All wars to some degree are about lies and logistics and the war in Ukraine is even more so.

Winston Churchill told Stalin at one of their World War II meetings, to Stalin’s great mirth, that truth at times of war is so precious that it must be protected by an army of lies.

As far as the lies go, it is useful to test all claims for plausibility: do they ring true, do they fit known facts and do they accord with history?

On the Ukraine side, the narrative is: Russia launched a war of aggression on 24 February with no justification, after illegally annexing Crimea in 2014 and fomenting insurrection in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Despite the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, whereby Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the defunct Soviet Union in exchange for guarantees of security in its then-current borders from Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, Russia has repeatedly violated Ukraine’s security and is now engaged in an unlawful war, including numerous war crimes. Russia is accused of targeting civilian homes and infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, a museum being used as a bomb shelter and a nuclear power plant.

On the Russian side, it goes something like this. In 2014, a CIA-backed coup overthrew the legitimate government of Ukraine, invalidating any security guarantee by Russia. Russians in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions were being attacked by Nazis simply for being Russian. 

Crimea’s annexation in 2014 was on an even less supported pretext — it should belong to Russia. We can go into more detail about that but it is not central to the current conflict, although Ukraine wants it back. The “de-Nazification” claim is central. Another central claim is that Ukraine’s interest in joining Nato is a threat to Russia.

Let’s backtrack to before the conflict started.

President Viktor Yanukovych was elected in 2010 promising to improve relations with Russia as well as move Ukraine toward European Union membership. Yanukovych was the target of increasingly large protests in 2013, after abandoning the plan of growing ties with the EU in favour of focusing on Russia.  

By early 2014, the protests were growing in size and Yanukovych attempted to outlaw them and numerous protestors were killed, which only fuelled the movement. On 21 February 2014, 328 out of 450 MPs in the Ukrainian parliament voted to oust him; he claimed this was an unlawful coup. 

Later that year, Petro Poroshenko won a rerun of the presidential election. It was in the wake of these events that trouble started in Crimea (then a semi-autonomous region with its own parliament) as well as separatist violence in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Whose narrative is more likely to be accurate? Russia under Vladimir Putin has an extensive history of military interventions in former components of the Soviet Union. Before the invasion, his government repeatedly dismissed the talk of invasion as “hysteria”. His Crimean intervention was initially covert but Russia later admitted to military involvement. 

The notion that Ukrainian Nazis would target ethnic Russians only in regions that border Russia is absurd. Why would they do so in areas where Russia can most easily intervene when there are other concentrations of Russian speakers in Ukraine? Where is the evidence that areas, where Russian speakers are in the minority, are targets? This does not fit the pattern of ethnic cleansing. 

Also, if the aim was to liberate Russians from Ukrainian oppression, why were civilians in areas with predominantly Russian populations attacked by the Russians? Finally, if Nato is such a threat, why attack Ukraine now, when it is not close to applying for membership?

Ukraine still has not applied for Nato membership but Finland and Sweden have — and have fewer hurdles to getting there. So if making Nato less of a threat was a goal, Putin has miscalculated badly.

One of the smarter things the Ukrainians have done is to give the media almost unfettered access so they can verify claims like war crimes and targeting civilians; the Russian line relies on their claims with no independent vetting.

“Almost” is not “total” and Ukraine has been particularly adept in manipulating what the Russians know. The recent successes in the north have, in part, arisen from misdirection, with a lot of prior very open chatter about preparation to attack in the south. The media were not brought into the early stages of the campaign in the north, so the Russians were taken by surprise by the scale of the operation.

A clear differentiator between the sides is the intelligence failures on the Russian side. Control of information is not just about suppressing unfavourable media on your home turf. You need to know what is going on, and not show your hand to the other side. That they had no clue that Ukraine was amassing forces for a northward drive says a lot about a lack of Russian intelligence. Do they not have satellites? Drones? Local sources?

And that takes to the second issue, logistics.

Some commentators have made a big thing of how Ukraine has interior supply lines, whereas the Russians’ are all exterior. If you look at the map, that is not so self-evident. Most of the conflict has been relatively close to the Russian border. If they did not have rail lines leading to the conflict zone at the start, for example, why did they not put in more roads or rail lines to fill the gap? How is it that Russian troops are repeatedly reported to run low on food, fuel and ammunition? How is it that outnumbered troops cannot be reinforced?

​​These are basic issues and you have to wonder about the quality of leadership and training of the Russian military.

Finally, back to lies.

What I find interesting about this whole campaign is how both left and right are split on who to support. So let’s get this straight. Putin does not represent progressive politics. He is not a better alternative to US imperialism — just another type of imperialism with its own problems. There is plenty of evidence that he sees himself more as Tzar Putin I than Stalin version 2.0.

CIA plot? Give me a break. A typical CIA plot backs an authoritarian leader with no popular base who is dependent on US aid and whose regime crumbles under the slightest pressure. Where do you see this here? Many Western analysts fully expected the Russian invasion to be a walkover: special forces would take key points, the government would flee and the tanks would roll in victoriously. Did that happen? Is this anything like Afghanistan after the US pulled out, or Iran after the US-backed regime lost control, or even Iraq after the US pull-out?

The US had a shabby track record as a Cold War empire: it talked democracy at home and backed authoritarian regimes abroad — if they could pronounce “anti-communist” (and more lately, “anti-jihad”) they were backed. The Soviet Union was the opposite: oppressive in its own backyard, but backing liberation movements abroad.

This is not the Cold War.  Ukraine is not Afghanistan. It is an imperfect state struggling to establish democracy and a modern economy — but it is entitled to do so on its own terms, not with a gun to its head, whether wielded by the West or by Russia.

Those who are backing Russia are not opposing imperialism. They are instead arguing that “our imperialism is better than your imperialism”. The best kind of imperialism is no imperialism, and that does not mean backing Russia. Even if the US happens to be backing the other side — unless they are doing so with imperialist goals and that is not evident here. On the contrary, their backing of Ukraine has followed results, not the other way around.

Philip Machanick is an associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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