As part of the program Regional Initiative to Combat Disinformation “Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub: Exposing Malign Influences through Watchdog Journalism”, we present you a new monthly analyses of fake news and disinformation narratives.
Crash, Catastrophe, and Defeat: Ukraine’s Counteroffensive in Anti-Western Media
In early June 2023, the Ukrainian army launched a counteroffensive in the southeastern parts of the country occupied by Russian forces. By the end of July, according to widespread assessments by analysts from Europe and the United States, this military operation was progressing slowly, and Ukraine had regained control over a small part of the territory. Military experts, however, warned that the expectation of a quick breakthrough from the beginning was unrealistic and that final assessments of the results of the counteroffensive would have to wait for the coming weeks and even months. The anti-Western media in Serbia, on the other hand, did not hesitate to declare the operation a disaster for Ukraine almost from the beginning.
In the text published on July 15, The New York Times reported that in the first two weeks, Ukrainian forces suffered significant losses, forcing them to slow their advance. In a pessimistic tone, this article stated that the Ukrainian military has so far taken only 5 of the 60 miles that separate them from the Black Sea. At the beginning of August, the British Guardian pointed out that the Russian defence of the occupied territories proved tougher than expected.
On the other hand, in the text featured in Time Magazine on the 3rd of August, researchers from The American Enterprise Institute and The Institute for the Study of War wrote that it is necessary to have realistic expectations and that Ukraine, as part of this counteroffensive, can still create cracks in the Russian army, which faces structural problems. An analysis of the European Council on Foreign Relations also showed that Ukraine is advancing, albeit slowly and has already captured more territory than Russia in its offensive last winter. Both texts suggested that it was too early to conclude the success or failure of the counteroffensive.
The Western public, therefore, is divided into “pessimists” and “realists” when it comes to the Ukrainian counter-offensive. Anti-Western media in Serbia, both pro-government and Russian-funded, were extremely optimistic from the beginning – from the Russian point of view. In doing so, previously seen means of narrative creation are used: dramatic headlines whose conclusions can not be drawn from the rest of the text, as well as sources, including commentators, of questionable credibility.
The “collapse” and “doom” of the counteroffensive from the very beginning
From the very beginning of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, in June, part of the media in Serbia wrote that it had irretrievably failed. On June 8th, four days after the start of this military operation, the Serbian edition of Sputnik published the title “Ukrainian Offensive or Disaster: How the Traditional Tactics of the US Army Hit the Russian Wall”, referring to the figures on Ukrainian losses presented by the Russian minister of defence, Sergei Shoigu. This same media wrote in June that “the failure of the counteroffensive is certain”, according to the opinion of retired Major General Božidar Forca.
The narrative that the counter-offensive of Ukraine failed was joined by the Webtribune portal, which published headlines such as “It is revealed how Russia prevented the counteroffensive of the forces of Ukraine” and “The Russian super-weapon is to blame for the collapse of the Ukrainian counter-offensive.” (Ka-52M attack helicopter). In early July, the media also reported the assessment of Colonel Douglas McGregor of the Judging Freedom YouTube channel that “a counter-offensive by Ukraine will lead to the defeat of the remaining units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and subsequent new territorial losses”.
Along with the narrative of the sure collapse of the counteroffensive, as can be seen from these examples, the strength of the Russian army is often cited. In preparation to repel the Ukrainian attacks, the sources said, the Russian military planted mines in a large part of the territory designated for the attacks, making it difficult to advance the counteroffensive. Russia’s role in the air force was also highlighted.
However, as the Institute for the Study of War analysis pointed out, the Russian military also faces structural problems, including a lack of workforce and military equipment, partly because the political leadership itself has not yet declared a state of war. This is why, according to the analysis published in Time magazine, the Russian military relies on many irregular formations, which hinders its cohesion and effectiveness. Such assessments, of course, were not present in the anti-Western media.
The pro-government tabloids are belligerent again
During July, the definitive collapse of the Ukrainian counter-offensive was reported with increasing intensity. Pro-government tabloids such as Informer, Republika and Alo also participated in this. At the beginning of the invasion in February 2022, the media shifted from cheering for Russia to a somewhat distant stance from both sides of the war and highlighting the disastrous consequences of the war on the world, especially Europe. Meanwhile, however, open support for Russia returned to its editorial policy.
In the last week of July, the Informer website published a series of supporting headlines in favour of Russia, in the context of the counteroffensive. One of them was “A complete breakdown among Ukrainians, they have realized that they had no chance against Russia! The American colonel reveals: only Poles remain in Kiev!”, which again quotes Douglas McGregor as stating that, due to heavy Ukrainian losses, the Ukrainian army was left with only a few units and “Poles fighting in Ukrainian uniforms”.
The same media also reported the assessment of pro-Russian commentator Scott Ritter that the end of the war, which will end with a victory for Russia, is near. On the 26th of July, when the army of Ukraine started a new breakthrough, Informer published the following headline: “(VIDEO) Terrible defeat of Ukraine, beaten to the feet! Rivers of blood flow to Zaporizhzhia, the total collapse of the new offensive!” The video mentioned in the title was posted on the Telegram social network showing several burning battle vehicles, allegedly in the territory of Zaporizhzhia.
A few days later, Informer reported that “the counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine failed due to the complete incompetence of President Vladimir Zelensky,” quoting one of the interviews conducted by YouTuber critical of U.S. foreign policy Stephen Gardner. The headline read, “Zelensky destroyed his own offensive! Americans are terrified, how can anyone be so incompetent?!”, from which no citation is seen.
The pro-government portal Srbija danas contributed to this narrative with the title “KIEV CONCEDES DEFEAT?! Ukrainians need to understand… Zelensky justifies himself for the COLLAPSE of the counteroffensive”, published on the 14th of July. The title’s conclusion, however, cannot be drawn from the text itself, which merely states that Zelensky said that “Russian forces… are doing everything to stop our soldiers”. The portal, however, also published several articles about the counteroffensive that were not written in a supporting tone in favour of Russia.
Republika, the portal of the Srpki telegraf, also joined this narrative, carrying an article from The New York Times mentioned earlier in this article. The article was carried neutrally, but the headline read “THE UKRANIAN COUNTEROFFENSIVE IS ALREADY CRACKED: losing a fifth of the weapons with which they went to fight, Russian minefields are TEARING UP THE AMERICAN BRADLEYS”. However, the conclusion about the collapse of the counteroffensive could not be drawn from the text.
Republika, as well as other media, such as Večernje novosti and Sputnik, reported on the 23th of July, Russian President Vladimir Putin concluded that the “counteroffensive has failed”, which the latter made at a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The counteroffensive, at the beginning of August, was still ongoing.
Exaggerating in the claims of Ukrainian losses?
On July 27th, the Serbian edition of Russia Today, quoted Vladimir Putin as saying that in the Zaporizhia region, 60 percent of the equipment of the Armed Forces of Ukraine was destroyed. The American Institute for the Study of War on the same day assessed these figures as excessive, and said that the Russian president has repeatedly reported numbers of destroyed Ukrainian equipment during the counteroffensive that are unlikely.
This casts doubt on the numbers that ran through the anti-Western media during the operation, which were mostly quoted Russian officials. On June 16, Russia Today also reported Putin saying that 186 Ukrainian tanks and 418 armoured vehicles had been destroyed. Sergei Shoigu said in early July that Ukraine had lost more than 26,000 troops and 3,000 military equipment since the start of the counteroffensive.
On June 23, Srbija Danas, said that several Russian sources claimed that “Kiev lost more than 13,000 troops in less than three weeks.” In July, Webtribune reported Putin’s assessment that Ukraine’s losses were ten times greater than Russia’s.
As noted in the Western media, Ukrainian losses during the counteroffensive were significant. This, however, does not guarantee that the Russian numbers are correct – and they are the only ones quoted so far in the anti-Western media in Serbian language. In addition, more detailed data on Russia’s losses were not conveyed, except to make an alleged comparison about ten times bigger difference of losses.
Author: Aleksandar Ivković