By: SERGE SCHMEMANN
If the first casualty of war is truth, then the corollary in Ukraine is that information is the first battlefield. That was where the war began, in early 2022, weeks before Vladimir Putin sent the first rockets, armoured vehicles and troops into Ukraine, when he claimed that the massive buildup of troops along Ukraine’s borders was but another military exercise. And that was where the United States and its allies scored their first victories, when they made public intelligence anticipating the invasion and the pretext Putin would use for it.
Then, when the invasion began in February, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, opened a second information front. He donned a soldier’s olive-drab T-shirt and issued a torrent of defiant tweets, speeches and images from devastated villages, much of it targeted at Russian audiences. His metamorphosis from a relatively unpopular president to a David defying Goliath has been instrumental in solidifying popular, military and economic support for Ukraine in the United States and Europe.
In these first information battles, the Americans and Ukrainians showed that they had learned the lessons of 2014, when Russia had the upper hand in propaganda, assaulting Crimea and eastern Ukraine while claiming to be responding to pleas from Russian-speaking residents. The United States and Ukraine have also been greatly aided this time around by the fact that the evidence of the invasion and its brutal consequences has been so well documented.
But the information war, like the physical war, is far from decided. Ten weeks into the war, many Russians seem to accept Putin’s narrative. Around the world, many countries remain on the sidelines or, like China, are on Russia’s side. While Washington’s public comments have served to bolster the Ukrainians and rally their allies, some of those comments have played directly into Putin’s claims of a malign America determined to neuter Russia, as when President Biden said of Putin, “This man cannot remain in power,” and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declared that America’s goal is a “weakened” Russia.
Russia was surprisingly slow to prepare its population or the world for a full-scale invasion, perhaps because its leaders were convinced that Kyiv would fall quickly. But after that slow start, the Kremlin went into high gear. Domestically, it shut down independent media outlets, quashed demonstrations and threatened anyone challenging the government line with “false information” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.
Russia was also quick to adapt its messaging to a changing battlefield. After Moscow shifted its focus from Kyiv to southeastern Ukraine, the goal of driving Nazis out of power in Kyiv shifted to a focus on Ukraine as an existential struggle for Holy Russia against an American hegemon and its NATO sidekicks. What began as a “special military operation” has morphed into a defensive war akin to World War II, the “Great Patriotic War,” in which Russia was last compelled to defend itself against Nazis and fascists.
How many Russians really believe this is hard to gauge, given the danger of disagreeing. There is considerable anecdotal evidence that the notions of a hostile NATO and treacherous Ukrainians are widely held, but there are also many reports of Russians horrified by the war but no longer able to speak out without immediate repression.
The info war has also reached Asia, Africa and South America, where Russia has mobilised diplomats and state-controlled media like the global RT network to press its case. The goal isn’t necessarily to win support, but to keep unaligned countries on the sidelines. While some countries, most notably China, have taken Russia’s side, others, like India, have avoided antagonising Russia so as not to lose Russian military or energy contracts.