The Media Today

The fog of war, a month in

March 23, 2022
An emergency worker secures and cleans up debris around the mall which was hit by a Russian missile late in the night. A Russian missile destroyed the mall in the Podilsky district of Kyiv killing at least 4. Podil and other areas in the northwest of Kyiv have been the target of many of the missiles and artillery fire on Kyiv. (Photo by Matthew Hatcher / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

“The Russians were hunting us down. They had a list of names, including ours, and they were closing in.” Thus begins a gut-wrenching, and widely shared, reflection by Mstyslav Chernov—an Associated Press reporter who, along with his colleague Evgeniy Maloletka, was the last international journalist inside the heavily besieged city of Mariupol—on his coverage of the carnage that Russian forces have wreaked there. Chernov and Maloletka set off for Mariupol a month ago today, arriving early the next day, one hour before Russia invaded Ukraine. “Few people believed a war was coming, and by the time most realized their mistake, it was too late,” Chernov recalls. “One bomb at a time, the Russians cut electricity, water, food supplies, and finally, crucially, the cellphone, radio, and television towers. The few other journalists in the city got out before the last connections were gone and a full blockade settled in.” The deaths, he says, “came fast.”

In the month since Russia attacked, brave journalists like Chernov and Maloletka, serving both Ukrainian and international outlets, have kept the world apprised of the horrors of the war, a commitment to documentation for which several colleagues have already lost their lives. Their efforts have been aided by Ukrainians’ daily acts of citizen journalism on social media. They have been supplemented, too, by distant reporters and researchers who have harnessed open-source intelligence to track the broader shape of the war. Even before it began, analysts were able to observe Russia’s troop buildup around Ukraine’s borders; as BuzzFeed has reported, the Middlebury Institute, in California, spotted that Russia had invaded before Putin announced it, after noticing an apparent “traffic jam” on Google Maps. Analysts like those at Middlebury have since been “tweeting their findings on the timescale of rolling news,” BuzzFeed noted, while satellite companies have provided actual rolling-news outlets with “near real-time images” of troop movements, strikes and their damage, and more.

New from CJR: For journalists, Ukraine is a WhatsApp war

The widespread availability of such sources, especially compared with prior wars, has reduced our collective reliance on official gatekeepers. As BuzzFeed reported, though, the world of private satellite imagery is not immune from concerns about the strategically selective publication of evidence. (Some of the same companies providing imagery to news outlets have separate contracts with the US military.) And, of course, osint cannot tell us everything. Bloomberg’s Marc Champion noted recently that while analysts were quick to spot the dispersal of a Russian military column north of Kyiv two weeks ago, for example, it was harder to say what it meant. Franz-Stefan Gady, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the UK, told Champion that despite unprecedented levels of monitoring, “the fog of war still applies.”

This observation strikes me as being more generally applicable. News consumers have access to a lot of information coming out of Ukraine. But key details remain elusive or unconfirmed. And, in this age of information overload, the sheer breadth of sources available to us—with their competing observations and analyses, not to mention motives—can itself feel disorienting. I wrote often before the war about the need for caution and healthy skepticism in assessing claims about the Russian threat amid a complex and multi-sided information war. A month after the threat actualized, that need clearly persists, as does the information war, with Russia pumping out industrial quantities of brutally dishonest propaganda about its actions and Ukrainian leaders countering it with a dexterity that seems to have surprised many observers.

In the run-up to Russia’s invasion, US intelligence agencies took the unusual step of briefing the public on their (often dire) assessments of Putin’s plans, typically without evidence, despite reporters’ (sometimes exasperated) requests for it. The US intelligence community, it goes without saying, has a checkered recent past—see: the Iraq war and, much more recently, the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban—and so the exasperation was warranted. This time, however, the warnings proved correct—and if the Biden administration’s decision to shout about them didn’t ultimately deter Putin, it did at least pre-bunk parts of his casus belli by shining a light on them. US intelligence, as one recent headline put it, has consequently enjoyed something of a reputational “renaissance,” not least in the eyes of many journalists and experts. News reports about various aspects of the war are still leaning into official warnings on a daily basis. (One example from yesterday: that Belarus might soon send troops to join Russia’s war.)

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The insight of Western officials, while apparently impressive so far, is not perfect, however. (US and nato leaders are reportedly struggling, for example, to gauge the status of peace talks between Russia and Ukraine.) It’s also worth remembering that while the Biden administration’s pre-invasion assessments were broadly, and in some cases specifically, right, they were sometimes off. From the outside, it’s tricky to assess, in such cases, whether the intelligence erred or whether its accurate disclosure prompted Putin to reconsider his options. Even the latter scenario, however, is a reminder that the US was, and remains, an actor in an information war here, not a neutral observer. Its warnings coming to fruition doesn’t change that fact.

Nor is the information war easy to conceptually separate from the physical conflict. On Saturday, for example, Russia claimed that it had used a hypersonic missile—a weapon that flies very fast and is adept at evading missile defenses, but is not known to have ever been used in combat—to destroy a Ukrainian munitions store. Headlines in various Western outlets relayed the claim or treated it as fact; CNN was quick to report that US officials had confirmed the use of the weapon, and one of its military analysts cited it as a potential game-changer. In the days that followed, however, Lloyd Austin, the defense secretary, rejected the “game-changer” characterization, while an anonymous defense official told reporters that the US had not independently confirmed usage. Numerous experts suggested, given the apparent details of the strike, that if Russia did fire such weapons, it may have done so more to sow fear than for any concrete military advantage. “We media types risk doing Russia’s propaganda work for it by inflating the significance of this supposed launch,” Politico’s Alexander Ward and Quint Forgey warned on Monday. (Even without adding hype, the word “hypersonic,” repeated without context, sounds scary enough.)

Pretty much since the war began, we have also seen conflicting assessments—from Western officials, outside analysts, and media commentators—as to who is winning the war, and what metrics we might use to judge that. This question, too, is wired into the information war. Take troop losses. Last week, US intelligence reported that seven thousand Russian soldiers may have been killed to that point—a staggering figure that officials nonetheless couched as a conservative estimate. This week, an article pegging the figure nearer to ten thousand appeared on the website of a pro-Kremlin tabloid and stayed there for six hours before it was taken down. The paper blamed hackers. The Kremlin declined to comment and claimed not to have any information on casualty numbers. The last time it offered a count, on March 2, it was 498.

Civilian casualty numbers are hard to pin down as well, with the true number likely much higher than the confirmed count, not least in Mariupol, where the barbaric Russian blitz continues. Accounts of the horror are still making their way out, not least via those who have escaped it, but communications in the city remain crippled, and the situation is murky. Nor are Chernov and Maloletka still there to document it; they were evacuated by Ukrainian soldiers who feared that Russia might capture the journalists and force them to publicly disavow their reporting, which might have fatally undermined the strongest evidence the world has of Russian atrocities there.

Chernov notes that Russia’s information blockade in Mariupol served two purposes: impunity for Russian crimes, and seeding chaos. Even residents of the city have lacked a clear picture of what’s going on; by the time Chernov left, some had taken to believing lies that Russia was feeding in via the only radio broadcast left in operation. Others relied on Chernov and Maloletka to tell them what was going on with the war beyond their city limits in the absence of other news sources, all as the journalists worked to send their stories in the opposite direction. “We were the last journalists in Mariupol,” Chernov says. “Now there are none.”

Below, more on the war:

  • “A WhatsApp war”: For CJR, Joel Simon, the former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, assesses how reporters on the ground in Ukraine have used apps including WhatsApp and Signal to coordinate with editors and manage their safety. “Tracking teams across multiple WhatsApp groups can be complicated, but this is a small price to pay for the ability to be in contact with those operating in high-risk environments,” including Mariupol, Simon writes. “There were extended periods when the cell network was down,” blocking AP editors from contacting Chernov and Maloletka.
  • More press-freedom news: On Monday, Viktoria Roshchina, a journalist for an independent Ukrainian TV station, was released after spending days in detention in a Russian-held zone; she had gone missing while traveling toward Mariupol, and was reportedly coerced by Russian forces to deny on video that she was being held by Russian forces. Maks Levin, a Ukrainian photojournalist, has still not been heard from since March 13, when he disappeared from a front line near Kyiv. Friends and colleagues fear that Levin was injured and/or abducted.
  • Speaking out, I: Yesterday, a Russian court sentenced Alexei Navalny—the jailed opposition leader and sometime journalist whose current sentence runs until next year—to a further nine years in prison on fraud charges that have been “widely seen as a move by the Kremlin to keep him behind bars,” the New York Times reports. Following the sentencing, which took place in a makeshift jailhouse courtroom, “two of his lawyers were detained by the police and driven away in a police truck after they went outside to speak to journalists, according to news reports, before being released later.”
  • Speaking out, II: The Washington Post’s Paul Sonne and Mary Ilyushina profiled Dmitry Muratov, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning editor of the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which has curbed its coverage of the invasion to protect its staff after Putin clamped down on war reporting, but is “far from cowed—relying on visual storytelling, firsthand testimony, transparency about omissions, and implied meaning to convey the horror of the war to a Russian readership that can read between the lines.” (“I am not going to shoot myself in the foot just to walk away from this information battle,” Muratov told the Post.) Yesterday, Muratov said that he would auction off his Nobel medal and donate the proceeds to Ukrainian refugees.

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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.