For those who missed this affair, the aptly urled Russian website bs-life.ru (Business Life) published a secret Kremlin directive to compensate the relatives of 2,000 Russian military KIA and 3,200 WIA .
Alarm bells should have rung from the start.
Start with the website. The design runs on a free, mass-use Joomla magazine template. I daresay most functional one-author blogs look nicer. WHOIS lists no contacts, the owner being identified as a “private person.” Until it became “famous” in the past few days, it did not register in Alexa’s top 100,000 global websites (for comparison, Unz.com is 53,764 on the list, and Russia Insider, launched less than a year ago, is at 27,585). That a site built in one day for $10 sometime in 2011 would be the one to acquire a leak of such seminal importance seems unlikely to say the least.
The figures also don’t pass the face validity test. Both UAF and NAF casualties are estimated around 2,500 to date, though they are likely substantial underestimates. Even so this would imply that the actual Russian Army accounted for a substantal portion, perhaps the majority, of the Novorossiyan military deaths. Considering its massive preponderance in training and equipment over Ukraine such ratios would be implausible even if it was doing the regular fighting. In actuality, the only time that we can be reasonably sure it got involved was in the Ilovaysk battle, in which the Ukrainian forces suffered a crushing defeat. The 2:3 ratio of killed to wounded is also utterly implausible for any modern army. That’s the kind of ratios you had in pre-antibiotics wars. In WW2, the ratio was 1:3. In modern wars, it’s at least 1:5.
These are some basic investigative and logical questions that any journalist writing about this should have been asking.
In their defense, though, Novy Region, the Ukrainian news site that first republished the story, is engaged in a propaganda war against Russia, as is 90%+ of the Ukrainian media. That is understandable.
And in their defense, neither Paul Goble nor Paul Roderick Gregory, the two Anglosphere pundits who did most to “break” this story in the West, can be considered legitimate journalists. Both are glorified bloggers, much like myself.
Goble’s primary schtick consists in recycling stories from marginal anti-Kremlin commentators and “laundering” them for mass citation in the Western MSM. This is a role for which he is eminently qualified by his long years of service in the CIA, RFERL, the State Department, and various democracy promoting NGOs (quadruple-sic!). As I wrote in an expose on him five years ago: “If one fine day some random Tatar blogger on LiveJournal decides to restore the Qasim Khanate, we’ll certainly hear about it on his blog… and guess what, we do!” His piece “uncovering” Russia’s military casualties for Euromaidan Press, his latest gig, is just his latest and unusually successful laundry day.
I don’t really know much about Gregory, apart from him being an economist who loves the 1%, blogs for Forbes, and really, really dislikes Putin and Russia (including up to and beyond the point of conspiracy theories). I suspect he got the story from Paul Goble since his post was published 11 hours after Goble’s and it is unlikely that they were both monitoring Novy Region, let alone BS-Life.
Incidentally, The Independent is (was?) considered to be a pro-Russian paper, on account of it being owned by a Russian oligarch (as if Russian oligarchs ever cared about anything beyond their wallets). It’s coverage was singularly incompetent (see bolded), not a surprise perhaps considering the author also writes for VICE and BuzzFeed. And for some reason the Indy expects people to pay for its wisdom.
Whilst Russia continues to deny that its troops are fighting in the ongoing Ukrainian conflict, a respected news site in Russia seemingly inadvertently published secret figures that detail deaths and causalities of forces on the ground.
In fairness, some journalists were properly skeptical of this from the start, such as Leonid Bershidsky, who is likely the best (i.e. least ideological, most fact based) anti-Putin journalist writing at a high profile venue today.
A couple days later, this rumor was taken apart by RT, by revealing the elementary fact that there was no such publication as Business Life. Then the whole affair was comprehensively debunked by Ruslan Leviev (in Russian and translation), a liberal Russian journalist who has actively hunted for traces of Russian military involvement in Donbass. He uncovered that the site was a simple phone number phishing website whose owner went so far as to use stolen identities to keep the scam going.
And some Western journalists such as the AFP’s Dmitry Zaks were very, very sad to see the truth come out.
— Dmitry Zaks (@dmitryzaksAFP) August 28, 2015
I said they needn’t worry too much. As is all too typical in this conflict, it is the sensationalist, headlines-generating news items that make the biggest impact. Reddit is probably the single biggest political discussion forum in the West, where upvotes are directly linked to visibility.
Let’s do a quick quantification using the number of upvotes at /r/WorldNews as a proxy:
What can one say?
Well, first… Kremlin bots! Olgino trolls! Where the hell are you?!?
Second – the rather mundane observation the vast majority of people who only read the articles on /r/WorldNews – without delving into the comments, which at least in this case strip away the BS quite effectively – would come away reinforced in their impression that Russia is directly involved militarily in Ukraine on a large scale, is getting its ass kicked, and that popular opinion will turn against Putin sooner or later at which point the usual color revolution textbook would be pulled out. This is not an isolated case. It’s just the banal reality of information war. The people who “ordered” this story and then laundered it into the MSM don’t care that it was quickly exposed and that it thus has a short shelf life. It still dominated the Ukraine headlines for a couple of days, so it’s mission accomplished so far as they’re concerned. Only a tiny percentage will maintain interest long enough to see it debunked. So far as the rest are concerned the only effect is to reinforce the dominant narrative and the audience for that is primarily Western.
This is all rather obvious, of course, but even – especially – obvious truths still have to be repeated every so often.