What 500 Days Of The Ukraine Crisis Have Taught Us

July 2, 2015

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Today is the 500th day of The Interpreter’s live coverage of Ukraine (read that coverage here). While the day is not an anniversary in the traditional sense, it is a milestone which marks two events — the day the Ukrainian police tried to storm Maidan Square to try to end the Euromaidan Revolution, and this magazine’s humble efforts to cover the events which have transpired since.

As such, the milestone gives us an opportunity to reflect not only on a year and a half of revolution and armed conflict, but the methodologies which our small team of three have chosen to use to record history, in real time, to the best of our abilities.

500 Liveblogs Later

500 days ago today, The Interpreter’s managing editor took one look at the headlines coming out of Ukraine and made what seemed like a small decision — to launch a liveblog on Ukraine. That morning, February 18, 2014, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych offered a choice to the pro-EU protesters who had been camping on the streets of Kiev — go home, and all would be forgiven. The protesters did not take the deal, and that night Ukraine’s infamous Berkut riot police tried to remove them by force. Not only did they fail to do so, but the decisions made by the Ukrainian government that day, an extension of decisions that had been made in Kiev — and in Moscow — for more than a year previous — set off a fire storm which burns to this day.

In February we wrote extensively about the one year anniversary of the Maidan Revolution and reflected on the events which have transpired since. Those articles are collected here.

A Most Violent Year

Updated – Our list of articles marking the one year anniversary of the Euromaidan Revolution: A Year of Russian Opposition Over the War in Ukraine: From 'Crimea is Ours' to 'Crisis is Ours' The Birth of a Nation The Spirit Of the Maidan Revolution Will Survive Reflections On A Year Of Russian Aggression by Estonian […]

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Jul 02, 2015 07:11 (GMT)

But in the discussion of revolutions and wars, events both inspiring and horrifying, it is also worth reflecting on a more basic question: what have the last 500 days taught us about how we know what we know about not only what has happened in Ukraine and Russia, but also about what may happen there next.

Perhaps, then, it’s best to start this conversation by revisiting a story covered by The Interpreter, not 500 days ago but just under one year ago.

The Day Before MH17

On the evening of July 16, 2014, the editors of Foreign Policy Magazine were convinced that The Interpreter had completed an investigation which would catapult the war in Ukraine back onto the front pages of newspapers.

The “smoking gun” came in the form of a collection of videos, each posted by Russian citizens, which reportedly showed Grad rockets being fired from Russian territory into Ukraine. By using a series of verification techniques, The Interpreter determined the launching area of the rockets, well within Russian territory, and the direction the rockets traveled. The conclusion — the rockets were definitely launched from Russia territory, and there was no may they could have landed anywhere but inside Ukraine, and so it was likely that the Russian military at least knew, or likely even assisted in or conducted the attacks.

Later investigations would prove which Ukrainian soldiers were hit by the attack, and satellite images published months later would prove that our initial projections were only off by meters:

At the time, our team was not surprised at all by this development. The war in Ukraine was clearly heating up and there was plenty of data which suggested that the conflict was about to explode. First, and most obviously, we been tracking upticks in markers like casualties reported by both sides. But we had also seen videos, many of which we were able to confirm or partially confirm, showing large amounts of military hardware deploying in the “separatist” territory in eastern Ukraine. We had seen weapons never before seen in this conflict, including advanced anti-aircraft weapons which local militants were unlikely to have captured from the Ukrainian military and were even more unlikely to know how to operate. And yet, Ukrainian aircraft were routinely being shot out of the sky. These observations were coming as the rhetoric from the Kremlin and the leadership of the Russian-backed fighters suggested that a swift Ukrainian victory and an end to this conflict were not acceptable to Putin and his proxies. With significantly comprehensive data, of many different types, the trend lines were clear.

Our prediction — the Russian military was responding to pressure put on it to respond to the renewed military offensive launched by Ukraine’s newly-elected President to recapture and unify his country. Putin was now directly, and far more openly, providing direct military support to Ukraine’s separatists, and the results would be disastrous for at least one, if not both of those countries.

That day, on July 16, some may have argued this larger point. Less than 24 hours later and advanced anti-aircraft system — fired from separatist territory, and perhaps even operated by the Russian military — shot down a civilian airliner. One month later, Russian forces swarmed over the border and reversed Ukraine’s military progress, leading to the Minsk protocol which has not-quite-frozen this still very hot conflict ever since.

These predictions did not spring out of a crystal ball, though they did run counter to many op-eds and analysis from certain Russian experts who continuously downplay the Russian threat.

So how were the predictions made?

Tracking The Data

The Interpreter began to track the Ukrainian crisis long before there was a crisis, back in the summer of 2013. By tracking Ukrainian government statements, Russian government statements (at all levels), pro-Kremlin media coverage, and Kremlin-controlled media coverage, and putting that analysis beside the actual actions of the Russian government, a few things became very clear.

First, the Russian government was applying intense pressure to Ukraine and other countries which were considering joining the European Union. Borders were closed, sanctions regimes put in place, food and manufactured goods blocked. These actions, which amount to a kind of preemptive economic warfare, were designed to send a clear message — even consider joining the European Union and there will be pain. Meanwhile, statements on the matter made by government officials to Kremlin outlets suggested that this issue was a key priority to the Kremlin. Pro-Kremlin commentators were also pushing this issue heavily, building a frenzy of public opinion which considered Ukraine’s move toward the EU as a significant economic, or even security, threat which Russia would have to prioritize.

In other words, not only were Russia’s wishes clear, so too were its actions — Putin was never going to let Ukraine move toward the European Union without a fight.

The Yanukovych administration in Ukraine , widely considered pro-Russian, was far less enthusiastic about Moscow’s actions than many might expect. Yanukovych seemed disturbed by Moscow’s overreach, and was hesitant to turn away from the EU Association agreement, not likely because Yanukovych had any particular desire to join the EU, but rather the Yanukovych regime clearly feared the public backlash (obviously, in hindsight, we know his fears on this point were justified, since his abandoning of the EU association process sparked the revolution which convinced him to leave the country, with Russia’s help).

When Yanukovych fled to Russia after the Euromaidan Revolution in February 2014, he gave a press conference where he seemed somewhat conciliatory toward those who wanted to join the EU. He said that he was seriously considering signing the EU Association Agreement, but when he traveled to Russia before deciding to abandon the plan to join the EU, Putin informed him of the “true costs” of such a decision. The Interpreter suggested that this may happen the previous November, citing a Novaya Gazeta article which noted that when Yanukovych was in Moscow, his presidential motorcade “got lost” on his way to the meeting. Either Yanukovych was being snubbed by the Kremlin, he didn’t want his talks with Putin known, or he was hoping to shorten or even cancel the meeting and escape back to Ukraine.

In other words, in light of the efforts Russia went through to force Yanukovych to reject the European Union, it was clear that Russia could not just let Ukraine slip away.

Furthermore, those watching Russia’s efforts through the years to prevent domestic protests and to suppress “color revolutions” in other countries, it was also clear that Russia could not allow the Euromaidan Movement to succeed, lest it spread.

In light of all of this, The Interpreter warned that all indications pointed to the Russian military annexation of Crimea, and perhaps of eastern Ukraine. This was not an ideological judgement. This was the logical conclusion in light of a massive body of evidence. And it has been vindicated in spades.

The Interpreter launched its Ukraine liveblog just before the height of the Euromaidan Revolution, using a combination of the analysis of citizen journalism, and translation and monitoring of Russian and Ukrainian press and government reports and statements, and traditional journalism to attempt to form a more complete understanding of the conflict. Since that time its small staff of three has worked to collect and analyze similar data-points on a day-to-day basis. During this process, we noted how the “little green men” whom even Putin later admitted were Russian soldiers tried desperately to provoke a firefight with the Ukrainian troops who were stationed in Crimea. After Crimea was annexed, citizen journalists in both Crimea and Russia continued to witness the movement of heavy weaponry toward the border of Ukraine — much of which The Interpreter verified — and the Russian press and government continued its hyperventilating propaganda about the threat posed by the new “coup” government in Kiev to ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and the Russian Federation itself. Again, the only logical conclusion — Russia was not mobilizing its forces and its propaganda machine for no reason, and there would be an attempt to take control of the Donbass.

Throughout the spring and early summer, The Interpreter carefully collected, analyzed, verified and triangulated similar data on both sides of the Ukraine-Russian border. As fighting escalated, it became increasingly clear that the Russian military was supplying the “little green men” in Donbass with weapons, armored vehicles, and ultimately tanks and advanced anti-aircraft weapons, and the more the Ukrainian government succeeded in regaining control of their country, the more directly involved the Russian military was becoming. While Ukraine slipped from headlines in the Western press, it was clear to our regular readers that events were building to a climax, exemplified by the aforementioned downing of MH17 and the “Russian invasion” of August.

After the Minsk agreement was supposed to freeze the conflict in September, The Interpreter once again noted that the theory that Minsk would end the fighting or that Russia wanted peace, reached by certain Western analysts, simply did not match the facts on the ground. Therefore, our analysts were not surprised when the Minsk agreement fell apart, Minsk II was signed, and then Minsk II also fell apart. The data predicted those events at every step of the way, and the use of a liveblog to record this conflict was key in developing and organizing that data. Each entry, thus, does not only record a small piece of history, collectively they populate a database from which clear conclusions can sometimes be reached.

Liveblogging as a Mindset and Methodology 

Liveblogs have several key advantages. First, each update can be short and specific — a single report, translation, video or other story — or they can be longer, synthesizing and triangulating multiple pieces of information. Since each update has its own headline (and tweet) it is easier to find these individual data points later and then use each point to discern trends in the data. Furthermore, multiple authors can quickly generate content, thus increasing the ability for a significant amount of information to be collected in a single place.

The liveblogging methodologies used by The Interpreter differentiate our content from other liveblogs. While many news agencies use liveblogging to cover developing stories, those stories are often simple, brief, and concise summaries of information published elsewhere, absent from context and analysis. Also, most liveblogs have little use after the event is over, but our liveblogs have been cited by news outlets, blogs, and Wikipedia articles, because they serve as a fast platform for organizing data in real-time.

Furthermore, the liveblogs are not just raw data — but they are data interpreted through a team of experts and translators who have been following developments since before “day 1.” Context ensures that holes or flaws in the data do not distort the larger narratives. In fact, Boston College Professor Dr. Matt Sienkiewicz has coined a term for those in the media who combine traditional journalistic techniques with the analysis and verification of citizen journalism in order to filter the raw data through expertise and context — “the interpreter tier.”

This methodology was used and developed by this author for nearly five years before the Ukraine crisis — to cover conflicts in the Middle East, starting with the post-election protests in Iran and continuing through the events of Arab Spring. In particular, liveblogging played a key role in my ability to cover the complicated war in Syria. By tracking daily casualty numbers, the shifting locations of trends like battles or protests, and weapons and groups involved in the fighting, I used liveblogging to start to transform the massive amount of data emerging each hour from Syria into a more organized understanding of trends.

The Interpreter uses liveblogging software, Pressimus, which was developed by Sam Razi. Razi himself was a pioneer in liveblogging through his website Iran News Now, and along with blogger Josh Shahryar (of “The Daily NiteOwl” fame), both were able to provide some of the most important and accurate news coverage of the 2009 and 2010 protests in Iran. At the time, very few main-stream journalists treated liveblogging as a serious way to cover a conflict. However, Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney and Robert Mackey of the New York Times made names for themselves by using liveblogging and other new techniques to cover this crisis. By combining some of the strengths of both new methods and traditional journalism, Pickney and Mackey proved that liveblogging is not just a method of displaying content, but a method of tracking a story. Neither journalist fell for the trap that others did — dismissing the protests out of conventional wisdom — because both had seen the size and energy of the crowds, not in person but through social media. By combining similar techniques with translation and cultural knowledge, Razi and Shahryar were able to even further set themselves apart.,

By synthesizing and triangulating many sources of information to verify and analyze information, rather than just list and summarize it, Razi and Shahryar — who were unknown to the Western media just days before the protests — were regularly quoted by Huffington Post, New York Times, The Guardian, and even CNN, just to name a few major outlets which utilized their work. Razi took that knowledge and developed a piece of software that springs from the knowledge gained from using these more advanced methods of liveblogging to gather and sort information. In the future, Pressimus will have even more powerful data sorting and analysis features which will be capable of quickly organizing hundreds or thousands of individual updates to help spot patterns and trends.

What Does the Interpreted Data Say About Where This Conflict Is Going?

All that leads us to the present. What does the data say about Russia and Ukraine now?

The main stream press coverage has dropped off… again. The conflict in eastern Ukraine is old news. Lately there have been warnings, from the Ukrainian government, and NATO, that Russia is once again ramping up its efforts to destabilize the region (not just Ukraine, but also the Baltics, and Moldova, and perhaps the whole of Eastern Europe). These warnings are receiving a mixed reaction, as some see this as obvious given recent history, and others are tired of the constant almost-war footing which has been in place for the last year.

But the reality is that the data is not conflicted. Russia is moving forces into Ukraine. The violence, the military hardware, and the hostile Russian and separatist rhetoric are once again building. Russia is aggressively posturing with snap military drills inside Russia and in international airspace. Russia has raised the legal question of the legitimacy of the independence of the Baltic states. Russian fighters are building bases in eastern Ukraine, between Mariupol and Donetsk. All indications say that a new stage of renewed fighting is on its way, likely even larger and more deadly than the escalation which started in early May.

That’s not ideology speaking, and it’s not an editorial, either. It’s an interpretation of the data.

And after 500 days of liveblogging, there is a lot of data.