Ukraine has established a narrative of its bravery and invincibility, and Russia's massive disinformation campaign has not been a success in the Western media. The Ukrainians have not yet won the information war, but the Russian General Staff has already lost it, writes Peeter Tali, colonel and former deputy head of the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence in Riga, in a commentary originally published in the Riigikogu Toimetised parliamentary magazine.
Vladimir Putin's Russian ideology is largely based on the old czarist foundations, which can be summed up in three words - czar, orthodoxy and nationalism (or fatherland).
The theory of 'official nationalism' was first developed by Count Sergei Uvarov (1786-1855), a minister in the government of Nicholas I. The basic idea of the theory is that Russia is a special country, inhabited by a special people, who are different from those in Europe. Only Russia has the correct order, according to the requirements of religion and political wisdom.
One of modern-day Russia's leading ideologues, right-wing thinker Alexander Dugin, expressed the view that the freedoms and values of the United States and the West are not universal, because other nations may have different ones. Russia is not a European country, Russia is a Eurasian civilization. "We stood up for our interests in Georgia and that means we are strong," Dugin wrote after the 2008 war in Georgia.
The new ideology of Putin's Russia was formulated in a series of books entitled "Project Russia." The books were created by a group of academics, representatives of the special services and the Orthodox Church and commissioned by the Russian President. Published between 2005 and 2009, the works have come to be known, both in Russia and elsewhere, as Putin's doctrine. Here are some extracts from them.
"We are witnessing the agony of capitalism. Having reached its logical peak in the 1980s-2000s, it is dying. It has had its day and can no longer offer humanity anything. /.../ Nothing in this world is eternal, and now it is the turn of capitalism." /.../ "It is time to spread our wings and go on a historic counter-attack /.../ Russia needs a program for the creation of a new world." /.../
"The outside world has done everything possible to surround Russia with hostile regimes and unsustainable 'orange-colored' states /.../ The moment is already clearly in sight when the instigators of the third psychological war of the most savage and ruthless, vile and amoral world /.../ will pay for the tortures inflicted on Russia, for all the unborn children."
"The restoration of Russian influence in neighboring countries requires a well thought-out, comprehensive and diversified information policy. There must be a shift from the sporadic campaigns to defend the Russian language, which affects a small part of their societies, to a continuous, thought-out and targeted expansion of Russian culture in neighboring countries, especially through the mass media." /.../
"The greatest challenge to the new information policy is the alienation from Russian life of those proponents of Russian language and culture living in neighboring countries." /.../ "Stimulating the reunion of the former Soviet republics with Russia cannot be done by economic means alone /.../
Russia must constantly, actively and astutely convince, not only the political establishments, but also the peoples of the post-Soviet states, of the advantages of accession." /.../ "The elites have voluntarily assumed the role of anti-Russian influence agents, or, in the case of the third category of Georgia and Estonia, they can rightly be called 'occupational governments'; accordingly, it is appropriate to describe the task of the opposition in these countries with the word 'decolonization'."
The program for the 'New Russian Doctrine' outlines two strategic challenges for Russia. The most immediate of these is the restoration, not of the Soviet Union, but of the Russian Empire, which included Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland.
Russia's ultimate strategic goal is set out verbatim in the 2009 book "The New Russian Doctrine. Time to Spread our Wings," as follows: "If the U.S. is only imitating and, in essence, abdicating the role of global administrator, this role rightly belongs to Russia. Now (Russia) must reassert this (right), by assuming it."
Lessons from the Chechen wars
Putin's regime arrived at this ambitious goal through painful defeats in Chechnya, through humiliation and the search for identity. The communist ideal, which had driven the entire Soviet Union mad for seven decades, collapsed along with the empire of evil in 1991, and tens of millions of people lost their point of reference, sensing that they had been wrong and lived the wrong life.
The Kremlin did try to recreate Russian identity around the President, the Fatherland and Orthodoxy, but it did not work. The atheist education of the communists had been effective. Holding the federation together was becoming increasingly difficult, as, following the example of the occupied independent states and former republics, the "subjects of the federation," that is to say, the small nations, were yearning for their own states.
The hero of the first Chechen war (1994-1996) was certainly not the president, Maj. Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev, Col. Aslan Mashadov, or the warlord Shamil Basayev, but Movladi Udugov. Movladi Udugov, who started out as a spokesperson, succeeded in creating an image of Chechens as a small nation with ancient traditions and a love of freedom, forced to fight against an evil empire.
The narrative of the passion for freedom and modern-day confrontation between David and Goliath did not leave the free world cold. The Chechens produced gruesome footage of the ruins of the capital Grozny, with burnt-out Russian tanks, disfigured bodies, slaughtered civilians to demoralize the enemy. Russian officers refused to fight against their own people, and committees of warlords searched for the bodies of their sons and vociferously demanded an end to the war. The world's war reporters covered the war emotionally and on the ground.
The first war ended in a truce - the 1997 Hassavyurt peace agreement saw Russia withdraw its troops from Chechen territory.
The commanders and generals of the Russian Federation's General Staff learned from this bitter experience. Chechen warlords were pitted against each other with money and flattery. After the blowing up of residential buildings in Russia, which the Kremlin needed as a pretext to start a new war, the image of the small, freedom-loving Chechens as a terrorist nation was created. Although, fundamentally, an entire nation cannot be terrorist, the Kremlin managed to very effectively create this image on a large scale.
First of all, Chechnya was surrounded by a cordon in a way that meant all movement in and out (of the republic) was controlled by Moscow. Journalists were taken under control and media events and interviews were staged for foreign journalists. The Russian special services used active measures and provocations, and Chechen leaders were systematically killed in special operations.
Movladi Udugov, Chechnya's newly appointed information minister and deputy prime minister's, channel to inform the free world, "Kavkaz Tsentr" (kavkaz.org), was consistently shut down in digital space by the Russian special services, and thus marginalized within the Kremlin's massive information flow and diplomatic activities.
The Kremlin had taken the initiative in the information battlespace, and the Second Chechen War, which began in 1999, ended in less than a year with a change of power in Grozny when the Kremlin made a deal with the Kadyrov clan. The whole of the Caucasus had been cleansed of guerrillas by spring 2009. In the long term, of course, the Kremlin lost, because Chechnya is ruled by an authoritarian leader under Sharia law, and Moscow's only role is to finance Kadyrov.
In the Georgian war, which began in 2008, the Russian Federation was defeated in terms of prestige, even though 2,000-3,000 of the civilians killed by the fake Georgian army are living out their lives on the internet.
The Kremlin achieved its strategic objectives - a change of government in Georgia; accession to NATO and the European Union is not politically feasible in the foreseeable future; and a third of Georgian territory is occupied, resulting in another frozen conflict.
The onset of the Arab Spring in 2009 and the color revolutions gathering momentum in the background made the Kremlin's power vertical very worried. For Putin and his close associates, a possible power shift in the Kremlin is literally a matter of life and death.
Russia's new military doctrine
In February 2013, the Russian media outlet "Military and Industrial Courier" published a presentation by Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation, which came to be known as the Gerasimov Doctrine (Gerasimov 2013). In reality, of course, it is not a doctrine, but an understanding of modern war by the Russian General Staff.
There has never been a time of peace in Russian thinking, because states have interests and states are always at war. Even in ground combat regulations, defense is only a phase in preparation for attack.
The development of Russian military thought found that in the 21st century, the clear boundaries between war and peace are disappearing. Wars are no longer declared; they begin and proceed according to unfamiliar templates. The rules of war have changed. The role of non-military or broad strategic means of achieving objectives has grown and, in many cases, they surpass military capabilities in their effectiveness.
The focus of conflict has shifted towards the widespread use of political, economic, information, humanitarian and other non-military measures, implemented in accordance with the protest potential of the population. In the entire conflict, military measures account for only a quarter of the toolbox, alongside diplomatic-political, economic and information influence measures.
All this is complemented by covert military means, including information warfare and special forces. Troops, often under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis management, are only used at a certain stage, notably to achieve the ultimate objectives of a conflict. Information warfare opens up a wide asymmetric space to reduce the enemy's combat potential and covers the entire conflict from escalation to de-escalation. There is no zero phase, states are in constant (information) conflict.
"The Russian Federation's new and aggressive strategy posed a direct threat to NATO."
This thinking was skillfully applied by the Kremlin in the occupation and annexation of Crimea and later in the new type of war in Donbas. It was another strategic surprise for the West, because the idea of war had changed. The implementation of the Russian Federation's new and aggressive strategy posed a direct threat to NATO, as the new approach avoided the triggers necessary for the implementation of NATO's Article 5.
Within 72 hours, Russia was able to deploy 40,000 troops on Ukraine's borders, apply economic pressure, create information chaos, deny its military activities in Crimea and eastern Ukraine (strategic masking) at the highest political level, and continue to fight covertly. In the short term, the Kremlin achieved its goal of making Ukraine's accession to NATO and the European Union appear to be a real political impossibility for the foreseeable future due to the countries being at war.
On December 25, 2014, Putin signed the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, which summarizes the lessons of these three military campaigns. In this doctrine, Russia presents itself as the only country in the world to challenge NATO and the U.S., while the existence of NATO is described as a threat to Russia's security (Voennaya Doktrina 2014).
The military doctrine of the Russian Federation lists as one of the external military risks, the use of information and communication technologies for military-political purposes to perform actions contrary to international law, which are directed against the sovereignty, political independence, or territorial integrity of states and to threaten international peace and security, as well as global and regional stability.
The Kremlin sees so-called 'subversive information activities' against the population as an internal risk, especially those targeting the country's young citizens, which aim at undermining the historical, spiritual and patriotic traditions linked to the defense of the homeland. If Russia sees all of this as a security risk, then clearly these actions are important in the Kremlin's own outward-looking activities.
When words and cameras become weapons
Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in March 2015 that, "The day has come when we all have to admit that words, cameras, photos, the Internet and information in general have become another weapon, another component of the armed forces. This weapon can be used for good and for evil. It is a weapon that has played a role in various events in our country's history, in our defeats as well as in our victories."
Putin's Russian leadership sees the media as a weapon system designed to exploit its own people, to sow confusion and misinformation, to influence the population and destroy morale - and it is precisely for this purpose that the television channels RT and Sputnik were created.
RT's editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, states openly in an interview that RT's task is to wage information warfare, using the security policy term informatsionnoe protivoborstvo (information confrontation) throughout.
There is no independent press and no freedom of expression in Russia. The first visible sign of the crackdown on the free press was the assassination of presenter and television producer Vladislav Listyev on March 1, 1995 in Moscow. More recently, the power agencies, or "siloviki," have been tightening the screws, with big companies and oligarchs close to the Kremlin simply buying them up in order to gain control of the press. After the large-scale invasion of Ukraine this year, the Kremlin also closed down the relatively liberal Echo Moskvy and Novaya Gazeta.
Russia consistently practices information operations during regular major exercises as a key component of joint operations. "In principle, information operations are equivalent to fire and maneuver. Information operations can even dominate at certain stages of combat operations. All these issues were practiced during the Kavkaz 2016 exercise," said Gen. Valery Gerasimov on September 14, 2016, after its completion.
The reasoning and vocabulary of Kremlin propaganda find their way into our minds through conspiracy theories and sound-bites.
When the Putin regime fails to get its message across, it tries to mislead and misdirect by creating an informative haze where no one understands the situation or believes the facts. In the haze of mistrust, it is easy to become a "useful idiot" and a tool of the Kremlin.
Putin will not tolerate unity, solidarity and cooperation. The Kremlin's aim is to find cracks and enlarge them into insurmountable gaps. The three main targets are freedom of expression, democratic governance and the rule of law.
Russia undermines freedom of expression by destroying the credibility of the classical press.
Journalism is labelled in such a way that the press has been bought off or that it is the government's so-called "court media." At the same time, products are being created that look like the media, but which do not follow the principles of free press, and are rather weapon systems designed to influence and spread misinformation.
The Putin regime is undermining democracy by interfering in, and questioning the credibility of, elections. Russia has interfered, or attempted to interfere, in elections in the United States, France and Germany, and in the Brexit and Catalan independence referendums.
The mere knowledge that Russia has interfered in the U.S. presidential elections is already frightening in the sense that, if you do not respect them, they will implant some weirdo as your president.
It is mainly through business that Russia undermines the rule of law. Nord stream will not just bring Europe dependence on cheap-looking Russian gas, but mainly on corruption.
Russia attacks allies and the values that bind society, which are usually formulated in international treaties or constitutions.
On a strategic level, Putin's Russia aims to create rifts between international organizations and allies such as the UN, the European Union and NATO.
The desired result is to damage consensus and capacity for cooperation, and to slow down decision-making processes, or even render them impossible.
At an operational level, the aim is either to create rifts between countries in a particular theatre of war or region, or to divide a targeted country or region's population. The aim of this population division, or "human landscaping," is to sow mistrust between the leadership of the state, the state apparatus and the general population. It does not matter who or how, whether young or old, men or women, Lutherans or Christians, Tatars or Russians, conservatives or liberals, as long as it succeeds in antagonizing and inciting conflict.
In Estonia, for example, by falsifying the history of the Second World War and debating the law on cohabitation, this has been successful in bringing people to the streets. The officers of the Russian General Staff (GRU), or the 12th Military Intelligence Directorate 54777, also known as the 72nd Special Service Centre, have been very successful in sowing disinformation about COVID-19 and promoting anti-vaccination worldwide.
At a tactical level, they support combat operations in a particular country, such as Ukraine at the moment.
It seemed that the GRU had learned from experience and was rapidly developing warfare in the information or cognitive battlespace, because it had been very successful there so far.
"An information domain without a clearly defined international border provides an opportunity for far-reaching covert actions, not only against critical information infrastructure, but also against a country's population, directly affecting the national security situation. This is why the most important task of military science is to work on the preparation and conduct of information warfare activities," Gen. Valery Gerasimov stressed in his speech to the Military Academy in 2019 (Gerasimov 2019).
Russia had acquired the skill and confidence to operate in the cognitive battlespace. Putin's Russia used lies, disinformation, ridicule, demagogy and intimidation quite effectively.
Ukraine's strategic communications
After the massive miscalculation and subsequent invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the Kremlin was hit by an information shock. Nothing went as the Kremlin had imagined. Russia's information warriors turned out to be pathetic amateurs, especially compared to the innovative Ukrainians. It is likely that a large proportion of the money planned for Kremlin influence operations was simply stolen and that, following the usual Russian pattern of behavior, the leaders were lied to, to the extent that they believed all was well.
In the eight years since the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, the Ukrainians had analyzed, studied and prepared. Ukraine had turned off the Kremlin's weapons systems, which masqueraded as journalism. Ukraine had disconnected itself from Russian mobile networks.
From the first hours of the war, Ukraine seized the initiative in the information space. Ukraine was basically doing what the Chechens did in the First Chechen War. Ukraine is telling the Old Testament story of David and Goliath.
Ukraine's strategic communication is an integral component of the management of the country and of its national defense, immaculately planned, effectively coordinated and seamlessly adaptable to the dynamics of the situation. Ukraine's message was simple: we will fight no matter what, we will not give up, we will win no matter what. The Russians are occupiers and orcs (you know that Tolkien tale of the Fellowship of the Rings), many in number, strong and stupid, but easily defeated.
Ukraine showed the heroism of its soldiers and the support and determination of the Ukrainian people. It documented the war crimes of the Russians, showed the mismanagement of Russian troops, their poor equipment and ridiculed Russian weapons systems, which Russian information warriors claim have no equal in the world.
Ukraine guarantees the security of its troop operations very intently. Images of destroyed Ukrainian combat equipment, casualties and recognizably Ukrainian positions and fortifications basically cannot be found on the internet. One incident occurred when a TikToker was performing live in front of multiple Ukrainian rocket launchers, which were then hit almost immediately by Russian rocket fire; the TikToker was arrested on charges of treason.
It is impossible to understand Ukraine's operational plans and war plans in general from public sources, and this is a clear example of communication discipline. Ukraine is skillfully using social media to manage the resistance of its people. We do not know the total number of Ukrainian casualties, but all that President Zelenskyy has said is, that in the last days of May, Ukrainian casualties in the fierce defensive battles of the Donbas could reach 50-100 fighters a day.
By contrast, the Russian aggressor's casualties are counted regularly, every day. The figures and communications provided by Ukraine can be broadly trusted because Ukraine cannot risk lying. Ukraine must (be seen to) confront a lying Russia.
Unlike in the First Chechen War, the Ukrainians have not succeeded in inciting the Russian warlords to put pressure on Putin's government to bring the soldiers home, although Ukraine has conducted several campaigns (to this end).
One campaign called on Russian mothers to come to Ukraine to collect their imprisoned sons, another suggested they use an Internet platform to look for their relatives in Ukraine. Dead or alive. Russia has essentially cut off its information space from the rest of the world and is consistently rejecting opportunities to communicate directly with its own people.
Ukraine is working in three main directions, each with sub-groups. Firstly, by instructing its population to keep up morale and demonstrate that the Russian troops deployed can be destroyed.
Secondly, Putin's Russia and its allies are being told, "do not come to fight in Ukraine, we will destroy you, or take you to the Hague for war crimes," by way of deterrence. Thirdly, the free Western world is being shown the destruction, and documented Russian war crimes, with the aim of obtaining Western political, economic and military aid (to defend) democratic values and human rights.
President Zelenskyy and propaganda in other countries
Chinese diplomats, government agencies and state-controlled media have used the war as an opportunity to spread anti-American propaganda and amplify Russian-created conspiracy theories, such as the falsehoods that Ukrainian health institutions are "secret U.S. bio-labs." Such conspiracy theories have also been promoted by Cuban state media (Wilner et al. 2022).
Russia's war lies have also been repeated in state-controlled publications in other countries, such as Serbia and Iran. In the latter, state media criticized the British embassy in Tehran after it raised the Ukrainian flag in support of Ukraine. Iran's pro-regime media have actively republished reports from Sputnik. In Latin America, the Spanish language version of RT, RT Actualidad, is a popular channel that has spread disinformation about the war.
The Vietnamese authorities have instructed journalists not to use the word "invasion" and to minimize coverage of the war. In the Republic of South Africa, the ruling African National Congress published an article in its weekly newsletter, ANC Today, confirming the view that Russia has invaded Ukraine in order to "de-nazify" it.
The Ukrainians have been wildly lucky with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has a background in standup comedy. In a matter of days, if not hours, Zelenskyy became the wartime leader around whom the entire Ukrainian nation rallied.
As a former entertainer, Zelenskyy has a keen sense of what audiences expect, what is in the air, (he) knows the target audience and finds ways to turn unexpected situations into victories. He is a master of social media and the smartphone, and is able to communicate messages in a simple and clear way.
Zelenskyy's speeches and quotes spread around the world and keep up the morale of Ukrainians for the fight. Two collections of Zelenskyy's speeches have already been published as books. The story of a hero fighting evil, such as (the Mesopotamian mythological hero) Gilgamesh, or Luke Skywalker, is ancient and universal. Zelenskyy has masterfully told this story by wearing a fleece and a green military T-shirt in reference to Star Wars.
He has made impassioned pleas to receive help for his people, delivering fiery virtual speeches to the parliaments of Canada, the UK, Israel and the European Union, as well as to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Each time, he has found a working emotion and the right wording that speaks best to that particular representative body. He has always been greeted by a standing ovation from the legislature after his speech.
Zelenskyy has spoken directly to the Russian people in his native language, Russian. In Russian too, on March 3, he positioned himself as a "neighbor" and an "ordinary citizen," taunting Putin for only receiving his visitors at an exceptionally long table: "Come and sit with me!" Only not 30 meters away, like Macron and Scholz. /.../ I'm your neighbor. /.../ What are you afraid of?" Zelenskyy said.
Before, photos of a bare-chested Putin were an attempt to portray him as a strong and virile leader. Pictures of the younger Zelenskyy wearing a bulletproof vest and drinking tea with Ukrainian soldiers were in sharp contrast to the rococo style of news produced about Putin (Bump 2022).
The Ukrainian media has been particularly clever in amplifying the messages of its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. His phrase, "I need ammunition, not a ride," can easily compete with quotes from Winston Churchill or Theodore Roosevelt. Zelenskyy's daily video appeals and phone clips serve the specific purpose of sending a strong message to the whole world and keeping up the morale of his people, as if to say: "I am here, we are together, one day we will win in any case."
The juicy explanations of Zelenskyy's adviser Oleksiy Arestovych, to tens of thousands of TV viewers every night on Mark Feygin's YouTube channel are clearly intended to send the messages that the Ukrainian leadership does not seem fit to say officially, in a more lobbied form, and to speculate with the aim of influencing processes. Arestovych's background as a military intelligence analyst and former actor has given him excellent skills and the confidence to hold a large audience.
The Ukrainian narrative
Ukraine has thought through its grassroots communication strategically, mobilized thousands of volunteers on social media, and Ukrainians across the wider world in a common network to achieve information dominance and strategic benefits.
Ukraine's official social media accounts mobilize the population, sharing information, as well as instructions for non-violent and also armed resistance. Activists share real-time information on the invasion and the activities of Russian troops, fight the Russian information war fiercely in the global space.
The Ukrainians have provided instructions on how to hide, evacuate, make Molotov cocktails and how to recognize Russian weapons and technology. At the same time, the Ukrainian General Staff shared instructions on which Russian forces to attack, and how. In the beginning, it was equipment and fuel trucks, a few weeks later it was electronic warfare machinery and radars.
Media analysts have stressed Ukraine's methodical approach and consistency. Russia, previously adept at taunting its opponents, has clearly lost the meme war in Ukraine.
Ukrainians say memes have helped them cope with an uncertain future by making them laugh. Contributions from the general public, may also assist in fighting against disinformation, because it is hard to lie when there are 150 videos online showing that the occupiers are not in Kyiv and are not winning (the war).
A video produced on February 25, of an elderly woman berating a Russian soldier appears to have captured a real event in the port city of Henichesk. The woman gave the occupier sunflower seeds, telling him to put them in his pocket so that sunflowers, a symbol of Ukraine, would grow when he was killed and buried.
On social media, the legend of the "Ghost of Kyiv" became wildly popular. "The identity of the pilot of the Ukrainian fighter jet that shot down six Russian planes cannot be confirmed," said Deutsche Welle (2022) on March 1. The story was retweeted by Ukraine's official Twitter account and its authenticity was confirmed by former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The photo posted of the pilot is three years old. The factuality of the story has been questioned by both Russian and Western media. The Ukrainian military has neither confirmed, nor denied the story.
On February 25, Ukraine's Ministry of Defense suggested that the Ghost of Kyiv could be a dangerous and unpredictable pilot from the reserves. The myth was born, and served three purposes: to mobilize Ukrainians, to discourage Russian pilots and to tell a heroic story to Ukraine's allies.
The defiant response of Ukrainian border guards defending Snake Island after the Moskva, a missile cruiser and flagship of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, demanded their surrender, initiated the Ukrainian framing of the war as essentially the Old Testament story of David and Goliath. This narrative has been amplified by videos of Ukrainian farmers towing away abandoned armored Russian vehicles. These have become the images of the war in Ukraine.
Russia's massive disinformation campaign and efforts in the cognitive battle space have clearly not been a success in the Western media. Ukraine and its allies have used speeches, television appearances, social media, cyber warfare and memes against Russia.
Ukraine has perpetuated a narrative of Ukrainian bravery and invincibility. "If Ukraine had no messages about the righteousness of its cause, its popularity, the bravery of its heroes or the suffering of its population, it would lose," said Washington-based analyst Peter W. Singer, "Not just the information war, but the whole war."
Ukraine has not yet won the war. The free world's information space is dominated by the Ukrainian narrative and Ukrainian messages. Russia continues to make desperate efforts to gain supremacy in Asia, Africa and Latin America and, of course, to keep its heels on the ground in Belarus and Serbia.
Editor: Michael Cole