‘No One Will Ever Listen to Russia:’ Why Ukraine is Winning the Propaganda War
On the very first day of the Russian invasion, a tiny island off Ukraine’s Black Sea coast became an early target. It was a small military loss that Kyiv would turn into a major propaganda victory, in a narrative aimed at both Western and local audiences.
Ukraine was about to show its strength in information warfare in the global arena; Russia to reveal its unexpected weakness in influencing foreign opinion in this conflict, particularly in the West.
“His standing in the world is damaged, probably beyond repair,” said Ilya Matveev, a St. Petersburg-based political scientist. Moscow “now understands that spreading Russia’s narrative in the West is pointless. Whatever they try will not work.”
When the Russian patrol ship Vasily Bykov turned its guns on Snake Island on February 24 and demanded surrender, a Ukrainian border guard defiantly radioed back, “Russian warship, fuck off.”
This recording was quickly circulated by Ukrainian officials, and the guard became a national hero. praised on this day by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for his sacrifice.
What happened after that is a little hazy.
Zelenskyy said at the time that “all border guards died heroically” in the attack that followed. It seems that they were captured as Ukrainian Navy announced released by Russia a few days later. The guard who had uttered the now famous phrase appeared in person receive a medal last week.
Days after the attack on Snake Island was the Russian warship reported badly damaged or destroyed by the Ukrainian Navy off the coast of Odessa, with video of the missile attack going viral. But that too has now been questioned several pictures from what appears to be Vasily Bykov posted online.
Nevertheless, the incident set the propaganda tone for the Ukrainian resistance from the start and will be commemorated on a postage stamp. says Kyiv.
It’s the kind of “mythical” story that characterizes Ukraine’s surprisingly sophisticated fighting spirit in information warfare against Russia as much as it does in real life, said Ian Garner, a researcher who is writing a book on Russian propaganda.
Between efforts like this and the stirring speeches that Zelenskyj gives almost every day – often directly appealing foreign decision-makers or the public in western countries — Garner said Kyiv was “waging a very clever, really intelligent information warfare.”
Ukraine’s success depends on it. Kyiv must keep the West on its side, ensure billions of dollars of much-needed arms flow across borders from NATO to its fighters, and continue to harass Russia with tough economic sanctions from the West.
The Zelensky posts, sometimes taken as selfies at night just with streetlights and always in a casual t-shirt, may look “ad hoc and somewhat unscripted,” Garner said, but are almost certainly “planned and thought out productions.” through.”
Zelensky’s address to the British Parliament cites wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill. His Ottawa speech emphasizes a first-name relationship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and includes well-known Canadian references. And always hitting the right notes to portray Ukraine as a feisty outsider who deserves the West’s help.
By contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin looks belligerent and isolated, seated at a huge table in the Kremlin. His efforts to wage an information war seem as troubled as his war on the ground.
“He’s surrounded by symbols of Russian power,” says Anton Shirikov, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin who studies political propaganda.
“He says to the West, ‘Look, I’m scary. I can do a lot of terrible things.'”
This week Zelenskyy accused Russia of carrying out Europe’s worst atrocities since World War II in the city of Bucha near Kyiv. After the Russian troops left, hundreds of civilians were discovered.
Moscow reply? The scene was a “fake attack” “staged” by Ukraine and the West for “anti-Russian purposes” – propaganda. This is despite satellite evidence that the bodies lay in those exact positions for weeks before Russia was the first to withdraw reported by the New York Times and Confirmed from other media.
Russia’s use of disinformation – or ‘dezinformatsija‘ – dates back at least to the 1950s when a branch of KGB intelligence operated under that name.
Moscow was accused for “sowing discord” around Britain’s Brexit debate through hundreds of fake social media accounts. American intelligence agencies have accused meddling in US elections, putting former US President Donald Trump in power in 2016 and then trying to keep Joe Biden out of office in 2020. And Russia has a long time supports European populist politicians like France’s Marie LePen, who vowed to lift sanctions on Moscow “quite quickly” if she is elected president in 2017.
Russia’s internal focus
“Russia has had some success” in influencing world affairs through propaganda, Matveev said, but its invasion of Ukraine so hardened public attitudes in the West that “everything was completely quashed.”
Instead, Putin is concentrating his propaganda internally, where he has so far justified the war “quite effectively.”
Outside, Moscow’s propaganda efforts are “worthless now. Nobody will ever listen to Russia,” he said.
This is especially true now that they hear less about Russia. Moscow’s main international media arm, the Russia Today (RT) television channel, has been shut down in many countries, including Canada US. and Great Britain.
It’s also due to the unusually unified public attitude in the West, “a sort of popular mobilization against Russia,” said Natasha Kuhrt, who lectures in international peace and security at King’s College London.
“I think that really makes a big difference.”
Russia has tried to justify the invasion with various arguments, such as that NATO enlargement is getting too close to Russia and threatening its security, or that the country is full of dangerous Western-funded bio-labs that need to be dismantled.
Or that Ukraine must be rid of Nazi elements.
“Many in Ukraine were deceived by Nazi and nationalist propaganda,” Putin said a week after the invasion began, “but some deliberately went the Banderist path [right wing nationalists] and other Nazi henchmen.”
Pro-Russia Telegram channels are full of real and manipulated images that attribute the destruction of cities like Mariupol to right-wing Ukrainian military units like the Azov militia. This is despite the fact that they only number around 1,000 members and are not equipped with the heavy weaponry needed to carry out the widespread bombing campaigns in many Russian-held areas of Ukraine.
“A lot of this is contradictory; it’s clumsy, it’s more over the top than ever,” Garner said.
“The idea is to just bombard people with these images until eventually it seems like there’s a grain of truth in them, and then try to get them to share them with family and friends. At least that is the intention.”
But it has largely failed in the West, even on the normally sympathetic left, said Matveev, who is also the founding editor of Russia’s OpenLeft.ru magazine.
“Even in these circles, it’s very difficult to endure an unprovoked invasion,” he said.
“How can you argue that Russia is resisting imperialism by attacking Ukraine?”