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Ukraine has upper hand in information war, but Russia eyes a long game

Kyiv’s messaging and communications resonate in the West, experts say, while Russia focuses inward and on India, China, Africa

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the US Congress by video to plead for support as his country is besieged by Russian forces at the US Capitol, on March 16, 2022, in Washington, DC. (J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images/AFP)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the US Congress by video to plead for support as his country is besieged by Russian forces at the US Capitol, on March 16, 2022, in Washington, DC. (J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images/AFP)

The words “I need anti-tank ammunition, not a ride,” and “Russian warship, go f*ck yourself” are likely to go down in history as some of the most memorable phrases from the Russian war on Ukraine in the winter of 2022.

The first was uttered by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky just a day into the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 in response to a US offer to help him leave the country. The second was the defiant response of a Ukrainian border guard stationed at Zmiinyi, or Snake Island, in the Black Sea, on the first day of the war, after he and his fellow guards were ordered to surrender.

Both became part of Ukraine’s effective framing of a “David vs. Goliath” narrative in the conflict, underscoring the country’s swift efforts since the first days of the conflict to win the information war, as its citizens, officials, and diplomats battled for hearts and minds and proactively engaged with world governments, companies, and individuals on social media channels.

Over a month into the conflict, and the largest land invasion in Europe since World War II, this narrative has been built with tales of heroic resistance (some of questionable origin such as “The Ghost of Kyiv” meme), national identity, captivating imagery, effective messaging, and ongoing communications led by Zelensky, a young actor-turned-president who became an unlikely but dazzling (for many) wartime leader, observers say.

On Twitter, Zelensky posts nearly every day on his discussions with world leaders, noting whether the nation in question agreed to send weapons or provide humanitarian aid, or just expressed solidarity. The Ukrainian president also broadcasts daily addresses to his people in speeches and briefings designed to boost morale and reaffirm unity in the face of the Russian military assault.

Instead of posting dry diplomatic missives, the official Ukraine Twitter account publishes viral, sometimes humorous content and memes, with photos, explanatory videos, and captions optimized for maximum engagement. Ukrainian ambassadors, public officials, journalists, activists, and many others post their own content on social media, including images of abandoned or destroyed Russian tanks and other equipment; on-the-ground accounts of Russian attacks and apparent war crimes such as the killing of civilians, rape and looting; harrowing stories of escape from Ukrainians who have been displaced or become refugees; and tales of dissenting Russian voices.

A Russian armored personnel carrier burns amid damaged and abandoned light utility vehicles after fighting in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on February 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Marienko Andrew)

Kyiv’s digital activities, led by the country’s 31-year-old Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov, have also focused with notable success on pushing companies and global corporations to suspend or restrict operations in Russia or pull activities completely to protest the war. Close to 500 companies have already done so including tech giants like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple.

“As a budding democracy, Ukraine’s narrative has echoed in the democratic world, with its terminology, the messaging, the shared values. They are the underdog here,” said Col. (Res.) Miri Eisin, a veteran of the Israeli intelligence community who is a military security expert and a lecturer on narratives and media as a dimension of security and warfare at Reichmann University (formerly the IDC) in Herzliya.

Ukrainians “democratically kicked out a pro-Russian president, they democratically elected in and supported a president before this one, so they are in a process. Overall, the democratic world is looking at that and saying, ‘Look, with everything that’s happened in the world in the last decades — of the despots and revolutions, and democracies losing their strength in places like Turkey, and Russia for that matter, look at good ol’ Ukraine. They’re not succumbing,'” Eisin told The Times of Israel in a phone interview.

“Overwhelmingly, democracies are with the underdog… And that is something that has been around since certainly the end of World War II, and overwhelmingly since the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” she said.

Ukrainian servicemen climb on a fighting vehicle outside Kyiv, Ukraine, on Saturday, April 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Dr. Yaniv Levyatan, an information warfare expert at the University of Haifa, told The Times of Israel that Ukraine has effectively “gained superiority in the information war, managing to deny Russia victory on this front.”

“Zelensky has become a huge star with his coherent messaging, his leadership, his ability to keep up morale, and convincing the world that this war is their war too,” said Levyatan.

The information warfare expert said there was “no doubt” that Ukraine’s digital offensive has contributed significantly to Western governments’ willingness to provide aid and weapons and slap economic sanctions of unprecedented scale on Russian government officials, industries, and individuals.

“I think that the most successful part of their activity has been forcing tech giants to choose, and to align with one side over the other,” said Dr. Ilan Manor, a lecturer at the Department of Communications at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a member of Oxford University’s Digital Diplomacy Research Group. “It’s not easy to force Facebook to do anything, let alone exit Russia.”

Manor told The Times of Israel that he believes Ukraine’s leverage lies in “the open nature of their approach, making it public, also making a moral plea.”

“How can Facebook make money from [state news outlet] Russia Today when Russia is killing children? [Ukraine] is rallying digital crowds. If these appeals would have been tweeted [only] twice, Facebook would still be in Russia, with Netflix and McDonald’s. But [social media users] are sharing these appeals hundreds of thousands of times. So it generates a lot of pressure on tech companies,” Manor said in a written exchange.

In this war, the world has also seen — for the first time — a besieged president using Zoom and other telecommunications means to address heads of state and speak to parliaments around the world, Manor noted during an online panel discussion two weeks ago on Ukraine’s digital diplomacy efforts.

People watch a public TV showing a live broadcast of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivering a virtual address to Japanese lawmakers in Tokyo, Japan, on Wednesday, March 23, 2022. (AP/Shuji Kajiyama)

Another unprecedented dimension has seen Ukraine effectively outsource a lot of its cyber offensive tactics to netizens sympathetic to its cause, creating an “IT army” of hackers and hacktivists that engage in digital combat with Russian entities.

While the massive cyberattacks Russia is known for have not yet materialized, cyber and information professionals on Ukraine’s side have fought the digital war with denial-of-service attacks on official Russian sites, intelligence-gathering, disinformation-countering, and general messaging.

Ukraine’s information offensive

Ivan Goncharenko, a Ukraine-born PhD student in Middle East Studies at Bar-Ilan University and a social media researcher who has closely been following the war online, said Ukraine has done an outstanding job on a number of digital fronts.

“They’ve been really good at getting information out to their citizens about what is happening; each region [in Ukraine] has social media channels that are constantly updated, so there’s ordered, accurate info, and panic doesn’t set in,” Goncharenko told The Times of Israel in a Zoom call from the United Arab Emirates where he’s completing a program.

“There’s direct contact between Ukrainian mayors, the government, and the people,” he said. “Zelensky speaks daily in videos that are very popular. The defense minister gives morning and evening briefings. And they give updates and try to address fears. They are also upfront about losses and setbacks. They give [people] a feeling that they know what they are doing and people feel together.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a press conference in Kyiv, on March 3, 2022. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

These activities help keep morale high, and the flow of information between citizens and authorities on channels like Telegram has allowed the military and the security services to gather intelligence on the movements of the Russian army, said Goncharenko.

Ukrainian authorities have also been adept at getting out content specifically targeted at Russians to undermine morale and jab at Moscow’s military prowess, launching Telegram groups with information on captured or dead Russian soldiers and a hotline for concerned Russian parents, amplifying stories of military desertion and equipment abandonment, and directly appealing to Russian mothers to prevent their sons from joining the war effort.

As reports started surfacing that undertrained and possibly misled Russian conscripts made up a significant portion of Russia’s invading army, Ukraine began focusing on the number of Russian generals getting killed in action, and publishing estimates (that are difficult to verify) on the loss of life on the Russian side.

Captured Russian soldiers answer media questions at a press conference in the Interfax news agency in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 5, 2022. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

On the cyber front, Ukrainian-affiliated hackers were accused late last month of breaching a Russian website to post an article citing the Russian defense ministry as saying that close to 10,000 Russian soldiers had been killed and over 20,000 wounded.

NATO has estimated that 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the first four weeks of the war in Ukraine, with up to 40,000 believed to have been killed or wounded.

Zelensky has also directly appealed to Russian soldiers to surrender, telling them in one of his nightly addresses that he knows they “want to survive” and promising that they would be treated well.

On social media, Goncharenko said, Ukrainians have focused on tales of “heroism and resistance,” such as when a Ukrainian woman was captured on video confronting Russian soldiers and offering them sunflower seeds “so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here [to die].” Another story, not verified, had a woman taking out a Russian drone from her balcony with a can of pickled vegetables.

Members of civil defense prepare Molotov cocktails in a yard in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Sunday, February 27, 2022. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)

In the early weeks of the invasion, articles and posts abounded about civilians coming together to prepare firebombs — also known as Molotov cocktails — and taking up arms in civil defense organizations.

Ukraine’s messaging has been focused on galvanizing support externally and internally, urging people “to use whatever they can to stop Russian forces; you have many images of men, women, young children holding weapons, promising to defend the land no matter what,” said Levyatan, of the University of Haifa.

Videos of Ukrainian farmers towing Russian trucks and tanks with tractors, and a humorous announcement about Ukrainians not having to declare seized Russian tanks or armored personnel carriers for tax purposes, have also been popular.

Russia, a propaganda powerhouse

Levyatan said it was “quite interesting to see how Ukraine gained superiority [in the information war] and how ready they were to push back on Russian digital weapons.”

After all, Russia is a master of the information war, having for years utilized and perfected so-called hybrid warfare, in which it engages in a wide swath of subversive non-military techniques, including the use of media entities such as the Internet Research Agency as disinformation centers and “troll farms” to sow chaos among foreign adversaries — as was the case in the 2016 US presidential election (and to a lesser extent in the 2020 elections). The sheer output of pro-Kremlin content has been dubbed the “Firehose of Falsehood” propaganda model.

Two weeks ago, Russia or Russian-affiliated entities appeared to have used the first deepfake (a portmanteau of “deep learning” and “fake”) video in the war, pushing out a clip of a glitchy “Zelensky” telling his troops to lay down their weapons and surrender. The video was quickly debunked and deleted.

Previously, for months before the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Russia “prepared the ground for conflict,” said Eisin. “They prepared the domestic front. They have a very strong aspect of Ukraine being part of Russia and have made arguments on why Ukraine shouldn’t exist. You don’t have a lot of dissenting voices [in Russia], they took care of this early on.”

“They had whole campaigns” on social media channels, television, and news outlets, she explained.

For weeks before the first tanks rolled in, armies of influencers, trolls, and bots stirred up anti-Ukrainian sentiment on networks like Tik Tok, as state-controlled media outlets pumped out the Russian narrative.

“No Russians were surprised” by the invasion, said Eisin, even though it caught many Ukrainians unprepared.

What likely did come as a surprise has been Russia’s military performance.

Russia, said Levyatan, “believed its own propaganda that Ukraine would fall within 48 hours. They never imagined the complications.”

Eisin said, “When you believe your own propaganda, you can miscalculate.”

As events didn’t go as planned in the first weeks, Russia quickly took action. The Kremlin restricted foreign media activity, shut down Russia’s last three independent media outlets, barred major social media platforms, created new laws against journalists who defy its propaganda, and insisted on calling the war a “special military operation.”

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin appears on a television screen at the stock market in Frankfurt, Germany, on February 25, 2022. (Michael Probst/AP)

The result has been a Russian public with little to no access to any alternative to Putin’s own anti-Ukraine, anti-Western narrative. It has worked as a kind of shield for Putin against any backlash to the war, observers say. Moscow has also criminalized any public opposition to the war with violators facing up to 15 years’ imprisonment.

Levyatan said Russia has put a huge focus on “in-house” patriotic campaigns. “It has been crucial for the regime and it has been working” to drum up solidarity, he said.

Russian Police officers detain a woman during a protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in central Moscow, on April 2, 2022. (AFP)

Both Levyatan and Eisin cautioned that there appears to be wide support for the conflict among Russians. In polls and interviews, Russians appear to approve of their country’s military assault by at least 50%

Meanwhile, Russian state media continues to echo false and unsupported claims about Ukraine’s government and alleges that it requires “de-Nazification.” It has lied about the Russian military’s attacks on civilian targets and its destruction of entire neighborhoods.

A widely condemned Russian attack on a maternity hospital in the besieged city of Mariupol last month had Moscow alleging that the Ukrainians staged the assault and that the pregnant women who appeared in harrowing photos in the rubble were “crisis actors.”

A pregnant Ukrainian woman injured in the attack later lost her baby and her life, while another, a beauty influencer photographed with blood on her face, was bullied online after the Russian embassy in the UK tweeted her name and said she was pretending to be pregnant.

Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from a maternity hospital that was damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 9, 2022. She later died, and her baby was stillborn. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

In additional tweets, the embassy said the woman, beauty blogger Mariana Vishegirskaya, “has some very realistic makeup” in the photo and the hospital was “long non-operational” and being used by a “neo-Nazi” military force. Twitter deleted the posts.

On Friday, Vishegirskaya appeared in a pro-Russia video tweeted by the Russian embassy in Geneva saying that Ukrainian soldiers did occupy the maternity hospital and that no airstrikes took place. She is believed to be one of possibly thousands of Ukrainians forcibly taken to Russian-held territory.

Russia has also spread conspiracy theories that have come to alarm Western governments, strengthening theories that Russia is prepared to use chemical weapons in Ukraine.

Last month at the UN Security Council, the United States accused Russia of “lying and spreading disinformation” as part of a potential false-flag operation by Russia for the use of chemical or biological agents in Ukraine.

Russia had requested the meeting to repeat its previously made, unsubstantiated claims that Washington had funded “biological activities” in Ukraine — a charge made without any evidence and denied by both Washington and Kyiv.

At the meeting, Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said its Defense Ministry had documents charging that Ukraine has at least 30 biological laboratories carrying out “very dangerous biological experiments” involving pathogens, and its work “is being done and funded and supervised by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency of the United States.”

Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s United Nations Ambassador, on February 25, 2022. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Western countries, in turn, accused Russia of spreading “wild” conspiracy theories and “utter nonsense.”

“The intent behind these lies seems clear, and is deeply troubling,” said US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said. “We believe Russia could use chemical or biological agents for assassinations, as part of a staged or false-flag incident, or to support tactical military operations.”

The United States had warned about such Russian operations in conjunction with an invasion.

Eisin said she wouldn’t put it past Russia to use such weapons. “It’s part of Russia’s military doctrine,” which she said is among the most developed in the world. “It’s a philosophy.”

Russia may have suffered military setbacks but it has waged immense destruction in Ukraine “and they are prepared for the long run,” said Eisin. “They haven’t done as well and they are starting to bring out the big weapons; they have enormous capabilities and they haven’t even started the carpet bombing.”

The Russian war on Ukraine will “affect all of us for years to come. This is a world order-changing event,” added the military security expert.

Dangers ahead

Eisin also cautioned that Ukraine may be winning the information war, but that is specifically in the West, and less so in the rest of the world. Russia’s information operations have mostly targeted India, China, Africa, and South Asian countries, according to researchers.

Outside the West, Russia’s messaging “is still having an impact,” Eisin said, adding that it was important to remember that social media networks are “echo boxes [where] you hear one version — there’s no cross-over, we’re not hearing it all.”

As the military war drags on, Ukraine risks losing the upper hand in the information war because of sheer fatigue, warned the experts.

“Ukraine’s biggest threat is the loss of interest,” said Levyatan, adding that this is already starting to happen as other world events occur. “As long as this war lasts, Ukraine needs to be in the news cycle.”

Manor, of Ben-Gurion University, said that the nature of news cycles is such that a “new crisis will appear and Ukraine will be out of the top headlines, so they will need to keep a focus on what is happening.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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