Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

Piercing the Fog of War: What Is Really Happening in Ukraine?

| March 24, 2022

We are skeptical about what we are reading, hearing, and seeing from reporters and commentators talking as if they found a way to pierce the fog, unmask the protagonists, and discover what is actually happening in Ukraine.

As images flash across our screens incessantly, and we search for signals in the blizzard of words about what is happening in Ukraine, we remind ourselves that we are members of the audience in a theater of war (and we hope before not too long, peace). On the battlefield, there can be no question about the fact that real bombs and bullets are destroying buildings and killing human beings. (So, we are sure this is not just a sequel to Wag the Dog.) But as the protagonists fight on the battleground and in economic and financial markets, they are at the same time engaged in an intense information war. Each actor attempts to shape the narratives, find images that reinforce its messages, and craft words that stir emotions to sustain the morale of its warriors and citizens. Each is also working to impact the views and actions of governments and publics in the wider world.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s career as a comedian pretending to be president prepared him brilliantly for his current role as a wartime president whose actions and words have made him a true global statesman. As analysts, we also note that he has taken information warfare to the next level. If, as it is often said, Vietnam was the first war to be fought on television, Russia’s war against Ukraine is the first major war to be fought on social media.

As Winston Churchill did in the darkest days of Britain’s defiance of the Nazi Blitz, Zelenskyy is courageously rallying his citizens and soldiers to fight the invaders. He is also showing the world what leadership looks like—persuading nations around the globe to provide both material and moral support. Taking a page from Churchill’s defiance of Adolf Hitler’s onslaught, Zelenskyy intends to hang on for as long as possible—hoping against hope for a miracle on the battlefield or that somehow the United States will come to save his country.

Our hearts go out to the brave Ukrainian fighters and citizens, and we are praying that Vladimir Putin’s invasion fails. Nonetheless, as professional analysts trying to make sense of what we are seeing, we begin by reciting what we most confidently know: namely, the fundamental truths about war that have been learned over centuries of experience. The “fog of war” is dense and thickened by disinformation and propaganda; “truth is the first casualty of war” (since, as Churchill said, combatants must wrap their campaigns in a bodyguard of lies); a Clausewitzian “friction” frustrates perfect plans when they have to be translated into operations; “first reports are always wrong”; and “wars are much easier to start than to end.” These have become clichés because each captures a basic truth about war.

Since these truths have been reflected in every war that we have observed and studied (and that one of us has fought in), we start our analysis each morning by reciting them to ensure we have our feet on a solid foundation as we try to interpret the latest reports. This leaves us with a degree of skepticism about what we are reading, hearing, and seeing from reporters and commentators talking as if they found a way to pierce the fog, unmask the protagonists, and discover what is actually happening. But then we ask ourselves—and each other—ten key questions—and force ourselves to write down our best guesses about the answers.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham and Amos Yadlin.“Piercing the Fog of War: What Is Really Happening in Ukraine?.” The National Interest, March 24, 2022.