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OPINION

Wishful thinking in the Ukraine-Russia war

I’m rooting for Ukraine, which Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded four months ago, but I’m trying not to let my rooting interest cloud my discernment.

Ukrainian servicemen fire with a French self-propelled 155 mm/52-calibre Caesar gun toward Russian positions at a front line in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on June 15.ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

No one seems to know who coined the phrase, “In war, truth is the first casualty,” ascribed to such disparate sources as the Greek playwright Aeschylus and the isolationist US Senator Hiram Johnson of California.

Truth is indeed a slippery commodity in wartime, especially during a brutal, protracted horror show such as the air, land, and sea battles unfolding in Ukraine. Possibly like you, I’m rooting for Ukraine, which Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded four months ago — but I’m trying not to let my feelings cloud my discernment, because the team you’re rooting for doesn’t always win.

Even — especially — in wartime, there are two sides to every story, as RAND Corporation researcher David Johnson illustrates in an excellent essay on shaping perceptions in the Ukraine war. For example, Johnson cites widespread media coverage of a botched Russian Army river crossing, supposedly resulting in 485 deaths and huge materiel losses. Johnson adds that the “Russians have, however, conducted several successful river crossings. . . . [that] receive scant media attention.”

Johnson suggests that the “struggling Russian army” story line is “likely the result of a sophisticated all-media Ukrainian information campaign, reinforced by positive stories from journalists whose access is carefully managed by the Ukrainian government.”

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Here are other examples of wishful thinking when it comes to this ghastly war:

Sanctions. Yes, Russia hates the sanctions, but they seem to be gritting their way through the privations, as they have several times before. Remember the 1980 wet-noodle, post-Afghanistan United States “grain embargo” directed against the Soviet Union? Why would you?

It was just a few weeks ago that Russia was said to be “teetering on default” because of its inability to service foreign debt. Now? A recent Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report notes that “only about 10 percent of total Russian sovereign eurobonds [are] vulnerable to a ‘real’ default (i.e., unable to be serviced), which is not much.” Debt service, Carnegie reports, shouldn’t be hard while “Russia is also receiving large foreign currency inflows from exports.”

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(After this article first appeared, sanctions caused Russia to miss an international bond payment, placing it in default with bondholders.)

Vladimir Putin. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, unsubstantiated reports circulated that Putin was suffering from the effects of cancer treatment, or that he was “shaking uncontrollably” during formal meetings. Then just last week he was recorded delivering a three-hour long speech to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, “relaxed and frequently cracking a smile” according to the The New York Times.

Could our president do that?

War crimes. In a war where a key goal is to terrorize opposing populations into submission, do you really think only one side commits war crimes? I don’t. In World War II, laughably euphemized as the Good War, a country I fervently admire, the United States, committed plenty of documented war crimes.

War is the crime, and this one has to be stopped.

The Russia-Ukraine war cries out for a negotiated settlement, and the inevitably harrowing peace negotiations should have started weeks ago. But two politicians who have spoken up for peace talks have been roundly denounced — President Emmanuel Macron of France derided as a “surrender monkey,” and Henry Kissinger blasted for suggesting that Ukraine will have to cede some territory in hypothetical peace talks.

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The war is exacting horrific tolls on both countries, though Ukraine is absorbing far more civilian losses and economic body blows. Russia currently occupies one-fifth of Ukraine, and has effectively blockaded Ukraine’s grain exports, a pillar of the country’s economy.

Before invading Ukraine, Putin cynically wagered that Western Europe would put a higher premium on winter warmth, thanks to Russian gas exports, than on Ukrainian sovereignty. But a cynical wager isn’t necessarily a losing bet.

The coin is in the air, and the truth is, we don’t know where it will land.


Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.