Who is winning the war in Ukraine depends on who is doing the talking.
Predictably, Russia says that it is winning as planned, while the United States says Ukraine is pulling a surprise win, thanks to its steadfast resistance and Western support.
On the face of it, authoritarian Russia cannot be trusted with the facts, let alone the truth about the war, while the liberal West inspires greater credibility as it allows for a free and independent inquiry. But in reality, as Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu said, “all warfare is based on deception”. Neither side could or should be trusted to reduce the fog of war, because both are fully engaged in psychological warfare, which is key to winning the overall war in Ukraine.
In fact, both sides are propagating their own selective facts and myths, while censoring counterclaims, as each needs to maintain an appearance of progress in order to justify big sacrifices in blood or treasure. And both sides need to up the ante in order to harden public resolve behind their goals, which thus far have excluded any serious effort towards a diplomatic solution.
Russia hopes to degrade the morale of the Ukrainian resistance and deflate European support for a war that cannot be won, while the US wants to shore up Ukrainian and European enthusiasm for a winnable war, even if privately, US officials doubt Ukraine could recover all its occupied territories.
While the Russian media has little or no choice but to parrot the official line, Western media has a choice but chooses to trust NATO and Pentagon briefs and reports, regardless of their intentions. Take for example the declaration of an anonymous (why anonymous?) senior Pentagon official that: “Russia has committed nearly 85 percent of its military to the war in Ukraine” and “has removed military coverage from other areas on their border and around the world”; Russia “still has not figured out how to use combined arms effectively”; Russia is “taking hundreds of casualties a day”. Among Russia’s military fatalities have been “thousands” of lieutenants and captains, “hundreds” of colonels, and “many” generals.
Now I have no clue if any of this or other such claims are true, and nor I suspect do the officials propagating it or the journalists spreading it. But it is out there, shaping the opinions of the public, the elites and the experts, most of who believe Ukraine is able to pull off some sort of an upset if not an outright victory against its largely more powerful neighbour. But the Western and especially Anglo-American media seems to suffer from short, or should I say selective memory when it takes the official line at face value, as if the official deception during yesterday’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq or Vietnam, has no bearing on covering today’s war in Ukraine.
In 2019, the Washington Post newspaper revealed that senior US officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable. In other words, they lied. But media outlets, think-tanks and influential pundits continued to rely on these “officials”; even after it was revealed that they have also lied about another war – the Iraq war, which was also fought on false pretence and fabricated evidence.
Official deception was even worse during the Cold War. For example, the “Pentagon Papers” published about half a century ago revealed that the US government was guilty of an enormous cover-up regarding the terrible losses in the Vietnam war, which led to some 55,000 American and more than a million Vietnamese deaths. Any expectation that US media and the public’s trust in the government’s take on wars was “forever diminished”, turned out to be premature, as official lies about the “dirty wars” in Asia and Central America continued to be widely reported as facts.
Even today, as US Special Operation Command covertly deploys special forces across Africa to fight “shadow wars”, it blatantly preaches “free and transparent press”. One does not know whether to laugh or cry.
So it is no surprise that governments, whether autocracies or democracies, lie about wars for tactical or strategic reasons. In fact, there is a fancy name for it – stratagem, which means to deliberately send untrue signals to unsettle the enemy while reassuring one’s own side.
What is shocking is how the “free press” in the “free world”, which to its credit has helped reveal much of the official deception in the past as in the “Pentagon Papers” and the “Afghan Papers”, is adamant about echoing and amplifying the official line as if it were complicit in the war.
Watching journalists and pundits in respected American and British journals exhaust the synonyms of fascist, evil and dangerous to describe Russia’s Putin, with little or no attempt at balance or objectivity, one is inclined to believe that Western media has largely been enlisted in NATO’s crusade against Putin’s Russia until victory. But what does “victory” entail here: liberating all of Ukraine? Or weakening Russia to the extent it no longer threatens other European countries?
The difference cannot be overstated, because NATO’s ultimate objective is to defeat Russia and deter China from following in its footsteps, regardless of the price for Ukraine. That is why both sides seem adamant to continue the fight regardless of the cost. Russia hopes time will force a weakened Ukraine and a wobbly Europe to blink first and eventually back down. And the US is keen on Ukrainians fighting on regardless of whether a “victory” is achievable, as long as the war exhausts the Russian military and weakens its economy. It is betting that Putin’s Russia will crack in Ukraine just as the Soviet Union imploded after a decade-long war against the US-supported armed uprising in Afghanistan. But then again, Ukraine is no Afghanistan; not in any relevant way, and Russia does not view it as a disposable geopolitical asset.
So even if Ukraine has in fact managed a surprise upset against the invading Russian forces and forced Moscow into an unexpected war of attrition, it remains far from certain that it could maintain its counter-offensive for another six months, let alone another six years.
The ongoing battle for Kherson may provide a clearer signal about where things are heading. But as long as Western military support remains robust but defensive in nature so as not to risk a nuclear confrontation with Russia, expect the destructive war of attrition to continue in the medium run, or reach a tense stalemate at best, not any form of a decisive victory for either side.