Ben Morgan: The media, information war and how the campaign could change

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After months of politicking the US military aid bill was finally signed into law, releasing US$ 61 billion of support for Ukraine.  The aid will make little immediate difference to the situation in Ukraine, but provides the resources Ukraine needs to transfer to a new stage of the war.  The ‘lines on the map’ are unlikely to change, Russia’s offensive failing to produce significant gains on the battle field as each week Ukraine’s defences get stronger.  Instead, we can expect Ukraine to consolidate its position in the north-east and hold the Russian’s there while they transition towards a longer campaign focussed in the south. 

Meanwhile, recent events provide lessons about how protagonists manage the media in modern war. Recently, international media has told us about Ukraine’s shortages of artillery, ammunition, soldiers and air defence missiles. A dialogue that was not reflected in Russian gains on the ground and it is useful to ask – Why?

Information war in action

This war is fought as fiercely on screen as it is in any of the conventional ‘warfighting domains’ of land, sea and air. All parties trying to shape public opinion to achieve their strategic and tactical goals. The last few months provides a very good example of a situation in which all participants are aligned on key messages but exploiting them for different outcomes.

Essentially, in the last few months media carried two key messages, that:

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  • Ukraine is on the brink of collapse, running out of the resources it needs to continue the war. 
  • Russia is not only on the offensive, but also has the initiative. 

Starting with Russia, these two key messages reinforced the idea that Russia is winning the war.  That further investment in Ukraine is useless because Russia is too big, too strong and has too much resolve to be defeated.  Europe and the US are ‘backing a loser’ and the smartest way to address the situation is to withdraw support from Ukraine rather than risk angering Russia.  On the other side of the Atlantic, the media supporting each of America’s two main parties were both keen to support this messaging.  Democrats to rally support for the brave defenders of Ukraine. Some Republicans to demonstrate the futility of supporting Ukraine.  Likewise, in Ukraine there was merit in portraying an image of weakness that encourages Europe and the US to provide weapons and equipment.  

A strange situation, the same key messages interpreted differently by each party, to achieve different political goals. This week, media messaging is different.  Suddenly, in Western media Ukraine’s position is now secure and the nation is ready to use the aid being provided effectively. An interesting change in opinion considering nothing has changed on the battlefield!

Getting to the facts

Although a Russian victory, the capture of Avdiivka in February was not a Ukrainian collapse.  The defenders withdrew in good order supported by spoiling attacks.  (See – Russia takes Avdiivka, what next? Dated 20 Feb 2024)  

Since then, Russia has very slowly plodded forwards and to date has captured about half the amount of ground that Ukraine took in its ‘unsuccessful’ 2023 offensive. Even with glide bombs, new drones, better fire control, improving tactics and a 5-1 advantage in artillery ammunition Russia has made very limited progress.  A situation that demonstrates that Ukraine’s land forces are not collapsing.  

My assessment in that Ukraine preserved considerable forces after its unsuccessful 2023 offensive (See ‘Russia’s tactical evolution. What next?’ dated 15 Apr 2024). Essentially, Ukraine is under pressure but is not, and has not been close to collapse this year.  And, even though Russia is innovating and has more artillery ammunition it has not been able to turn these advantages into advances ‘on the ground.’  

In fact, it could be argued that Ukraine and its allies have won a victory in the war’s ‘information domain.’  First, US and European aid has been secured. Secondly, Putin is clearly over confident because he did not fully mobilise after the election and is planning an offensive against Kharkiv. It seems that he has put too much weight on media opinion rather than on facts. A lesson for all of us, especially decision-makers, that we need to carefully assess what is reported in all forms of media and be wary of information warfare tactics aiming to ‘shape’ decision-making.   

What difference will US and NATO aid make? 

Aid is already starting to arrive in Ukraine, the million artillery shells that the Czechs sourced are scheduled to arrive in May and June.  US Army Tactical Missiles Systems (ATACMs) long-range missiles are already in Ukraine.  The arrival of F16 fighters is imminent. However, there is not likely to be movement on the battlefield in the short-term.  

Do not expect much change on the frontline

Russia’s attacks along the frontline, specifically along the Kremina-Svatove Line and around the north-eastern salient, centred on Siversk.  And, this slow advance into the Donbas is likely to continue because it is a simple and effective plan that takes Russia closer to the last large cities in the Donbas held by Ukraine. 

Further, it is in Ukraine’s interests (and their stated strategy) to allow Russia’s forces to maintain offensive action providing opportunities for attrition. Every tactician knows that defence is the phase of war that is used to drain an enemy’s resources. Ukraine is digging in when this is finished there will be a series of withdrawals as units ‘step back’ to the new defensive lines behind them.  Then it seems likely that Ukraine will remain static in defence rather than attempting risky offensive operations. 

Impact on the air battle

In recent months, Russia has been using its strategic air campaign to ‘shape’ conditions in the tactical battle. By attacking Ukraine’s power infra-structure Russia seeks to draw Ukrainian air defence missiles away from the frontline.  Less Ukrainian air defence missiles at the frontline means that Russian bombers can provide more and closer air support.  

Advanced long-range Patriot air-defence missiles are Ukraine’s key request.  Patriot is important because it provides Ukraine not only with an incredibly capable defensive system but with the ability to strike Russian airpower well behind the frontline.  Patriots can snipe key aircraft far inside Russian territory and have already taken a heavy toll on Russian airborne early warning and command (AWACs) aircraft. Likewise, their range is sufficient to prevent glide bomb attacks by shooting down the launch aircraft.   

If Patriot batteries can be found and kept supplied with parts and ammunition Russian airpower’s battlefield impact will decrease.  A trend that will be supported by the deployment of F16s.  Ukraine is receiving a relatively small number of these fighters.  I believe they will be held back initially and used to intercept drones, their excellent radar and lower cost munitions providing better value for money than more expensive missiles.  A tactic already being employed by the US and UK over the Red Sea and Israel. 

Creating a realistic threat to Crimea

Crimea remains Putin’s ‘centre of gravity,’ a military term that describes the one thing upon which an operation hinges, that if lost, you lose.  The most common example used in tactics training is bridging equipment for a force that needs to cross a river.  Lose the bridge and there is no way the force can cross the river.  Strategically, Russia’s war is about securing Crimea, the peninsula’s ports providing access to the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Controlling them has always been a driver of Russian and Soviet strategy. If Putin loses Crimea, or the peninsular becomes untenable; he loses the war. The silovaki (strongmen) that support him are not going to tolerate the suffering imposed on them by the war if Crimea is lost.

Therefore, it is likely that this area will remain an area of focus for Ukraine and we can expect to see:

  • Offensive use of Patriot to provide ‘air denial’ near Crimea.  Ukraine has been testing the use of Patriot missile systems close to the frontline. It has also reduced Russian air defence surveillance assets in Kherson and Crimea by shooting down AWACs planes and destroying ground-based radar.  Expect to see Ukraine create an air denial zone over Kherson and the north of Crimea using Patriot.

 

  • Use of cruise missiles and ATACMs to isolate Crimea. Ukraine already has advanced air launched cruise missiles like the UK/French Storm Shadow/SCALP and Europe’s aid commitment means they will get more. The big capability step though is ATACMS, long-range US missiles that Ukraine has been asking for since the start of the war. Fired from a HIMARs system their range is 300km, allowing all of Crimea to be targeted.  Russia’s ability to intercept these systems is not good so we should expect to see surgical attacks on Russian bases, radar facilities and logistics on the peninsular.  This activity will culminate in destruction of the Chongar Strait road and rail bridges, the Kerch Bridge and increasing attacks on the E97 motorway and rail lines that are the north-west crossing point into Crimea. 

The overall aim is to physically isolate Crimea, then reduce the garrison’s ability to prevent an invasion of the peninsular.  It is also possible that Ukraine is holding its bridgehead on the east bank of the Dnipro River, near Krynky, so that a crossing can be credibly threatened.  An operation that if successful would operationally outflank Russia. Although unlikely, Ukraine’s history of attacks on radar stations and AWACs in the south may indicate plans to contest air superiority in the area which in turn could be a prelude to a larger crossing.  

Summary 

In summary, Ukraine will continue to defend the existing frontline, concentrating on inflicting attrition on its enemy.  Russia is already struggling to advance and will slow down further as Ukraine receives more artillery ammunition.  Future foreign aid will then allow Ukraine to transition into a new phase of war, trying to isolate Crimea. 

Aid will quickly move the air war in Ukraine’s favour because more air defence missiles and fighters will be available to intercept Russian attacks on the nation’s power grid, allowing more longer-ranged Patriots to be used further forwards.  Denying key airspace to Russian aircraft, strengthening Ukraine’s defence in the north-east and increasing the chance of Ukraine successfully crossing the Dnipro River to threaten Crimea.

Long-range missiles are a key part of both US and European aid packages. Ukraine will probably use them to destroy the bridges that provide access to Crimea, aiming to isolate it.  Russia’s problem is that it cannot stop these weapons.  Its air defence systems are relatively ineffective and Ukraine can continue a war like this almost indefinitely, eventually developing its own logistics and procurement networks, providing a buffer against policy changes amongst its supporters. 

Russia on the other hand is broken, regardless of Putin’s claims of resilience and economic growth in the face of sanctions. Russia’s economy grew last year because soldier’s pay, compensation to families of those killed and wages for people building equipment or supporting the war effort put money into the consumer economy. Currently this is paid for from Putin’s ‘war chest,’ but when that money runs out Russia needs to either generate revenue or borrow to sustain the war.  And, Russia’s largest exports; oil and gas dropped last year by an estimated US$ 47.3 billion and US 27-34 billion respectively.

Win or lose Russia faces great economic uncertainty and the cost of rebuilding its economy and military. And, as Renaud Foucart, a Lancaster University academic eloquently pointed out in an op-ed for the Conversation “And it is a war that Russia cannot afford to win. The cost of rebuilding and maintaining security in a conquered Ukraine would be too great.” Russia’s second opportunity to win the war easily has passed, and now their only realistic option is to slow down and wait out the West. NATO and the US have the resources to support Ukraine to win, so should not let this happen.

 

Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer, a former Officer in NZDF and TDBs Military Blogger – his work is on substack

41 COMMENTS

  1. The Ukraine and Western media has been winning the information war since this began. Until recently when the narrative couldn’t hold against facts on the ground. All this new tactical minutae from Ben, I’m sure the Russians are feeling frightened. Wunderwaffen, yeah right. The Russians just captured an Adams to add to the museum of trophies. Get real Ben.

  2. The West debates over supporting Ukraine

    “Essentially, in the last few months media carried two key messages, that:
    Ukraine is on the brink of collapse, running out of the resources it needs to continue the war.
    Russia is not only on the offensive, but also has the initiative.
    Starting with Russia, these two key messages reinforced the idea that Russia is winning the war. That further investment in Ukraine is useless because Russia is too big, too strong and has too much resolve to be defeated.”
    Ben Morgan

    While the Americans have been debating over whether to support Ukraine or not.
    Over the same period, Western imperialism, particularly in the US, has been rock solid in its unwavering support for Israel on both sides of the Democratic Republican divide..
    if the US had to make a straight up and down choice of either supporting Israel or supporting Ukraine, Israel would win every time.
    This represents the greater strategic and economic value that imperialism puts on the Middle East.

  3. Ben – Ukraine is running out of soldiers…therefore, does not matter how flash the weapon technology is if no-one is using it…also, a lot of those weapon systems are ending up in Russian hands, as the Ukraine military is selling it to them.

    • they work great for targeting civilians, which is all the Zelensky regime wants to use them for

      • Hey Mohammed, you need to take note, your new friend Nathan, as well as being a big supporter of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a big fan of Netanyahu’s invasion of Gaza.
        This might give you a clue that backing Russian imperialism is as disgraceful as backing US imperialism.

        Assad’s destruction of Homs with Russian support is just as shocking as Netanyahu’s destruction of Gaza with US support.

        …..Ammar Azzouz has fond memories of growing up in Homs. “It was quiet and peaceful. It was called the city of the poor because people from all backgrounds and social income felt that they could belong. People were very kind and warm and generous,” he remembers…..

        https://theconversation.com/domicide-a-view-from-homs-in-syria-on-what-the-deliberate-destruction-of-homes-does-to-those-displaced-by-conflict-podcast-216374

        ….Azzouz says that the Israeli bombardment of Gaza following the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 is a form of domicide. Watching the destruction of whole residential blocks in Gaza and the mass displacement of Palestinians from their homes has been very difficult for him. “It’s absolutely domicidal. It’s deliberate targeting of people’s homes, killing of civilian people, killing of their everyday life and mass destruction of neighbourhoods,” he says.

        Russian drone footage of the Destruction of Homs

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mt3gR4BUPmQ

        Homs looks like Gaza today.

  4. Hahah, weird, I searched for a mention from ASPI Ben on how the US has ordered the withdrawal of their Abrams tanks from the frontlines because the ease with which Russia was taking them out could be bad for export sales.

    Nothing in there. Could you be any more dishonest, American-lover?

    • Chuckle. Must be some new Russian Anti-tank weapon then, because the Abrams have being blowing away Russian tanks for three decades now. When one has been destroyed in Afghanistan or Iraq it was via close-in weapons in urban environments – and even then the Yanks figured out how to stop it.

  5. Thanks Ben – another great commentary.

    Some additional points:

    The request from the US government to tell Ukraine to stop attacking Russian oil installations was a poor decision, probably based on US politics (The Biden Administration is skating on thin ice already and an additional oil price increase wouldn’t go down well with voters). This was a highly successful tactic until Uncle Sam stepped in.

    What are the options for Ukraine to drone Russian weapons plants? One missile into their nitrocellulose plant and its game over. It’s well back east but Ukraine has already demonstrated that the Russian border is porous and internal security is thin on the ground.

    Putin is reliant on oil exports out of the Baltic and Denmark has good reasons to block oil tankers from passing through its waters: It’s an environmental disaster waiting happen, and Russian ships are refusing Danish pilots to steer them through.

    • Andrew, suggest that you read this lady on oil issues. https://ourfiniteworld.com/author/gailtheactuary/

      The real reason that Biden wants no damage to Russian refineries is because without them the price would sky rocket ruining his chances of re-election. Further without Russian heavy distillates (which are rare in US fields) the trucks on the interstate would have no diesel, the container ships no bunker oil.

      The Baltic is not at risk, Russia has redirected east as the EU sanction themselves to energy death.

  6. Maybe, technically on paper, the collective West does have the power to beat Russia in Ukraine, but they won’t because they don’t have the collective willpower.
    To beat Russia will require, at a minimum, a trillion dollars in cash and hundreds of thousands of fit, young, tough, trained and dedicated men ready to fight and die all across Eurasia and the Steppes, possibly for years.
    This would be a gigantic and painful enterprise for any society, but we now have a society whose current obsessions are gender identity, TikTok dance videos and nit picking over who said what to whom about what labels were on which boxes at Mar-A-Largo.
    The spirit is gone, and no amount of blog posting will bring it back.
    Anything the West is willing to do Russia is willing to do more.

    • Jake, when industry and manufacturing got financialised and off shored the West ran out of capacity to fight a protracted war of attrition. You can throw dollars at it but rebuilding and reskilling industrial output takes years. Meanwhile if the US pisses off China they can supply multiples of any arms the West can make. Reaganomics Thatcher is has been a disaster long cooking.

      • I agree with most of that, I was just emphasizing that what appears on paper may not appear in physical reality and the link between the former and the latter is the human spirit or willpower which is now sorely lacking in the West.
        When the will is invoked the creative powers of people is incredible, without it nothing will happen. it won’t be invoked by the dark arts of the propagandists either, their perception management and psyop campaigns are like a sugar rush, exciting and tasty but can’t sustain real action for a long time like the meat and grains of solid facts can.
        perhaps you are familiar with the substacker Aurelian? I have been following his work for about a year now and I find him very impressive. He seems to be a retired senior British government official and academic. He stated that the Western European Cold War military is now gone, and it won’t be coming back in less than a generation in anything short of a science fiction scenario. he’s worth the time and he also frequently comments over at Naked Capitalism.

  7. As is typical for propaganda, the only way the Nato-herded empire and its scribes can pretend this is still winnable is by flipping the objectives: as if Ukraine’s goal isn’t territory and Russia’s isn’t dissolving the Ukrainian army for the 3rd time.
    Russia doesn’t want Ukraine. It wants a sane, neutral, non-puppeted neighbour back. It only gained 4 new regions because the West wouldn’t let them have peace.

    • That’s very cruel Paul. Traitor Ben’s victory condition changing from ‘Crimea being reoccupied by the Zelensky regime’ to ‘the Zelensky regime still existing a year from now on a small area adjoining Poland’ is barely a change at all.

    • Paul you are off your head! Who are you to say what Russia wants? Говорите по русский? К сожалению нет!
      Putin wants a puppet state the same as when that petty criminal Yanukovych was in power. Fifteen years ago a Belarusian friend of mine told me how thuggish Yanukovych was, that he talked in prison language and that he fraudulently removed details of his criminal record to enable him to stand for the presidency. Hence Yanukovych was never a legitimate president – the same as Putin who is not legitimate either.
      God save the Czechs!

      • One can infer from your post that your “Belarusian” friend is by all accounts a criminal, do you associate with criminals Ovod? Its a sad day when people base their personal and ‘academic”worldview on hearsay.
        Setting that aside Paul’s post is a commonly held belief by informed people, your vicious attack speaks more to your true motives of spreading disinformation than contributing towards informed discussion. Are you a Ukrainian troll Ovod? because you have made numerous outlandish claims.

        • Planet PhuD has obviously fallen out of orbit. Don’t you love his claims of illegitimacy? Defined by himself, or him copying some CIA cypher. Or some other descendent of White Russian emigres evicted a century since for being parasites. Had to laugh at God save the Czechs, with Germany getting belligerent again they may need Russian friends.

          • Sometimes NJ you can be quite rational. Not this time!
            You choose to align yourself with a collection of brain dead misfits such as FG who have limited comprehension of history confusing Kievan Rus with Kievan Russia(there was no such thing)!
            The problem NJ is that some people know more about Ukraine and Russia than you do. Think about it.

            • PhuD your demonstrated knowledge of subject matter is far too limited to make us take you seriously.

          • God save the Czechs for locating a million shells for Ukraine.
            You NJ are just a belligerent old Bolshevik. And you are profoundly ignorant captured by confirmation bias. Read Snyder’s ‘The Path to Unfreedom’ but I bet you won’t!

            • PhuD you turkey, I’ve read Snyder and find him way off the mark. There are so many paid up schills for the PTB. Selling your soul to the devil is the default setting for academia, Dante would have added an extra inferno for them.

              • NJ it is you who is way off the mark. You said you tried to read Bloodlands but I am referring to The Road to Unfreedom which reveals the horrifying Eurasianist philosophy adopted by Putin, is a revelatory book but we wouldn’t want to spoil our preconceptions would we?

        • You have to be an idiot FG!
          Russians don’t have to have been in jail to identify prison language. It is common knowledge. I have a dictionary that lists all the expressions you would ever need.
          My Belarusian friend knows more about Russia and Ukraine than any pro-Putinist on TDB put together!

  8. I hear that it costs 10,000 Ukrainian hryvnia (NZ$420) to get smuggled into Moldova now, double what it cost 2 months ago.

  9. The US puts the ‘International Rule of Law’ through the shredder.

    Potential arrest warrant for Netanyahu gets pushback from White House
    BY NIALL STANAGE – 04/29/24 6:46 PM ET

    https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/4630572-the-memo-potential-arrest-warrant-for-netanyahu-gets-pushback-from-white-house/

    “….It’s not quite clear what form such an intervention would take, though backroom diplomacy seems the most likely route.”

    Will that be the same backroom diplomacy that saw Guinea Bissau help Israel starve Gaza by preventing an aid ship under the flag of Guinea Bissau sailing?

  10. International Law is International Law, except when it applies to us, then it is “non-binding”.

    This double standard is what Ben Morgan wants us to join with the US and Australia to do and die for.

    It’s a recipe for war crimes and national disgrace.

  11. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
    Matthew 7 verse 3

    Ben Morgan almost noticed something going on in the Middle East

    “….excellent radar and lower cost munitions providing better value for money than more expensive missiles. A tactic already being employed by the US and UK over the Red Sea and Israel.” Ben Morgan

    Ben Morgan blathers on every week about the Western Alliance being the defenders of the International Rules-Based System and International Law. According to Ben, New Zealand must join in military and nuclear pacts like AUKUS to do our bit to defend the International Rules-Based System and International Law . Ben can only get away with this jingoistic propaganda by ignoring the massive war crimes and atrocities and human rights abuses being committed by Israel against the Palestinians with Western support. Which of course means not mentioning the war in Gaza or anything about the Middle East in entirety, except rarely, and only in passing.

  12. Farcical levels of shifting the goal posts of the International Rules Based Order to suit US interests.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aArrMKZRT_w

    It would be hysterical if it wasn’t being done to cover up for mass murder.

    And these are the psychopaths that Ben Morgan wants us join a nuclear submarine pact with?

    When Trump gets elected in the US, Ben and the New Zealand military community he speaks for will follow right along behind straight over a cliff.

  13. I cannot imagine, Ben; that you don’t understand Russia, defending it’s own people and it’s own territory and it’s own interests; stung into action by the aggressive covert war exercised upon it by the corrupt and venal anglozionist and Ukrainian Right (Pravy Sektor) alliance; are advancing along the line and are not going to stop until Ukraine surrenders and NATO is destroyed in Ukraine.
    Something for which we should all be thankful.

    • You are off your head Remo! You are totally captured by Kremlin propaganda. Try and see the other side – for once.

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