The ongoing Russia-Ukraine War has been a fascinating real-time lesson in propaganda, by Ukrainians, Russians, and Americans. The Ukrainians have been aided in their messaging by a powerful and indisputable reality, that they were attacked and are defending themselves, and that Russia is the aggressor, brutally invading and attacking a neighboring country.
Those basic, essential truths aside, the Ukrainians have been very effective in doing the hard work of propaganda, churning out content, capturing the news cycle, carrying out "strategic communications, psychological operations." In a war, the best content is victory, but if that is not always available, anything will do: compelling anecdotal stories, the other side's abuses and war crimes, dramatic statements, content that inspires, content that demonizes. All of it has a role to play.
Ukrainian propaganda reminds me in a sense of content from the Syrian Civil War (the first true "social media war") pioneered by the Syrian revolution and later copied by the terrorist group ISIS (I am not criticizing the Ukrainians – I am complimenting them). The underdog Syrian revolutionaries had daily campaigns and themes and online influencers, and they developed a large, diffuse online community of supporters who would amplify and disseminate these messages, both official and amateur (when ISIS later copied Syrian revolutionaries, this community would be the so-called "ISIS fanboys"). The fact that the Ukrainian government is leading this charge is particularly impressive given that governments are often risk adverse when it comes to messaging, and are often uncomfortable with the "dark creativity" in media that is found among revolutionaries.
The Ukrainians' great truth – that they are the victims defending themselves and doing so with dogged determination and sacrifice – is buttressed by very real Russian brutality, such as the massacre at Bucha and elsewhere. To this reality is added a constant, steady drumbeat of other information, even exaggerated or false content – one recalls early incidents as the Ghost of Kiev or the heroes of Snake Island – lapped up by online communities and by an American media hungry for material and covering Ukraine more extensively than it covered America's own wars in the Middle East. A prominent Chechen general is killed, but maybe not. Claims about "mobile crematoria" or chemical weapons are presented uncritically, if enthusiastically. The Ukrainians have done very well, but in a sense, they have been pushing at an open door, given both Russian aggression and an American media that has become hooked on overgrown fantasies of Russian interference in American politics since 2016.
The Ukrainians are also helped by simple Western ignorance – while there is a world of difference between Americans fighting terrorist ISIS and brutal Russians assaulting Ukraine, there is little difference to the naked eye between urban warfare in Mariupol in 2022 and urban warfare in Mosul in 2017; the ruins are eerily similar. But Westerners haven't been paying attention to either the actions of Westerners fighting in distant wars or even to savage war and slaughter not involving Westerners in distant lands.
For those who follow these conflicts, a bombed-out wrecked Ukrainian city looks very much like Raqqa or Kobani or Taiz in Yemen (none of those three involved Russia) or Grozny or Aleppo (where Russia did play a role). If you haven't been paying attention to what has happened elsewhere, Ukraine seems particularly new, raw and shocking. But if, unlike the others, the Ukrainians are "a people like us," then the shock makes sense. Ukraine becoming the next big thing for the West – as Black Lives Matter and Covid were in their day – is both sincere and artificial, orchestrated and serendipitous, born of honest human emotion and solidarity, born from Ukrainian intentional messaging, born from revulsion at Russian actions.
If the Ukrainians have done very well in their relentless messaging (directed especially towards the West), the Russians have not. Leaving aside the fact of Russia being the guilty party in the conflict, the Russians have failed in the basic work of matching the scope and tempo of Ukrainian propaganda, and have not mastered manipulating the Western news cycle (ironic given past hysteria of Russia's supposed media manipulation of the West). One pro-Russian social media account blamed Russian officials' "boomer" mentality, compared to the hip young Ukrainians, for this failure. The best pro-Russian English language Twitter account, the cheeky "Russians With Attitude," with over a 120,000 followers, was briefly suspended on April 13.
One sharp difference is that while both sides are messaging to global audiences and to each other, the Ukrainians naturally prioritize messaging to the West, their source of weapons and economic pressure on Russia. Russia's priority media audience seems to be the Russian people, with messaging to the West a secondary focus. Not surprisingly, some of the other more prominent accounts in English supporting Russia in this war have a Syrian Civil War/Middle East connection (for example, Twitter accounts such as Moon of Alabama, Zoka, and Suriyak). Russia has a propaganda presence in, of all places, American radio. But the flood of direct Russian social media messaging trying to discount specific atrocities after the fact doesn't seem to have succeeded very well.
Also worth mentioning is the controversial role of propaganda produced by Chechen leader and Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov. Widely reviled in the West and by the Ukrainians (and not just them, some pro-Russian accounts mocked Kadyrov videos in the early days of the war, showing lots of standing around, driving, and even dancing, but very little fighting), Kadyrov does seem to have a sense of showmanship (the less charitable might call it buffoonish bluster) that is well suited to our digital age. He has two million followers on his Kadyrov_95 Telegram channel. There is something weird and startling in watching a Kadyrovtsy war video, full of macho Chechen posturing, cries of "Allahu Akbar," and pro-Russian Army geniality – weird, startling, and unbelievable. But the fear and the hatred that the Kadyrovites generate among their enemies seems very real.
If the two belligerents are furiously messaging, one better than the other, so are the U.S. and its allies. The now hoary tradition of the Department of Defense and intelligence community influencing and using the American media to uncritically put out their talking points is as alive as ever. While messaging to help Ukraine and hurt Russia is logical – the U.S. openly supports the brave fight of the Ukrainians – some other American messaging seems incendiary. Other strands are despicable.
A Biden administration that is deeply unpopular and fighting for its domestic political life has tried to shift blame for the American inflation building over the past year onto Putin. The ridiculous recent talking point of blaming shocking inflation rises on the "Putin Price Hike" seems particularly ludicrous, when you consider the administration saying last summer that the inflation was "temporary." Liberal pundits in late 2021 even wrote that inflation was "good," particularly because it prevented Americans from buying things they didn't need. So, in less than a year, inflation was temporary, then good, and now Putin's fault.
The beauty of blaming Putin, after a 2021 filled with massive U.S. domestic spending bills, is that it puts the onus on a foreign dictator rather than on your own recent policies. Accepting ruinous prices becomes patriotic. The hope is that the American taxpayers' hatred for the Russian ogre will be greater than their memory of political events inside the U.S. over the past year. This is perhaps a risky bet on the part of the administration.
Unlike American politicians, for Ukrainians, certainly, and even for Russians, this war is an existential life-or-death event. The propaganda war will be a worthy subject of study, especially the effective Ukrainian role, once the conflict ends and the full truth of things is revealed and can be examined dispassionately and seriously.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI
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