As Ukrainian forces continue their much-hyped counteroffensive to take back contested territories in the country’s eastern and southern regions, we’re faced with conflicting coverage of the campaign. Many reports say Ukraine’s forces are struggling to break through the minefields fortifying Russia’s lines. And many admit that even the sudden and dramatic Wagner Group mutiny did not appear to hand Ukraine much of an advantage on the front. Days ago, in a move that looks like damage control, Ukraine’s defense secretary even announced that Kyiv would no longer measure success in recaptured territory but would instead just aim to destroy as much Russian military infrastructure as possible.
Still, according to some Western journalists, this is all part of Ukraine’s plan. They’re just testing Russian resistance to find weak spots so they can better allocate resources during the next phase of the counteroffensive. And that’s when the big gains will take place. Maybe that’s true, but still, other coverage about Ukraine’s losses would have you think the counteroffensive has been a horrific disaster.
Much like the wider war, how you see this counteroffensive playing out depends almost entirely on where you get your news. That is not an accident. As citizens of the wealthiest country whose government controls the most military hardware in the world, it’s important to remember that all coverage of this war ought to be viewed with some baseline degree of skepticism. This is because numerous parties—in both governments and the media outlets themselves—are working hard to bend the American public’s perception of the war to their benefit.
That is, of course, nothing new. In 1941—the last time a European war threatened to go global—the British sent an intelligence officer named William Stephenson to the United States and tasked him with running an information operation to turn American public opinion away from noninterventionism.
The main approach Stephenson’s stories team used was secretly planting carefully crafted—and sometimes outright fake—stories in the biggest American newspapers and magazines. These stories were specifically designed to portray British forces as having more than enough courage to take on the Germans but lacking sufficient resources, regardless of how accurate that depiction was at any given time.
It was a specific tone that the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) believed had the best chance of convincing the American public to support joining the fight. Since then, every group that the American political establishment wants to support militarily gets presented to the American people in a similar fashion—from the Mujahideen to the Syrian Kurds to the current Ukrainian regime.
Though we may not know about the prevalence of covert information operations for some time, a pair of stories published last month offer a window into some more overt efforts to shape our perception of the war in Ukraine. First, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a Ukraine correspondent for the New York Times, wrote a viral story detailing how Ukrainian press officers and some Western journalists have tried to downplay, justify, or cover up the use of Nazi symbols by Ukrainian soldiers.
One specific passage tells of Western photojournalists asking their subjects to remove patches with Nazi emblems before taking photos. By doing so, these journalists crossed the line from documenting their subjects to staging them….