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From drone videos to selfies at the front, Ukraine is the most documented war ever

When I started covering wars back in the 1980s, a typical day was often like this: You woke up in a place with no electricity, no phone service, no television or newspapers. The Internet didn't exist.

In this news vacuum, you started every day from scratch. You'd swing by a government office, track down a military official, visit a hospital, hang out at the marketplace. If you were lucky, by day's end you'd found a story.

My experience in Ukraine has been different. Very different. Before rolling out of bed, you see dozens of videos, maps and battlefield updates on your phone.

"There's more information from this war than probably any war in history. Immediately available," said Rob Lee, a Marine veteran who's now a military analyst with the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

This firehose of information was evident on day one of Russia's full-scale invasion on Feb. 24 of last year.

"There was this kind of overload of information," said Lee. "It was kind of difficult to keep track. You had to focus on one thing at a time, because the whole picture was really, 'There's just too much information.' "

A new way of covering war

Andriy Tsaplienko is a leading Ukrainian TV journalist who's reported on many conflicts. He said this constant stream has fundamentally changed the way he works.

"I felt it from the first hour of this war," said Tsaplienko. "I got a call from my friend [before dawn] and he told me, 'The invasion has started.' And I decided to share this news as soon as possible."

He posted on Telegram, the social media app of choice among Ukrainians and Russians.

Tsaplienko had fewer than 10,000 followers at that point. Today, he has more than 300,000 on his Telegram channel, which he updates constantly with battlefield reports, videos and nuggets of news.

"You have to do it quicker, much quicker than before," said Tsaplienko. "Traditional media, like television or papers or even websites, are too slow. They are several steps behind."

The conflict in Ukraine is the most documented war for at least three reasons.

The first is simply the march of technology, which offers a real-time look at the fighting as never before.

Private satellite companies provide a stream of images of damage inflicted on both sides — like the ones below from Planet Labs — showing the before-and-after photos of a major Ukrainian dam that was destroyed in June.

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In this CNN video below, Ukraine's military says it used a naval drone to attack a Russian warship in recent days:

A double-edged sword

Dmitri Alperovitch, a prominent commentator on the war, says all this information is hugely helpful, though he adds a caveat.

"It's really addictive to wake up in the morning, open up Telegram and see this flood of videos, text messages, pictures showing you what's been occurring while you were asleep," said Alperovitch, who lives in Washington and runs a think tank, the Silverado Policy Accelerator. But I caught up with him in Ukraine, because he says there's only so much you can learn from afar on social media or other second-hand sources.

"It's really, really important to understand that this is a very selective view of each of the sides fighting this war," he said. "It can lull you into thinking that you know more than you actually do about the way the war is going."

Rob Lee, who also visited Ukraine recently, said too much reliance on social media creates all sorts of distortions.

"If there is a missile strike on a tank, and a tank blows up, and if it goes on Twitter, a big fireball will get retweeted. So a lot of people will see that," he said.

Lee understands Twitter, which is now known as X. His following has grown from around 50,000 before the full-scale war to 670,000 today. But he stresses the war on social media can be very different from the actual war.

"There are a lot of videos also of missiles hitting tanks, but tanks surviving the strike," he added. "It's not going to be retweeted that much because it's not a very interesting video. A lot of people early on came to this very wrong conclusion that tanks were more obsolete than they were."

Despite the war, Ukraine is still open to outsiders

The second big reason this war is so well chronicled is that much of Ukraine still functions despite the heavy fighting in the east and the south.

Schools, shops and businesses are still operating, displaying Ukraine's resilience.

Foreign journalists, aid workers and diplomats all come and go freely to the capital Kyiv and elsewhere.

This has greatly benefitted Ukraine, says Anton Gerashchenko, a former Ukrainian government official who now heads a team that tweets constantly on the war and has nearly a half million followers.

"Ukraine has won the information war. Hundreds of millions of people all over the world saw our suffering and put pressure on their governments to provide us with support," he said.

This international attention focused on Ukraine far exceeds that on other wars in less connected, less accessible countries such as Syria, Yemen or Libya.

A third crucial factor dates to Russia's initial invasion of Ukraine back in 2014.

At that time, Ukraine felt it was struggling to get its message out to the world. International news organizations often had a permanent presence in Moscow, but not in Kyiv, telling the story from Russia's perspective.

In response, Ukraine made a major effort to accommodate media coverage.

"In Ukraine, the access to front-line positions is comparatively easy," said Andriy Tsaplienko, the Ukrainian television correspondent.

In contrast, he said, "I used to work with the American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. It doesn't work like this. It's a process. You have to be embedded with units through many procedures."

On a front-line visit last year, Tsaplienko suffered shrapnel wounds. He now has an artificial hip, he walks with a limp and spends less time at the front.

But with so much information available, he said he can do more analytical work from a safer distance.

Of course, the Ukrainian and Russian governments still want to keep parts of the war out of view.

Yet even this comes with a twist. Russian military bloggers, often embedded with Russian troops, provide daily coverage from the battlefield. They are highly partisan, yet they're often the first to report Russian setbacks.

"You have this unique dynamic where the Russian bloggers and these ultra-patriots are very disappointed with the way the war has been going," said Dmitri Alperovitch. "They've been increasingly more truthful about the failures of the Russian military."

That's just one of many ways this war is being covered like no other.

Kateryna Malofieieva contributed to this report.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.