Ukraine’s administration understands that information is critical to a successful military campaign.
Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody is a Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at Open University, UK. Her multidisciplinary research interests centre on questions of communication, perception, identity and security, with a particular focus on Russia.
Recently, her book (co-authored with Dr Ilya Yablokov) on Russia Today and Conspiracy Theories: People, Power and Politics on RT (Routledge, 2022) was published. Dr Chatterje-Doody's forthcoming books are Russia, Misinformation and the Liberal Order: Co-Creating RT as a Populist Pariah (co-authored with Tolz, Hutchings, Crilley and Gillespie, Cornell University Press, 2023); and The Russian identity riddle: unwrapping Russia’s security policy (Routledge, 2023).
How do you think Ukraine performs on the informational battlefront and in the war?
From the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the Ukrainian administration has put a lot of effort into its communication around the conflict, and it shows. I don’t think you can underestimate the impact on domestic morale that Zelenskyy’s selfie videos had from the start of the conflict and how they set the tone for a nation prepared to fight for its survival. His team has also been very proactive in communicating internationally, including personalised and symbolic aspects in each address to each foreign dignitary. It’s a very effective way to forge personal empathy. Zelenskyy comes across as fundamentally likable and his cause as just, and it’s part of the reason that it was possible to create widespread international support for Ukraine’s cause. There is a stark contrast with the Russian side’s stilted attempts to communicate its perspective. Of course, Russia has made various attempts at justifying its invasion, and regardless of how unconvincing we find the substance, they have not done any favors in how they’ve communicated that. Official photos are always stilted and unrelatable; official rhetoric always appears cynically scripted; and the attempts at humour we’ve seen from Russian media and MFA routinely fall flat.
When we consider the speed and ferocity of Ukraine’s recent counter-offensive to re-take territory in the East, we can see that very strategic use of information has been crucial to its success. On the one hand, you had clear telegraphing of Ukraine’s intention to launch a counter-offensive in the South – Russian forces took the bait, and lots of troops were redeployed to block this. At the same time, the real intention of pushing to the East was kept very quiet. It absolutely took occupation forces by surprise and forced them into a fairly unstrategic retreat. So, on the one hand, Ukraine has shown skill in the touchy-feely side of conflict communication aimed at winning hearts and minds. But, it’s also demonstrated the ability to engage in more obvious direct military applications of information, like misdirection.
What techniques can Ukraine improve to succeed against Russian informational warfare?
I think it’s safe to say that Ukraine has quite comprehensively won over the majority of Europe and North America to its cause. As I already mentioned, Ukraine has a much more personalised and human approach to communication, which is generally very effective in our choice-driven, real-time, emotion-governed media environment. Russia’s communications have fallen flat, and its informational outlets have been banned or blocked over large areas. That indicates that the ‘West’ is not interested in the justifications for war that Russia has tried to set out. Many countries have heard the same stories too often to be fooled again.
The issue is that this perspective isn’t universally shared. Russia’s informational outlets are still widely available across the globe beyond Europe and North America. We know they have substantial audiences in the Arabic-speaking world, and it looks like RT International is shifting its focus towards India. The rationale behind this is Russia’s attempt to play its invasion as a necessary response to Western neo-colonial provocation. I think significant swathes of the global population are open to seeing it this way.
I think we should consider this the next important front for countering Russia’s information operations. It’s not enough to have Europe and North America on board, and it’s well worth trying to build a more genuinely global coalition. After all, Russia’s ‘fight against colonialism’ narrative is nonsense, and its approach to Ukraine (and indeed its conduct in the occupied territories) has been colonial to its core.
What can the West do to help Ukraine in the informational space? Do you think sufficient support has been granted to Ukraine so far?
Ukraine has received a fair level of information support throughout the war, and early shared intelligence has proven quite crucial at various points. For me, the remaining problem relates to the public will. When the war first started, it received blanked coverage in many media outlets in the West. Naturally, as time goes on, it gets pushed further down the media agenda unless any very significant developments occur. There’s a danger that the conflict will become normalised and that the levels of empathy and support Ukraine benefitted from at the start might dwindle away.
We’ve already seen various commentators suggesting that Ukraine’s war is unwinnable and that territorial concessions may be necessary to avert bloodshed. It frustrates me how the people making such arguments seem to deny the importance of the Ukrainian agency totally – and it’s a society as a whole that has consistently made clear its commitment to fight. For this reason, Ukraine’s startling counter-offensive was strategically important far beyond its direct military significance. It showed what the Ukrainian forces are capable of, and the fight is by no means over. This is the kind of story that global audiences can buy into, and sad to say, there’s certainly an element of needing to keep global audiences emotionally invested in Ukraine’s plight.
What do you think are the highest risks for Ukraine right now, and how can the Ukrainian leadership cope with them?
Ukraine’s startling counter-offensive has so far been a success in and of itself, but this success brings with it risks. In the first place, it’s not enough to re-take territory; that territory has to be held. The Russian occupiers had to contend with resistance and low-level sabotage. Ukraine should have an easier job since it can more successfully claim the hearts and minds of the populations in the recently-liberated territories. Nonetheless, with forces spread across multiple fronts, we can expect challenges ahead.
As ever, the supply of weapons – especially ammunition – is a constant issue. While advancing Ukrainian forces made some unexpected material gains from abandoned Russian positions, firepower is a real issue. Without constant re-supply of weapons, Ukrainian forces will run into difficulties quickly. The recent liberation of some strategically-important logistical hubs will likely help in this regard (as well as disrupting Russia’s re-supply of positions that it still holds), but Ukraine’s efforts remain dependent on overseas military aid.
The final significant risk for Ukraine lies in dealing with the fallout of Russia’s humiliation over the counter-offensive. For many on the Russian side, this will prompt an existential crisis around the military's capability, its righteousness, and even what it truly means to be Russian. We’ve already seen naked attempts to sabotage and destroy civilian infrastructure – I guess you could see it as something like a scorched earth policy. Russia will be trying as much as possible to complicate and undermine Ukraine’s task of administering its liberated territories, with little regard for the human costs of how it does this.