How Ukraine Seized the Initiative on the Digital Front of the War with Russia

 How Ukraine Seized the Initiative on the Digital Front of the War with Russia


US intelligence officials predicted before the invasion of Ukraine that the country would swiftly fall to Russian aggression. That prediction quickly proved erroneous, but the logic on which such predictions were based did not seem unreasonable. Whether forecasting the war’s outcome based on purely military metrics—numbers of service members, the sophistication of weapons and equipment, quality of technology, and the like—or on a more comprehensive net assessment including political, economic, and other factors, a rapid Russian victory appeared inevitable.

What did these forecasts miss? Future postmortems will likely identify a range of factors, but a significant one that has already become clear is the importance of the digital information space and especially effective leadership in that space. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has become a living example of how to provide digital leadership during modern warfare, buoying his country and inspiring resistance to the Russian military’s kinetic force. At the risk of adopting too obvious an analogy, in this contemporary story of David vs. Goliath, Ukraine’s sling-and-stone advantage has been its unexpected resolve, marshaled by the effective use of information.

Much as radio was a persuasive medium in World War II and the Vietnam War was broadcast to television sets worldwide, social media quickly became an effective tool for Ukrainian leaders to galvanize the world in the wake of Russia’s invasion. Lacking military and economic superiority (or even parity) at the onset of the invasion, Ukraine showcased how to create power by shaping and controlling the narrative—in effect, leveraging the information instrument of power to ultimately persuade other countries to lend support that has bolstered Ukraine’s economic, diplomatic, and military instruments of power.

Speaking to the World

As has often been the case in history, it can be argued that Zelenskyy was the right man at the right time to lead during a crisis. As Winston Churchill’s radio addresses and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats were iconic and influential during World War II, Zelenskyy’s impromptu social media communication and its effectiveness will be remembered for generations. Another striking parallel that observers have made note of is that between Zelenskyy and former US President Ronald Reagan, who honed his style as the “great communicator” in the entertainment industry. Both Reagan and Zelenskyy leveraged the power of storytelling to paint a clear picture of their adversaries, Reagan casting the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and Zelenskyy describing Russia as a “threat to democracy.” As seasoned actors, Reagan and Zelenskyy used words to illustrate the urgency of their respective concerns to their people and the world.

Zelenskyy’s daily social media live streams captured him walking alongside soldiers. His daily call to action as he held his phone selfie-style was for all able bodies to bear arms and mobilize as citizen-soldiers. Zelenskyy’s spirit, bravery, relatability, and transparency made him appealing and trustworthy. The way he held his phone, the intimacy of watching him speak from no more than an arm’s length away, and the no-frills ambience (compared to a carefully managed studio appearance) made these videos feel like he was talking directly and intimately to the information receiver.

Donning a practical, military-style T-shirt, Zelenskyy’s livestreams appeared impromptu and authentic. Some of his talking points are delivered so well that even the best speechwriters would have been challenged to craft such memorable sound bites, such as when he responded to an offer to evacuate him by quipping, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” The confidence, style, and spirit of such remarks were powerful, impressionable, and memorable. Intentional or not, what effectively amounted to the brand building of Zelenskyy was essential in creating influence on the world stage. He became instantly recognizable.

Zelenskyy was also opportunistic in using various forums to expand his reach and access to influential audiences. He leveraged technology to speak to audiences directly, tirelessly making video pleas to a wide range of organizations. In just the first weeks of the war, these included, among many others, the British Parliament and the US Congress. Each of these speeches was carefully curated for the audience, appealing to national values, purpose, and culture. Zelenskyy brought up emotional events like Pearl Harbor and the September 11 attacks to the US Congress. He even virtually spoke at the Grammy Awards show, an unconventional and powerful venue to make a political statement, where his remarks contrasted the degradation of war with the beauty and culturally additive qualities of art.

Throughout many of his speeches to these bodies, his words were punctuated by a video backdrop showing the death and destruction from the Russian invasion. This was a powerful tactic of using the information instrument of power to evoke emotions triggered by seeing and vicariously experiencing trauma, which in turn produced diplomatic action.

When Zelenskyy addressed President Joe Biden, he told him directly, “You are the leader of the nation, of your great nation. I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.” Zelenskyy’s impassioned pleas appealed to American Wilsonianism, encouraging respect for fundamental human rights and the protection of growing democracies. His words emphasized that this conflict was not just about the security of Europe but the promotion of democratic ideals outside the US borders. Zelenskyy’s remarks reinvigorated the idea that the United States, as a superpower, could influence the war’s outcome in Ukraine’s favor. The United States and other international supporters immediately enacted aggressive, punishing economic sanctions against Russia and an infusion of military aid.

The War, on Social Media

With a sense of urgency, Zelenskyy embraced social media to showcase Ukraine’s resiliency and determination to resist the invasion. He recognized that his phone was a tool, circumventing traditional media gatekeepers. He became the strongest voice representing Ukraine to the world, but every Ukrainian citizen with a smartphone could follow his lead and become a de facto ambassador. A narrative quickly took shape: Would the world be irresponsible onlookers or unite to help Ukraine’s cause? As Zelenskyy set the conditions for world leaders to choose the latter, Ukrainian citizens reinforced the narrative by sharing daily accounts from bunkers and intimate, human moments—like a young girl singing the lyrics to Frozen—messages that spread quickly across social media, reaching millions of people and evoking empathy. Ukrainians like video blogger Valeria Shashenok documented their journeys crossing the border to Poland and shared horrifying images of hospitals destroyed by Russian kinetic military action.

This organic social media campaign has had real effects. Recognizing the impact of social media personalities in shaping perceptions of the conflict, for example, the White House convened the first-ever briefing to educate and inform TikTok influencers on the US involvement in the crisis. But an even greater effect has been financial. Many of the videos and other messages coming out of Ukraine featured deliberate calls to action, asking for funds and resources through GoFundMe campaigns or other nonprofits. In a globalized economy with technology enabling the rapid movement of funds, donations poured in. Fundraising efforts were augmented by international celebrities like Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds, Mila Kunis, and Ashton Kutcher, who used social media to raise funds and match donations from their fans. While these funds are nowhere near enough to make up for the massive contraction of Ukraine’s economy—estimated by the World Bank to shrink by 45 percent this year—it has helped individual Ukrainians. For instance, people worldwide booked time in Ukrainian Airbnb rentals with no intention of ever staying in them. Here again, a hallmark of this grassroots effort curated on social media was that it circumvented the gatekeepers usually associated with large nonprofits or relief agencies.

The collection of Ukrainian voices on social media was also a unique way to communicate with the citizens of Russia, who otherwise received their information principally from Russian state-controlled media companies. As Zelenskyy spoke to Congress, Parliament, and Grammy attendees, both Ukrainians and Russians were flocking to Telegram, where individual Ukrainian citizens appealed emotionally to Russian users by sharing facts of the war whitewashed from Russian television and government messaging. At the same time, accounts of heroism, such as Ukrainian soldiers who supposedly fought (and hurled expletives at) Russian invaders almost until their deaths, blurred the line between fact and myth but enhanced the idea that Ukraine might actually emerge the unlikely victor.

The narrative that took shape across much of the world—of Ukraine’s brave fight against Russia’s unwarranted attack—also influenced social media companies’ policies. Google, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok took steps that effectively gave wide latitude to Ukrainians sharing information about the conflict even at the expense of their profitable relationships within Russia, where much more severe restrictions were put in place. Ukraine’s ability to favorably shape the algorithmic prioritization of messages in the information environment is a novel measure of the country’s power.

The momentum for companies to abandon their neutrality and apolitical standing was an important milestone because they can be as powerful as state actors in the information environment. Likewise, it was significant when Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest individual, suddenly empowered Ukraine by providing the country use of Starlink, the satellite communication system owned by his company, SpaceX. This technology allowed Ukraine to continue military communications and use drones to drop bombs on Russian forces, enabling Zelenskyy to continue his daily communication with the world. Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation publicly tweeted Musk imploring for satellite assistance. Less than eleven hours later, Musk replied that Starlink was activated in Ukraine and promising more terminals on the way. Once again, using social media allowed Ukraine’s leadership to leverage speed and urgency in building up the country’s military capacity.

The work of Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation represents a modern approach to information warfare. In addition to the outreach to Elon Musk, the ministry began accepting cryptocurrency donations and recruiting volunteers globally for an “IT Army” to hack Russian targets. Using existing mediums like Telegram, over three hundred thousand people volunteered in just the first few weeks to assist in countering Russian hacking initiatives and countering Russian misinformation and disinformation campaigns. The volunteers in this informal but effective global organization operate with a flat structure handling various tasks that the Ministry of Digital Transformation pushes down, funded partly by the more than $70 million in cryptocurrency donations it quickly amassed.

The ministry was also vociferous in publicly reaching out to companies and encouraging them to sever ties with Russia. Iconic global brands like McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Shell, Nestle, Nike, American Express, and Bank of America decoupled from Russia, closed stores, or paused sales. This certainly had some degree of economic effect on Russia, but perhaps more importantly, could affect the will of the Russian people by signaling the extent of the country’s isolation as a consequence of the war. By providing services from television access to siren warnings, the ministry also contributes to the morale and spirit of the Ukrainian forces to endure.

Against the backdrop of the ever-changing character of warfare, Ukraine showcased how valuable the information instrument of power can be in challenging an adversary with more significant military and economic might. In a globalized world, digital technology and soft power can be leveraged to produce unprecedented advantages in galvanizing economic and diplomatic support—and ultimately shoring up hard power capabilities.

The ability to delay Russia’s success—the success that most observers anticipated would come quickly—created an opportunity for Ukraine to impose costs on Russia’s military and economy while reducing Russia’s prestige as a global power. As the conflict endures, it will be harder and harder for Ukraine and Zelenskyy to maintain attention share from the global community, but the fact that it has reached this point—six months into the conflict and still fighting—is a function of its effective use of digital tools in the information environment from the war’s outset to shape the battlefield.

Laura Keenan is a lieutenant colonel in the District of Columbia Army National Guard. She is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and a distinguished graduate of the National War College. She has been published by the Modern War Institute, RealClearDefense, and the Strategy Bridge.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or of any organization the author is affiliated with, including the Army National Guard.

Image credit: President of Ukraine





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