The real battle for perceptions continues in Ukraine-Russia conflict

    Russia’s information operations might have been weaker in some areas than expected, but its info-warriors have trump cards up their sleeves. Ukraine seeks to maintain the upper hand in terms of messaging, branding, and symbolism.

    Two thousand years ago, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War about the need to subdue the enemy without fighting. He described this approach as the pinnacle of military skill. His remarks highlight the centrality of hearts and minds within eastern military doctrines, as ultimately, victory or defeat resides in the mindset.

    Fast forward two millennia, the Pentagon implemented similar approaches to shape the information space. 

    French cultural theorist Paul Virilio described the importance of information operations in the War on Iraq. In his book Desert Screen (2002), Virilio expressed the view that “the control of communications outweighs the control of the geographical territory,” adding that the elimination of the communication and telecommunication infrastructure supersedes anything else because it gives the upper hand in the battle for public opinion.

    And just like this, war nowadays combines not just a series of ground, air, and naval operations but also a fast-paced confrontation of words and images. 

    In modern warfare, controlling the information and battle space tantamounts to victory. Consequently, many nations aspire to achieve a high level of “information dominance” which ensures superiority and influences the enemy’s decision-making and morale. 

    Seen from this angle, one can fathom recent news related to the Russo-Ukrainian war. 

    For instance, the New York Times reported that Russia is gradually taking control of the Ukrainian internet in the occupied territories. In the city of Kherson, Russian soldiers forced internet providers to relinquish control of the network to divert it to the Russian network. 

    The New York Times provided an interactive map revealing how the internet was diverted from Crimea to Russia.

    In the Ukrainian regions concerned, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Ukrainian news sites, and independent news sources have been removed and replaced by Russian information outlets. 

    Cellular networks have also been ordered to switch to Russian providers, and phone chips from the new network are sold after an identity check. In other cities, the cellular network and the internet were shut down. What this means in practice is that Ukrainian citizens will only get information through the prism of Moscow, placing them under the total purview and monitoring of Russian authorities. Although this may seem anecdotal, the fact that the internet is the main news source for Ukrainians played a large role in this strategy.

    However, control over data is only part of the story. Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council Ben Nimmo argued that Russia’s information warfare strategy is based on the “4 Ds”: dismiss the critic, distort the facts, distract from the main issue, and dismay the audience. 

    Understanding this strategy also helps unpack some other news headlines. For example, the New York Times reported that social media companies had taken steps to curb Russia’s influence on information circulated by accounts controlled by the Russian state. 

    The newspaper observed a rise in the Kremlin’s information operations in Spanish or Arabic to reach the widest possible audience. Moscow’s version of events disseminated via these languages, including speculative commentaries and psyops (psychological operations) themes, are often unopposed.

    Others pinpointed the increase of Russian influence on social media platforms such as Tiktok.

    A non-profit organisation, Tracking Exposed, published a report on 10 August, singling out Tiktok for discreetly making Russian half-truths and outright fallacies accessible via its algorithm recommendations. 

    This practice is called “shadow promotion” a new term that the NGO coined to describe the phenomenon of algorithmic promotion of content that is supposedly banned on a platform.

    Furthermore, an NGO called NewsGuard highlighted the proliferation of Russian disinformation websites in the past six months. 

    From 116 sites that were exposed in March, the NGO identified 250 in early August. These websites still benefit from advertising revenues, even if the European Commission had requested the giant web corporations to curb funding for such sites.

    Meanwhile, the Ukrainian side is also proving adept at perception management. From the beginning, it was obvious that Western audiences supported Ukraine. This fact made the essentiality of Kiev’s efforts centred on maintaining, if not increasing, the Western public support for the war effort. 

    Based on American linguist George Lakoff’s paradigm, one can say that the Ukrainian side relies on two central narratives: the self-defence story and the rescue story. According to Lakoff, good war stories always need a hero, a crime, and a villain. 

    From a thematic point of view, the Ukrainian authorities drew analogies with the Cold War, as Moscow was the arch-enemy of Western capitals for decades. 

    A reservoir of anti-Russian sentiments, conveyed in films and popular culture for four decades, is readily available to depict the image of Russia’s leader as an irrational villain among Western audiences.

    Moreover, the Ukrainian information operations capitalised on the aggression they suffered. The Ukrainian side focused on injustice and victimisation. Most battles took place in an urban environment, so the civilians suffered tremendously. 

    The human dimension, victimhood, and the sufferings of the people as the result of urban warfare gave a huge advantage to Kiev’s narrative in its media campaign. Moreover, the ensuing humanitarian catastrophe, which led to the mass exodus of over five million refugees, has also provided Ukraine with enormous sympathy in Europe and North America.  

    Furthermore, the Ukrainians circulated many stories of questionable veracity to construct myths and create heroes in the common consciousness, as this would enhance the popularity of the war. For instance, the story of the ‘Ghost of Kiev’, identified as Major Stepan Tarabalka, who single-handedly shot down as many as six Russian fighter jets in 30 hours, proved to be mere propaganda

    The acknowledgement that this was a fictitious story was only made after the footage reached more than 9.3 million views on Twitter and millions more via a myriad of Facebook groups, YouTube postings and TikTok videos. 

    A similar myth was constructed around the 13 coastal guards at Snake Island, who reportedly stood their ground and refused to surrender to the Russians while uttering some profanities. They were allegedly killed as a result. Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs, posted on social media about this incident. This purported heroic but tragic incident was relayed as evidence of dedication and commitment to the homeland until death. The story was later debunked as false. 

    Finally, Ukraine’s leader also pursues a communication strategy that depicts him as the hero of his nation. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is everywhere, from the cover of Vogue magazine with Ukraine’s first lady to video appearances at most major world events, such as the Grammy Awards, the Cannes Film Festival, and the World Economic Forum. With such a busy PR schedule, President Zelensky does not miss a chance to put his country high on the West’s political, economic, and social agendas. 

    The Russian-Ukrainian war continues to witness vicious perception management battles concurrently with the actual fighting. 

    The UK spy chief claimed recently that the Kremlin was losing the information war in Ukraine. However, given that miscalculations from all sides have characterised this war, a less gung-ho approach is probably more advisable. 

    Russia’s information operations might have been weaker in some areas than expected, but its info-warriors have trump cards up their sleeves. 

    They are still actively probing new possibilities and weak links. Moreover, Russia has a track record in playing the long game with a history of winning wars of attrition. Putin himself seems to believe the time is on his side. Meanwhile, Zelenskyy is determined to make Ukraine a quagmire for Russia while having the upper hand in terms of messaging, branding, and symbolism. 

    Given the stakes involved, the next six months will be decisive in shaping the war’s outcome. 

    This article originally appeared in the Opinion section of TRT World’s website.

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