A lesson for Ukraine and me on the fog of war

Poland Russia Ukraine War
Police officers check and secure an area outside a grain depot where, according to the Polish government, an explosion of a Russian-made missile killed people, in Przewodow, Poland, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. Poland said Wednesday that a Russian-made missile fell in the country’s east, killing a few people, though U.S. President Joe Biden said it was “unlikely” it was fired from Russia. (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk) Michal Dyjuk/AP

A lesson for Ukraine and me on the fog of war

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Ukrainian officials must explain why they so adamantly insisted that Russia, and not their own forces, were responsible for Tuesday’s missile strike in Poland. That accidental strike killed two Poles and sparked concern over a possible major NATO-Russia escalation to the war in Ukraine. The evidence now suggests Ukrainian air defense forces fired the missile involved.

I was also reminded of a hard lesson yesterday: albeit obviously in a less risky form, navigating the fog of war is a challenge for journalists as well as for warfighters.

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The fog of war being the condition of uncertainty and confusion that flows inexorably with military action. As the famed Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (who I persist should be read more, not less) put it, “War is the realm of uncertainty; three-quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.”

Quite literally jumping the gun, I lacked that “sensitive and discriminating judgment” in my analysis on Tuesday. I put too much stock in Ukrainian, Latvian, and some U.S. officials who said that the missile strike was caused by Russian action. I assumed that these officials had seen decisive radar or other intelligence indicating the missile’s launch from a Russian platform. And while I noted that the impact site was a significant distance from other Russian missile activity, I failed to recognize that Ukrainian air defenses were the most likely culprit. I assumed that imagery of the impact crater, evincing a warhead detonation, made Ukrainian air defense missile fire unlikely. The notion of a Russian missile strike on Poland, albeit one veiled by Moscow as an accident, also fit with my standing assessment that Vladimir Putin is escalating his pressure campaign against Ukrainian civilians and the West in order to reduce the immense battlefield pressure on his forces. I should have waited for more information, such as the excellent open-source technical analysis offered by Twitter users such as Ukraine Weapons Tracker and Neil Gibson. I’ll do better.

That said, Ukrainian officials must also do better in terms of their public statements. These officials had understandable reason to hope that this was a Russian strike. After all, even an accidental Russian missile impact on Poland would consolidate NATO’s support for Ukraine and against Russia. It might even have brought NATO into the fight on Ukraine’s side. Still, it’s clear that Ukraine’s officials made declarative statements for which they had little evidence to support.

Following the incident, President Volodymyr Zelensky declared that the missile strike constituted a Russian attack on “collective security.” This was a reference to NATO’s Article Five collective security stipulation. Zelensky’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that suggestions a Ukrainian missile was involved were a “conspiracy” and “not true.” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak claimed that the strike was “not an accident, but a deliberately planned ‘hello’ from the Russian Federation.” An unnamed Ukrainian presidential adviser told Al Jazeera that Poland and other countries in the region should prepare for more missile strikes.

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The ensuing problem for Ukraine is twofold. First, its officials risk replicating a presentation of themselves as lesser but still energetic aficionados of the Russian school of national security messaging. Which is to say, messaging defined not simply by inherent unreliability, but the revelry of deliberate deception. This is a very poor ingredient for Ukraine’s strengthened relations with Western officials and populations. Second, Ukraine risks undermining the moral cause upon which it is embarked: the defense of its territory and people against a brutal aggressor. Sticking to the facts, Ukraine can continue to earn the foreign favor and support it needs to maintain momentum against Russian forces. This second point also bears note in light of other recent Ukrainian errors of judgment, such as its idiotic effort to assassinate a Russian nationalist propagandist in Moscow (its operatives missed, instead killing his daughter).

Put simply, Ukraine should stick to focusing on its fight and the facts in support of that fight. Both are on its side.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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