From day one of the Russian invasion, a small island along the Ukrainian Black Sea coast became an early target. It was a minor military loss that kyiv would turn into a major propaganda victory, in a narrative aimed at Western audiences as much as domestic audiences.
Ukraine was about to show its strength in the information war on the world stage; Russia, to reveal its unexpected weakness in influencing foreign opinion in this conflict, especially in the West.
“His position in the world is damaged, probably irreparable,” said St Petersburg-based political analyst Ilya Metveev. Moscow “now understands that there is no point in pushing the Russian narrative to the West. Whatever they try, it won’t work.”
As Russian patrol boat Vasily Bykov aimed his guns at Snake Island on February 24 and demanded his surrender, a Ukrainian border guard defiantly responded by radio, “Russian warship, fuck off.”
This recording was quickly released by Ukrainian officials and the guard became a national hero, hailed that day by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for his sacrifice.
What happened next is a bit hazy.
At the time, Zelensky said “all border guards died heroically” in the ensuing attack. It appears that they were captured, as announced by the Ukrainian Navy a few days later, and then released by Russia. The guard who spoke the now famous line appeared in person to receive a medal last week.
Days after the Snake Island attack, the Russian warship was badly damaged or destroyed by the Ukrainian Navy off Odessa, with video of the missile attack going viral. But that, too, has since been called into question, with various pictures of what appears to be the Vasily Bykov uploaded.
Still, the incident set the propaganda tone for the Ukrainian resistance early on and will be immortalized on a stamp, kyiv says.
It’s the kind of “mythical” story that distinguished Ukraine’s surprisingly sophisticated fighting spirit in the information war against Russia, just as it did in the real world, Ian Garner said. He is a lecturer and researcher at Queen’s University and is writing a book on Russian propaganda.
Between efforts like this and the moving speeches delivered almost daily by Zelensky — often directly addressing foreign policymakers or audiences in Western countries — Garner said kyiv has “mounted a very smart and really smart”.
Ukraine’s success depends on it. kyiv must keep the West on its side, so that billions of dollars of much-needed armaments flow across NATO borders to its fighters, and so that harsh Western economic sanctions put pressure on Russia.
Zelensky’s posts, sometimes done as selfies outdoors with only streetlights at night, and always in a casual T-shirt, can “seem ad hoc and somewhat improvised,” Garner said, but are almost certainly “productions that were planned and thought out by.”
Zelensky’s speech to the British Parliament invokes wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill. His speech in Ottawa emphasizes a first-name relationship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and includes familiar Canadian references. And, always, hitting the right notes to portray Ukraine as the fiery outsider who deserves help from the West.
By contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears belligerent and isolated, depicted seated at a huge table in the Kremlin. Its efforts to wage information warfare seem as troubled as its warfare on the ground.
“He’s surrounded by symbols of Russian power,” said Anton Shirikov, a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin who researches political propaganda.
“He’s saying to the West, ‘Look, I’m scary. I can do a lot of terrible things.'”
This includes threats to use nuclear weapons and creating a pretext for a possible chemical attack.
This week, Zelensky accused Russia of committing the worst European atrocities since World War II in the town of Bucha, near kyiv. Hundreds of corpses of civilians were discovered after the withdrawal of Russian troops.
Moscow’s response? 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 exactly those positions for weeks before Russia pulled out, as first reported by The New York Times and confirmed by other media.
Russia’s use of disinformation — or ‘dezinformatsiya‘ – dates back at least to the 1950s, when a KGB secret service department was active under this name.
Moscow has been accused of “sowing discord” over Britain’s Brexit debate, via hundreds of fake social media accounts. US intelligence agencies have accused her of interfering in US elections, helping former US President Donald Trump to power in 2016 and then trying to keep Joe Biden out of power in 2020. And Russia has long supported Populist European politicians like France’s Marie LePen, who has pledged to lift sanctions on Moscow “rather quickly” if elected president in 2017.
The internal orientation of Russia
“Russia had some success” in influencing world events through propaganda, Metveev said, but its invasion of Ukraine hardened public attitudes in the West so much, “completely undoing all of that.”
Instead, he said, Putin is focusing his propaganda internally, where he has been “quite effective” in justifying the war so far.
Outside, Moscow’s propaganda efforts “are worthless. No one 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 taken off the air in many countries, including Canada, the United States and Britain.
It’s also because of unusually unified public attitudes in the West, “a kind of popular mobilization against Russia”, said Natasha Kuhrt, who teaches international peace and security at King’s College London.
“I think it really makes a big difference.”
Russia has tried to justify the invasion with different arguments, such as that NATO expansion is getting too close to Russia and threatening its security, or that the country is full of dangerous Western-funded biological laboratories that must be dismantled.
Or that Ukraine must get rid of Nazi elements.
“Many in Ukraine were duped by Nazi and nationalist propaganda,” Putin said a week after the invasion, “but some deliberately went the way of the banderites. [right wing nationalists] and other Nazi henchmen.”
Pro-Russian Telegram channels are full of images, real and fake, attributing the destruction of cities like Mariupol to right-wing Ukrainian military squads like the Azov militia. This, despite the fact that they number only about 1,000 members and are not equipped with the heavy weapons necessary to carry out the widespread bombardments seen in many areas of Ukraine targeted by Russia.
“A lot of things are contradictory; it’s gross, it’s more over the top than ever,” Garner said.
“The idea is to just bombard people with these images until there seems to be a grain of truth, and then try to share them with family and friends. is the intention.”
But it has largely failed in the West, even among the normally sympathetic left, said Metveev, who is also a founding editor of Russia’s OpenLeft.ru magazine.
“Even in these circles it is very difficult to endure an unprovoked invasion,” he said.
“How can you claim that Russia is resisting imperialism by attacking Ukraine?