Despite Moscow’s litany of denials, Russian regular troops – not holidaying volunteers, not Cossack patriots, not just mercenaries and adventurers – are fighting in the Donbas. That we know, and for many in the West the Kremlin’s very mendacity has become an insidious, burning irritant. Hence the time and effort some put into debunking claims, assembling intricate geolocated and photo-backed evidence proving… what everyone already knows. Perhaps no wonder then that when what seemed like evidence of Russia’s presence in Ukraine appeared, so many gleefully jumped on it. A shame that it so quickly unraveled, in some ways a depressingly perfect metaphor for the way truth has become such an uncertain and negotiable process in this miserable conflict.
The story is quite well known by now. Of all places a Forbes blog seemed, as near as I can tell, to be the first place which splashed that “Russia Inadvertently Posts Its Casualties In Ukraine: 2,000 Deaths, 3,200 Disabled.” The story was that the website of the Delovaya zhizn’ (no, I’d never heard of it, either, but it’s one of those conveniently anonymous names everyone thinks they might) accidentally leaked a document on payments for dead and disabled servicemen that proved a year’s fighting had led to 2,000 Russian soldiers on duty dying and 3,200 being disabled. The page was quickly removed, apparently because of censorship – after all, disclosing data on losses is a crime.
Not so fast
So far, so smoking gun, and not surprisingly it then did the rounds as mainstream news outlets jumped on the story. And yet, soon enough different people from different angles were beginning to question it.
The ever-perceptive Leonid Bershidsky quickly called it a fake, not least because of a grammatical slip and the actual registration of the website: “Bs-life.ru – come on, are you serious?”
AP’s Nataliya Vasilyeva noted that “two days of Western officials retweeting a Forbes report quoting a Ukrainian web-site quoting a non-existent Russia news web-site re Ukraine” simply demonstrated that “the ease of spreading rumors in the digital world is astonishing.”
Ruslan Leviev’s WarInUkraine team unequivocally labeled it a fake. They noted that the report referred to a special government decree on supporting the victims which was unnecessary and dug into the Delovaya zhizn’ website to demonstrate its…questionable foundations.
For my part, I wondered about the military details. First of all, 2,000 dead sounded like an awful lot for a year’s off-and-on fighting in which not only did the Russian regulars only represent a part of the total fighting force, but they tended to have the advantage in artillery and armor. On average, the Soviets lost 1,500 or so for each year of the Afghan war – out of the 100,000 or so troops there on average at any time. Yes, that was a war fought against an enemy without much artillery, but also one with many major operations, and one in which the high command did not care that much about soldiers’ lives.
Perhaps more to the point the Ukrainians – whom we are told need to be armed because the Russians have all the high-power firepower – have “only” lost around 1,700 soldiers in the same or a longer period. Furthermore, the unofficial estimate from the field is that for every Russian casualty, the local auxiliaries and militias suffer one, so that would suggest 4,000 losses on their side to 1,700 Ukrainians. If the Ukrainians really are that much more deadly and bullet-proof, why the great clamor to train and arm them?
And the real irony? RT, the poster child for modern information warfare, did some good journalism, sending someone to try and track down the address where Delovaya zhizn’ was meant to operate and generally doing the kind of thing news organizations are meant to do. Seriously, when RT can put other news agencies to shame, even though clearly it has every interest in debunking this story, there is something strange going on.
What’s going on?
Of course, the story might have been exactly as it seemed, quickly covered up by a Kremlin smoke-and-mirrors op. But one thing the Kremlin has not demonstrated of late is a seamless professionalism in its cover-ups and misdirections. From press spokesman Peskov’s now-infamous watch and yacht honeymoon to handling Putin’s absence this spring, Moscow has tended to be slow, clumsy, and downright stupid in its information black ops, so why could be assume such a neat clean up job here?
So what is going on? I have no idea, and in many ways that’s the point.
A Kremlin cover-up of a real source? As you’ll gather, I doubt it, but it is remotely possible.
A subtle Russian ploy to undermine those who so quickly assumed the document was accurate? Could be, I suppose, although it does give the Kremlin infowarriors rather more credit than I think they deserve.
A cunning Western provocation, whether government or private initiative, to backfoot the Russians? Maybe.
Just someone messing with people’s minds, in an age when anyone with a computer can create identities and spread their own inventions? I suppose it could be.
Someone wanting to make the point that we seek out and run with the “truth” that fits our preconceptions? Possible, although the more time passes without a “hah, fooled you” follow-up, the less plausible this is.
Welcome to the infinitely malleable, insubstantial, here-today-gone-tomorrow world of modern information warfare, as well as a world in which a blog is a news site, and the rush to publish fast trumps the urge or need to publish well. An age when, to quote Jonathan Swift, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it” – typically without having to worry about fact-checkers or provenance…