Lessons from the Information War in Ukraine

Though Russia’s full-scale invasion now enters its 3rd year, Ukraine could quickly claim victory on the “Western Front” – the North American and European information domain. Eric Adamson shows that key was placing Ukrainian perspectives and the country’s European future at the center of the narrative. Engaging civil society in the information space led to real-world consequences on the battle field.

“We are all here. Our soldiers are here. The citizens are here and we are here. We defend our independence. That’s how it’ll go. Glory to our defenders. Both men and women. Slava Ukraini !”

On February 24th, 2022 as the world sat glued to their screens awaiting the fall of Kyiv, an information campaign was already underway. 48 hours after Russia’s full-scale invasion began, President Zelensky took a 30-second video with his closest advisors from the streets of Kyiv. The message, and that of hundreds of thousands of other Ukrainians, would not fall upon deaf ears. Their videos, tweets, and personal messages were shared millions of times across social media platforms.

Compared to the 2014 annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas, Russian narratives and disinformation never took hold in the West in 2022. This was not for lack of trying from Moscow, which spread a multitude of misinformation about its intentions ahead of the invasion and justifications thereafter. Ukraine, on the frontlines – literally and in the information space – had drawn many lessons since 2014 and was well prepared to combat Russian information warfare.

The winning strategy included a mix of mutually reinforcing top-down and bottom-up initiatives. Ukrainian and Western governments leveraged existing civil society and grass-roots networks, which in turn played a crucial role combatting Russian disinformation and raising funds for humanitarian and military aid. Anyone with a computer could participate in the defence of Ukraine.

Central in this effort were the voices and perspectives of Ukrainians themselves, who placed Ukraine’s European future at the center of the narrative. By taking the information initiative, and using humor as a weapon, the “Western Front” (the North American and European information domain) was quickly won.

Success through absence

During the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russia denied its involvement of the “little green men,” sowing chaos on the peninsula while messaging to Western counterparts the desire to de-escalate the situation. Even if Western media covered Kremlin talking points critically and public opinion of Russia soured, Russian narratives were nonetheless amplified in the media, academia and politics, giving Russian narratives an air of credibility.

In the war of words between Russia and the West, notably absent were Ukrainian voices. In part due to the lack of Ukrainian resources and strategy, but largely due to the West’s own biases and the success of Russian mis- and disinformation campaigns, the future of Ukraine was being discussed over the heads of actual Ukrainians. In January 2022, Ukrainian academics published a study on Western academic and think-tank discourse on the war, writing:

“The conflict has shown a general Western problem of looking at Ukrainian (and other post-Soviet countries’) history and culture through Russian eyes… Russian history, politics, and language are much better studied in the West than those of any other post-Soviet country, and its narratives are often perceived as objective. In contrast, (pro-)Ukrainian points are often rejected outright as inherently biased, as there is more suspicion of discourses that undermine the conventional wisdom.”

The amount of airtime and academic and political credibility given to Russian narratives, even when refuting them, ceded the information environment to the Kremlin. When the world lost focus of Ukraine during the eight years since the annexation of Crimea, Russian narratives met little resistance and fulfilled their strategic goals.

The information environment in the leadup to and aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022 was entirely different. Through a series of strategic declassifications, the West beat Russia to the strategic narrative punch about the Kremlin’s true intentions for Ukraine. By taking the information initiative, Russian narratives about “denazification,” “NATO expansion,” and “war of self-defense” found little audience in Europe. Western civil society was ready to respond and support Ukraine.

Civil Society & Military Aid

In the first days and weeks of the war, hundreds of individuals organized fundraisers and supply chains for humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine. One organization, which went viral and became a mainstay of the internet war effort, was Canada-based St. Javelin. As war drew closer in February 2022, the initial goal was to raise $500 through the sale of stickers depicting the Virgin Mary with a U.S.-made FGM 148 Javelin anti-tank missile system. By February 26th, St. Javelin had raised $170,000 and $1.16 million by March 10th. One year later, St. Javelin had raised over $2 million with over 200,000 products sold, including those worn by President Zelensky himself. St. Javelin’s exemplary role of the impact individuals can make led it be a feature story on NATO’s homepage at the 2-year mark of the full-scale invasion.

The fundraiser’s success, as with so many other aid organizations and fundraising drives, was first and foremost related to Ukraine’s military success. Western attention and support was bolstered by clear messages from the Ukrainian government and people. Civil society and grass-roots initiatives were thus further encouraged in their efforts to combat Russian disinformation and raise funds for military aid. 

For example, at the end of May 2022, a small group of independent Twitter accounts called “NAFO” (North Atlantic Fella Organization) began posting memes of Shiba Inu dogs, a small breed of dog with a long history in internet culture, mocking the Russian war effort. Accounts with Shiba Inu dogs, called “Fellas”, would use #Article5 (a reference to NATO’s Article 5 collective defense) on posts from Russian officials or pro-Kremlin accounts to bombard them with support for Ukraine. Twitter users could get their own personalized “Fella” by giving a donation to a Ukrainian charity of their choice.

The impact NAFO had in the fight against Russian disinformation did not go unnoticed. In August 2022, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Reznikov tweeted a “personal greeting to #NAFOfellas” and changed his profile picture to the Shiba avatar. “I want to thank every person behind the Shiba Inu drawing. Your donations to support our defenders, your fight against disinformation is valuable,” Reznikov wrote. Other leaders, like Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and US Congressman Adam Kinzinger are proud NAFO members. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis even spoke at a “NAFO Summit” ahead of the official 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius to raise money for Ukraine.

The impact of organized bottom-up online civilian efforts was threefold. First, it was Western civil society’s response to Russian disinformation campaigns. Using humor and internet culture as a weapon, Russian disinformation was discredited in a way that Western governments could not. NAFO’s online harassment of a prominent Russian diplomat who fought the pack of cartoon dogs, which ultimately caused him to leave social media for a week, is not a tactic that governments can replicate. The impact of such online groups, however, have led some Western governments to test similar messaging strategies. The Ukrainian government, above all, has mastered the use of humor in its strategic communications.

Second, the decentralized nature of online initiatives allowed various pro-Ukrainian organizations to use existing networks to coordinate and strengthen their activities. In late May 2022, Lithuanians crowdfunded €5.9 million in just over three days to purchase a Turkish-made Bayraktar drone. In November 2022, after President Zelensky announced a fundraising campaign for a naval drone fleet via UNITED24, Ukraine’s state platform for war-related fundraising, Lithuanians again raised the funds for the purchase of three drones. The campaign became popular partly because of the names given to the drones, which were puns on Ukrainian swear words.

Thirdly, communications from the Ukrainian front lines, government, and people gave online communities a feeling of directly impacting the war. Through the fundraiser signmyrocket.com, created by a Ukrainian IT student, donors could write a message on an artillery shell and receive a personal video from Ukrainian troops loading the shell. Signmyrocket.com has raised $1.7 million for Ukraine. Everyone with internet access could participate in the war effort and directly support the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Making an impact

With support of high-level officials, soldiers on the front line, and civil society, the Russian disinformation machine not only broke down in 2022, but seemed absurd. Videos from the frontlines with personal messages to supporters and references to internet memes on crowdfunded military equipment gave individuals an equal opportunity for a much-needed laugh during the brutal war as a feeling of making a direct impact on the battlefield. Importantly, winning the narrative war on the “Western Front” resulted in Western efforts centered on bringing Ukraine into the Euro-Atlantic community as opposed to managing relations to Moscow as in 2014.

The military aid sent by civil society and grass-roots initiatives was not negligible. The territorial defense units, for example, which played a key role in the battle of Kyiv, often lacked the necessary equipment, as aid packages sent by North American and European governments went first and foremost to professional forces. While informal security assistance has been a mainstay in Ukraine’s war effort since 2014, Russia’s full-scale invasion led Ukrainian networks to expand into Europe and North America. Scrapping together a couple dozen bullet-proof vests or a small fleet of drones may have felt like a futile gesture in the face of an invading Russian army, but collectively such efforts have likely saved the lives of hundreds or thousands of Ukrainians defending their country.

This article is an abridged and translated version of a chapter in the Swedish book “A New Generation’s Voice on the Defence of Democracy,” published by the Swedish Defence Association (AFF). The book sought to provide an opportunity for rising foreign and security policy experts to provide their analyses on threats to democracy and strategies to defend it. AFF has approved the text’s republication.

Edited images include: Stamp of Ukraine, Wikimedia Commons; Bayraktar, Army Inform UA; Naval Drone, United24; and St. Javelin

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