Images of brave Ukrainian soldiers from Kyiv to Snake Island have flooded social media in the days since Russian forces crossed into the country last week. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been transformed from an in-over-his-head comedian turned politician into a wartime folk hero rallying his people in a fight for freedom while successfully pressuring the West to send more weapons.
In Russia, meanwhile, images Monday showed desperate citizens lined up to pull cash from ATMs as the nation’s economy cratered and the ruble’s value fell to a new low. Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s widely mocked justifications for war — including a bizarre claim that he is leading a “denazification” of Ukraine — have been roundly rejected, even by his citizens. Many Russians have joined street protests and cybercampaigns denouncing the bloodshed.
The Kremlin’s vaunted cyberspace and disinformation forces were supposed to give Moscow a massive edge in its clash with Ukraine. But nearly a week into the fight, Ukraine has seized full control of the public relations high ground as anti-Russian sentiment spreads like wildfire across social media.
The narrative of a plucky Ukraine holding off a blundering Russian army has taken hold around the world, and specialists say the Kremlin’s utter failure to sell its spin on events is beginning to have a tangible impact on the war on the ground.
“What’s happened here is the same thing that happened with George Floyd. … It’s hard to have disinformation when you have video cameras and social media that gets the real story out,” said Jim Townsend, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration.
“Disinformation doesn’t work unless you’ve got a good narrative and good videos and you have an opposition that isn’t doing anything about it, that is just sitting there taking it. The United States was like that in 2016 when they came after our elections,” Mr. Townsend told The Washington Times on Monday. “What’s happened here is iPhones are being used to tell the real story, and there’s nothing the Russians can do about it.”
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Indeed, Mr. Putin‘s claim that Russian “peacekeepers” were needed to rescue the disputed Donbas region from a Ukrainian-led “genocide” has gained little traction, even within his own country. Within hours of the invasion, social media platforms were flooded with images of Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine, Russian jets hitting Ukrainian targets and, more recently, the apparent indiscriminate shelling of key cities such as Kharkiv.
While Russia’s effort to concoct its own narrative fell flat, its feared cyberwarfare capabilities failed to stop Ukraine from getting its message out to a global audience. Fears that Mr. Putin‘s Russia had perfected a new kind of “hybrid war” combining real-world and virtual lines of attack have dissolved the past week.
“In terms of the information and what we’re able to see and document, a part of Russia’s hybrid warfare that I feel like everyone and their mom has been talking about for several years doesn’t seem to be working here,” Mason Clark, a Russia analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, told Vox.com.
Instead, Ukrainian soldiers stationed on Snake Island captured the world’s attention last week by delivering a profane message of defiance to an approaching Russian warship. In the southern port city of Henichesk, a Ukrainian woman became a symbol of the resistance in a viral video after confronting a heavily armed Russian soldier and offering him sunflower seeds.
“Take these seeds and put them in your pockets, so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here,” she told the soldier, according to English-language media translations of the exchange.
Tale of two leaders
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On the public relations front, perhaps no one has seized the moment more than Mr. Zelenskyy. Until the Russian invasion, the former comic was perhaps best known for being on the other end of the line during a 2019 phone call that ultimately led to President Trump’s impeachment by the House. Mr. Trump was acquitted by the Senate of charges that he tried to strong-arm Mr. Zelenskyy into launching an investigation into the Biden family.
Leading up to the Russian invasion, Mr. Zelenskyy projected calm and tamped down panic among his population. When Russia made its move, the Ukrainian president rejected a U.S. offer to evacuate him from the country.
“I need ammunition, not a ride,” he said in a now-famous quote that has become a meme, a line of T-shirts and a rallying cry for Ukrainians who are putting up an unexpectedly tough fight against the better armed and more numerous Russian invaders.
Mr. Zelenskyy uses his Twitter account, which has as its banner the phrase “Ukraine is defending Europe and the world,” to provide regular updates on his government’s wartime preparations and his phone calls with other world leaders. More importantly, analysts say, Mr. Zelenskyy has successfully used social media chatter, public remarks and video addresses to push the West to send more arms and to clamp down harder on the Russian economy through sanctions.
That pressure appears to be at least partly responsible for key developments over the weekend, such as Germany’s decision to reverse course and send weapons to Ukraine, the European Union’s shutdown of airspace to Russian airlines, and the U.S. and European restrictions on Russia’s access to key international banking mechanisms.
“That’s how he’s become a folk hero. He’s in your living room. You’re looking at your iPhone, listening to him,” Mr. Townsend said of the Ukrainian leader. “He’s this Shakespearean figure surrounded by tanks.
“What has happened is the inspiration shown by these stubborn Ukrainians and their cleverness and heroism, and where Zelenskyy has gone from being this comic to suddenly being this warrior president. That has had a huge impact in Europe,” Mr. Townsend said.
Other Ukrainian leaders have proved adept at using social media to amplify their messages and chip away at Russian morale. Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya, used a Monday speech at the United Nations to read text messages purportedly found on a Russian soldier’s phone after he was killed in the fighting.
“Mama, I’m in Ukraine. There is a real war raging here. I’m afraid. We are bombing all of the cities … even targeting civilians,” said Mr. Kyslytsya, quoting the Russian soldier’s text messages to his mother.
In Moscow, Mr. Putin is at the other end of the spectrum. The increasingly isolated leader has been the target of widespread condemnation by other world leaders, across social media and even in Russia. Even China, which blamed the U.S. and the West for provoking the conflict, has little positive to say about Mr. Putin‘s decision last week to start a war.
Images of significant anti-war protests across Russia have spread across the internet. Pictures on Monday showed long lines at banks as Russians looked to withdraw their savings amid fears of a major economic collapse.
The Russian government has been remarkably ineffective at suppressing such images during the conflict.
Even some key Russian oligarchs have publicly broken with the Kremlin and called for an end to the war. Such dissenting messages are the opposite of the unified Russian front Mr. Putin hoped to project.
“My parents are Ukrainian citizens and live in Lviv, my favorite city. But I have also spent much of my life as a citizen of Russia, building and growing businesses,” Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman wrote in a letter Monday that was first reported by The Financial Times. “I am deeply attached to Ukrainian and Russian peoples and see the current conflict as a tragedy for them both.”
With his army bogged down in Ukraine and facing growing accusations that he has committed war crimes, Mr. Putin could become more dangerous, specialists say. In fact, they say, the sharp anti-Russian turn in public opinion helped fuel Mr. Putin‘s dangerous decision over the weekend to put his country’s nuclear forces on high alert.
“That is the sign he cares. That is the sign that this is getting under his skin,” Mr. Townsend said.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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