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ISW: Defeatist propaganda keeping ‘us’ from a Ukraine military victory

ISW: Defeatist propaganda keeping ‘us’ from a Ukraine military victory

The neo-con bred and led think tank is the most media referenced organization in town, and that’s dangerous


Analysis | Europe

With the pendulum of war swinging in Russia’s favor and the Western alliance only now clearing the way for more aid to Ukraine, many have been waiting for the Institute for the Study of War to offer its take on who is to blame and what is to be done.

ISW has been one of the most referenced think tanks in mainstream media reporting on the war in Ukraine and has played a prominent role in creating and sustaining war optimism in the West in 2022 and 2023. Its daily battlefield reports have repeatedly played up Ukrainian victories and emphasized Russian failures and losses, almost always uncritically reproducing the version received from Kyiv.

Such reporting is unsurprising when we consider the specific nature of ISW as a think tank. Funded by important military contractors in America’s military industrial complex such as General Dynamics, DynCorps International, and CACI International, ISW is also a creation of the “Kagan industrial complex.” It was founded by Kimberly Kagan, the wife of military historian Frederick Kagan, who in turn is the brother of Robert Kagan — co-founder of the infamous neo-conservative think tank the Project for a New American Century. It would be remiss not to mention that Robert Kagan is married to none other than Victoria Nuland, who was until recently heading up the U.S. State Department’s policy on Ukraine and Europe.

Given the hawkish and neoconservative ideological bent of ISW’s leadership, one would not expect their stance on the war in Ukraine to change even in the light of new developments. Yet, its recent report “Denying Russia’s Only Strategy for Success” is a remarkable double down. Not only does it present the recent deterioration of Ukraine’s military prospects as a Kremlin disinformation campaign, it is also a manifesto for military escalation.

Instead of examining where the Western alliance has come up short, or any concession of Russia’s resilience and adaptation to the challenge of war, the ISW report is squarely focused on the apparent superpowers the Kremlin enjoys in the domain of “perception manipulation.” It claims the Kremlin “floods Western discourse with false and irrelevant narratives” to condition Western publics to “freely reason to a conclusion that Russia’s prevailing in Ukraine is inevitable.”

Reviewing the references the report is based on, it is clear the authors have no direct proof of Kremlin activity. Their work mostly relies on other ISW reports and cites tweets by Elon Musk and David Sacks or cherry-picked media articles as evidence of Westerners being duped by Russia.

Unpacking the central thesis of Russian disinformation, the report goes on to claim that the West has a vast superiority over Russia in terms of resources and technology and that all that is needed to defeat Vladimir Putin is “strategic clarity.” As ISW are experts in military history, it seems incredible they have forgotten the numerous historical examples of countries with superior GDP being defeated by economically and technically inferior opponents. Sidestepping such inconvenient points, the ISW report focuses on the West’s loss of clarity — be it the genuine divisions and fear within NATO or distractions caused by other issues. The blame for this is placed squarely on the Kremlin, implying that Russia has almost superhuman capacities to control Western perception.

Unsurprisingly, the report urges Westerners (referred to as “we” and “us” throughout the text) to blow this Kremlin-induced fog from their minds. In other words, if only the West can eradicate “defeatism,” return to its core “values” and “virtues” and understand the true nature of the Russian threat is in its disinformation capacities, then the rest will be simple. The Western alliance will bridge its “need gap” and produce a “surge” in support to Ukraine to ruin Putin’s dream of a Russian victory.

Once again, there is not a single sentence here that refers to the real war-making capacities of NATO or Ukraine. Where do the munitions come from? What about the manpower? Which NATO members are ready to step up their commitment? The ISW report fits into the previous track record of poor quality military analysis from neo-conservative think tanks on the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

One must conclude that the purpose of this ISW report is in fact to boost the morale of analysts overwhelmed by pessimistic questions about the war’s new trajectory. Indeed, the ISW report dismisses talk of peace as “surrender” to Putin. It also rejects those concerned about escalation and a NATO-Russia war and explicitly saying that the West must escalate to resist Putin’s aggression. Failure to resist is tantamount to surrender.

The discourse of discrediting previous Western diplomacy with Russia as cowardly and failed appeasement is well-established and repeated in the report. ISW goes one step further by calling for the rejection of all “Russian premises” in understanding the conflict in Ukraine. This is a sure way to ensure there can be no basis for any negotiations with Russia.

This brings us to the crucial final part of the report where, having “debunked” a spectrum of points as merely part of the Kremlin’s grand perception manipulation campaign, the authors outline the logical next step in the war: a new escalation. The first part is to “deny Russia’s sanctuaries,” by which the authors mean encouraging Ukraine to have free rein in attacking targets inside the Russian Federation.

Second, they call for NATO to support new forms of asymmetric warfare to catch Russia off guard and somehow offset their increasing dominance on the frontlines. Finally, the report vaguely calls for the West to “target Russia’s capability globally,” which appears to advocate espionage, political and economic warfare, and perhaps even terrorism. In summary, the report advocates blowing up various targets connected to Russia in the hope this derails their summer offensive in Ukraine.

ISW has issued a clear call for the West to fearlessly up the ante against Russia. In reading it, one recalls the strong influence ISW has had up to this point in shaping perceptions of the war in Ukraine. What is striking is the way the group has revealed its own hand as a crucial agent not in supplying objective and accurate military reports but in waging information warfare. One could even say that ISW itself “floods Western discourse” to condition U.S. public opinion to “freely conclude” that it is necessary to escalate against Russia.

Although deeper research is needed, it would seem likely that ISW is far more successful in spreading discourses on the war than any Kremlin agency.

Indeed, Russia has no equivalent to ISW’s global influence and reach in the information domain. The Kremlin’s presentation of its war aims or ability to contest key points has been clearly weak in the West. Despite all the ISW claims, it appears that Russia has long given up on serious “perception manipulation” in the West in favor of hard power.

As a debacle looms for the Western alliance in Ukraine, the Institute for the Study of War is offering a Plan B of escalation to solve the current situation. With the anniversary of NATO this month, we can expect their arguments will be heard in various meetings across the Western world. One only hopes the counter-argument for restraint can be made without being shouted down as a Kremlin propaganda tactic.

A man holds a dog in his arms outside the residential building damaged by the Russian missile attack, Dnipro, eastern Ukraine, April 19, 2024. Photo by Mykola Miakshykov/Ukrinform/ABACAPRESS.COM

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