Ukraine battles to shape the narrative on its grueling counteroffensive
The Washington Post October 7, 2023
BRUSSELS - As Ukrainian forces press ahead with their closely-watched counteroffensive, another battle is underway: the fight to control the story and influence how the world sees the war.
After much hand-wringing about slow progress and grim assessments of Ukraine’s prospects through the summer, Ukrainian and Western officials in recent weeks have focused on reshaping the narrative to manage expectations and shore up support through the winter.
Four months of brutal fighting and steep losses have not yielded the results that Kyiv and its Western backers hoped for. Despite some Ukrainian progress in breaking through dense Russian defenses, fears of a frozen conflict - and crumbling international support - loom.
There is also anxiety that after dominating the public relations war, largely thanks to the formidable skills of President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor, Ukraine is losing its edge, while Russian President Vladimir Putin are gaining traction in their insistence that Moscow’s forces are winning.
On Thursday, Putin said that if Western nations stop sending weapons to Kyiv, “Ukraine will have a week left to live.”
Controlling the narrative is crucial to maintaining public support for Ukraine’s fight, which has begun to waver in some Western countries including the U.S. Debate over the high spending on Ukraine already has factored into national election campaigns in Poland and in Slovakia.
To counter the sense that Ukraine’s offensive is stalling senior Western officials including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg have tried to highlight Ukrainian progress, with the latter touting “significant” battlefield gains.
In recent press briefings, Western officials have expressed unusual levels of concern with how the war is being assessed and reported, with typically restrained briefers departing from their notes to urge journalists to look beyond trench-to-trench developments and to consider the “fuller picture” of the war instead.
But that fuller picture is increasingly difficult for reporters to verify in person. In recent weeks, Ukrainian military personnel have imposed notably tougher restrictions on access to the front line.
There are genuine concerns that transporting journalists to the front will attract attention from enemy reconnaissance drones. But the limits mean that when Ukrainian officials claim success in retaking some key villages in the south, reporters rarely have been able to see and document these developments up close - a sharp contrast with last year when journalists quickly followed Ukrainian forces into areas liberated from Russian occupation.
In recent days, worries about chaos in Congress have added new urgency to the public messaging campaign.
On Tuesday, President Biden convened a call with key allies to reassure them the United States remains steadfast in its support despite Congress adopting a government funding bill that excluded aid for Ukraine.
Ukraine and its European supporters publicly insist they have confidence in the U.S., but privately they are anxious - a sentiment that was palpable at a meeting of European leaders this week in Granada, Spain.
Russia’s propagandists - including state-controlled media, and war bloggers who have come under increasing pressure to toe the Kremlin line - have seized on the moment to amplify the Kremlin’s claims that the counteroffensive has failed and that, with time, support for Kyiv will falter.
Some prominent U.S. critics of Ukraine, most notably Elon Musk, have piled on, crassly mocking Ukraine’s urgent calls for aid.
In many respects, the messaging fight is not fair. In Russia, it is now illegal to criticize the military or the war. Many independent journalists and political opposition figures have fled the country. Some have been jailed. Even hawkish military bloggers who back Putin’s desire to conquer Ukrainian territory have come under pressure to refrain from criticizing the military or focusing on its setbacks.
The far greater press freedoms in Ukraine and in the West mean that Kyiv and its supporters sometimes struggle to speak with one voice.
Zelensky, at times, has chafed at Western criticism at the slow pace of the counteroffensive - perhaps an indication that Ukraine’s challenge is not a matter of PR but of difficult facts on the ground.
Last month, when asked about the slow pace of the counteroffensive, Zelensky pushed back, forcefully, not just at Russia, but at supporters too. “This is not a feature movie when everything can happen in an hour and a half,” he said. “Some partners ask what’s up with the counteroffensive, what are the next steps,” he continued. “My current answer is ‘Our steps are faster than your sanction packages.’”
Western officials have tried to reframe the conversation. In one briefing last month, a Western official opened with an unusually direct exhortation, telling the journalists to “lift up the conversation a bit.”
The official warned that the focus on the day-to-day developments in the counteroffensive, risked “missing the fuller picture.”
“The fuller picture we continue to see,” the official said, “is a Russia that has made a catastrophic mistake.”
But at the same briefing, the official tried to lower expectations. In an extended reply to a question, the official took aim at the idea that victory for Ukraine would mean expelling Russia from “every bit of territory by X date” - though Zelensky has declared that Ukraine must reclaim all its land.
With Finland and Sweden joining NATO and Ukraine on a path to European integration, defining victory in these terms is “insane,” the official said, exasperated.
In a different briefing, a senior NATO official lamented “Monday morning quarterbacking” from analysts who personally have little on the line.
“It’s easy for you to sit as an analyst somewhere and look at this and say, well, I would have done different,” the official said. “Well, that’s great, but you don’t literally have a gun in your face. Your family hasn’t been wiped out. It’s not your country that’s invaded.”
The NATO official claimed that reporters failed to grasp what Ukraine’s soldiers faced. Some journalists, the official said, “are saying things like, well, you know, ‘you see the lack of the value of the Western training because they’re not fighting Western combined arms.’”
“Combined arms, combined arms maneuver, is a challenge even for Western militaries who practice it all the time that have it as a core element of their doctrine,” the official said. “How many months of training have the Ukrainians received?”
Both officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive battlefield developments, insisted the Ukrainians are making slow, methodical progress under very difficult circumstances.
On the ground, Ukrainian military officials have made a concerted effort since the start of the counteroffensive to limit the visibility of Ukraine’s losses.
This effort is largely handled by military press officers, uniformed personnel responsible for fielding requests for information and access, and for escorting reporters to visit units and interview soldiers.
Many press officers are eager to share stories about Ukrainian troops, working long hours often in the same difficult conditions as the units they support.
In some cases, however, they put limits on sensitive topics. The number of Ukrainians killed and wounded is almost never discussed. In many cases, they stand within earshot to listen to service members speak with the media.
The Washington Post has sought access to areas near the front line, but press officers often seek to direct reporters to training areas or to troops not engaged in active fighting, citing safety concerns.
Soldiers and police who operate roadway checkpoints turn away reporters who do not have clearance from a press officer, even if they have a commander’s permission to visit a unit.
Limitations on what journalists can see and report in war zones are not new. Yet some recent guidance is puzzling. After a soldier in the eastern Donetsk region told The Post about fighting in low light situations, a press officer chimed in to say reporters could not describe the time of day he mentioned, even though soldiers, for centuries, have fought at all hours of day and night.
In Russia, television channels air constant reports about Russian troops capturing new Western hardware. They have also done segments on Musk’s criticism. “There is a feeling,” Olga Skabeeva, an anchor on a flagship Rossiya 24 political news and talk show, said on a recent segment, “That they are trying to completely write off Ukraine.”
Horton reported from the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions of Ukraine. Ilyushina reported from Riga, Latvia.