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We Don't Know What's Happening In Ukraine
Even if you think we do.
I’m sure you’ve heard about Snake Island.
A small garrison of brave Ukrainian soldiers were stationed on a tiny outpost called Zmiinyi (Snake) Island, keeping an eye on the Black Sea, when Russia invaded the entire country. Zmiinyi, deep in the Russia-controlled Black Sea, was swiftly isolate. A Russian warship broadcast a surrender request:
This is a Russian warship. I propose you lay down your weapons and surrender to avoid bloodshed and unnecessary victims. Otherwise you will be bombed.
The Ukrainian troops, after consulting for a moment, replied:
Russian warship, go fuck yourself.
The Russians then commenced bombardment. All soldiers on Snake Island were killed. President Zelensky promised to award them all the posthumous Hero of Ukraine medal. Americans talked about “the spirit of Bastogne” alive again. Entrepreneurs started selling t-shirts. It’s a really inspiring story that makes you almost envy the noble Ukrainian fighting spirit.
So it’s a shame it isn’t true.
As soon as someone responsible in the press thought to ask the Russians about the story, the Russians replied with confusion. There was no bombardment at Zmiinyi, they said. The Ukrainian garrison surrendered peacefully. The Russian Navy took 82 prisoners. Our media duly reported this disagreement about the facts… in the tenth paragraph. Of a ten-paragraph story.
It’s now Sunday, and the meme shields are finally starting to come down. Russia has released video of several people it claims to be the captives, telling their side of the story. The Ukrainian government has acknowledged that the martyrs of Snake Island may still be alive (presenting this as fantastic news) (which it is! just not for Ukraine’s narrative).
There are three reasons this is happening, and all three are good reasons to assume that most of what you are getting out of the Ukraine War right now is nonsense:
The Fog of War: It is genuinely difficult to find out what is going on during wartime. War is confusing, chaotic, and difficult to document. Everyone “in the know” is fanatically paranoid about keeping their information secret. “Loose lips sink ships” and all that. People who spend lots of time in war zones asking, “Hey, so what are you guys up to?” and posting the answers on Twitter end up shot as spies. Also, war moves fast. It is absolutely possible that the Ukrainian government on Friday morning simply did not know what had happened to their Snake Island outpost, and assumed the worst. This is normal and you should expect it in all wars.
Yes, the U.S. Intelligence Community knows a ton about what’s going on in this war. They probably know everything. But they aren’t going to tell you about it, so the fog of war persists.
Propaganda: Wars are not won or lost, finally, on the battlefield. They are won by morale. One of the most important duties of a wartime government is to buck up morale. This is done through propaganda.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with propaganda, mind you. Rosie the Riveter saying “We can do it!” is propaganda, but it’s fine. The message is necessary, it’s objectively inspiring, and it’s completely true. Nevertheless, competent governments tend to run highly effective propaganda campaigns that cast doubt on negative stories and encourage belief in positive ones, often in ways that (if not outright dishonest) show a reckless disregard for the facts.
We aren’t used to this anymore, because it’s been a very, very long time since the last war between two competent governments. I mean, the third-world countries that usually get invaded really try to propagandize, God bless ‘em, but they’re just terrible at it, and they’re usually defending horrific governments to boot. Some of you reading this are probably too young to remember Baghdad Bob, the head of Iraq’s Information Ministry under Saddam Hussein, but, oh man, Baghdad Bob! He was so outlandishly bad at propaganda that he became an early meme, complete with collectible DVDs and bobbleheads. Seriously, look him up. As Americans broke into Baghdad itself, Baghdad Bob was still insisting that our boys were “committing suicide under the walls” and that he encouraged more of us to kill themselves. Pure comedy!
But the Ukrainian government is an actual functioning government. They are much, much better at this than most other recently-invaded states, and it shows in which stories they get to go viral. (Russia is also doing propaganda, of course, but everyone assumes they’re lying, so it doesn’t go anywhere.) Assume that some of the stories you’re seeing are being actively manipulated by the Ukrainian government to cast them in the best possible light.
American Ideological Agreement: Americans have not agreed on any major policy issue, foreign or domestic, in many, many years. But Left and Right, we agree that we want Ukraine to stick it to Russia, and we’re pulling out all kinds of stops. Just look at this:
Can you imagine what it would take for SNL to broadcast an unironic Christian prayer for the United States of America in this day and age? We are all nationalists now—specifically, Ukrainian nationalists. Meanwhile, even Big Tech is reconsidering its censorship policies in light of the new Big Bad in Moscow:Re-personing unpersons. The number of bizarre precedents we’ve set for the future in the last three years is staggering.NEW: Facebook is temporarily permitting users to praise the neo-Nazi Azov regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard if it defends against the Russian invasion https://t.co/mtBmimNvKB Azov forces were previously banned from free discussion under the Dangerous Organizations policySam Biddle @samfbiddle
The entire West is like this. Here’s Berlin:
It’s nice to all agree about something! And we’re right: Ukraine was attacked unjustly by a revanchist aggressor! Ukraine does deserve to win this, and the fact that they probably won’t only makes us cheer for them all the harder! Americans love underdogs! But Nate Silver1 makes a key point:
You and I have spent years learning the rule that (in America) the Right and the Left police each other. This is how we cancel out the lies of each side and find the truth. If Donald Trump makes up an insane lie, the Democrats pounce on it and make memes about how dumb he is. If Joe Biden makes up an insane lie, the Republicans pounce on it. That is the order of things. So if Right and Left actually agree on something (or at least don’t contest it), then it's definitely true.
This is absolutely not the case with the Ukraine war. Both Right and Left (in America) want the same outcome. They are all promoting similar (pro-Ukraine) viral stories, and nobody is policing them. If President Zelensky made up an insane lie, he would just get away with it. Those stories are getting through our mental filters, partly because human brains are fundamentally bad at handling the confusion that reigns during war, partly because we’re out of practice at recognizing propaganda, and partly because our most reliable heuristic for truth has gone offline, apparently for the duration.
At this point, I’m following QAnon theorists to get their take on the war. I think their takes are completely wrong (a week ago they were promising the war wouldn’t happen at all, and that U.S. intelligence was lying about everything), but, hey, I usually think the Left is completely wrong, too. Either way, I still need somebody to challenge my takes, and one thing you can say for QAnons is that they are determined to challenge the mainstream narrative.2
Other than that, I think the point of this blogletter today is simply to get you to put on your skeptical goggles and accept that we don’t really know what’s going on in Ukraine. Is Ukraine actually making a dent in the Russian advance? Maybe, maybe not. Do Russians control any Ukrainian cities? Maybe, maybe not. Did a Ukrainian blow himself up to take down a bridge the Russians were approaching? I’m not ruling it out. Did Ukraine shoot down a Russian paratroop transport. Seems possible. Is Russia preparing to unleash hell on civilians with thermobaric weapons? Could be. Does President Zelensky actually keep dropping badass quotes just off-camera? God, I hope so.
…and that hope, right there, is the whole challenge in a nutshell.
Sidebar: If you want to raise your IQ, you should stop reading Nate Silver’s™ FiveThirtyEight.com™ and replace it in your news diet with Nate Silver’s actual Twitter feed. This way you get all Nate’s very smart takes, instead of the takes of the terrible Vox-reject writers who have taken over his website. You also get to see the Bluepills dragging Nate every time he points out something uncomfortable, which suggests some possible reasons why FiveThirtyEight the website has gone so far downhill. I do miss his articles, though. He wrote good articles, and now all I get is 280 characters.
For the record, QAnon believes President Putin has launched this war because the state of Ukraine does not legally exist—it has always been part of Russia because of some kind of border registration error (?) in the early 1990s—and because U.S.-funded biolabs inside Ukraine have been running hideous experiments on Ukrainian civilians ever since Ukraine joined the globalist cabal. The Russian attack on Chernobyl was not because of Chernobyl’s strategic position or other tactical concerns, but because some of the worst stuff was happening there.
This all sounds, well… let’s just say that it isn’t grounded in the available facts any better than the Snake Island story was. But every time we promote a big viral Ukraine story that turns out false, we end up feeding the idea that you can’t believe anything you see in the media, and that feeds QAnon.
Indeed, I think the main difference between QAnon and me is this: I think the media mostly tries to report the truth and is just extremely bad at it (indeed, often maliciously biased), so you end up with media reports that are maybe one-third true, or sometimes entirely true but with a bizarrely misplaced emphasis.
By contrast, QAnon thinks you can’t believe a single word out of the media or anyone aligned with it, because they are actively engaged in a coordinated conspiracy to deceive. I just don’t think the media is capable of that level of organization or cleverness… perhaps because I’ve read their reporting! The best cure for QAnon would be for our media to, first, stop trying to suppress dissenting views and, second, to suck less at everything it does.