What on Earth is Happening in Ukraine?

Yesterday I set out to understand the current state of affairs in Ukraine. The day began, as always, with a barrage of memes mocking a meeting between Russian President Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The news was not all bad. Though the two gentlemen seemed distanced, Lavrov emphasized that there may still be a diplomatic solution that will avoid an invasion of Ukraine.

Then, during the late afternoon, there was an alarming update- thousands of Russian troops and tanks were amassing on Ukraine’s borders, while a Russian invasion seemed eminent. Like many Twitter users, I turned online to try and better understand unfolding events. The answers to this question were contradictory, unsubstantiated and alarming.

According to one self-proclaimed intelligence expert, the Ukrainian army was poised and well equipped to meet Russian troops, if they should invade.  According to another expert, while the Ukrainian military was ready for an invasion, its Oligarchs were fleeing the country in anticipation of Russian troop movements. Both tweets included testimonials, be it videos of Ukrainian troops or maps charting flight paths across Ukraine.

The answer thus far was that an invasion may be imminent, but that the situation was far from calamitous. This was also the sentiment expressed by a Lithuanian official stating that Stinger missiles, effective against Russian helicopters, had arrived in Ukraine.   

Yet the Lithuanian confidence did not exactly match some of the trending images on Twitter, such as the one below supposedly depicting a Ukranian grandmother undergoing training. The picture has since been debunked. But at the time I thought that if Ukraine’s defense hinged on Valentina’s capabilities,  perhaps the country was not as prepared as I had expected.

Then came the Terror Alarm and the confident assertion- the invasion was happening. Russia had crossed the Rubicon, or at least Perekop. Russian soldiers, aided by Russian air support, were meeting no resistance. For a moment I thought that Grandma Valentina had decided to steal the Lithuanian Stinger missile and head for the mountains where she would mount a Guerilla war campaign.  

The sense of urgency grew stronger as my feed was filled with TikTok videos all supposedly capturing Russian troops marching into Ukraine, alongside tanks, armored vehicles and an armada of helicopters. Some videos stated that Russian soldiers were 20 kilometers from Ukraine’s borders. In response, Ukraine was preparing to mobilize its field hospitals.

Yet then, the alarm sound turned mute. Valentina had not fled after all. And now, even her grand-daughter was joining the fight in the blasé mindset expected from a millennial. Even Valentina’s neighbors were receiving training proving a formidable match to the Russian tanks, which were suddenly nowhere in sight.

Actually, I shall amend my previous statement. The Russian tanks were in sight and in a quagmire. The invasion was off. Winter and Valentina had beaten Putin in the game of Risk.

Amused, confused and somewhat alarmed I turned to trusted online sources. Surly online news organizations would be offering real-time coverage of an invasion that was either coming soon, already underway or cancelled. I first turned to BBC News, the old bastion of integrity and objective reporting. However, all I learned was that British nationals should leave Ukraine, that the British economy grew despite Covid and that the Prime Minister was asked by police about his Covid parties.

Angerly, I turned to CNN. I felt foolish. The Brits have long since lost their grit. What was needed was real-time reporting from the war zone. The kind of daring news coverage that turned CNN into a formidable news channel in the early 90’s. Yet even here, there was little to no mention of Ukraine. I did learn that a beloved director had died, that a shooting had occurred in Kentucky and that the US was closing its Embassy in Kiev. A shame, I thought, as Valentina would lose her one chance to realize her dream of seeing the Empire State Building.

There was no follow up, no live videos from Ukraine’s borders, no intrepid journalists daring to go out into the fog of war. Nothing to cement or dispel those many TikTok videos showing an invasion in near real-time.

Finally, I turned to diplomats. Surely they had read my articles on real-time diplomacy. Surly diplomats realized that in times of uncertainty, social media users turn to Twitter to learn about world events. Surly diplomats realized that it is exactly during these moments of uncertainty that they should use social media to narrate crises in real-time.

The State Department offered crucial information- Secretary Blinken had been in Fiji, Covid vaccines were being shipped abroad and love was filling the rooms of the Department as it was Valentine’s day.

The White House proved equally informative as can be seen in the tweet below.

The British Foreign Office did comment on Ukraine yet apparently suffered from a slight time delay commenting on events that happened in the morning rather than real-time events including Russian tank movements.

The question “What on earth is happening in Ukraine?” remained unanswered. Not even NATO offered any analysis of reporting of events. Like most Twitter users, I remained confused and confident that a Russian invasion was either imminent, underway or canceled. This was a moment for digital diplomats to shine.

Alas, they were not up to the task.

As for Valentina- latest reports suggest that she has been deputized by Ukraine’s President and is now commander in chief of the armed forces. Like me, she had quite a day.  

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