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Philip Seib is a professor emeritus of journalism and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California. His most recent book is “Information at War: Journalism, Disinformation, and Modern Warfare.” He lives in Blue Hill.
In 2015, Russian Lt. Gen. Andrei Kartapolov wrote that “a classical war of the twentieth century consisted usually of 80 percent violence and 20 percent propaganda. New-type wars consist of 80 to 90 percent propaganda and 10 to 20 percent violence.” This echoed the opinion of the chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who had written in 2013, “The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.”
Such pronouncements seemed to indicate that Russia’s military leadership believed “soft war” could weaken an adversary without relying solely on kinetic tactics. When Russia mounted its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russian disinformation warned Ukrainians that they were being manipulated by the United States and “fascists” and “Nazis” within Ukraine. This was in line with Gerasimov’s view that taking advantage of “the protest potential of the population” is a crucial element of information warfare.
Russia, however, overestimated Ukrainians’ “protest potential” and underestimated their commitment to maintaining their sovereignty. The Kremlin had expected that its “special military operation” would prove victorious within a few weeks. The Russians, and whatever government they installed in Kyiv, would be welcomed as liberators.
According to theories advanced by Kartapolov, Gerasimov and their acolytes, this should have been the case. What went wrong?
In a word: pushback. The Ukraine government and its supporters in NATO refused to cede the media war within the war to Russian disinformation purveyors. Further, the Russian military effort has been so defective in so many ways — training, equipment, logistics, strategy and overall fighting ability — that Russia’s “soft war” measures have not led to the anticipated victory.
Kyiv has proved that on the information front it can outperform Moscow. Several factors have strengthened Ukrainian information efforts to convince global audiences that supporting Ukraine versus a superpower is not a lost cause:
The media savvy of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He is ubiquitous: addressing his nation every evening, walking through war zones, and speaking to foreign parliaments and news organizations. Zelenskyy is Winston Churchill. Vladimir Putin is Putin. The Russian leader is overmatched.
Adroit use of social media by Ukrainian news organizations, officials and individual citizens. Type “Ukraine” in a Twitter search and then peruse a flood of accounts that reinforce Ukraine’s “David-versus-Goliath” narrative and underscore the savagery of Russia’s behavior.
News coverage of civilian victims. An image of a child’s bloody stroller is far more memorable than any messaging that has been produced by the Kremlin. The world can see dramatic evidence of Russian war crimes.
Ukraine is not standing alone in the information battle. The European Union, NATO and individual governments’ media organizations are forcefully countering Russian disinformation. RT (formerly Russia Today) is trying to rally popular support for Russia in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere, broadcasting in numerous languages. Offsetting this are Western governments’ media venues, such as those operated by the U.S. Agency for Global Media — Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and others, which, like RT, have worldwide reach.
This includes reaching into Russia itself. Despite Kremlin efforts to prevent hostile information from reaching the Russian public, the media universe now includes mechanisms that facilitate detours around such attempts. Virtual private networks, Telegram channels and the like allow Russians to receive information that might eventually threaten Putin’s hold on power.
Without doubt, information is an integral element of warfare and is a contributing factor in shaping a war’s outcome. But it should not be overrated. The Russia-Ukraine War has already shown that the Kartapolov-Gerasimov concept is flawed. The Kremlin’s disinformation campaign has not undermined Ukrainians’ will to fight. Ukraine’s bullets, bombs and leadership deliver a more convincing message.