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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

SCEPTICISM TOWARDS 'PENTAGON SOURCES'

A spate of media stories, beginning a week and a half ago, suggested that Ukraine’s counteroffensive was ‘failing’. Then followed stories pushing back and seeing promise, blazoning imminent 'breakthroughs' for Ukraine. It’s hard for me to make sense of where things really stand, but there was a qualitative difference between the two kinds of reports.


Many US media stories about the war, as others have noted, have relied on unnamed ‘US officials’ or ‘sources in the Pentagon'. As readers we need to maintain a healthy degree of scepticism – and to analyse and evaluate what is published. Media articles based on some analysis, however rudimentary, are usually more informative than ones based solely on information attributed to unnamed sources. In defence of that assertion, we only need consider how analysis has largely contradicted the recent pessimism of 'US officials' and other 'sources'.


From despair…


It began on 18 August. The Washington Post (WaPo) reported that the ‘US intelligence community assesses that Ukraine’s counteroffensive will fail to reach the key southeastern city of Melitopol.’ It would be fair to say that recovering Melitopol would count as a ‘success’ for the counteroffensive: it would sever the land link Russia uses to move equipment, supplies and troops to the Crimean peninsula and other occupied territories in the south of Ukraine. There was more than a little impudence from US officials, who implied that the Ukrainian military had not followed US advice and implicitly hinted that the situation would be different had they done so.


The same day, the New York Times (NYT) reported that both warring sides had ‘lost a staggering number of troops as Kyiv’s counteroffensive drags on.’ It reported estimates of up to 120,000 Russian deaths and 70,000 Ukrainian deaths. As with the WaPo article, the NYT report relied on unnamed ‘US officials’; it didn't indicate which department they were in, which makes for the vaguest level of identification.


To round it off, still on the same day, Politico’s daily briefing went under the catchy headline ‘“Milley had a point”’. Noting that the mood about the counteroffensive had changed from ‘excitement to disappointment’, the authors said that US officials had begun to wonder whether the chair of the joint chiefs of staff Mark Milley had been right last autumn in suggesting the time was ripe to push for peace talks since there was 'slim chance' of Ukraine achieving its goals, certainly not quickly.


Again, the Politico article relied largely on two unnamed US officials (one of whom ‘did not want to run afoul of the administration by offering real views on the record’), although in this case there were on the record comments from a US general and the US National Security Council spokesperson. The US general pulled in a slightly different direction, mentioning ‘slow progress’.


Adding to the downbeat assessments, a couple of days later the Economist carried a story saying that the ‘sluggish’ counteroffensive was ‘souring the public mood’ in Ukraine.


It generally wasn’t good news for Ukraine. It also seemed to contradict the spirit that has persisted through the past eighteen months, because it has felt like there is a conspiracy of optimism in the US and western European capitals about Ukraine's prospects. Political leaders in these capitals seem to have believed that Ukraine can win without its supporters stepping up supplies of weapons and ammunition. Perhaps they had eventually realised that this is not possible because suddenly it was all gloom in the media – but something didn’t quite stack up in these stories.


To where?


These news stories lacked much by way of explanation for the jolt from optimism to gloom. It is right and important for the media to report what officials tell them, but it is also right and important for us as readers to ask the right questions about why these briefings are being given and about their timing. We should be wary of giving too much credibility to ‘Pentagon sources’ (or similar) when no arguments are given for their claims.


The original WaPo article did mention a couple of reasons for the gloom. As well as disregarding US advice, the main reason cited for the anticipated ‘failure’ to reach Melitopol was strong Russian defensive lines. The article referred to Russian forces’ ‘brutal proficiency in defending occupied territory through a phalanx of minefields and trenches.’ This analysis was cursory at best, even if the minefields present a serious and well-documented obstacle.


In fact, just two days earlier the Economist had run a story that saw things differently. On 16 August it had posited that Russian defences beyond the first defensive line were 'brittle' and that a breach could lead to rapid successes. Its sources, all named, argued that Ukraine's approach was working; they referenced satellite imagery, strategy and tactics. From ostensibly the same data they had drawn the opposite conclusion.


Is the counteroffensive failing?


The upbeat Economist piece combined well with an interesting notion advanced by the military historian Peter Caddick-Adams. He labelled the campaign ‘Schrodinger’s summer offensive’, writing: ‘it both is and isn’t a major campaign.’ His key point, on my reading, was that the significant combat brigades had not yet been deployed to the front. It was therefore a mistake to describe the counteroffensive as 'failing' since the main thrust has yet to begin; Ukrainian forces were still probing Russian defences and ‘shaping the battle space’.


‘Schrodinger’s offensive’ was a neat formulation that dispelled some of the gloom. Importantly, it offered some rudimentary but accessible analysis of the situation. Although at some point, if those combat brigades aren’t called upon, one will have to say the offensive has ‘failed’; you can’t go on indefinitely shaping the battlefield.


But there were soon further texts giving more positive news on Ukraine’s counteroffensive. On 23 August the think tank CEPA published an article saying that the counteroffensive was making ‘substantial progress’ and, although I think it gets a little too speculative, it offered the military analysis lacking in the earlier media reports. It posited the counteroffensive’s aims and discussed the means available to Ukrainian forces, for example considering the range of certain missile systems in the area and the targets that consequently could and could not be hit. It foresaw how Russian defences might collapse in ‘a domino effect’.


Finally, a piece by David Petraeus and Frederick W. Kagan in the WaPo (24 August) argued that ‘Ukraine’s counteroffensive might yet surprise critics.’ Petraeus is worth listening to given his pedigree (as a military commander and, briefly, director of the CIA): ‘observers would be wise to temper their pessimism’ he and his co-author wrote. Again, the article offered proper analysis, even if in simple and digestible terms. It pointed out that the gain towards the village of Robotyne, on the road south towards Melitopol, was ‘accelerating’. They too argued that a breach, even small, has the potential to give way to large gains.


A return of optimism


There is cause for optimism about progress among Ukrainians and their supporters, and I write that as someone routinely inclined to bemoan people for baseless optimism in the face of facts. The one undeniable truth, after all, is that wars are horrific.


On 26 August, the UK’s daily Defence Intelligence update said that Ukraine ‘continues to gradually gain ground in the south’ of Ukraine. The Ukrainian forces, according to the Institute for the Study of War, took back two villages on the approach to Tokmak in the Zaporizhzhia region (northeast of Melitopol), and that Russia was redeploying elite forces to the village of Robotyne (along the same major road) where it was ‘clinging on’.


It does, therefore, look like Ukrainian forces have breached the first line of Russian defences. Today (28 August) Ukraine has announced that it has liberated Robotyne, which is in line with what the analytical media articles suggested might happen. The latest territorial gain, prospectively, puts Melitopol within striking distance.


My point is that there was meaningful information to engage with in the more optimistic stories. The evidence may be misinterpreted, the interpretations may be biased – or they may not be – that is not my point. Rather, it is that the authors had looked at evidence and thought about cause and effect. In contrast, the unnamed sources had a habit of steering opinion without making arguments to justify why the audience ought to change its mind.


What brought down Prigozhin’s jet?


The lack of argument comes up in respect of the circumstances surrounding the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin last week. As I wrote in my previous post, there was a convincing explanation for why it appeared to be a missile rather than an on-board bomb or mechanical failure. Since then, briefings from the Pentagon have steered media towards the on-board bomb explanation and away from the earlier claims that a surface-to-air missile brought down the plane. As with most things, I am prepared to change my mind and be guided by authoritative voices: but without any reasons to change my opinion it is difficult to do so.


The new favoured explanation offers little by way of argument. The reports mention a crate of wine delivered at the last moment, which might have contained a bomb, or an inspection of the aircraft prior to take off by people presenting as buyers, who might have planted a bomb. These details -- the delivery of the wine, the visitors aboad the jet -- may be true, but they are merely circumstantial evidence with nothing to connect them directly to the jet's subsequent crash.


They run up against the problem of existing explanations. On Sky News, Sean Bell explained how a bomb would have caused the plane to break up mid-air and scattered debris over a wide area which the video footage shows did not happen. He also said the footage appeared to show a wing sheared off, which would not result from an explosion inside the jet but could result from a missile hit. Those seem like reasonable claims. A crate of wine isn’t enough to make me reconsider my initial belief.


As to Ukraine’s counteroffensive, I suspect the recent briefings to the media stemmed from Beltway politics and not new analysis; the politico-bureaucratic machine in the US being far more partisan than it is in, say, the UK. (I do note that WaPo doubled down on the original story with reference to 'a new classified intelligence report', which might suggest a bigger battle behind the scenes.)


I do not know whether the latest breakthroughs by Ukrainian forces are significant. That is for a military analyst to comment on. As Caddick-Adams writes: ‘The loss of one farm or taking of one village cannot indicate the final outcome. Twenty tanks destroyed or damaged is not a major military setback for either side.’ But analysis suggests Ukraine may achieve much in pushing back Russian forces over the coming weeks and months. So the recent reports are not a reason to be miserable.



Image credit: Uberpenguin with the assistance of Matt Gibbs (matt[AT]alwayssleeping{dot}com) - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1138982

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