Ukraine is winning the information war against Russia (2022)

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy looks straight into the camera with the quality of an amateur vlogger. Wearing a T-shirt and sweater, he names the official titles of those standing with him: high-ranking Ukrainian officials who are similarly casually dressed.

"All of us are here protecting our independence of our country," Zelenskyy said calmly in the first days after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, according to a translation.

This is just one example of how the country under attack has been fighting the information war against Russia, as many inexperienced Ukrainian fighters, including civilians, challenge the foreign troops on the ground.

While an underdog in the ground battle, Ukraine is so far winning the fight for hearts and minds, including in pockets of Russia where protests have broken out, and within many countries that have gone farther than expected in providing support.

"Zelenskyy was not seen as a very effective leader two weeks ago. Now he is a Churchill-like figure," said Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired Central Intelligence Agency official who worked as head of clandestine operations in Europe and Eurasia. "And that's because of [the Ukrainians'] use of information operations, social media, to put forth the kind of notion of these brave defenders fighting not only for their Ukrainian freedom, but for Europe."

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(Video) How Zelensky is winning the information war against Putin

The early-stage victory in the information domain has had tangible benefits for Ukraine, which has seen harsh sanctions on Russia imposed by the U.S. and the European Union and grassroots financial support. How long Ukraine can continue to capture the world's attention is still to be determined. But while several experts who spoke with CNBC agreed Russia had underestimated Ukraine's resilience, including in the information sphere, its disinformation and propaganda tactics will likely continue to target people in both countries should the war drag on.

How winning the social media narrative fuels ground advantages

Ukraine's ability to win the narrative has significant implications for three important constituencies: its own citizens and their fighting spirit; outside nations that can provide financial and diplomatic support; and people within Russia who sympathize with the cause.

For the first group, the humbling images of Ukraine's leader staying put amid the warfare and heroic stories of citizens picking up arms to defend their independence can have a snowball effect.

"It's important to know that both courage and fear are all infectious," said Raphael Cohen, director of the strategy and doctrine program of Project Air Force of the nonprofit Rand Corp.

Heroic images of grandmothers getting involved in the battles can mobilize others to get involved, just as evidence of defeat can deter such actions.

"Morale is critical in this war," said Scott Radnitz, an associate professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Washington. "It looks like the Kremlin was hoping that Russia would be able to destroy Ukraine's morale by making a Russian victory seem like a foregone conclusion. And it appears the Kremlin believes that the Ukrainian government is not very popular and people will give up on it."

Instead, he said, "the effect has been to strengthen the national unity of Ukrainians, and seeing social media images of Russian military vehicles that break down and a lot of what look like ham-handed military tactics that make the Russian army looking incompetent only serves to strengthen the will of Ukrainians who are resisting."

Word spread rapidly through both traditional and social networks and bolstered Ukraine's cause in the Western world. An AP-NORC poll released last Wednesday that found just 26% of Americans think the U.S. should have a major role in the conflict. Still, a CNN poll conducted by SSRS published on Monday found 83% of Americans favored increased economic sanctions against Russia, with just 17% opposed.

That sort of grassroots support for harsh penalties against Russia for its invasion has likely made it easier for leaders in the U.S. and Europe to pursue such tactics to a greater degree than many experts anticipated. Many individuals have also donated to the Ukrainian effort directly, including through the use of cryptocurrency.

Molly McKew, an expert on information warfare who writes and lectures on Russian warfare, said Ukraine's ability to show its resilience in the early days of battles "was absolutely critical to swinging public support, drawing attention to what was happening, and then building pressure on the European governments to sort of get off their butts, and do some things to stop Russia before the actual war."

McKew said Ukrainians were able to show through images and stories that initial sanctions the West was willing to impose on Russia were not enough. Plus, she said, they proved Russia wouldn't get the quick defeat it had expected, so Ukraine needed help to continue to fight.

(Video) Is Ukraine winning the information war? Depends on who you ask.

"That public swell of support encouraged governments to be more forward-leaning in what they were willing to do," she said.

Hungarians take part a demonstration against the Russians established International Investment Bank and the politics of Hungarian government on March 01, 2022 in downtown Budapest.

Ferenc Isza | AFP | Getty Images

Russia's flow of information is more controlled, with state censors saying they would restrict Facebook after the company refused to comply with its request to stop fact-checking and labeling state-affiliated media, according to the platform.

Still, Russian people do generally have access to Western social media should they seek it out. The information they find from Western sources can challenge the Kremlin narrative pushed on state-owned networks. Despite the danger of speaking out against the regime, many Russian citizens have already taken to the streets to protest its government's actions in Ukraine.

Radnitz said the Kremlin seemed to miscalculate in not shutting down access to social media channels ahead of the invasion. Russia billed the moves as a special military operation, making it sound quick and relatively painless. But narratives outside of state-controlled media betray that account.

"Certainly, Russia is not a democracy. And this war does not rely on the consent of the population," Radnitz said. "However, Putin has long had nightmares about mass protests in the streets, which is why he's clamped down, especially over the past year, on opposition and independent organizations. And why a lot of his foreign policy moves in the past few decades have involved fighting against Western organizations, who he accuses of inciting revolutions in other post-Soviet countries. So the Kremlin is absolutely terrified of large protests in the streets."

Russia's information battle is within

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Governor of Saint Petersburg Alexander Beglov in Moscow, Russia March 1, 2022.

Alexey Nikolskyi | Sputnik | Reuters

While Russia's information campaign may not sway the West much, experts said in many ways it's fighting a different battle from Ukraine on this front.

While Ukraine seeks to garner support both domestically and abroad in part to raise funds and resources, Russia is more focused on quelling opposition within its own borders and encouraging Ukrainian fighters to give up. That's the point of creating false pretexts to justify the invasion and claiming falsely that Ukraine's leader is walking away, they said.

"The audience for these claims, I think is mostly Russians themselves, because the government has to work hard to manufacture this pretext to continue waging unpopular war," Radnitz said.

"I think they're playing different games," said Margarita Konaev, a research fellow at Georgetown's Center for Security and Emerging Technology who studies Russian military innovation and military applications of artificial intelligence. "Ukraine doesn't need to convince its own population that they're facing a serious problem because they have bombs landing on their heads."

Konaev said the Russian people are the primary audience for its disinformation campaign including a false pretext for the invasion. The secondary audience is the Ukrainian people, she said, in order to discourage them from keeping up the fight by spreading demoralizing messages about the state of the war.

Russia may not need to focus its efforts in the information battle abroad in part because it's laid the groundwork through previous disinformation campaigns, Konaev said. She pointed to right-wing commentators like Tucker Carlson who have amplified the Russian government narrative.

The effect of every disinformation campaign in recent memory, even if focused on different subjects, "is cumulative," Konaev said.

"It builds upon previous efforts that have already instilled doubt, that eroded trust, and that built within the target society, domestic actors that perpetuate that narrative," she said. "To an extent, after years and years and years of cultivating that space, there's really no meaningful reason for Russia to continue doing it actively."

Polymeropoulos, the former CIA official, said Russia simply knows its false narratives won't resonate with the West, who are not its core audience. Unlike earlier Russian disinformation campaigns like leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, its current narratives are not rooted in truth and therefore are less convincing.

"The Russian operations now are just so wildly fantastic that no one takes it seriously at all," he said.

(Video) Who wins the information war? Russia's Ukraine invasion sparks global airwaves battle • FRANCE 24

What happens next

People wait to board an evacuation train from Kyiv to Lviv at Kyiv central train station following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine March 1, 2022.

Umit Bektas | Reurters

Like with most things on the internet, interest even in major conflicts can be fleeting. So while Ukraine may be winning the information war right now, sustained attention could be integral to its efforts on the ground.

(Video) Why Russia is losing the information war against Ukraine

"I am afraid that this sense of shock that we are feeling right now is going to dissipate with the longer this goes on," said Konaev. "And if the attention shifts, and the momentum shifts, then Ukraine's in real trouble."

But if the war drags on, its impact and human toll will become harder to conceal from the Russian people. And despite the high risk, some could raise their voices against the government.

"The Kremlin will probably make examples of people by making high profile arrests of those who criticize the government on social media," said Radnitz, of the University of Washington. "Nonetheless, as economic hardship continues, more and more ordinary voices are going to be expressing themselves in a wide variety of ways, including on social media. And already some of these images of Russians waiting in long lines at ATMs to withdraw their money before the ruble collapses are spreading around too. And so it's going to be impossible for the Kremlin to mask the amount of discontent that's spreading in Russia."

McKew said she fears Russia will use visceral images of war to try to break the unity of the U.S. and EU and weaken their support for Ukraine.

"It's easy to support a war when it looks like it's a bunch of nice, pretty Ukrainians who are having a good time. It's hard to support a war when it's dead kids," she said.

Polymeropoulos is watching for how the West responds with an information campaign of its own. He said the West's quick countering of Russia's narratives early on may have caught the government off guard. He said he'd expect Western forces to amplify truthful information within Russia about protests and the human death toll of Russian soldiers.

"Our operations are, are in essence, publicizing Russian malfeasance," he said. "Russian disinformation operations, it's propaganda. It's making stuff up. We don't have to make anything up."

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FAQs

What is the reason for Russia and Ukraine war? ›

The Russo-Ukrainian War is an ongoing war between Russia (together with pro-Russian separatist forces) and Ukraine. It was started by Russia in February 2014 following the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, and initially focused on the status of Crimea and the Donbas, internationally recognised as part of Ukraine.

What did Russia take from Ukraine? ›

In February and March 2014, Russia invaded and subsequently annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.

How many soldiers does Ukraine have? ›

Ukraine's army is a lot smaller - it has an estimated 200,000 active troops and 900,000 reservists, though it has boosted those numbers through mass mobilisation since Russia invaded on 24 February. Under its current martial law, Ukraine forbids men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country.

Did the Ukraine fight in ww1? ›

Ukrainians were split into two separate and opposing armies. 3.5 million fought with the Imperial Russian Army, while 250,000 fought for the Austro-Hungarian Army. Many Ukrainians thus ended up fighting each other.

What is the impact of the war between Ukraine and Russia? ›

The war has now reshaped international energy costs on a global basis, helped create massive global food shortages, seriously damaged the entire Russian economy, and helped trigger a massive increase in the rate of inflation on a global level. The full military impact remains unclear.

Is Ukraine part of Russia or Europe? ›

Ukraine (Ukrainian: Україна, romanized: Ukraïna, pronounced [ʊkrɐˈjinɐ] ( listen)) is a country in Eastern Europe. It is the second-largest European country after Russia, covering approximately 600,000 square kilometres (230,000 sq mi), and has a population of around 40 million people.

What was Ukraine called before? ›

Ukraine had experienced a brief period of independence in 1918–20, but portions of western Ukraine were ruled by Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia in the period between the two World Wars, and Ukraine thereafter became part of the Soviet Union as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (S.S.R.).

Is Ukraine in NATO? ›

Relations between Ukraine and NATO were formally established in 1992, when Ukraine joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council after regaining its independence, later renamed the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council.

When did Russia declare war on Ukraine? ›

On 24 February, before 5 am. Kyiv time, Putin announced a "special military operation" in eastern Ukraine and "effectively declared war on Ukraine." In his speech, Putin said he had no plans to occupy Ukrainian territory and that he supported the right of the Ukrainian people to self-determination.

Is US allies with Ukraine? ›

The United States enjoys cordially friendly and strategic relations with Ukraine and attaches great importance to the success of Ukraine's transition to a democracy with a flourishing market economy.

Does Ukraine have a navy? ›

The naval forces consist of five components – surface forces, submarine forces, naval aviation, coastal rocket-artillery and naval infantry. As of 2022, the Ukrainian navy had 15,000 personnel, including 6,000 naval infantry. In 2015, the Ukrainian navy had 6,500 personnel.

Who has the strongest military? ›

Despite the United States' crushing defeat in Afghanistan, its armed forces have an imposing presence across the world. With military bases in many parts of the world, the US armed forces remain the most powerful of any on the globe.

Who colonized Ukraine? ›

The majority of Ukraine was incorporated into the Russian empire after the second partition of Poland in 1793, while the remaining section—the principality of Galicia—remained part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and was a key battleground on World War I's Eastern Front.

Who won the Ukrainian war of Independence? ›

Ukrainian War of Independence
Date8 November 1917 – 17 November 1921 (4 years, 1 week and 2 days)
LocationCentral and Eastern Europe
ResultBolshevik and Polish victory
1 more row

Who did Ukraine fight for in WWII? ›

Ukrainian collaboration with Nazi Germany took place during the occupation of Poland and the Ukrainian SSR by Nazi Germany in World War II.

How is Ukraine war affecting the world? ›

Today, about 60 percent of the world's workforce is estimated to have lower incomes than before the pandemic. More than half of the world's poorest countries are in debt distress or at high risk of it. According to the brief, the increase in hunger since the start of the war could be higher and more widespread.

How is Ukraine economy? ›

Ukraine Economic Growth

Tumbling exports, widespread infrastructure damage and marked population loss will weigh on the economy. FocusEconomics panelists project GDP to contract 36.8% in 2022, which is down 0.3 percentage points from last month's forecast. For 2023, the panel sees GDP expanding 12.5%.

What are the effects of Russia-Ukraine? ›

The Russia-Ukraine war is having an outsized impact on the global supply chain, impeding the flow of goods, fueling dramatic cost increases and product shortages, and creating catastrophic food shortages around the world, according to experts at a virtual symposium hosted by the MIT Center for Transportation and ...

Is Ukraine a rich country? ›

In April 2017, the World Bank stated that Ukraine's economic growth rate was 2.3% in 2016, thus ending the recession. Despite these improvements, Ukraine remains the poorest country in Europe by nominal GDP per capita, which some journalists have attributed to high corruption.

What are Ukraine famous for? ›

One of the things Ukraine is mostly recognized for is its architecture. The skyline of Kyiv is filled with golden domes, a symbol of Ukrainian architecture. There are over 900 churches and cathedrals built from the Kyivan Rus era till today. The most famous one is St.

Is Ukraine a free country? ›

Ukraine is one of the democratic states in Europe that is securing human rights as a national policy, as well as securing the rights of national minorities." According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), "while civil society institutions operate mostly without government interference, police abuse and violations of the rights ...

Who Discovered Ukraine? ›

In the 3rd century AD, the Goths arrived in the lands of modern Ukraine around 250–375 AD, which they called Oium, corresponding to the archaeological Chernyakhov culture.

Who named Ukraine? ›

In the 1830s, Nikolay Kostomarov and his Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Kyiv started to use the name Ukrainians. It was also taken up by Volodymyr Antonovych and the Khlopomany ("peasant-lovers"), former Polish gentry in Eastern Ukraine, and later by the Ukrainophiles in Halychyna, including Ivan Franko.

Is Ukraine in Europe or Asia? ›

Ukraine is situated in the central part of Eastern Europe, on the crossroads of major transportation routes from Europe to Asia and from the Scandinavian states to the Mediterranean region.

Is NATO helping Ukraine now? ›

NATO's Deputy Secretary General: NATO support for Ukraine is for the long-term. On Monday (27 June 2022), in a pre-recorded video message at the Kyiv Security Forum, NATO's Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoana reaffirmed NATO's continued solidarity and support for Ukraine against Russia's unprovoked war.

Is NATO an army? ›

The Alliance counts on the military might of its 30 Allied and partner nations to support missions and operations around the world. NATO doesn't have its own armed forces, but it has a permanent, integrated military command structure, comprised of both military and civilian personnel, from all member states.

What is Victory Day in Russia? ›

Victory Day is a holiday that commemorates the victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. It was first inaugurated in the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, following the signing of the German Instrument of Surrender late in the evening on 08 May 1945 only.

What declare war means? ›

Definition of declare war

: to officially decide to fight or go to war Congress has the power to declare war on/against other countries. —often used figuratively The state has declared war on illiteracy.

What language is spoken in Ukraine? ›

There are approximately 20 languages spoken in Ukraine. According to the 2001 census, 67% of the population speak Ukrainian and 30% speak Russian as their first language. Ukrainian, the official language, belongs with Russian and Belarusian to the East Slavic branch of the Slavic language family.

What weapons has the US sent to Ukraine? ›

Shoulder-fired MANPAD systems, NLAWs, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Stinger missiles, Javelin anti-tank missiles, MILAN anti-tank guided missiles and Cheetah anti-aircraft missiles are among the weapons pledged to Ukraine.

Is Ukraine in the UN? ›

Since 1992, Ukraine has been an active contributor of personnel and equipment to the UN peacekeeping operations. Ukraine actively participates in the activity of the principal organs of the United Nations: General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Human Rights Council, etc.

How does Ukraine support military? ›

Donate now to verified sources
  1. Donate now to verified sources. ...
  2. Donate for MEDICAL SUPPLIES. ...
  3. HUMANITARIAN AID. ...
  4. FINANCIAL AID. ...
  5. Donate in CRYPTOCURRENCY directly to the Ukrainian Government. ...
  6. Donate for VOLUNTEERS. ...
  7. Donate for CHILDREN. ...
  8. Donate for JOURNALISTS.

Does Ukraine have anti missile? ›

The missiles are being launched from the ground as well as from warships stationed in the Black Sea, where Ukraine lacks any advanced anti-ship missiles in service.

Does Ukraine have missiles? ›

Ukraine receives Harpoon missiles and howitzers, says defence minister | Reuters.

Does Ukraine have nukes? ›

130 UR-100N intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) with six warheads each, 46 RT-23 Molodets ICBMs with ten warheads apiece, as well as 33 heavy bombers, totaling approximately 1,700 warheads remained on Ukrainian territory. Formally, these weapons were controlled by the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Who is the No 1 Army in World? ›

Top 10 Armies: Highest Total Number of Military Personnel
CountryNumbers (members)
India:5,137,500
China:4,015,000
Russia:3,568,000
United States:2,233,050
6 more rows
Feb 28, 2022

Who would win war between US and Russia? ›

The USA also has an overwhelming advantage over Russia in terms of conventional forces. Russia still has incredible military might, even if it is not as large as NATO's, with more than a million active troops.

Which country has the most advanced weapons in the world? ›

United States (5,550) China (350) France (290)

Why is Ukraine not in NATO? ›

Plans for NATO membership were shelved by Ukraine following the 2010 presidential election in which Viktor Yanukovych, who preferred to keep the country non-aligned, was elected President. Amid the unrest, caused by the Euromaidan protests,Yanukovych fled Ukraine in February 2014.

Is Russia part of NATO? ›

No, Russia is not part of NATO. In fact, the Russian government's perceived aggressiveness is the main issue NATO was founded to counteract. Despite this, Russia has historically at least given the appearance of cooperation with NATO.

Who colonized Ukraine? ›

Following the Partitions of Poland (1772–1795) and the Russian conquest of the Crimean Khanate, the Russian Empire and Habsburg Austria were in control of all the territories that constitute present day Ukraine for a hundred years.

What is the meaning of Crimea? ›

British Dictionary definitions for Crimea

Crimea. / (kraɪˈmɪə) / noun. a peninsula and autonomous region in Ukraine between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov: a former autonomous republic of the Soviet Union (1921–45), part of the Ukrainian SSR from 1945 until 1991Russian name: Krym.

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