Constructed as a heroic pilot, the ability of the Ghost of Kiev to make the Russian air force falter won over the minds of Western civilians. Surrounded by mystery, this avenging soldier was ultimately a myth constructed through images diverted from a video game. Nevertheless, in a society of immediacy, the message was viral enough to rekindle the resistance of the Ukrainian people. This communication strategy of the Ukrainian armed forces is symptomatic of an offensive use of information. The gradual transition to the information society has shifted the center of gravity of strategic action from the material terrain to the informational terrain. Thus, the fifth battlefield is becoming a privileged terrain for capitalizing on tactical successes, whether fabricated or real, in order to transform them into political victories. The war in Ukraine has nothing innovative on this point. Nevertheless, it has demonstrated the durability of the informational domain during armed conflicts and a very strong awareness of the strategic aspect of information.
If the example of the Ukrainian aviator is anecdotal, the battle being played out on social networks and traditional media is much more concrete. The Kremlin, which had become a master in the art of informational manipulation in the framework of hybrid warfare, is now cornered on all fronts of this unconventional conflict space. As the invasion continues, informational maneuvers are raging in parallel with physical fighting. Facing the operational impasse and the failure of the blitzkrieg, the strategic redeployment of the Russian army on the Eastern Front could lead to a reversal of the moral balance of power. With this change in narrative, which is not without operational consequences, the scenario of the conflict reaching a stalemate could become a reality as Ukraine manages to convince the international community. If the outcome of the conflict remains more than uncertain, the information war led by the Kremlin is already a failure.
After all, this is not Russia’s first move into the information space. Moscow has very well understood that the use of unconventional instruments below the threshold of warfare, such as cognitive operations, overwhelms and weakens Western democracies. However, the recent strategic failures of the Russian informational machine provide a means to understand the changing political and informational ecosystem. Thus, there is a Western vulnerability in the information space, and learning from the war in Ukraine and its extension into the informational field will reduce the permeability of democratic regimes to digital interference. This text will conclude by proposing a set of recommendations for the community of democracies to respond effectively while preserving democratic values.
The Vulnerability of the Transatlantic Community to the New Psychological Warfare
The advent of information technology and cyberspace has redefined the nature of cognitive operations today. The control of images and information has always been part of conflicts, but the appearance of cyberwarfare, which supports more traditional instruments, provides an additional means to act on the physical world. From now on, far from being the sole responsibility of armies, cyberspace is prey to intangible wars that can be divided into two main categories. While cyberattacks aim at tapping into information systems or leaking data, information warfare stimulates a psychological struggle that is spreading like wildfire on social networks. Since the battlefield is no longer limited to the capture of key areas on the ground and direct confrontation with the Kremlin has been ruled out, it will be up to the transatlantic community to grasp all the foundations of information warfare.
Russia has managed to enter the information space with flying colors. At the same time, NATO member states have also been significantly developing their strategic communications capabilities for several years. However, in the face of informational manipulation, the openness of Western democracies and the permeability it induces are still just as damaging. Therefore, democracies and its citizens are particularly vulnerable targets of this new kind of war. Between the interference in electoral processes and the digital manipulation that proliferates via the foot soldiers of disinformation, the public debate is poisoned. The digital revolution profoundly alters democracy and constitutes a powerful ferment of disruption. However, the dissemination of divisive information to destabilize and direct strategic decision-making towards one’s own interests is as old as the Trojan horse. What is innovative are the technical possibilities that social networks offer for the proliferation of “weapons of mass distraction.” Eventually, democracy and its attributes should be considered as critical infrastructures in the same way as defence operators in the face of digital maneuvers.
The Russian footprint in foreign interference against the electoral processes for the Brexit referendum or even during the U.S. presidential elections attests to the Kremlin’s highly effective nuisance capabilities in cyberspace. Unlike these cyber-superpowers, Western intelligence entities have the responsibility to develop offensive capabilities within democratic beacons. This is obviously not the case for Chinese or Russian cyber commands, which operate without such boundaries. A strategic failure is emerging as democratic states develop cyber resilience capabilities to respond to relentless attacks by adversary states. The consensus among Western institutions is that “it is counterproductive to fight propaganda with propaganda.” Despite the efforts of NATO member states, through this defensive posture and offensive capabilities limited by democratic imperatives, the transatlantic community seems destined to fall behind in the conduct of influence operations.
A New Security Situation: The Permanent War
In the military domain, by avoiding the heavy toll of blood, disinformation allows for the personalization of the conflict and the narrative surrounding it. For example, the War on Terror is structural and justifies a certain operational course of action. At the same time, the emotional space is invested to arouse strong reactions from public opinion and create a state of irrationality. The images of Islamic State torture committed in the Levant helped to get the West on board with the global response in 2014. Yet the organization had been rampaging through a terrain it had dominated since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. Finally, disinformation is part of a global logic of maintaining confusion and directing information flows for strategic purposes. However, this cognitive war, which aims to distort the vectors of information transmission, is not confined to periods of war and the West is struggling to grasp the scale of this challenge.
A logic of permanent war then follows. Cyber aggression is not only deployed during conflicts, as attested by the manipulation of information during the Western elections. The methods of confrontation are evolving, targeted hostile acts are developing significantly in cyber space and finally blurring the distinction between peacetime and wartime. Informational manipulations format the receptivity of public opinion to create favorable conditions on the ground and thus improve the conduct of military operations. “The supreme weapon of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” To a certain extent, they make it possible to make the enemy bend before the use of lethal weapons. The psychological weapon has become central to this facet of hybrid warfare, which has found itself a perfect concretization in the conflict in Ukraine.
However, since the war in Syria, the Maiden revolution in 2013 or the annexation of Crimea, Western regimes have a better understanding of the digital manipulation strategies and regular features of Russian media coverage. During the war in Syria, Russia positioned itself as the last bastion against Islamism. This civilizational narrative has thus been transformed into a narrative of the fight against Nazism in Ukraine, but the rationales are the same and aim to legitimize a major intervention abroad.
A Russian Narrative Contradicted by the Stalemate in the Conflict
The first lesson of the war in Ukraine was that Russia intended to dictate on the international scene what the conflicts of tomorrow would become, but found itself trapped in its own game in the end. The special military operation, according to Moscow’s rhetoric, was met with Ukrainian resistance that it largely underestimated. If the balance of power on the ground is totally unbalanced, against all odds, the Ukrainian opposition has skilfully taken over from Russia in the informational field. The confrontation of narratives is fed by the streaming of information overload and the informational ecosystem seems more than unfavorable to Russia.
The propaganda campaign that it meticulously prepared did not find the expected echo internationally. With a failed entry into the war, the narrative of the liberation of the Ukrainian people still struggles to stand. Russia has made a major strategic error. By imposing an overly ambitious military agenda with a tactically flawed blitzkrieg, time is now against it. The longer the war drags on, the more the Russian narrative will be contradicted by an ever-growing death list. The death of at least a third of the Russian high command is an illustration of this reality. For the Kremlin, the priority will therefore be to change the narrative which, because of the strategic redeployment on the Eastern Front, no longer corresponds to the initial discourse of the special operation. In the long run, this strategic setback could paralyze the Russian incursion and offer informational levers to Kiev to discredit the Russian army.
The Limited Effects of a Single Official Communication Strategy for Several Audiences
If Ukraine is far from winning war, it has already largely won the cognitive battle in the West. Now isolated, Vladimir Putin is perceived there as an evil invader. While Moscow had initially tried to fragment the response of the transatlantic community, the outbreak of the invasion has finally cemented the cohesion of the Western clan through an unprecedented strategic awakening.
Nevertheless, on the international scene, its support in Africa is not weakening. Moreover, Russia’s future participation in the G20 irritates the transatlantic community. This decision to maintain Moscow’s presence attests to the refusal of part of the international community to marginalize Russia. However, the Chinese president, who had initiated a diplomatic rapprochement during the Olympic Games and who has every interest in seeing Russia win as much as possible, is now struggling to sustain his unlimited friendship and to respond to the Russian president’s call for help, at least in an official manner. While condemnation is unanimous in the West, statements of support for Ukraine are ultimately more limited in the global South. Internationally, the lack of condemnation by certain states, which can sometimes be likened to “pro-Russian neutrality” driven by economic interests, is profitable for the Kremlin, which wishes to keep many of its partners at bay.
If the operation to seduce the transatlantic community was a profound failure, the objective of uniting Russian public opinion around the war was a clear success. Popular support for the war in Russia has reached 60%. Vladimir Putin has managed to raise his popularity in Russia to a similar percentage because he has not been able to improve his international image. By highlighting the heroic resistance of the people, the Ukrainian authorities have played a large part in shaping this new international political situation, but have not managed to reach the Russian information bubble.
The Lessons of the Ukrainian David Against the Russian Goliath
The question is now to know how Ukraine, a geopolitical dwarf, managed to fight effectively against Russia on the informational terrain that it mastered better. Kiev has managed to develop a warlike iconography that fits into a “micromythology.” The Ukrainian authorities have grasped the virality issue very well. The images of mothers preparing Molotov cocktails for their husbands, or the photographs of Javelin launchers presented as the Achilles heel of the Russian army have made it possible to mobilize foreign opinions, some of them very young. A whole new generation of unarmed soldiers is using social networks as a weapon. If the war in Ukraine is not the first conflict to spread on these platforms, it is nevertheless the one that has led to the largest virtual citizen mobilization, especially via the Ukrainian diaspora that instantly relays the news. The blind spot of this youth awakening is the near absence of Russia. By locking itself into the narrative of the special operation, Moscow is no longer able to strategically adapt its narrative to the immediacy of the information since it hides the very nature of the conflict from its population.
Finally, the sacrosanct of all Ukrainian iconography is the actor who became a warlord by force of events, namely President Zelensky. By taking the risk of appearing with his soldiers in the streets of Kiev, he positions himself as a Man of the People. While his Russian counterpart places himself during crisis meetings in the Kremlin at the opposite table from his staff, reinforcing the image of isolation. In a belated attempt to save his image and since the battle of communication escapes him, Vladimir Putin celebrated the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in a stadium packed with 80,000 people.
The Shift from a Dictatorship of Manipulation to a Dictatorship of Fear
This type of staging does not appeal internationally. Nevertheless, in a society where autarkic infrastructures are constantly being consolidated, it can reinforce the weakened aura of a leader. For this, tightening the stranglehold of censorship was imperative to impose its narrative without any possible challenge. It is done. If the phenomenon is not new in Russia, the extent to which society has been placed under a bell is striking. In a historic reversal of the Duma, the adoption of a law has confirmed the end of independent media. Russians can now face up to 15 years in prison if they challenge government information. After Facebook and Twitter, it was the turn of Instagram to be blocked by the Russian authorities in an almost desperate attempt to prevent any possibility of access to alternative sources of information. While many Russians wanted to stay away from the conflict, the banning of these digital platforms will lead them to a brutal politicization that could backfire on Vladimir Putin.
As the latest macabre event, the discovery of the massacres in the town of Bucha, has led to a wave of misinformation. The theory that this carnage was staged is widely relayed by the pro-Russians. This rhetoric of staging is not in its infancy. During the destruction of a hospital during the conflict, the Russian authorities accused some of the victims of being actors. As the accusations of war crimes become clearer, the scope of the sprawling network of the Russian (dis)information machine is being exposed to support the Kremlin’s fragile narrative. The Russian informational maneuvers succeed in sowing doubt with each sequence. In turn, for a master of manipulation, Moscow is not the only one working in immorality.
The Risks of an Asymmetric Information Battle
The situation of Ukraine – the aggressed aggressor – is drastically different, yet it manages to compete with and undermine the Russian narrative by using the same semantic tactics as its invader. Without necessarily sinking to the extent of Russian machinations, Kiev is walking a dangerous path by opting for misinformation. On the verge of a possible collapse, the Ukrainian authorities are putting forward partially true or erroneous information. However, there have been numerous backtracking and requests for internal investigations into possible abuses. Western leaders have gone to the front to denounce Moscow’s authoritarian excesses, but they seem to be much less careful when the disinformation comes from the allied camp.
The accusations of war crimes are not limited to the Russian military. Images of Russian prisoners being tortured by the Ukrainian army have embarrassed the Ukrainian government and its international supporters. With an astonishing defence not unlike that of the Kremlin, the Ukrainian army denounced the staging of the events by the rival camp. Ukraine’s sympathy capital and credibility could be undermined by this strategy. This disinformation waltz questions the capacity of Ukraine and the West to fight against the Russian informational strategy while keeping their democratic nature.
Increasing Broad Domain Cooperation by Empowering Digital Platforms
Faced with Moscow’s headlong rush, Europe has developed an arsenal of sanctions that has affected Russian audiovisual channels. Thus, the news channels RT and Sputnik were banned from broadcasting on all digital media thanks to a historic decision by the European Union. Social networks have followed suit. Tiktok, Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram have suspended the content broadcast by these media, all of which endorses the phenomenon of politicization of these platforms. The directives adopted by the EU seem drastic, but taken certainly too late. Russia’s cyber advantages must lead to a major strategic leap forward by strengthening the funds and means provided to the anti-disinformation taskforces of each state.
While efforts to clean up social networks have been intensified since the annexation of Crimea, strengthening cooperation with the tech giants is in order. These companies will have to be willing to collaborate in the field of content moderation. If not, pressuring them to remove conspiracy accounts before conflicts arise will be a priority. Finally, getting to the root of the problem by rethinking the harmful business model of these platforms is also necessary. The Big Tech play a role in the propagation of misinformation by placing on the same level the dissemination of fake news and facts. To fight against this phenomenon, the automation of fact-checking must be deepened. With this new algorithmic responsibility that will emerge, digital citizenship will be preserved and the informational terrain will not be left at the mercy of adverse powers to prepare future operations.
Improving Framing in the Fight Against Misinformation
It goes without saying that there is a problem of framing to grasp the Western vulnerability. This is visible through the array of Russian instruments to jump into this breach and the recent failures of the Russian informational machine. On the one hand, Western governments will have to prioritize the fight against the hacking of the human mind through informational networks, with the war in Ukraine being an excellent barometer. On the other hand, a distinction between the falsification of voluntary information and information aimed at promoting Russian interests is also necessary in order to strategically target threats and not sink into counter-propaganda.
Moreover, cyberspace is cross-border in nature, whereas the question of armies is intrinsically linked to sovereignty. Therefore, this area of conflict cannot be approached in the same way as conventional threats. A purely governmental response will have its limits, while falling into techno-solutionism will not be sufficient. In cooperation with the industry, the right solution requires a whole-of-government approach. Better coordination in the fight against these digital interferences could be achieved through the action of the OECD and, via relays at the state level, in the form of inter-ministerial governance of the digital environment.
The awareness of digital pedagogy from the earliest age must become a national cause for all liberal democracies. With this digital learning work that will irrigate the whole society, the detection and decoding of disinformation will be simplified, and citizens will no longer be a critical target during adverse digital maneuvers. Only through this better understanding of the stakes underlying info war, legislation on digital services will be able to evolve in parallel with a greater perception of threats by the public.
Strengthening the Global Means of Response Within the Limits of Democratic Guidelines
By developing its own alternative platforms to bypass the Western stranglehold on these technologies, Russia has set up a real iron curtain on the web. Locked in its own network, this strategy could turn against Moscow. By relying on this phenomenon of withdrawal, Western countries could confine the Russians to their network. This device would intensify the isolation of the Russians and thus put in place an effective information embargo. While many of these social networks are treated as “extremist organizations” by the Kremlin, the restriction of their activities could continue after the conflict. However, these platforms are important economic relays for Russian merchants. This restriction could reinforce social discontent with the Kremlin. If the lead cover that is falling on the Russian Internet could be just as profitable as it has been for China in order to increase control over its population, it would still reduce the permeability of our regimes to Russian interference by limiting access to the relays of influence. This offensive strategy could also take the form of encouraging the formation of independent Russian-speaking media that do not answer to any partisan organization.
Western governments will have to work to trace the funding of these opaque structures in the service of anti-Western propaganda. The proliferation of Russian false information is a fruitful enterprise. Advertising on this type of content, through platforms such as Google which would distribute more than two thirds of it, should be prohibited in order to reduce the transmission of false information on the war in Ukraine and on future conflicts. It will also be necessary to deconstruct the methods rather than the false facts since “in the informational war, the side that tells the truth loses.” Rebuttal has time limitations while responsiveness is imperative, and civilians are saturated with information. The systemic approach will help deal with the continuous spread of misinformation.
Finally, Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer sums up the undeniable assets of many Western regimes : “It is by strengthening these democratic attributes that we will be able to continue to embody an alternative model for the Russian populations” and thus destabilize the very foundations of the empire of lies. By reducing the divisions within our societies to improve their resilience or by reinforcing the transparency of our information vectors, the goals of democracy can be achieved with methods compatible with it. Temporarily violating our values for the sake of efficiency is counterproductive. As has been demonstrated, many tools are available to liberal democracies to fight effectively in the context of info war. Respecting democratic imperatives will help to avoid feeding the opposing discourse. However, the Russian elites are not fooled by the rout of the army, which has pushed Moscow to return to its original project of concentrating on the occupation of Eastern Ukraine. When the soldiers come back and tell that they did not fight against neo-Nazis to liberate enslaved people, it will be the turn of Russian civilians to grasp the scope of the information bubble that will then burst.