The Russia–Ukraine war—within days since the Russian invasion began—can already serve as an important case study in terms of the intensity and importance of information warfare (IW) in the age of social media. Indeed, it has already been branded as the “first TikTok war.” Both sides are engaged in extensive IW efforts; cyber activities have converged with psychological warfare. The clash has been long in coming, and the escalating tension between Russia and Ukraine in recent years meant that both sides had time to prepare their IW strategies. Moreover, it can even be regarded as part of a “Cold War 2.0” paradigm, giving even greater import to the messaging on both sides.
Russia has entered this conflict with a clear and coherent approach to IW, which is part of the Russian army’s perception of hybrid war (the combination of kinetic power with elements, such as cyber, deception, and psychological warfare). In the last two decades, Russia has demonstrated on numerous occasions its IW abilities: the 2007 cyber attack on Estonia, the 2008 war with Georgia, the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and the 2016 cyber intervention during the US elections. The Russians, however, are not the only players in this field. Although the Russia–Ukraine war of 2022 is still ongoing, it already appears that both sides are capable of making significant and effective use of information techniques—aimed at each other, at their own domestic audiences, and at the world at large, given the importance of its military, diplomatic, and humanitarian support.
Russia’s IW Strategy
Ukraine has been the target for Russian cyberattacks long before the current war began. While the invasion started on February 24, 2022, major cyberattacks had already been taking place for more than a month. In mid-January, the Ukraine government reported that its websites were hacked as a preview of things to come. The main advantage of the use of cyber tools is that it allows the perpetrator to act while maintaining anonymity or a low profile. The Russian cyberattacks, alongside the deployment of the Russian army across the Ukrainian border, also served a psychological purpose. Before the actual war began, Russia sought to use the element of uncertainty to weaken the resolve of the Ukrainian people and to undermine their morale. In practice, due to various reasons (including the impact of Zelenskyy’s inspirational leadership), they have hardly been successful.
Furthermore, during this pre-war phase, Russian IW delivered conflicting messages. Although visual materials proved that tensions have been high, at the same time, statements of Russian leaders promised a nonviolent approach. Thus, on February 14, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said that there was still a chance for diplomacy. A day later, Russia declared that it was pulling back its troops to their bases, and that escalation had been prevented—a maskirovka (deception) tactic that Israelis with long memories may associate with the events of October 1973.
In the months and weeks before the war, Russia was using both traditional and new media to deliver what it calls “Enlightenment Propaganda”: namely, a technique for delivering the message to the Ukrainians about Russia’s overwhelming military power. Alongside the traditional media, social media platforms are playing a major role. Photos from the front were published by both Russian propaganda experts and civilians joining the warfare efforts. Social media contents can potentially persuade the target audience more easily, mainly because users are usually receiving content from people they know and trust. Russian troops were taking videos of their movement, and civilians (Ukrainians near the border) were also uploading these videos. The result was that a huge amount of social media content was delivering the message that Russia was amassing an enormous number of troops by the Ukrainian border.
On February 21, Russia announced that it had killed five Ukrainian soldiers who were trying to penetrate Russian territory. Ukraine denied this claim. Presumably, it was a Russian attempt to arrange a false flag operation and to try to blame Ukraine for the war. That same night, Russia’s President Putin announced that Russia recognized the claim of independence of the separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine, while also claiming that the Ukrainian government was to blame for a genocide in this area. Through these declarations, Putin was preparing the ground for the next step in the war.
On February 23, a major cyberattack was launched against Ukraine. It consisted of a major DDOS (distributed denial of service) attack, as well as the use of sophisticated malware that erased data from Ukrainian servers. A DDOS attack denies the public access to major websites and internet services. It can cause tension and increase the public’s anxiety. Although DDOS attacks are not considered an advanced cyber tool, the malware that hit Ukraine was highly sophisticated, and it seems that a lot of effort was put into its preparation. This combined cyberattack was a part of the initial stage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine: Early in the morning of February 24, missiles hit Ukraine and armored columns crossed the border.
The Russian–Ukrainian war is also considered the first TikTok war because of the role of this social media platform in the opening stages of the war. On February 25, TikTok was bombarded with huge amounts of psychological warfare content. Videos on TikTok showed tanks in urban environments, while texts in the video claimed that Kyiv had been captured. Some videos showed Russian paratroopers jumping from planes allegedly into Ukraine while in others, Russian planes were seen flying in low formation over what looked like Ukrainian cities. The majority of these videos were, of course, fake. In creating huge amounts of propaganda materials, military content from other militaries were freely borrowed. Some of the material even came from “other planets”—visuals were stolen from the Star Wars movies and from computer games and used to give the overwhelming feeling that the Russian invasion was a new variation of a science fiction blitzkrieg.
For the layperson watching these videos, the might and strength of the Russian army predominates. Russia has deployed its psychological warfare abilities to ensure that the invasion faces as low resistance as possible. Rumors are one of the best weapons in this arsenal. During the early stages of the war, rumors spread about Russian special operations units (spetsnaz). According to the whispering campaign, these special forces are supposed to be undercover, and their mission is to raise chaos and to kill the Ukrainian president. Other rumors spread about the Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, reporting that he had given up the fight and fled the country.
Early in the war, Russia announced that it was bringing troops from Chechnya to assist the Russian army. The Chechen troops are known as fearsome warriors. Furthermore, they may not have empathy for the Ukrainians, which Russian soldiers might have, because of the close cultural background.
A major element in the Russian psychological warfare effort is President Putin’s own rhetoric. In his speeches, Putin addresses two major target audiences. First is the Russian public. Putin has marketed this war as a war against Nazis. By using the term “Nazis,” Putin hopes to rally the Russian public, civilians and military alike, around the most potent remembrance of their collective memory, the great patriotic war of 1941–1945. Second is the Ukrainian people. Putin aims to address the neutral and pro-Russian elements in Ukraine and persuade them to stand down and abandon Ukraine’s nationalist cause. This is a part of his divisive propaganda, aiming to raise tensions between segments of Ukrainian society.
From the beginning, the Ukrainian stance in the IW clash has been based upon their assuming the role of David in this epic battle with Putin’s Goliath. During the initial part of the war, the Ukrainian IW mission interactively combined two major roles: (1) building and supporting the morale of the Ukrainian people as they faced the invasion; and (2) addressing the world, demonstrating resilience, and using it to mobilize Western public opinion in support of Ukraine and in favor of measures against Russia.
In both respects, since day one of this war, President Zelenskyy has admirably led the Ukrainian communication and psychological warfare efforts. Coming from a strong media and theatrical background, President Zelenskyy was quick to assume a heroic role and has demonstrated a good understanding of the new media and the impact of social networks. What many saw as his weakness—namely, being perceived as a comedian who accidentally became a politician—became his strength. Using his smartphone and selfie video clips President Zelenskyy became a star worldwide. His short, accurate speeches are the glue that unites Ukraine. One of his early clips was directly designed to debunk the rumor that he had fled the country. In that video he filmed himself in the center of Kyiv wearing simple soldier fatigues. He cemented his position as a fighting leader when he was given the opportunity to be rescued and leave the country. His memorable answer to Biden was “I don’t need a ride, I need munitions.” Insofar as such sentiments can be measured during wartime, public support for him increased from 20% to 90%. President Zelenskyy gave hope to the people of Ukraine, and he became a symbol of courage and resistance in this conflict.
In order to keep the morale high, Ukraine is producing propaganda materials that tell the story that it is possible to fight and even to win against the mighty Russian army. Many video clips show missiles hitting Russian helicopters, tanks, and armored vehicles. The Ukrainians have put extra emphasis on Russian prisoners of war as propaganda props. This type of content serve several objectives: (1) Proving the fact that even though the Ukrainian army is small and weak, it is possible to hurt the Russian army; (2) In the Ukrainian clips, the Russian soldiers appear confused and demoralized, and clips of Russian POWs have gone viral on social media; and (3) these images, if they are going to be presented in Russia, can undermine Russian morale and generate public unrest.
As in previous wars, in this one also here are stories about brave-hearted soldiers. It is almost impossible to tell whether these stories are true or merely fake news, but they are important as an element of morality and morale. In what in the US may be called an “Alamo” story, on February 25, the world learned about the tragic end of 13 brave Ukrainian soldiers that died defending their post in the Black Sea and who were defiant until the very end. After a Russian warship gave them the option to surrender, the Ukrainian soldiers preferred to answer the Russian with a “@#$k you” epithet, and then supposedly perished in the battle. The recording of this incident went viral on social media and reached mainstream media. This story helped build the moral and brand Ukrainian resistance as heroic. Brave men and women were ready to fight and keep their honor and not to surrender. From a propaganda point of view, these are the materials that build a nation; they are crucial examples in time of war, because this is how the state expects its citizens to act. President Zelenskyy ordered a special medal of honor on their behalf. Two days later, it was published that the soldiers who allegedly died while defending the Black Sea post probably survived, as the Russian military showed pictures of them being taken from their post while still alive. This is another chapter in a swirling cauldron of disinformation on both sides. Another example of unverified and unexplained bravery comes from the story of “The ghost of Kyiv” about a Ukrainian pilot who allegedly had shot down six Russian jet fighters in one day. The problem is that no one can verify this rumor nor give his name.
The 2022 Russian–Ukraine war presents a dramatic landscape of information warfare possibly as important as kinetic warfare. Elements of cyber and psychological warfare were used to achieve goals on all sides. It is clear that information warfare had a crucial part in the early stages of the war, setting the stage for the opponents to act. The field of information warfare is thus becoming a major element of the battlefield for various reasons.
In the age of post truth, it is crucial to create and control the narrative. As the media is around us 24/7, everybody is a potential reporter, journalist, or publicist. As war is lethal (not to mention the potential of nuclear war), it is important to develop non-lethal capabilities. Weak players such as Ukraine can use IW tools in order to compensate for their starting position. War today is a serious grand theater unfolding in front of a global audience. It is crucial to win the support of world public opinion. If you can persuade them to leave their neutral position and support you, it may be a game changer.