On the very first day of Russia’s invasion, a tiny island along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast became an early target. It was a minor military loss that Kyiv would turn into a major propaganda victory, in a narrative aimed at a Western audience as much as a domestic one.
Ukraine was about to show its strength at information warfare in the global arena; Russia, to reveal its unexpected weakness at influencing foreign opinion in this conflict, especially in the West.
“Its standing in the world is damaged, probably beyond repair,” said Ilya Metveev, a St. Petersburg-based political analyst. Moscow “understands now that it is useless to push Russia’s narrative in the West. Whatever they try, this will not work.”
As Russian patrol ship Vasily Bykov turned its guns on Snake Island on Feb. 24 and demanded surrender, a Ukrainian border guard defiantly radioed back “Russian warship, go f–k yourself.”
That recording was quickly circulated by Ukrainian officials, and the guard became a national hero, praised that day by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for his sacrifice.
What happened after is a little fuzzy.
At the time, Zelensky said “all the border guards died heroically” in the subsequent attack. It seems they were captured, as Ukraine’s navy announced a few days later, then released by Russia. The guard who uttered the now-famous line appeared in person to receive a medal last week.
Days after the Snake Island attack, the Russian warship was reported seriously damaged or destroyed by the Ukrainian navy off the coast of Odesa, with video of the missile attack going viral. But that, too, has since been questioned, with multiple pictures of what appears to be the Vasily Bykov posted online.
Still, the incident set the propaganda tone for Ukrainian resistance from the start, and will be immortalized on a stamp, says Kyiv.
It’s the kind of “mythical” tale that has distinguished Ukraine’s surprisingly sophisticated fighting spirit in the information war against Russia, just as in the real one, said Ian Garner. He’s a lecturer and researcher at Queen’s University who is writing a book on Russian propaganda.
Between efforts like this and the stirring speeches delivered almost daily by Zelensky — often directly addressing foreign decision makers or the public in Western countries — Garner said Kyiv has been “mounting a very clever, really smart info war.”
Ukraine’s success depends on it. Kyiv needs to keep the West onside, to keep billions of dollars in much-needed weaponry flowing across the borders from NATO to its fighters, and to keep tough Western economic sanctions pressing Russia.
The Zelensky posts, sometimes done as selfies outside with only street lights at night, and always in a casual T-shirt, may “look ad hoc and somewhat unscripted,” said Garner, but are almost certainly “productions that have been planned and thought through.”
Zelensky’s address to the U.K. Parliament invokes wartime prime minister Winston Churchill. His speech to Ottawa stresses a first-name relationship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and includes familiar Canadian references. And, always, hitting the right notes to portray Ukraine as the feisty underdog who deserves help from the West.
In contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears belligerent and isolated, shown sitting at a huge table in the Kremlin. His efforts at waging an information war seem as troubled as his war on the ground.
“He is surrounded by symbols of Russian power,” said Anton Shirikov, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin who is researching political propaganda.
“He’s saying to the West: ‘Look, I’m frightening. I can do lots of terrible things.'”
This week, Zelensky accused Russia of committing the worst European atrocities since the Second World War in the city of Bucha, near Kyiv. Hundreds of civilian corpses were discovered after Russian troops withdrew.
Moscow’s answer? The scene was a “fake attack,” “staged” by Ukraine and the West for “anti-Russian purposes” — propaganda. This despite satellite evidence that the bodies had been lying in exactly those positions for weeks before Russia withdrew, as first reported by The New York Times and confirmed by other media outlets.
Russia’s use of disinformation — or ‘dezinformatsiya‘ — goes back at least to the 1950s, when a department of the KGB secret service was active with that name.
Moscow has been blamed for “sowing discord” around Britain’s debate over Brexit, through hundreds of fake social media accounts. American intelligence agencies have accused it of interfering in U.S. elections, helping former U.S. president Donald Trump to power in 2016 and then trying to keep Joe Biden out of office in 2020. And Russia has long supported European populist politicians like France’s Marie LePen, who pledged to lift sanctions against Moscow “quite quickly” if elected president in 2017.
Russia’s internal focus
“Russia had some success” in influencing world events through propaganda, said Metveev, but its invasion of Ukraine has so hardened public attitudes in the West, “completely cancelling all that.”
Instead, he said, Putin is focusing his propaganda internally, where he has been “quite effective” in justifying the war so far.
Outside, Moscow’s propaganda efforts “are now worth nothing. No one will ever listen to Russia,” he said.
That’s especially true now that they hear less from Russia. Moscow’s main international media arm, the Russia Today (RT) TV channel, has been taken off the air in many countries, including Canada, the U.S. and Britain.
It’s also because of unusually unified public attitudes in the West, “a kind of popular mobilization against Russia,” said Natasha Kuhrt, who lectures in International Peace and Security at King’s College in London.
“I think that really makes a big difference.”
Russia has tried to justify the invasion with different arguments, for instance that NATO expansion is getting too close to Russia and threatening its security, or that the country is full of dangerous Western-funded biolabs that need to be dismantled.
Or that Ukraine needs to be rid of Nazi elements.
“Many in Ukraine have been duped by Nazi and nationalist propaganda,” Putin said one week into the invasion, “but some have deliberately gone the way of the Banderites [right wing nationalists] and other Nazi henchmen.”
Pro-Russia Telegram channels are full of images, real and doctored, attributing the destruction of cities like Mariupol to Ukrainian right-wing military squads like the Azov militia. This, despite the fact that they number only around 1,000 members and are not equipped with the heavy weapons necessary to carry out the widespread bombing seen in many areas of Ukraine targeted by Russia.
“A lot of it is contradictory; it’s crude, it’s more exaggerated than ever before,” said Garner.
“The idea is to just bombard people with these images until eventually it seems like there’s some grain of truth, and then to try to get them to share with family and friends. At least, that’s the intent.”
But it has largely failed in the West, even among the normally sympathetic left, said Metveev, who is also a founding editor of the Russian magazine OpenLeft.ru.
“Even in these circles, it’s very difficult to stomach an unprovoked invasion,” he said.
“How can you argue that Russia is resisting imperialism by attacking Ukraine?”