Wall Street Journal Sets Standard for Irresponsible Journalism in Ukraine

Recently, The Wall Street Journal joined the flood of American mainstream media outlets, including The New York Times, Politico and several others, in preparing the American public for a Russian victory.

After nearly two years, over $113 billion of U.S. taxpayers’ money spent at horrendous cost in life and limb has put Ukraine in a worse bargaining position than they were at the start of the war. As many as 50,000 Ukrainians are now amputees. And though statistics on Ukrainian casualties are a tightly sealed state secret, the most plausible sources suggest casualties and fatalities as staggering as 400,000-500,000. These numbers fit with internal Ukrainian communications that suggest that maintaining their numbers on the field would require replacing 20,000 soldiers a month. The same figure has been given in a New York Times article that quoted a former battalion commander who “estimated that Ukraine will need to enlist 20,000 soldiers a month through next year to sustain its army, both replacing the dead and wounded.” 20,000 over an approximately two year war puts the figure well over 400,000. Most recently, Yuriy Lutsenko, the former prosecutor general and ex-head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, has said that 500,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed or seriously wounded. Interestingly, it is Moscow that provides the most conservative figures. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu recently said that Ukraine has lost over 215,000 soldiers in 2023 with over 383,000 killed or wounded since the war began.

The 400,000-500,000 figure for Ukrainian soldiers lost to the battlefield by casualties and deaths also matches the 450,000-500,000 number that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says the military has requested in a new mobilization. In another sign of a battle between Zelensky and Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Valery Zaluzhny, after Zelensky assigned responsibility to the military for requesting the unpopular draft, Zaluzhny placed the responsibility back on the government, denying that the military had ever formally requested the mobilization or provided the number.

The Wall Street Journal laid the psychological groundwork preparing the American public for defeat in Ukraine, despite the loss of Ukrainian lives and American dollars, with the line “Even if aid for Ukraine is renewed, it is essential to consider a realistic ending for the war.” It goes on to say that, though “Ukraine’s insistence on regaining all the territory Russia has seized since 2014 is understandable…events over the past year have made it clear that this goal can’t be achieved anytime soon.” The article concludes with the prescription that “Western leaders should explore” negotiations to end the fighting, calling it “a bitter pill” but “the only realistic path to a lasting peace in Europe.”

But it is in two short paragraphs near the end of the article that The Wall Street Journal does its readers a disservice by leaving out more information than it gives them, challenging the standards for responsible journalism.

The first of the two paragraphs state, “Recent reports, which Mr. Putin hasn’t denied, suggest that he is ready to agree to a cease-fire along the current battle lines. Although he is unwilling to retreat, these reports indicate that he had shelved his aim to dominate all of Ukraine.”

Though The Wall Street Journal is free to speculate that Vladimir Putin aimed to “dominate all of Ukraine,” it is also obliged to clarify that there is nothing on the documented historical record to indicate that Putin ever had dominating all of Ukraine as an objective. Scholar John Mearsheimer has pointed out, “There is no evidence in the public record that Putin was contemplating, much less intending to put an end to Ukraine as an independent state and make it part of greater Russia when he sent his troops into Ukraine on February 24th.” That has also never been one of Putin’s stated goals of the military operation. His list of goals has consistently been that Ukraine cannot join NATO, that NATO won’t turn Ukraine into a heavily armed anti-Russian country on its border, and that the rights of ethnic Russian Ukrainians be protected. Russia has clearly stated that it “support[s] Ukraine’s territorial integrity” if Ukraine returns to the promise of permanent neutrality upon which Russia first recognized Ukrainian independence in 1991.

In the next paragraph, the article insists that “there are good reasons to be skeptical” that Putin is serious about negotiating a peace that would abandon his ambition to dominate Ukraine. But, though the author has the right to be skeptical, he needs to set out what those “good reasons” are because, once again, they ignore the historical record.

An overwhelming host of people who were present at the Istanbul talks have testified to just how close Russia and Ukraine came to a negotiated peace in the early days of the war. But in questioning Putin’s seriousness about negotiating a peace, The Wall Street Journal ignores reporting that came out several days before its own reporting that former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Oleksandr Chalyi, who was a member of the Ukrainian delegation in Istanbul, says that Putin was very serious about negotiating.

After reminding his audience at a debate in Geneva that he was actually there, Chalyi says that during the Istanbul talks “in March and April,” they “concluded [the] so called Istanbul Communique. And we were very close in the middle of April, in the end of April to finalize our war with some peaceful settlement.” Chalyi reports that Putin personally decided to accept the text of the Communique and that Putin “demonstrated a genuine effort to find a realistic compromise and achieve peace.”

The Journal article then goes to claim that Putin’s Ukraine ambitions are merely part of a larger “plan to reconstitute the Soviet empire.” As evidence, the writer cites Putin’s 2005 statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”

Putin did say that. But like other quotations made by Putin, it is employed misleadingly by omitting its context. First of all, he did not call it “the greatest” catastrophe but “a major” disaster. But the catastrophe after the fall he is referring to is not the absence of the Soviet Union but, primarily, the economic hardship that followed in the wake of its break up. He bemoaned that “individual savings were depreciated” and oligarchs “served exclusively their own corporate interests.” He remembered that “mass poverty began to be seen as the norm.”

The misleading strategy employed here is similar to the one frequently employed when Putin is quoted as having said, “Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart,” without adding that his next words were, “Whoever wants it back has no brain.” The first part refers to the same events Putin bemoans in the statement quoted in the Journal article; the second part entirely changes the claimed meaning by restoring the first to its context.

The Wall Street Journal article seems to be part of a media psychological campaign to prepare Americans for a Russian victory in Ukraine despite the massive expense in American aid, American weapons, and Ukrainian lives. But it could better prepare them for the inevitable negotiations that it predicts by honestly preparing them with the truth about the causes of the war and about the demonstrated possibility of negotiations, an understanding of which will be necessary if those negotiations are to succeed.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at tedsnider@bell.net.