A key weapon in Ukraine’s blitz

Russia’s big retreat in eastern Ukraine was caused by more than military weapons from the West. Ukrainians were aided by an openness to the truth.

In this official photo, Ukraine soldiers patrol the liberated town of Kupiansk after a Russian retreat Sept. 10. The soldiers' faces have been blurred out.

The war in Ukraine took another unexpected turn last week. Much like the way Ukrainians repelled a Russian assault on the capital, Kyiv, six months ago, their military was able to retake several cities in the crucial northeast region during a six-day offensive.

The quick Russian retreat and the speed of the Ukrainian blitz suggest more than the quality of weapons may determine the outcome of this war. Ukraine’s troops clearly have higher morale as they are defending their land. Yet as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said at the start of the war when he bravely stayed put in Kyiv, Ukraine’s best weapon is the truth.

Unlike most Russians, Ukrainians can easily follow reports of the war – both defeats and victories. Their military can more easily recruit willing volunteers, whereas Russia has seen large defections of its volunteer fighters and has experienced difficulties in enticing Russian men to sign up for service in Ukraine.

Even referring to the war as a war can land a Russian in jail. A poll in August by independent pollster Levada found 48% of Russians pay little or no attention to the events in Ukraine. Most media are tightly controlled by the Kremlin.

Ukraine’s ability to command truth as a weapon includes one clever ploy: Many of the captured Russian soldiers are handed a cellphone to call their mothers to reveal details about the war. This has spread news about corruption and bad leadership in the military.

Those problems may help explain Russia’s latest battlefield retreat. As Russian blogger Yuri Podolyaka wrote to his 2.3 million Telegram followers last week, the Russian people could soon cease to trust “the government as a whole.”

To win the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin might need to impose a draft. That alone would be an admission that the war is actually a war and not a “special military operation.” A lie would be exposed, undercutting his popularity.

Critics say Mr. Putin now fears a revolt among Russia’s elite as much as he fears an independent Ukraine. Last June, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Mr. Putin is afraid that a “spark of democracy” could ignite in Russia.

Ukraine is still a long way from winning the war. President Zelenskyy said over the weekend that the next 90 days will determine the country’s future. For now, Russia’s retreat may have put a spark among its people, one lit by Ukraine’s bright beam of truth-telling. 

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