Information and optics are central to winning the war in Ukraine. Contrast the image of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy taking selfies on the streets of Kyiv and holding makeshift press conferences in a t-shirt with Vladimir Putin sitting at a long Italian table at great physical distance from others within the fortified walls of the Kremlin. Developing a convincing narrative with information and building resilience against falsehoods will help determine the outcome of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In response, gray-zone operations and contemporary hybrid war must be priorities in U.S. and NATO security calculations.
The Hybrid Warfare Challenge:
In prosecuting its war in Ukraine, a key element in the Russian strategy is controlling the flow of information. Russian state-controlled media, such as RT and Sputnik, portray the invasion as a general and abstract “special military operation.” Russian media regulators have banned Facebook and slowed Twitter to crack down on posts and tweets that contradict the official position of the Kremlin. Putin’s attempt to suppress the truth is now essential to maintaining public support for the war effort.
The Kremlin’s effort rests on defining the narrative in “black or white” and preposterous terms. Putin has often referred to Zelenskyy’s government being comprised of drug addicts and Nazis committing genocide in Donbas. Russian social media platforms often post images and videos of far-right groups training Ukrainian civilians and receive coverage in state-controlled media outlets. Putin is trying to convince the world that a neo-Nazi regime led by a Jewish president committing genocide now exists in the center of Europe.
In another bizarre twist, Russian authorities recently launched a propaganda campaign to maintain public support for the war by running television and social media ads featuring people wearing the letter “Z” on clothing and placing “Z” stickers on cars. The “Z” first appeared on Russian military vehicles entering Ukraine during the initial days of the invasion. Although “Z” is not a letter in Russian Cyrillic (the letter З is in Russian Cyrillic and “zeh” is the English equivalent), it has quickly become an aggressive nationalist symbol to combat internal dissent. But it is nothing more than a manufactured attempt to connect the war in Ukraine with Russian nationalism and rally popular support of Putin.
Putin also likes to highlight the theme of Russian victimhood due to NATO expansion. The Kremlin asserts that NATO is under the control of the U.S. and intends to absorb Ukraine within the transatlantic alliance. This drives Putin’s obsession with seeking a high-profile stage to negotiate with President Joe Biden because the Kremlin can portray the imagery as Russia negotiating with the Americans as equal partners. It also reinforces Russia’s need to be seen as a major power.
The truth has become a casualty of war. In Putin’s Russia, everything is upside down. A February poll reported that 60% of Russians believe the U.S. and NATO are responsible for the military escalation in Ukraine. Kremlin disinformation is accepted because there are no independent media alternatives. For now, Putin has insulated himself from Russian public criticism by strangling media, stifling coverage, and deploying falsehoods with Soviet-era tactics.
In response, Ukraine has implemented its own sophisticated strategy. To contend with Russian malware and hacking against its government networks, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation Mikhail Federov developed a 200,000 strong civilian cyber army flooding social media platforms and taking down and defacing websites of Russian government agencies and state-controlled media outlets. In addition, Ukraine’s independent news outlets entities have drawn financial support came from across the globe via an English language gofundme page to continue their reporting. Ukraine’s information strategy is straightforward: Putin is the aggressor.
The result has been to rally the West behind the Ukrainian government. Germany has abandoned Nord Stream 2, sent weapons to the Ukrainian government, and ramped up defense spending. Non-NATO Sweden and Finland have exported weapons and are moving closer to NATO. Financial penalties have been imposed against Russia, namely disconnecting banks from the Swift financial payments system, suspending credit card operations, and freezing Russian central bank assets held by Americans.
Social media platforms have also responded. YouTube, Meta/Facebook/Instagram, and Twitter are removing Russian state-controlled outlets from their platforms and mitigating disinformation. Facebook is targeting Russian disinformation by attaching warning labels to fake posts or has removed them altogether. YouTube has removed channels that spread disinformation and Twitter is banning fake ads and hashtags from Russia and Ukraine and suspending users sharing fake or restricted content that glorifies violence. Also, the popular Russian blogger Yury Dud has been exposing Russians to the truth about the war and You Tuber Anton Ptushkin has pushed Russia to end the violence against civilians. Both have exposed ordinary Russians to unfiltered images and comments about the war.
Russia does not think it can lose an information war. It won in 2008 against Georgia in the South Ossetia War and against Ukraine in 2014 when it annexed Crimea. In these two cases, Russia employed a sophisticated and effective hybrid warfare strategy, outmaneuvering the U.S., NATO, and the E.U. with a hybrid strategy that combined disinformation with the deployment of “little green men.” By the time the West figured out what happened, Putin eroded Georgia’s borders and seized Crimea and entered Donbas.
Today, Putin looks less like Peter the Great and more like Czar Nicolas II. Russian soldiers returning home from the front of an unpopular war in Ukraine could be more dangerous than the counternarrative to upend Putin. The Kremlin has failed to mobilize and prepare Russians for the war before Putin invaded Ukraine. While some Russians do not believe a war is even happening in Ukraine, expect the number of those finding ways to circumvent the Kremlin’s grip on information to increase.
The more this war drags on, the worse it will be for Putin and Russians. Expect Putin to double down in targeting Ukrainian civilians. Ukrainian attacks on Russian soldiers will intensify, making Putin even more willing to accept elevated risk and even widen the war. His decision to raise the Russian nuclear deterrent placed every European country in his crosshairs. Putin also has a network of proxies and intermediaries that could undermine already vulnerable political systems in Georgia, Moldova, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not proceeding as the Kremlin expected.
Western sanctions are also essential to information warfare. Videos and images of ordinary Russians lining up at ATMs, credit cards not working, empty shelves at grocery stores, and Netflix and Spotify pulling out of Russia will take their toll. Russians were not prepared to make these sacrifices for the war effort. Putin built his autocracy on addressing the chaos and lawlessness of the 1990s, which means the impact of the devastating Western sanctions is devastating the Russian economy and the public.
In the past, Putin succeeded by overplaying a weak hand and operating in the gray-zone. This time, the U.S. and NATO called his bluff and turned the tables by preempting and countering Putin with strong and effective intelligence that exposed the Kremlin’s falsehoods and featured Russian troop movements. Although it could not stop Putin from invading Ukraine, the Biden Administration predicted his every move up.
Ukraine has won the information war because it developed a more compelling narrative. Ukrainians look brave and courageous and Ukrainian fighters appear to be pushing back the Russian military to a greater degree. But with Putin becoming even more destructive, a Russian pull back is not coming anytime soon. Ukraine is not going to concede to Russian demands that Ukraine give up its claims on Crimea and recognize the independence of Donbas. Also, with Western weapons, equipment, humanitarian assistance, and rising numbers of foreign fighters pouring into Ukraine, Zelenskyy’s government is in no mood to capitulate.
In the past, Russia dominated information wars. However, Putin’s repeated interventions in democratic elections, disinformation campaigns, and cyberattacks led Western intelligence and security to expect Russian interference and, more importantly, to develop new strategies and capabilities to defend against them. The U.S. decision to declassify information about Russian troops, sabotage, and false flag operations was effective. It can also develop better assessments of Russian hybrid war tactics.
The implications of the information war in Ukraine for the U.S. and NATO are enormous. In their foreign policy calculations, they must now view Russia as a revisionist state seeking hegemony in Europe. Essential to this is Russia’s strategy of blocking, distorting, and manipulating information to rewrite the narrative of the end of the Cold War and reestablish Soviet-era spheres of influence. Russia’s goal is to amplify its aggrieved victimhood and imagined perception that the U.S. and NATO are the aggressors.
Hybrid Warfare: Time for the West to Plan
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the significance of information warfare show that the U.S. and NATO must embrace a long-term hybrid warfare strategy to build resilience in the contemporary battlespace. They should optimize innovation efforts by partnering with the private sector, civil society groups, think tanks, and academics, funding research and development initiatives in emerging and disruptive technologies, and improve technology and media literacy. To effectively wage information warfare, the U.S. and NATO need stronger encryption, algorithms, and experts who can fact-check in real time. NATO’s next Strategic Concept should develop a vast network of large and small innovation centers on both sides of the Atlantic with stakeholders in the public and private sectors to maximize defense applications of information and advanced technologies because hybrid warfare is never going away.
Dr. Chris J. Dolan is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Master’s of Science Intelligence and Security Studies at Lebanon Valley College. He is currently a Fulbright U.S. Scholar (2021-2022) in hybrid war and security studies at the Max Van der Stoel Institute at South East European University in Tetovo, Republic of North Macedonia. His first Fulbright was at the University of Prishtina, Kosovo in 2019-2020. Dolan writes national security articles at Just Security, The Hill, and is the author of four books and more than thirty peer-reviewed articles.