Coincidentally, or by design, nothing seems to inspire Vladimir Putin to an act of military aggression quite like the Olympics.
In 2008, as the Beijing Olympics began, I was deployed to Tbilisi, Georgia to cover the short-lived war with Russia. Then, in early 2014, I was in Russia for ABC America during the Sochi Winter Games when our team was sent to Kyiv to cover what began as a people’s revolution against a Russian-backed president. And now, on the eve of the Beijing Winter Olympics, here we are again, with Putin launching a massive invasion of Ukraine.
A feature of covering any of these Russian conflicts as a foreign correspondent is that, unlike the Olympics, where there are usually clear rules and distinct outcomes, these conflicts are almost impossible to explain to an audience. Even being out in the field to observe and interpret events first-hand as they unfold doesn’t necessarily make deciphering them easier.
For journalists, even in cases where strategy, politics or shadowplay remains unclear, you can normally rely on your ability to describe with reasonable accuracy what you see in front of you. In Vladimir Putin‘s wars, it is not so simple.
Russia under Putin has adhered to a longstanding military doctrine known as maskirovka, which literally translates to “something masked.” It is sometimes described as “the art of military deception”. Putin, the former KGB man, deploys it deftly, although for now there is nothing hidden about what he is doing in Ukraine. This is, without a doubt, an all-out invasion, but watching it unfold from afar, beware of the simultaneous deployment of these less obvious tactics.
Do you remember the “little green men” on the streets of Crimea when it was annexed in 2014? Military uniforms without insignia were, in fact, Russian soldiers. Sometimes there are ways to prove these things later, and technology certainly makes it easier to track large-scale troop deployments, as we’re seeing now, but for journalists in the field, it’s hard to unequivocally prove for the moment. .
It was just as confusing in Kiev during that chaotic February revolution. Our teams occupied certain rooms in the Hotel Ukraine, which overlooked the “Maidan”, the central square of Kiev which had become the focal point of the Ukrainian revolution. Two colleagues were editing a video to send back to New York for the evening news when a bullet whistled through their window. It was a near miss, which naturally shook up our crew.
The confusion in Kiev that day over where the bullets were coming from and who was firing them was also troubling. Some reports said they were taken from inside Hotel Ukraine, the very building we were in. Other reports suggested snipers were positioned in the trees behind the hotel. Some said they were on nearby government buildings.