War and Propaganda in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict
We recently passed the first anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine war and the Wall Street Journal published a lengthy review of the twelve months of the conflict, summarizing what had happened and describing future prospects, an article that attracted more than 2,500 comments.
Ukraine Is the West’s War Now
The initial reluctance of the U.S. and its allies to help Kyiv fight Russia has turned into a massive program of military assistance, which carries risks of its own
Yaroslav Trofimov • The Wall Street Journal • February 25, 2023 • 2,800 Words
Although hardly critical of our involvement, the writer noted that America and its allies had already provided Ukraine with an astonishing $120 billion in military equipment and money, a figure far larger than Russia’s entire defense budget, with further massive outlays still to come.
As the title of the piece indicated, the West had effectively now taken over control of the war, and if the effort to defeat Russian President Vladimir Putin failed, American global influence might be undermined and the future of the NATO alliance called into question. Indeed, such notable foreign policy luminaries as John Mearsheimer, Jeffrey Sachs, Douglas Macgregor, and Lawrence Wilkerson have all recently raised the possibility that NATO risks disintegration, especially in the wake of Seymour Hersh’s bombshell disclosure that President Biden had illegally destroyed the Nord Stream pipelines, some of Europe’s most important civilian energy infrastructure.
So in effect, America is at war with Russia on Russia’s own border, and if we lose that war, the era of our global dominance that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union might come to an end. Since the earliest days of the fighting, our electronic and social media have functioned as unrestrained cheerleaders, hailing Ukrainian victories and Russian defeats, but this WSJ article could not avoid providing a much more sobering perspective.
Although this war has been of enormous world importance, I’ve actually written very little about the details of the conflict.
I lack any military expertise and doubted that I could contribute anything useful about the fighting, which was anyway obscured by the fog of war. America’s reigning Neocon establishment totally controls the Western mainstream media and over the last few decades they have made propaganda, dishonest or otherwise, one of their most frequently deployed political weapons. Indeed, no sooner had the war broken out than social media was awash with the heroic exploits of “the Ghost of Kyiv” and “the Martyrs of Snake Island,” outright hoaxes that were widely disseminated and believed at the time.
We live in the era of smartphones, so video clips showing Russian tanks destroyed or Russian troops defeated and retreating were widely promoted by partisans of the Ukrainian side. But such anecdotal evidence seemed totally meaningless to me. In 1940 the French army suffered one of history’s most lop-sided defeats at the hands of the Germans, yet if smartphones had been around at the time, it would have been easy for pro-French activists to provide hundreds of clips showing destroyed German panzers or small German units suffering defeat. Such war-porn seems more like entertainment for political partisans than anything having serious value.
This obvious problem soon led some observers to search out a means of more objectively determining combat losses. Many of them began relying upon the Oryx website, run by a purportedly independent “open source” organization that organized and displayed images of destroyed tanks and other military vehicles, thereby allowing analysts to total up the losses suffered by each side in the conflict. Journalists and others soon used this photographic evidence to conclude that the Russians had suffered enormous, almost catastrophic losses, with the under-gunned but highly-motivated Ukrainian defenders destroying huge numbers of Russian tanks and other military vehicles, a result that also suggested very high Russian casualties.
The alleged loss of Russian hardware documented by Oryx seems absolutely staggering. One of the main website pages itemizes nearly 9,500 Russian armored vehicles lost, of which 6,000 were destroyed and nearly 2,800 captured. Those losses included nearly 1,800 tanks, with well over 500 of these captured by the plucky Ukrainians. Each of these listed items is linked to a photograph, most of them either being uploaded separately or contained within a Tweet. For example, 244 destroyed or captured T-72B tanks are listed, all individually numbered and linked to the photographic evidence. Obviously, not all destroyed Russian vehicles would have been swept up, so the true scale of Russia’s apparent losses must surely have been considerably greater. Ukraine’s hardware losses were also cataloged, but they only totaled about 3,000 armored vehicles.
Oryx: Russian Military Equipment Losses
Oryx: Ukrainian Military Equipment Losses
Throughout most of the last year, our mainstream media outlets have been filled with stories of Ukrainian victories and Russian defeats, and surely the large compendium of factual material provided by the Oryx website has been an important reason for this. The Oryx Wikipedia entry runs only three short paragraphs, but explains that the website has been regularly cited by Reuters, the BBC, the Guardian, the Economist, Newsweek, CNN, and CBS, with Forbes hailing Oryx as “outstanding” and “the most reliable source in the conflict so far.” My impression is that many writers on military affairs are enthralled by such photos of heavy equipment, whether intact or destroyed, and Oryx provides many thousands of such striking images, thus capturing their rapt attention.
If the Russians had indeed suffered more than three times the Ukrainian losses in armored vehicles, with well over 500 of their tanks captured by the latter, a Ukrainian military triumph might have seemed very likely, so the Americans and their allies naturally rewarded their victorious proteges with a tidal wave of financial and military support that easily topped a hundred billion dollars.
The supposed Ukrainian achievement was certainly a remarkable one. According to Wikipedia, the largest land offensive in human history was Germany’s 1941 Operation Barbarossa, which involved fewer than 7,000 armored vehicles. But if we credit Oryx, over the last twelve months Ukraine’s doughty patriots have totally annihilated a far greater Russian mechanized force, while their own losses have been just a fraction of that. Individuals should decide for themselves how plausible such total numbers sound.
I only very recently looked at the Oryx website, and the first issue that came to mind was how anyone could possibly determine whether the images were real, faked, or duplicated. According to Wikipedia, the Ukrainian military possessed thousands of tanks, many of them being the same models used by the invading Russians. So if Ukrainian activists uploaded a photo of a destroyed T-72B to Oryx, how can we really be sure it was a Russian tank rather than one of their own? What if several different photos of the same wrecked vehicle were taken from different angles, and separately uploaded? The fighting in the Donbass began in 2014, and can we be sure that the photographs provided are from the current fighting rather than from battles fought years ago?
None of the military enthusiasts whom I asked had any ready answers to those questions, perhaps because they had never even previously considered such troubling possibilities.
During recent decades, Hollywood special effects wizards have displayed great technical skill in showing Spiderman swinging between skyscrapers and the Incredible Hulk undergoing a transformation. Surely producing simple photographs of destroyed military equipment would be a triviality, with the costs almost invisibly small compared to a movie budget. But consider that those simple photographs uploaded to a Dutch website have been a crucial factor in attracting many tens of billions of dollars of financial support from American and allied governments, giving each single image on the Oryx website a potential value of $10 million or more. Producing fake photographs is certainly much safer and easier than destroying Russian tanks in real life, and doing so on an industrial scale would seem a very cost-effective propaganda strategy, so it’s difficult to believe that neither the Ukrainians nor their Neocon/CIA/MI6 mentors ever decided to employ such methods.
Putting the issue in very crude terms, I doubt whether Russian losses may be accurately estimated by aggregating and analyzing what amounted to Ukrainian propaganda-Tweets.
Furthermore, an examination of Oryx’s origins raised other troubling issues.
From the Iraq War onward, the credibility of the American government has steadily deteriorated, considerably weakening the effectiveness of its international propaganda campaigns, a central pillar of its international influence.
Then in 2014 a British blogger named Eliot Higgins established Bellingcat, supposedly an independent research organization that relied upon the objective analysis of open source materials. However, in practice his efforts seemed to almost invariably produce conclusions closely aligned with American foreign policy interests in Syria, Ukraine, and other international flashpoints. This notably including the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and the alleged gas attack in Syria that Higgins himself had covered the previous year, always pinning the blame upon governments that were the targets of American hostility.
Numerous distinguished international journalists and other experts, notably including Seymour Hersh, Theodore Postol, and Karel van Wolferen often came to totally different conclusions, but their views were usually ignored by the media, while Bellingcat was heavily quoted in the Western outlets as fully confirming the accusations of the American government. As a consequence, there have been widespread suspicions that Bellingcat merely operated as a tool of Western intelligence services, very similar to how the CIA had established other such front-organizations for propaganda purposes during the original Cold War.
According to the Wikipedia page on Oryx, both its founders were Bellingcat alumni, raising serious questions about whether they are really as independent-minded as they claimed to be.
Meanwhile, other American military experts have provided very different assessments of the course of the war.
For decades, Col. Douglas Macgregor has been regarded as a leading conservative military strategist, authoring several well-regarded books and having many dozens of guest appearances on FoxNews. After having a long career in NATO, he had been a finalist for the position of National Security Advisor, served as a Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Defense, and was nominated as U.S. Ambassador to Germany. He is obviously very well-connected in such establishment military circles, and based upon his Pentagon contacts, he has repeatedly stated that it is actually the Ukrainian forces that have suffered horrendous casualties, including as many as 160,000 combat deaths compared to far lower Russian losses of perhaps 20,000 or so. Other military experts such as Scott Ritter and Larry Johnson have expressed very similar views.
Across all of his numerous interviews, Macgregor comes across as quite persuasive and confident in his assessments of the military situation.
Reprinted with permission from The Unz Review.
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