Russian attack | Can a think tank trust ISW?

The Institute for the Study of War has become a significant source in Western countries for analyzing the war in Ukraine. The Institute of Military Research is financed by companies operating in the arms industry, among others.

Worn out during the year, the combination of letters “ISW” has become very familiar to people following the war in Ukraine.

The abbreviation comes from the words Institute for the Study of War, in Finnish Institute of War Studies. Despite the handsome-sounding name, ISW is in a very different position than, for example, the domestic National Defense University (MPKK). While MPKK is an official higher education institution, ISW does not have any academic status.

“The Institute for the Study of War promotes understanding of military affairs through reliable research, analysis and education. ISW is a non-partisan and non-profit research organization”, is how ISW describes itself on its website.

Ruling the way to define ISW is to talk about it as a “US think tank”. Those who specialize in war and security policy think tanks there are several in the United States, but during the Ukrainian war it is ISW that has received a lot of media attention.

ISW has earned its attention by publishing daily situation reviews of the war situation during the war. The organization publishes a map of the front lines and new battles in Ukraine, in addition to which its situation reports have recently analyzed, among other things, Russia’s military strategic positions, to Vladimir Putin opposition and Ukraine’s possible next goals.

The reports are very thorough looking, carefully initialed and precisely written. Therefore, they have been quoted very widely in the Western media. Helsingin Sanomat regularly writes about ISW’s reports, as do the BBC, The Guardian, Financial Times, The New York Times and The Washington Post around the world.

In each one ISW’s Ukraine report has an important footnote at the end.

“ISW does not receive secret information from any sources, uses only publicly available information and makes extensive use of Russian, Ukrainian and Western reporting, social media and satellite images as well as other location data for its reports.”

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At times, ISW’s situation reports still present very straightforward conclusions about, for example, the future twists and turns of the war or the fragmentation of parties supporting the Russian war.

Although ISW is not an academic actor or a military intelligence service, it already has a long history in the United States as a commentator on war events.

The think tank was founded in 2007, and its personnel are also very convincing based on their titles: they include military historians and former employees of the US armed forces.

At the same time, ISW’s background is also a big reason why it has received strong criticism over the years. For example The Washington Post published In the early 2010s, an in-depth story about the founder of ISW From Kimberly Kagan and about her husband, among others who worked at the American Enterprise Institute think tank of Frederick Kagan.

According to The Washington Post, both have been actively lobbying US politicians on the chosen military strategy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.

Critics have described ISW as a neoconservative activist leaning towards the Republican Party and as a “war hawk”, i.e. an organization pushing for aggressive military actions. ISW, for example, opposed the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

It is also noteworthy that ISW does not receive funding from the government, in which case the money it receives comes from the private sector. Major financiers of ISW, like many military think tanks, are arms industry companies. ISW receives money from, for example, General Dynamics and Raytheon.

In the texts criticizing ISW, parallels are drawn to the fact that the entity that reports on military operations and supports increasing US military activity also benefits financially from the success of the military industry.

How ISW is a reliable agency to report on the events of the Ukrainian war and is the information it conveys propaganda?

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American journalist who has written for several well-known media in his long career Robert Wright analyze in an article published this summer subject extensively.

In his article, Wright emphasizes that ISW is not blatantly wrong in its analyses. According to Wright, ISW still presents the events of the war in such a way that Ukraine’s successes are highlighted. Russia’s successes, on the other hand, are downplayed.

His examples are from last summer. At that time, for example, in connection with Russia’s advance in Eastern Ukraine, ISW emphasized how the achieved territorial conquests had heavily depleted the strength of the Russian forces.

Correspondingly, even in the summer, ISW sensitively reported on the Ukrainian army’s “successful” counterattacks, if they had created pressure on the Russian forces, even if Ukraine had not managed to recapture the territories at all.

For example Editor of Bild magazine Julian Röpcke claimed on Twitter ISW also relies too sensitively on individual sources in its reports.

During the fall, ISW’s reports have of course been even more clearly glowing about Ukraine’s successes and anticipating further progress, because the Russian army has run into big problems in both eastern and southern Ukraine.

According to Wright, ISW’s reports are about Western propaganda, but not outright lies. Instead, it almost imperceptibly focuses on Ukraine’s successes and underestimates Russia’s achievements even when it would have been good to consider them worthy of attention.

HS did not receive any responses from ISW representatives to its request for comment.

Russia has started transferring people to the Russian side in the Kherson region. ISW has recently reported that Ukraine is likely to launch another major counteroffensive in Kherson soon.

Workshops when assessing reliability, it is essential to look at the actor’s background, says National Defense University military professor, lieutenant colonel Aki-Mauri Huhtinen. Because of its background, ISW can be considered reliable, says Huhtinen.

“They have been operating for 15 years, and the organization is led by a military historian. There are many people with PhD degrees, high-level evp officers involved in the operation. These things are important for the quality of information,” says Huhtinen.

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“After reading ISW’s analyses, I think they hit the spot pretty well.”

At the same time, Huhtinen reminds that a certain kind of critical attitude is important, because an ordinary citizen cannot be sure of what kind of connections the think tank has, for example due to its financial arrangements.

Huhtinen urges people interested in war events to follow as many sources as possible. You should not rely on the information of an individual think tank, even if it is a traditional operator.

For example, in the war in Ukraine, it is important to also monitor Russian think tanks and try to filter out potentially relevant information about the Russian invasion through state propaganda.

Can the information conveyed by ISW, highlighting Ukraine’s successes, be called Western propaganda, as Robert Wright did in his article? According to Huhtinen, there is nothing wrong with the term propaganda itself, when you take into account the differences in different forms of propaganda.

“There is white, gray and black propaganda. White propaganda is the kind that doesn’t lie about events, but limits and excludes the treatment of certain topics.”

Huhtinen speaks of confirmation biaswhich will appear in the Ukraine analyses.

“In the case of the war in Ukraine, a clear confirmation bias can be seen from both think tanks and the media. Western countries support Ukraine and hope that Ukraine will win the war. It can be seen in the fact that Russia’s actions and failures are reported very sensitively, while we have very little information about Ukraine’s actions other than victories,” says Huhtinen.

“For these reasons, the analyzes seem to confirm the information that we hope will prove to be correct. In no way does this mean that the information presented is wrong.”


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