The Russian invasion has so far not gone according to plan. Putin expected a quick in-and-out operation to establish a new regime in Kyiv but has been taken back by the fierce Ukrainian resistance. However, as with all things with war, nothing is constant. The situation could change rapidly as Moscow makes a more concentrated push for Kyiv. The Russians, however, have lost the information war as Putin struggles to control the war story.
Russia has a long history of using disinformation to sow discord and confusion and create narratives that justify Russian military actions. Telegram groups were spreading messages about mass surrender of Ukrainian troops encouraging others to follow, that ATMs were not working and that Kyiv would fall soon. All of these were thoroughly debunked.
Russia is widely recognized as the master of disinformation due to its past successful exploits. However, this may be the first time they are coming against an adversary actively countering Russian disinformation.
The build-up to the invasion of Ukraine is instructive. States and their intelligence agencies ranging from the US to the UK and several other Western nations were categorical in saying that a Russian invasion is imminent. OSINT researchers tracked the positions and movement of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border with Russia and Belarus – calling the bluff that they were there for routine exercises. Initially, Russia was somewhat successful in dismissing such warnings as war hysteria. Ukrainian president himself asked the West to stop creating panic.
However, with the help of hindsight, the messages coming out of the West debunked the Russian justification for the invasion. By calling out Russia early, the West pre-empted Russian disinformation.
It also became clear that Russia had a completely choreographed approach to the war, from invasion plans to various public statements. This debunked the Russian assertion that they were forced to invade after receiving no concessions from the West. In fact, they were planning for the invasion all along.
On Feb. 18, the leader of the breakaway Donetsk republic released a video calling for evacuation to Russia, claiming a Ukrainian offensive was imminent. An analysis of metadata confirmed that the video was created two days before they were published on February 18. Russia also shelled Ukrainian government territory, hitting a kindergarten. All provocations to justify a Russian invasion. However, the Ukrainians kept their hands off the trigger to avoid giving Russia a pretext.
On Feb. 21, Putin held a national security meeting on Donbas, which voted for recognizing the breakaway regions in Ukraine. While the meeting was live-streamed on YouTube, OSINT researchers were quick to point out that the time on the watches of the Russian delegates did not match the time the video was telecast. Another pre-recorded video debunked.
Laughably, on Feb. 28, Russian media outlets released a story that Putin had solved the Ukrainian problem forever. It was meant for a scenario where Russian forces had completely taken over Ukraine. Somehow the report slipped through and was published. Soon deleted, it was archived by the internet community, and it laid bare how poorly the war plan was going for Russia.
The social media campaign by Ukraine is extraordinary. Going up against a well-oiled Russian propaganda machine is not easy. But the Ukrainians were wise in using social media like Twitter and giving out constant updates. Heroes were created that appealed to Ukrainian nationalism and unity. Video of a Ukrainian Mig-29 pilot shooting down a Russian Su-30 gave rise to the incredible story of the ‘ghost of Kyiv.’ However, the video was created using a simulation game and has since been debunked. But the story of the ‘ghost of Kyiv’ is still doing rounds on social media because that is how disinformation works. It does not need to be true; it just needs to be believed. Ukraine needed a war hero, they got one in the ‘ghost of Kyiv’.
The story of 18 Ukrainian border guards on Snake Island refusing to surrender to Russian warships emboldened the Ukrainian spirit to fight. Ukrainian social media handles, including official ones, were quick to latch on to the story. The International media soon followed. In the propaganda war, this was a big coup. It turns out the guards were not killed but taken prisoners by the Russians. But the story had served its purpose.
The man at the centre of it all is none other than the Ukrainian president Zelensky himself. With deft use of social media and instances of personal bravery, he has set the tone for conduct during the war. Zelensky went from having a negative rating among politicians in Ukraine to a global icon. He has truly harnessed the power of social media. Meanwhile, the opposite is true for Putin. His long table talks with his defence ministers and his tone during the national security meeting where he paid scant respect to his ministers sharply contrasted with Zelensky’s warm interaction with his subordinates.
From memes to videos of Ukrainian drones picking off Russian trucks to trained cats exposing sniper positions, the Ukrainian social media warriors have galvanized global opinion against Russia. They are making sure that Putin feels full heat for his missteps. RT and Sputnik face bans in the EU, Nord Stream 2 is considering insolvency, and the ever-neutral Switzerland is moving to sanction Russia. The role of public opinion shaped by the information/disinformation campaign on such decisions cannot be underestimated.
Disinformation complicates decision-making and makes the unreasonable appear reasonable. Sweeping sanctions on Russia seems to be one such unreasonable step whitewashed into acceptance by propaganda. Sanctions, historically, have a meagre success rate. The rich get by while the poor suffer. The proposed language of the sanctions suggests very sweeping measures that are guaranteed to cripple the Russian economy and return them to 1998 levels. Would the suffering population direct their anger against Putin (the ideal scenario), or would they direct their anger towards the West? Should the ordinary Russian population suffer for the misadventure of their non democratically elected autocrat? Sanctions are a huge gamble that needs to be thoroughly debated.
As Thomas Rid writes in the book “Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare”, disinformation about disinformation has worsened over time. The impact of disinformation is extremely hard to measure; thus, overstating their impact became easier. The Russians likely believed their own narrative that they could shape the war story with their disinformation campaigns. But the Ukrainian response has been a rude shock. Russia may still win on the battlefield, but they are losing the information war.
[Credit: Mohamed Hassan / Pixabay]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Ajay P. Karuvally is a master’s student at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Pondicherry University.