Ukrainians Have Not Yet Won the Information War, But the Russian General Staff Has Already Lost It
The ideology of Putin’s Russia relies for a large part on the old Tsarist stock that can be summed up in three words – Tsar, Orthodoxy and nationalism/native land. Russia is a special country, and it is home to a special people that is different to Europe, and only Russia has the right regime.
The new ideology of Putin’s Russia was formulated in the book series “Project Russia”, compiled by a working group comprised of researchers and representatives of special services and the Orthodox Church on the order of the Russian President and published in 2005–2009. In Russia and elsewhere, it has come to be called the doctrine of Putin’s Russia. It sets out two strategic goals for Russia. The most immediate of these goals is not to restore the Soviet Union but the Russian Empire that included Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland.
The strategic end-goal is literally the following, “While the United States is merely imitating and actually tarnishing the role of a global administrator, Russia should have a natural right for this mission. Now Russia has to confirm this role by actually implementing it.”
Putin’s regime reached this ambitious goal through painful losses in Chechnya, through humiliation and searching for identity. During the first Chechen War (1994–1996), Chechens managed to create an image of themselves as a small, freedom-loving people with ancient traditions who are pitted against an empire of evil. The war ended in an armistice and Russia withdrew its troops from the Chechen grounds. In the second Chechen war, the Kremlin had taken initiative in the information battlespace, and it ended with a power shift in Groznyy in less than a year.
The Arab Spring that began in 2011 and the “colour revolutions” that took place in the background caused great concern to the Kremlin’s power vertical. For Putin and his closest associates, a potential power shift in the Kremlin is literally a matter of life and death.
In February 2013, the newspaper Voenno-Promyshlenny Kurier published a report by Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation Valery Gerasimov that came to be called ‘the Gerasimov doctrine’. It is the understanding of the Russian General Staff of modern warfare. In the 21st century, the distinct boundaries between war and peace are dissolving. Wars are not declared anymore. The rules of war have changed. In the whole conflict, military measures make up just one-fourth of the toolbox, next to the diplomatic and political, economic, and information and influencing measures.
The model of thought that had been developed was skilfully implemented by the Kremlin in the occupation and annexation of Crimea and later in the new type of warfare in Donbass. This was yet another strategic surprise for the West because the idea of warfare had been changed. The implementation of the new, aggressive strategy of the Russian Federation represented a direct threat to NATO, as the new approach avoided the triggers that were necessary for application of NATO’s Article 5.
On 25 December 2014, Putin signed the military doctrine of the Russian Federation, which sums up the lessons of three military campaigns. In this doctrine, Russia, the only country in the world to do so, challenges NATO and the US. At strategic level, Putin’s Russia is aiming to create divisions between international organisations and allied countries, such as the United Nations, the European Union and NATO. At operational level, the aim is to sow distrust between the leaders of countries, the state apparatus and common people. It does not matter who to set in opposition or how.
It seemed that the Russian General Staff had learned from experience and was boosting the development of warfare in the information space. After the invasion in Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the Kremlin was hit by an information shock. Nothing turned out as the Kremlin had imagined. Ukraine grabbed the initiative in the information space from the first hours of the war. Ukraine basically did what Chechens had done in the first Chechen war. Ukraine told the Old Testament story of David and Goliath.
Ukraine showed the heroism of its soldiers and the support and resolve of the Ukrainian people. It documented Russians’ war crimes and showed the poor command and poor supply of Russian troops, and ridiculed Russian weapons systems that were claimed to be unparalleled in the world by Russian information warriors.
Ukraine is working in three main directions. First, it is giving instructions to its residents, making efforts to keep up morale, and showing that it is possible to destroy the much-touted Russian troops. Second, it is deterring Putin’s Russia and the allies of the occupants from coming to wage war in Ukraine. Third, it is showing the destructions and documented war crimes by Russians to the free Western world.
Ukrainians are in great luck to have President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who has a history as a stand-up comedian. In a matter of days, if not hours, Zelenskyy became a war-time leader and the whole Ukrainian people gathered around him.
Zelenskyy as a one-time entertainer can perceive very well the expectations of the audience and the mood in the air. He knows his audience and target groups and finds opportunities to turn unexpected situations into victories. He masterfully manages the opportunities of social media and smartphone and is able to get messages across simply and understandably.
Media analysts have underlined Ukraine’s methodical approach and consistency.
Russia’s massive disinformation campaign and effort in the cognitive battlespace has clearly not been successful in the Western information space. Ukraine has consolidated the narrative of Ukraine’s bravery and indomitability. In the information space of the free world, Ukraine’s narrative and Ukraine’s messages are dominant.