveat in our coverage of intelligence assessments and predictions.

When an invasion fails to materialize by a threatened date, it’s clearly not our job to scoff and call the threat as a whole overblown. But we should loudly interrogate what it means that it didn’t happen on that date. It’s possible that a US intelligence disclosure did foil an actual Kremlin plan to invade on Wednesday by tipping the world and its media off to it; it’s also possible that the date was disinformation after all, with the Kremlin floating it, then backing away to discredit US intelligence, and media reporting on it, in the eyes of the world. Asking that question is hardly facilitating Russian propaganda; quite the opposite, in fact.

It’s important that we take a breath and cover every development in the Russia-Ukraine story with as much context as we can. As I wrote on Monday, much careful journalism is already doing just that, but the coverage of Zelensky’s “joke” was a reminder that such care is far from universal, and it’s far from the only example. We might also pause to rethink how best to communicate the imminence of the Russian threat, in such a way as to keep it prominently in the news without raising the temperature for raising the temperature’s sake. An attack has been a live possibility for a while, and anyone even vaguely following the news should be well aware of the fact. It might not be so helpful, at this point, to make every official restatement of the obvious the top headline of the day—in the Times or anywhere else.

Below, more on the Ukraine crisis:

  • Going insane: Writing for Discourse Blog, Jack Crosbie, who is in Kyiv, argues that the potential for war “is leading to some wild jumps of imagination” among the pundit class, including the idea that Putin might launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and not stop there. “You have to be a complete lunatic (or utterly desperate to fill cable airtime) to assert that Vladimir Putin would be dumb enough to just plow on through Ukraine and keep going,” he writes. “This is cable news war brain, and it has almost zero connection with reality, despite what the worst elements of the Atlantic Council want you to think.”
  • The climate angle: Mark Hertsgaard, the executive director of Covering Climate Now, a climate-reporting initiative founded by CJR and The Nation, writes that newsrooms need to do a better job of situating the Ukraine crisis in the context of the climate crisis. “Energy—especially the supply and price of methane gas—is an intrinsic part of the international tensions at the Ukrainian border,” Hertsgaard writes. “Ukraine, a major grain exporter, has also been walloped by droughts in recent years—another climate story with international consequences that has gone relatively undercovered.”
  • Hedging bets: This week, American intelligence officials accused Zero Hedge, a right-wing financial website, of amplifying Russian propaganda by circulating articles, written by Kremlin-backed media, accusing the US of overhyping the Russian threat. “The officials did not say whether they thought Zero Hedge knew of any links to spy agencies and did not allege direct links between the website and Russia,” the AP’s Nomaan Merchant reports. “Zero Hedge denied the claims and said it tries to ‘publish a wide spectrum of views that cover both sides of a given story.’”
  • Funny man: In 2019, Nina Jankowicz wrote, for CJR, about Zelensky’s background as a comedian in the context of his election as Ukraine’s president. 1+1, the oligarch-owned network that broadcast Zelensky’s shows, used his “celebrity status to circumvent rules about the ‘day of silence,’ preceding the election, when traditional campaign activities are prohibited,” Jankowicz reported. “Though the network didn’t broadcast political agitation, it ran a back-to-back lineup of Zelensky programs, including a documentary about the life of Ronald Reagan narrated by Zelensky himself.”
  • Kirb your enthusiasm: Politico’s Max Tani and Alex Thompson report that in addition to his duties as Pentagon spokesperson at a tense time, Kirby has also “become the informal lead in managing the Biden administration’s relationship with Fox News.” Kirby’s dual roles are “emblematic of how his stock has risen within the administration over its first year,” Tani and Thompson write. “He has carved out a reputation as one of the team’s most reliable communicators” and is on the short list to succeed Jen Psaki as White House press secretary whenever she steps down from the job.
  • Musical chairs: As I wrote on Monday, the comically long table at which Putin met with French president Emmanuel Macron last week sparked a flurry of reporting, memes, and news-analysis pieces. It has now also sparked a media debate as to who made it. In an emotional interview, Vicente Zaragozá, a furniture maker in Spain, told Cope, a Spanish radio station, that he made the table, but Renato Pologna, an Italian furniture maker, pushed back, claiming that his company made the table for Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s predecessor, in the nineties. “We’re talking about a table, not an aircraft,” Pologna said, of Zaragozá’s claim to the table. “It could be that he made a copy.”

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: Independence Monument is seen over Kyiv’s Maidan Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)