The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a literal war, but it is also a conflict playing out through the manipulation of information. For years, the Kremlin promoted a false narrative of the Ukrainian government committing genocidal atrocities in eastern Ukraine against ethnic Russians.
Mythmaking from Ukraine is something different. Since the Russians invaded Feb. 24, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has emerged as a savvy commander of information warfare. The comedian-turned-politician has leveraged both social and traditional media to swing the balance of Western public opinion staunchly in his favor.
“I can’t think of a precedent of this magnitude, a true wartime president, who is also extremely conversant in social media, and who was not just an avid social media user before his election, but was, of course, an actor,” said Emerson T. Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council and co-author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media.” “He is uniquely suited to capture and sustain a certain attention in this moment.”
Zelenskiy has come to be viewed in stark contrast to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Once understood to be a master of disinformation, Putin’s propaganda efforts related to his invasion of Ukraine have been chaotic at best and often outright incompetent.
“The Kremlin prioritized selling this war to its own population, and, I think, made minimal and halfhearted efforts to try to sell its story about the war to the rest of the world,” said Scott Radnitz, a professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Washington where he researches protests, authoritarianism and identity in the post-Soviet region. “To the extent that the Kremlin has made the same arguments to international audiences, it falls flat.”
Grid spoke with Brooking and Radnitz, both experts on disinformation in the region to understand Russian and Ukrainian propaganda efforts underway and the figure of Zelenskiy as unlikely wartime leader.
The following interviews were conducted separately and have been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: What kind of pro-Ukrainian propaganda are you seeing? How are average news consumers involved in its spread?
Emerson T. Brooking: I would divide this between Ukrainian primary sources and then the broader ecosystem of the West, which is a mixture of people passionately supporting Ukraine, and then war spectators, who have often taken things from these primary Ukrainian sources, and amplified or added additional mythology atop them, before there’s really an opportunity to contextualize the claims.
In the lead up to the invasion, one could have a very good sense of military movements on most fronts, because of the volume of TikToks and other open-source footage [showing] the fact that these army groups were going to staging areas. But even in our hyper-connected age, there aren’t people livestreaming, in most cases, fighting in real time. Little snippets of video are uploaded later, but they’re often decontextualized. So even in the 21st-century information environment, the fog of war doesn’t go away.
Attention comes with a half-life. The Ukrainians have so far benefited from Western attention. But as time goes on and the realities of war set in, the fact that this is likely to be a grinding and potentially inconclusive conflict that will go on for months or maybe years — I think large parts of the audience will begin to tune out. And there might even be a counter reaction where some people might wonder why this moment drove such attention in the first place. There’s often a sort of backlash that follows any great sort of coming together online.
G: What do you make of the figure of Zelenskiy himself and the way that he has become an object of so much admiration and near-mythology?
Scott Radnitz: He’s depicting himself through what he says, how he dresses and the way he has engaged with the world through social media, as the leader of a resistance. He’s no longer wearing suits like he used to. Now he’s wearing olive green T-shirts. He looks like a guerrilla leader. He’s making these videos on his iPhone, presumably, from underground bunkers … and speaking like a wartime resistance leader. He’s tapping into the sympathy that people have for Ukraine, but also reimagining himself as a heroic resistance leader rather than simply a statesman.
He’s a performer, he’s an actor. He understands the media. He understands how to shape images and narratives. The style that he’s taken up … is not completely new to him. He campaigned for the presidency in 2019 in similar ways: speaking to the voting public directly through social media, using hand-held iPhones in an amateurish kind of way. It was a wildly successful campaign because he showed himself stylistically to be unlike any other Ukrainian political figure people had ever seen. He used ordinary language, he made jokes. He showed himself to be a regular person.
ETB: I can’t think of a precedent of this magnitude, a true wartime president, who is also extremely conversant in social media, and who was not just an avid social media user before his election, but was, of course, an actor. So he is uniquely suited to capture and sustain a certain attention in this moment. Given how much Ukraine is dependent on Western aid and Western action, he’s the perfect person for this role.
He is still a wartime president, and he’s still a head of state with many competing factions in it. … There was an announcement on the Facebook page of a Ukrainian special forces branch a few days ago that they were going to stop taking any prisoners of artillery men and were going to shoot them on sight. These things should be condemned, but they happen in war.
G: Who is Zelenskiy’s audience?
SR: He’s speaking to world leaders and their citizens, who he hopes will put pressure on their leaders to support Ukraine, financially and militarily.
He’s also, of course, speaking to his own citizens. He’s a rallying point for people who are hiding out in metro stations and barricading themselves against bombs. In wartime, people have always looked to a leader who can rally them, who can be inspirational. And that’s why we mythologize some of the greatest wartime leaders in modern times. Winston Churchill, for example. Charles de Gaulle, leading the French Resistance. This is the kind of charismatic figure that, whether deliberately or not, I think it’s fair to compare him to.
And then a third audience, although I’m sure this is not his primary concern, is to reach Russians themselves. … But the challenge in general is for Russians to get any good information that comes from outside the country, because they’re being fed propaganda on state TV.
It’s important to his rise as a political figure that he comes from a Russian-speaking part of the country … and speaks Ukrainian fluently. His ability to communicate in both languages and to people who identify more as one or the other was critical in helping him win a broad coalition and win the presidency with 73 percent of the vote.
ETB: I think the attention from the West those first few days was instrumental in galvanizing policymakers to expel Russia from the global economic system. Prior to invasion, the U.S. was trying to put some contingency plans in place. But there was a real sea change. The fact that anyone involved in these discussions could see cruise missiles raining down on Kyiv, and the emotional appeals of President Zelenskiy … was like flipping the switch in how it changed international policymaker perspective. And that’s why we saw this extremely rapid series of steps, which most people would have told you was unthinkable just a few days prior.
G: Has the Ukrainian propaganda effort been successful?
ETB: I think it’s indirect. Because Ukrainian messaging, the first priority has been bolstering the morale of the Ukrainian people. But then, second, and also very important, has been messaging to the West. And that helped drive the Western response. I think the Western response was so fast that it did give Putin pause.
But much more significant than the Western response is Russian military failure. I think that Putin’s reinvention of his demands is attributable almost entirely to Russian military failure and inability to seize Kyiv on the unrealistic schedule that the Russians were going on.
One can’t disentangle that from the effects of Ukrainian messaging. But at the end of the day, I think Putin is driven by hard military realities. I think if Russia had made the sort of progress that Putin expected, all of Zelenskiy’s emotional and heartfelt messaging, Zelenskiy’s Russian-language appeals to the Russian people — Putin wouldn’t have cared about any of that.
SR: As in any conflict, people should be skeptical of what information governments report. Because in any conflict, including this one, governments are going to want to minimize the number of soldiers killed on their side and exaggerate the number of civilians killed on their side, while saying the opposite about the other side.
In this instance, the Kremlin prioritized selling this war to its own population, and, I think, made minimal and halfhearted efforts to try to sell its story about the war to the rest of the world. The way that the Kremlin has justified this conflict is so far at odds with reality that it’s almost laughable. And to the extent that the Kremlin has made the same arguments to international audiences, it falls flat. This might be because the decision for launching this war was maybe closely held, and Russia’s media propagandists didn’t have enough time to get together and craft a long-term strategy about how to try to sell the war. If it was Putin’s plan all along, and he was more focused on conquering Ukraine and subduing it than generating good buzz about it, then maybe he simply didn’t care about what the rest of the world thought.
G: Have you seen this kind of successful propaganda effort in other conflicts with Russia?
SR: One comparison I would make is with the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. There, there was a very similar situation in which Russia invaded a sovereign country on its border and put in minimal effort into shaping the narrative to suit its purposes. Whereas the president of Georgia — also a young, handsome, Western-leaning, English-speaking president — was extremely effective at shaping the narrative in Georgia’s favor. He gave lots of interviews to the international press. Social media was not a very big part of that war. But from the very beginning, Georgia managed to shape the war to fit their version of events.
Subsequently, a lot of analysts thought that Russia understood how it failed in its media operations in that war and got a sense for how social media works, and what kind of messages are more likely to resonate around the world, especially in Europe and the U.S. And in 2014, with its more recent invasion of Ukraine, it did a better job of kind of muddying the waters about what was happening there. There was not a lot of bloodshed or violence. And Russia, I think, managed to persuade a lot of people that what it did wasn’t really that bad. So, I think one reason a lot of people are surprised now is that we had a sense that Russia had figured out its media strategy and was prepared to implement a similar campaign this time around. And it’s really striking how ham-fisted they’ve been.