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Keeping a ghost alive


29 marzo 2022

Russia and Ukraine are fighting a parallel war to the actual conflict, an information war fought on social networks and newspapers, with different strategies and objectives. Both states try to impose their own narrative of the conflict, often resorting to the use of disinformation as a tool to achieve their goals. From the myth of the great Russia to that of the ghost of Kiev. How is it the media war being fought, and who is winning it?

There are two ghosts in the battle for Ukraine, one old and one new, and while both Russia and Ukraine are trying to keep one alive, both ghosts don’t exist. The old ghost is a tale of a great Russia, whose natural borders are to be rightly reclaimed against the evil old enemy of this great country, NATO. The new ghost is a pilot on a jet of a different era, who defends valiantly the Ukrainian country and people from an overwhelmingly strong invading enemy.

These tales are part of the two different narratives that the two warring countries are building. They are examples of the motives and strategies in the (dis)information war that is raging on mass media and on the internet. This parallel war influences both the soldiers and civilians directly involved in the war and the population of countries outside the conflict. This article intends to analyze the strategies used in the framing of the conflict by the Russian and Ukrainian governments regarding both their respective population and armies and the foreign public.

Both countries employ strategies to shape the narrative of the conflict, albeit with very different goals and on widely different scales. The well-oiled Russian propaganda machine started its campaign minutes after the first missiles were launched, building on historical traumas and years of disinformation spread after the 2014 crisis, with the difficult task of justifying a war of aggression to foreign and domestic public. The Ukrainian main objective is to keep morale high at home and to foster sympathy for the cause abroad. This is not being done without consciously spreading false information, one example being the myth of the ghost of Kiev cited in the beginning of this article.

Reclaiming the past

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992, the event that Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, Russia was in shambles. The uncontrolled privatization of national assets, done following the shock therapy method promoted but the IMF, caused the rise of a new kleptocratic elite, the oligarchs, who were closely linked with President Boris Yeltsin. Standards of living fell drastically, and GDP fell by 50%. The status of superpower was lost. American senator Jhon McCain even called the country a gas station masquerading as a country, referencing one of the last two strengths of the nation, its gas and raw resource exports. The second great strength was its army, built on the soviet one, and the greatest nuclear arsenal of the world. When Vladimir Putin took power in 1999 the situation changed. A war on Yeltsin’s oligarchs began, and either they bowed or were substituted by persons near to the new president. Soon a new Oligarch elite emerged, this time utterly dependent on the president. With the high prices of oil and a low domestic demand the standards of living began improving. The Cecen uprising inherited from Yeltsin was crushed. The high popular support and autocratic measures cemented Putin’s status as Russia’s new master.

Revenge from national humiliation is a powerful geopolitical trope and has many historical precedents, the most famous one being Nazi Germany and the treaty of Versailles. Even today’s China vision of the present and the future rests on recovery from what the Chinese call the century of humiliation, when China was forced by European powers and Japan from its splendid and superior isolation into a dark period of war and unrest. Having restored order, Putin promised the glory of the past to the Russian people. The culprit for the fall from glory was found in the US and NATO. The treatment of Russia after the URSS stuck and was the basis of the narrative that was taking shape. Putin used the resentment towards the west and the nostalgia towards a great past to justify the increasing threatening and revisionist Russian attitude on the world stage. After the orange revolution in Ukraine and the subsequent aligning of the new government with the west, Russia annexed Crimea and supported the independence of the Russian majority eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The invasion of Ukraine this year was largely justified by the Russian government with the claim that Ukraine is being controlled by NATO, the mistreatment of the Russian minority and the presence of Nazism in the government. The first two motives are typical of revanchist claims, while the third has its roots in the struggle for survival of the Russians on the eastern front of the second world war, its atrocities being deeply etched in the collective Russian memory. Even the legitimacy of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and right to self-rule was questioned, still using history as a pretext. This misuse of history is the basis of the Russian justification of the war and constitutes the official Russian narrative of the conflict.

Burying the truth

Russian propaganda is mainly focused on the Russian population itself and encompasses media, social networks and the national education system.

Before the war Russia ranked among the last nations in various press freedom indexes but various independent media outlets existed, one notable example being the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. This all changed in March, when it became clear that the war would not be a blitz operation and that Russia was suffering mounting losses of material, and more importantly, men. Hiding the reality of a costly war from the Russian people became a paramount objective. This was to be done in two ways: preserving the traditional narrative of Putin’s Russia by restricting access to independent information and by using the classic strategy of Russian disinformation (as outlined by a 2016 paper by RAND corporation), producing a great amount of false and distorted information, often contradicting, to make it impossible to distinguish between reality and fiction.

The first part was swiftly put in action when the Russian government took a harsher stance towards media and opposition in general, forcing newspapers to use only government sources and introducing prison time for spreading what the Russian government calls false information. Investigations were launched against independent newspapers, various foreign tv channels like BBC and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were blocked and the last Russian independent tv station was closed.

The second part of the strategy was carried out by official Russian institutions, like the minister of foreign affairs and Russian embassies. They issued and tweeted statements, pictures and videos which were then picked up online and spread all over the internet. A lot of these are false, most of them are distorted, and some even contradicting. The objective is to mud the waters of online information, making it difficult to find facts in an ocean of disinformation. One key part of this is the speed with which the Russian propaganda machine creates new stories, from the Ukrainian dirty bomb to the bioweapon program.

David versus Goliath

In the immediate beginning of the Russian invasion, Ukrainian authorities published on social media guidelines on how and what to post on the internet about the war. Ukrainians were invited not to post pictures of friendly forces but were encouraged to do so in the case of the invading Russian forces. This was done to not disclose the positions and movement of the Ukrainian army and to obtain information on the movements of Russian army. In the following weeks this advice was mostly followed by the civilian population and there are countless videos and photos about the Russians while ones about Ukrainian armed forces are scarce and mostly diffused the by the Ukrainian institutions themselves. While this request serves the directly military purpose of keeping the fog of war up for friendly forces, it also helps Ukraine to better control the flow of information from the war theatre to the media in the context of the digital information war that is being fought between the two opposing countries.

There is one key trope that the Ukrainian government is trying to push. It is that of David versus Goliath, the biblical clash between man and giant. Ukraine, like David, is smaller in military strength and is defending its territory, so this comparison is natural to make, and president Zelensky easily fits in the role, remaining in sieged capital to fight for his country.  But often the Heroism of the Ukrainian forces is exaggerated through fake news, for example in the case of the Ghost of Kiev, a supposed pilot who shot down 6 Russian planes in the span of two days, making him the first ace of the new Millennium. Even former president Poroshenko shared falsified videos of this pilot. Stories like the Ghost of Kiev or the resistance to the death at snake island are symbols of the Ukrainian spirit and serve the purpose of bolstering the morale of the Ukrainian people, even if recognized as fake. They also increase the already high international support that the Ukrainian cause enjoys internationally. At the same time Civilian acts of resistance are widely shared on social media, strengthen even more the Ukrainian resolve.

Winning the information war

While the two countries seem to hold the upper hand in their respective territories, there is no question that on the world stage the Russian strategy has proved disastrous while Ukraine has largely imposed its frame of the conflict. This may just be because of the extreme difficulty to cover up a war of aggression with shaky claims. But if we confront the ways in which the two countries present themselves, we can see that the grand Russian narrative of rebuilding an empire is made for Russians, while the Ukrainian story is universal and has a much wider appeal. the Russian attempts to attack the Ukrainian position through a flurry of fake news about Ukrainian war crimes don’t seem to work well in the west, for the outlandish nature of some claims (Bioweapons built with US support) or for the great discredit in which Russian disinformation channels find themselves in the west.

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