War Analysis

Putin upscales Russia's information war

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has shut down social media during his invasion of Ukraine (Screenshot via YouTube)

Two weeks into the 24 February invasion of Ukraine by Russia under President Vladimir Putin, he might still get his quick conquest — but a lasting great victory remains more elusive.

The war maps indicate a strategy good for now and for later. The first part is the steady occupation of the coastline and borderlands all around Ukraine – north, east and south – by Russian forces. The second is the bombardment and encirclement of key cities, from Odessa around to the capital Kyiv, already here and there complete.

Looking ahead

A further part may be the occupation of the Western frontier with four members of the NATO alliance — Hungary, Romania, Poland and Slovakia; laying siege to all main population centres; destroying or occupying all airfields; plus taking power stations to cut off electricity, all of which might allow much control of a very large country.

The key to any insurgency or guerrilla operation, as the Ukrainian side may attempt, is supply across friendly borders. The occupying forces might, or might not, find the sealing of borders impossible. (Precedents: success of the Zimbabwe nationalists against Rhodesia, once Portugal abruptly granted independence to neighbouring Angola and Mozambique, creating supply lines; or the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam; or in the other direction, British success eventually isolating the Voortrekker guerrillas in South Africa.)

Many other scenarios exist, including a quagmire for the Russians, or a partitioning of Ukraine by force, or striking on against NATO, or magnifying the outrage against civilians and defenders in a Nazi-style occupation. Is it imaginable, would we see in our time millions of Ukrainians, armed civilians, actually determine on Armageddon, taking up the mentality, carrying out the intention: a Masada, “we will never surrender”, “you’ll never catch me alive”?

How fast was the blitzkrieg?

Can this invasion, meanwhile, run “on time”, by comparison with other invasions deploying massive forces? The “blitzkriegoccupation of Poland by German forces under Adolf Hitler in 1939 took five weeks. They crossed the frontier on 1 September, on a premise that Polish troops had attacked them, took Warsaw after four weeks and received the surrender of the last Polish unit on 6 October.

The occupation of Iraq by American forces (plus Australians, British and Poles) under U.S. President George W Bush in 2003 took six weeks. They commenced a bombardment, “shock and awe”, on a premise that Iraq was deploying weapons of mass destruction, on 20 March and declared victory, “mission accomplished”, on 1 May.

If timing in these operations is crucial, also getting intelligence on what is happening, what may happen, is crucial. Information obtained by Western sources, from the satellites, drones, transmissions monitoring and “human” intelligence, is being rationed out only piecemeal to news media — but beyond doubt, there is extremely focused attention among intelligence communities.

The story of how such a scramble for information will happen came out after the war over the Falkland Islands. The Americans were able to set up a geostationary satellite to watch in real-time; the Soviet Union could only deploy an orbiting satellite, so had to wait for it to come around, to get 12-hour takes on the battle.

Of special interest was the performance of conscripted troops deployed by Argentina against British regulars – which was no good – and the use of conscripts to bulk out modern-day armies has since been reduced. There was interest in the sea-keeping capacity of the British task force in constant high seas, astonishingly sound, and in the effectiveness of certain missiles in combat conditions — one British anti-aircraft weapon good, another not good.

Two ways to find out

There are two other main ways to get information on this terrible “special military operation”, as it is to the Russians, or the “great patriotic war” as it must become to the Ukrainians, (their second; the first against Hitler when they were part of the Soviet Union).

One way is to sample the millions of posts on social media, much of it graphic hand-held imagery of the bombing outrages and shooting, and family testimonials, serving one key purpose — proving it is a savage outright war on a big scale, pushing beyond the imaginations of people a few short weeks ago. As always, the “information” flood is unmanageable, the information lacking context or verification, a lot of it made-up stories and lies.

A special difficulty is the near-complete blackout and shutdown of unofficial media and outside-sourced social media of any kind in Russia. Arguments go back and forth about how much influence media coverage may have, but it is patently true that media is influential when there is no actual media. Censorship works, whether as a blackout or as a monopoly from one source, in this case, Russian state-controlled media selling false “narratives” — for example, no bombing of the city of Kyiv.

This digital warfare may have its uses in building up awareness of the danger stalking Europe and the wider world at this moment, but it will determine nothing. What matters immediately is the military situation, as to which side is winning, by what kind of margin and how fast. The battle of money and resources also will count — financial freeze against Russia, petroleum shortages, possible overseas famines if Russian and Ukrainian wheat exports fail.

The third main way of finding out, believe it or not, is monitoring the professional and mainstream news media. These are able to deploy large communication resources. In crisis reporting, the story breaks into two parts: the official story of political leaders, diplomats, economics, leaks, briefings, meetings and communiqués; and the story on the ground, in the streets. As the Ukrainian forces, after two weeks, are continuing to hold ground in the cities, international journalists are able to be present bearing witness.

As with all regular media operations, they have to routinise. For example, the Western city of Lviv is a filing point for television, its location within Ukraine as an aid to credibility, where journalists pull together composite reports drawing on coverage from many locations. The ground coverage can confirm what the official coverage is saying, and will illustrate it.

Votes at the United Nations, condemnation of Russia by habitual neutrals like Switzerland, unilateral boycotting of Russia by major corporations, acquire more reality from the vision of the fighting. The personal stories of refugees, people under fire, people who have already lost loved ones, have consolidated the crushing moral defeat of the aggressor in this war — the Government of Vladimir Putin in Russia.

For now, Vladimir Putin can ignore it all, crush all dissent, or even truth-telling in Russia, and push on with his timetable. Will he be declaring “mission accomplished” within the historical five or six-week time frame? Or will it be different, somehow, in this current episode of the appalling history of human civilisation?

Talking points

What will the NATO commanders be looking for, what talking points as they watch this horror show unfold?

  • The failure of the Russian forces to immediately demonstrate air supremacy?
  • Those forces’ logistics problems, with fuel supplies and the like?
  • Are these points of vulnerability of the Russian forces if they have to be taken on? 
  • Will the Russian “juggernaut” be bled and grossly weakened by this unexpectedly hard and exhausting battle?
  • The Americans have begun taunting Putin, publicly noting that all the troops in the big show on Ukraine’s borders last month have been committed, that the offensive is tardy, the supply lines struggling.
  • Will Syrian troops be brought in? (Use of colonial troops can give added real strength, as with the Australian divisions in the First World War, or something bad, as with atrocities against civilians by Franco’s North African troops in the Spanish Civil War).   

What about the famous 65-kilometre “convoy” of armoured vehicles out of Belarus, destined for Kyiv, that did not move for a week? Has it been a tactical move to leave them lined up like that; was it empty fuel tanks; mechanical trouble; communication problems or discipline breakdown? The column would be protected; it appears not to have been attacked. Does that signal an inability of the Ukrainian forces to act? They have been asking for aircraft from NATO, in their bidding against time to be able to use such forces.

How much of Ukraine’s preparedness, such as the purchase of sophisticated materiel, was drained off by the country’s notorious corruption industry before any shots were fired? Large scale theft from the state would compete with crippling petty corruption, like the “special tax” you might pay in cash to get yourself through the security gates at the airport.

All could be drawn into it; professionals or state employees on risible, unviable salaries must somehow find something extra. Putin or no Putin, the corruption problem would contribute heavily to Ukraine being kept out of the European Union. A hard time followed by a harder time. The EU has had enormous trouble already dealing with endemic corruption and organised crime in neighbouring Bulgaria and also Romania, since they joined it 15 years ago.

In the era of social media madness and starvation of dependable news from Russia, here is an off-the-wall theory for possible discussion in the rumour mill: Is Putin, of the hard muscles and shirtless photoshoots, not looking fat? Does the puffy face suggest the tragic appearance given by cortisone treatments?

One memory is the distressed appearance of President Georges Pompidou of France in photos not long before he died in office in 1974. What if, facing a mortal illness, the despot in Moscow determined to have a last go, see if he can drive through and, like Hitler before him, make a gloating appearance at the Eiffel Tower? Perish the thought that it might enter his head, if failing in the attempt, to take us all with him.

Amongst his vast journalistic experience, Dr Lee Duffield has served as the ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic.

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