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Don't Buy the Narrative on Ukraine

The Western party line about a struggling Russia and a resilient Ukraine overlooks hard realities.

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Ukrainian soldiers adjust a national flag atop a personnel armored carrier on a road near Lyman, Donetsk region on October 4, 2022. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin’s decision to mobilize reserves for the war in Ukraine has stirred feelings around the world. The former politician and Russian opposition leader Gennady Gudkov posted an aerial view of a 15-lane desert highway with a traffic jam pushing into the horizon. “I am being told,” Gudkov wrote, “this is the [Russian] border with Mongolia on September 22. Be sure to zoom in to examine the picture.” Multiple large vehicles, perhaps buses, were mingled among sedans, suggesting that we are witnessing some sort of mass evacuation of Russians unwilling to serve in Ukraine. 

A day earlier I saw the same picture passed on by a Russian blue-check account (I forgot which) claiming that it was the Russia-Kazakhstan border. But, as any resident of the Western United States knows, the photograph, which as of this writing is still available for viewing on Twitter, is of neither. It’s the road to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, and the large vehicles are the RVs in which revelers intend to stay at the event.

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I can’t say that the incident turned me against Gudkov, or anyone else in liberal Russian opposition. I find many of them well-informed and relatable. It is just that it is an emotional time in Eastern Europe, and pretty much every opposition figure is overcome by feelings, which is why I find their media mostly useless when it comes to this particular conflict. For reasons far less obvious, the Western media is equally emotionally invested in the conflict, and extraordinarily clueless on top of it.

I get the impression that the news stories are written by the same types who spent decades telling me, a Jew from Soviet Ukraine, that I am a Russian. Now that they have found Ukraine on the map, they are equally confident in the feel-good narrative they are concocting. The narrative, as skewered by the satire outlet the Pacific is, “Ukraine just one aid package away from victory.” Underpinning it is the drama of the demoralized Russia and resilient Ukraine. “Russians Are Terrified and Have Nowhere to Turn,” confidently declares the New York Times in the wake of the mobilization announcement. That follows another Gray Lady headline, “Protests in Russia against Putin’s Mobilization Policy Continue.”

No doubt, some are running away. An estimated 261,000 fled the country so far, and perhaps more will follow. The fact of draft dodging is not in dispute. But it is not clear that the types heading for the border are of much interest to the recruiters. More likely, they are educated, liberal men, sometimes with families, and with no military experience.

What should be in dispute is the coverage. Ann Applebaum is an American-Polish journalist and the wife of the former Polish minister of foreign affairs and current Member of European Parliament Radoslaw Sikorski—last seen thanking the U.S. for blowing up the Nord Stream pipelines carrying Russian gas to Europe. Applebaum commented about the difference between the Russian and the Ukrainian conscriptions: 

Refugees from Ukraine in February and March were almost entirely women and children; the men stayed to fight. The new refugees from Russia this week are almost entirely men - because they don't want to fight.

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This is the picture we are getting from the media. But consider that the refugees coming out of Ukraine were almost entirely women and children because men weren’t allowed to leave the country openly (though some clever ones had foreign passports and disability papers ready for just this occasion). The images coming out of the country in the early days of war reassured the Western news consumers that Ukraine is not going to be a Syria, that the Ukrainian men are ready to fight. 

Yet the men wishing to leave Ukraine typically had to be smuggled, in which case their “refugee” pictures didn’t grace the front page of Western newspapers. If caught, they ended up in the back pages of Ukrainian media. Here is a sample: a border patrol inspector in Odessa charged $2,500 to transport men abroad; a resident of the western Ukrainian Zakarpatia region illegally moved residents of the Kharkov region across the border; in Odessa, recruiters charged $7,000 to create fake medical excuse papers that allowed fifty conscripts to exit the country.

Not surprisingly, corruption exists in the Ukrainian armed forces; it’s just that Western audiences are rarely reminded of it. I could easily engineer coverage of the Ukrainian mobilization that would look exactly like the narrative of Russian mobilization in our media. In fact, the Russian channels successfully did just that. They amplified, for instance, the footage allegedly showing women from the city of Hust in the Zakarpatia region rioting in front of the military recruitment office.

Typing “Ukrainian soldiers refuse to fight” in both Google and Duck Duck Go brings up a list of articles on Russian defectors. But Russian sources have been circulating videos of enemy forces, allegedly from the frontlines, recording messages for Zelensky refusing to continue fighting and demanding to be rotated out of the battlefield. I have no way of authenticating these videos, and I remember how, in 2014, footage of what appeared to be the same corpulent, middle-aged blond men weeping and asking Putin to intervene was recorded in several different regions in southeast Ukraine. Are the videos of Ukrainian soldiers fake? No idea, but there are a lot of them out there.

Just like there are a lot of videos of Ukrainians running away (and sometimes swimming away) from the recruiters. Interestingly enough, the New York Times once ran an article confirming these stories. It didn’t get as much attention as the ones about grandmas knocking out Russian drones with jars of pickles, but it’s worth a read. If that report is to be believed, the Ukrainian fighting spirit is not as previously reported. Ukrainians complain about being casually approached by government officials in public places and handed draft documents.

Living under martial law with a tightly censored media, Ukrainians nevertheless created apps to map real-time location of recruiters to help each other avoid conscription. In Kharkov, the country’s second largest city and a chief target of Russian shelling, the app has 67,000 subscribers. A similar app exists in Lviv, the hotbed of Ukrainian Nazism and the temporary home of the refugees from the East.

Many men opted to join the Territorial Defense Forces on the promise that these units would not be sent to the front lines (they were). Some even flat-out tell officers that they won’t fight for Ukraine because it’s not a real country. In September, Ukraine banned male students from leaving the country for study abroad because too many falsified college admission documents. On the news of Russia’s mobilization, Ukrainian presidential advisor and a frequent guest of Russian opposition news channels Alexey Arestovich stated that college students who are currently exempt from conscription might need to be mobilized. The social media reaction was overwhelmingly negative.

In any war, a number of men will dodge the draft. I can’t estimate the scope of the problem in either Russia or Ukraine, but if Ukraine has 5.5 million military age men, its neighbor can probably come up with a more massive fighting force. Russia’s stated goal is to mobilize 300,000 reservists with prior military experience. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu counts 25 million reservists in total. Maybe some of them will head for the border or go underground, but for the war effort to be sabotaged, an overwhelming majority of them would have to do so.

Some darkly sarcastic Americans say that the U.S. is willing to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian. At some point we might just run out of Ukrainians willing to fight. We might also run out of ammo. Since the very beginning of the war, it’s been forecasted that Russia is about to run out of weapons. Maybe they are. But it’s now being revealed that NATO has depleted its supplies of the kind of weaponry we’ve been sending to Ukraine. Our current appropriations are expected to be delivered to the region three years from now.

It does not sound like Putin’s regime is one Ukraine aid package away from crumbling. On the other hand, with Ukraine angling to get NATO involved, it might just fall on the United States to settle this Eastern European border dispute. If that is something we still hope to avoid, then we need to be skeptical of both sides’ narratives and honest with ourselves.

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