The importance of being precise: an ongoing series

It seems to me that when you’re writing about something as sensitive as the current crisis between Russia and Ukraine, you might want to be sure that you’re reporting exactly what’s happening, and not being careless about wording in a way that could inflame the story. But at Vox (which, full confession, I read regularly and tend to like even though they do make their share of errors — scroll down to the correction), Zack Beauchamp (big fan, he gave me my brush with the big time) and Max Fisher (also generally like although he mostly ignores me on Twitter) were sloppy in a piece they did last week on the whole “aid convoy/Russian invasion force” dispute. I missed the error last week, so I’m not exactly covered in glory myself, but I’m trying to make up for it. Anyway, under the “What We Know” part of their piece, they write this:

The pro-Russia rebel leader boasted of receiving 30 tanks and 1,200 troops from Russia. Alexander Zakharchenko, who took over the largest rebel group last week, announced on Saturday that “At present, moving along the path of this corridor  [from Russia] . . .  there are 150 items of combat hardware, 30 of which are tanks” as well as “1,200 individuals who underwent four months of training in the Russian Federation.” That certainly sounds like a Russian invasion force.

Well, no, not really. It sounds like the rebels sent 1200 fighters to Russia to train for four months (kind of dumb, considering how short the rebels have been in manpower), or possibly like 1200 Russians off the street got four months of training, maybe from the Russian government or maybe not, and then marched into eastern Ukraine (also pretty dumb, from the Russian perspective, because it’s provocative but also “too little, too late”). It might be an invasion force, or it might just be rebels returning to the front, but it’s not at all clear that it’s “Russian” in the sense that these people are regular Russian military. In fact, they’re clearly not regular Russian military, because those guys all presumably have more than 4 months training under their belts and wouldn’t need to undergo any special training to invade eastern Ukraine.

Fisher wrote a longer piece on this story, on Saturday, which makes the same assumption in more detail:

While not confirmed, this certainly sounds like a Russian invasion force, something that NATO has warned for two weeks that Moscow could be on the verge of attempting.

While the rebel leader did not explicitly say the troops and equipment were Russian military, he strongly implied as much, saying that the troops included “individuals who have gone through training over a four-month period on the territory of the Russian Federation and who have been introduced here at the most decisive moment.”

This reading of what Zakharchenko said makes no sense to me. If he were implying that the troops were Russian military (I’m fine with the idea that the equipment is, though it’s probably not their top-shelf stuff), then the idea that they “have gone through training over a four-month period on the territory of the Russian Federation” makes no sense. What training? Why four months? It’s possible that Zakharchenko is trying to run cover for a covert Russian invasion, but why would Putin throw a mere 1200 Russian soldiers into eastern Ukraine at a time when the rebels are getting absolutely pounded?

I realize that this whole “covert infiltration” technique is probably what happened in Crimea, but there are a couple of major differences between Crimea and the Donbas. For one thing, the Russians already had a military base in Crimea, so “infiltrating” soldiers into Crimea was pretty simple and almost impossible for anybody to detect. For another thing, those Russian troops were going in to secure a territory that was all but certain to be annexed to Russia by popular vote, whereas the Donbas rebellion is on the verge of defeat, and the region hasn’t been nearly as keen on the idea of secession and union with Russia as Crimea was. Putting 1200 Russian troops into Donbas won’t accomplish anything apart from getting a good number of them killed and opening Russia up to even more US/EU penalties. If Putin decides to invade Ukraine, he’ll undoubtedly come a lot heavier than that.


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