Forrest Cooper is a former Army Ranger with multiple combat deployments and a former security contractor. He is on the ground in Lviv, Ukraine, reporting on relief efforts and military operations in the region during the current conflict. He's also a keen observer of the historical and cultural complexities that are influencing military advancements, Ukrainian defense, and the response of the western world to this war.
The Ukrainian Foreign Legion has gained a lot of attention since President Zelensky announced its formation on February 27--three days after Russian forces entered Ukrainian territory—calling on people like us to help defend his country against Putin's army. The action-oriented people of the western world saw what appeared to be a very cut-and-dried situation and they jumped in to help fight or bring relief to refugees. In large part, what got them there?
"Activists have no place in this conflict, only those who can set clearly defined goals, and pursue them unto completion."
Language in the fog of war bypasses our intellectual defenses and recruits the instincts of our humanity.
And this isn't to knock the UFL or aid organizations. My purpose here is rather to encourage us well-meaning folk to step back and consider more deeply before jumping into action.
For example, take just the variations in what people are reporting in the city of Lviv, the hub and hotspot for fleeing Ukrainians, relief organizations, and other westerners trying to help out.
- As some are awakened in Lviv by the sound of air raid sirens, others in the city only find out about the morning’s missile attack through text messages from concerned friends and family members.
- When they strike the airport, there's some confusion about how to describe it. Is it a "raid?" as one article described it, a "shelling," or was the airport hit by a cruise missile strike?
- The people of Ukraine call the situation "chaotic." When? Today? Or just the last three weeks in general?
I'm not trying to nitpick terminology here or question people who are experiencing and reporting some real terror in cities under siege, but I am concerned about the intent and the truth behind the language.
In the fog of war, the people with genuinely charitable purposes can easily find themselves in the same place as the opportunistic fortune hunters who circle like vultures around calamity.
The war in Ukraine is one of information, logistics, and willpower.
The spread of information cannot be stopped, but the ability to effectively evaluate it and clearly define objectives applies to both those fighting, and those supporting.
The logistical needs range from providing beds for refugees, to getting the tools of war to those who will use them, to establishing methods of communicating trust across land and language barriers.
"Impassioned social media posts about the horrible conditions volunteers experience reveal the vapid nature of Western activism as they interpret the desperation of the Ukrainian situation as some form of personal betrayal. In America, virtue signaling might get you mocked. In Ukraine, it can get you killed."
The willpower of the Ukrainian people is strong, but it is up against a pincer attack aimed at disheartening the people through distrust and hopelessness.
Both refugees fleeing from Russian bombs, and those moving towards the danger in order to help where they are able are forced to navigate through the fog of war.
Activists have no place in this conflict, only those who can set clearly defined goals, and pursue them unto completion. For now, the great question is not when this will end, but what that will look like.
The Credible Threat of Propaganda
The term propaganda has resurfaced since the invasion (and before) as a buzzword tossed around on both sides of the Atlantic. Propaganda has also become a credible threat (to use another emotion-laden buzzword) in this conflict. And many of us in the west just absorb potentially world-shaping information without questioning whether we're being played.
Ukraine good. Russia bad.
It's become so ubiquitous. Such a viral sentiment. I'm not saying it's false. But it is, dangerously, everywhere and seemingly, everyone's perspective.
We hear it from prominent news broadcasters and during conversations over coffee with friends. Politicians’ read it in official statements and celebrities speak of it with the conviction of a Civil Rights leader in social media clips.
There’s money and fame to be made in the moment, and that sentiment carries on to those currently working in Ukraine. In what is being described as primarily an information war, trust is the first casualty.
A Case Study of Mistrust
Here are a few things to consider as you decipher your own thinking and your own response.
Locals in the Transcarpathian area of the country still remain doggedly suspicious of outsiders, even decades after the Cold War, and of each other. The ghost of communism still haunts those rolling hills. Elderly villagers remember a time when anyone could be an informant, including their neighbors and family members.
In Ukraine's cities, deals made with near strangers promised to last a lifetime are disregarded if a better deal comes around three days or even three hours later. Amidst this, sincere humanitarian aid flows in from honest volunteers, donors, and individuals from all over the world.
Very few conversations are transparent. Local government leaders sometimes imply a bribe is needed if they allow humanitarian aid to enter their region. The fear of saboteurs drives suspicion, which is then used to justify the harassment of foreigners. Under the weight of a very real threat, individuals high and low in the chain of command use what power they have for a quick gain.
Ukrainian Foreign Legion
Mixed reports, however, have begun to surface claiming that all is not as it seems for those expecting to partake in the defense of Ukraine within the Ukrainian Foreign Legion or otherwise.
Bad information, propagandistic reports, and a mess of bureaucratic bloat result in extremely disparate numbers being simultaneously reported.
These contradictory reports have claimed that the Ukrainian Foreign Legion is both overflowing with capable volunteers from around the world and also completely shattered after a recent air strike. Which is it?
And who knows how many people have actually joined up. Some reports say a few dozen, and others say a few thousand.
Lately on social media and in whispers heard around Lviv, there are stories of the mistreatment of volunteers. There's tales of sole survivors returning after groups take massive casualties.
What these disparities in reporting indicate is that the so called "information" being provided seems only intended to motivate allies, garner support, and disrupt the enemy.
You have to think of the Ukraine conflict and the civilian situation there with open eyes and sober judgment, and while monetary and material aid have potential to help, all fantasies of being welcomed here with open arms have to be discarded.
Unfortunately, the vultures have already spoiled that as they circled the conflict in search of fame or sudden wealth.
Volunteers involved with the Ukrainian Foreign Legion are experiencing first-hand the importance of sturdy supply lines and logistical support. Military theory and historical references such as “An Army Marches on Its Stomach” offer pale comfort when faced with logistical barriers both bureaucratic and kinetic.
Impassioned social media posts about the horrible conditions' volunteers experience reveal the vapid nature of Western activism as they interpret the desperation of the Ukrainian situation as some form of personal betrayal. In America, virtue signaling might get you mocked. In Ukraine, it can get you killed.
Know What You're Getting Yourself Into.
By Forrest Cooper
Featured Image by Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo