The Russia-Ukraine information war: How propaganda is being used in two very different ways

Ukraine Russia information war

The day after a Russian missile strike reduced the Retroville shopping mall in Kyiv to a smouldering pile of rubble, killing eight people, a video featuring a TikTok blogger appeared on the Security Service of Ukraine’s Facebook page.

In it, a Ukrainian man sits in the back of a car, looking slightly stunned, as brusque questions are fired at him from an unidentified male in the front.

“Tell us why you were detained,” the voice in the front asks, in Ukrainian, after the man in the back identifies himself as Artemiev Pavlo Oleksandrovych, born in 1985 in Kyiv, and states his full address.

“Because I posted a video with vehicles in it on TikTok on the 24th,” Oleksandrovych says.

“And what kind of vehicles were these, in what neighbourhood?”

“The vehicles were standing near Retroville shopping mall, [they were] Akatsias to be precise.”

Akatsias are self-propelled guns, used by the Ukrainian military, which the Security Service of Ukraine says were targeted by Russian missiles after seeing Oleksandrovych’s TikTok videos in the days leading up to the attack, on March 20.

Just days later, it became a criminal offence in Ukraine to share photos or information about military equipment or personnel — offenders now face up to eight years in prison for doing so — as the information war between Ukraine and Russia continues to rage just as fiercely as the battle on the ground.

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But while information is currently being both suppressed and controlled by both sides, experts say the motivations for censorship for Ukraine and Russia are vastly different.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, has been using disinformation, censorship and propaganda to attempt to win favour over the war, while Ukrainian attempts to control the flow of information have aimed to conceal, rather than to promote.

“[For Ukraine] the intent is based on survival, whereas the Russian intent is sinister. It’s barbaric. It’s meant to justify the war crimes that they’re engaging in,” Marcus Kolga, a leading expert on Russia and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, says.
“If we’re talking about the Western world, I think Nato and Ukraine are winning the information war against Russia. [But] Russia is winning the war inside of the country, which is just as important because what we need right now is for the Russian people to start understanding and seeing the truth.”

How the information war is being fought in Ukraine

Since the war broke out in Ukraine five weeks ago, Ukrainian Armed Forces have quietly sought to control the flow of information. Tough restrictions have been imposed on the media, and civilians, to  not broadcast images of the aftermath of Russian missile strikes, or military formations and positions.

Journalists have had their phones searched for images and videos that breach these restrictions and reporters have been detained for photographing sites of Russian military strikes.

And while this may sound like tactics more familiar to Russia — police in Moscow were reportedly stopping civilians and demanding to see their phones in early March — experts say the Ukrainians have good reason for going to such lengths to control information.

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“This is about operational security, first and foremost. They’re trying to ensure operational details do not get leaked to the adversary or to other third parties,” Alexander Lanoszka, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Waterloo, says.

“Russia has a very significant military and as much as Ukraine has been fighting ferociously and succeeded and it hasn’t been defeated… there’s very little room for error.”

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Reports of Russian troops posing as journalists to gain intel have not helped a “deep paranoia” in Ukraine over wartime information sharing, Kolga says.

Anton Myronovych, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Armed Forces, says the country is attempting to suppress information about missile strikes in particular because the Russians could use the images and videos, for instance, to correct their aim.

“It may also decrease our morale and have the opposite effect for them,” Myronovych says.

“All military activity during the war must be undercover.”

On March 22, Ukraine’s parliament passed a bill that means it is now a criminal offence to take pictures or to disseminate information about the movement or location of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the movement or location of international military assistance to Ukraine, while martial law is in place.

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It means that anyone sharing information about the movement of Ukrainian Armed Forces, without it being made public first or without written permission to do so, could face five to eight years in prison.

Myronovych says the law change was necessary because “we already had some bad cases during this war” — pointing to Oleksandrovych’s TikTok videos as a prime example.

“[He] made a photo of military vehicles and posted it on social networks. After that, Russian b*stards launched a rocket,” Myronovych says.

Which is perhaps why the Security Service of Ukraine’s video of Oleksandrovych featured a stark warning to civilians, not only in its caption — “consciously or unconsciously, this man worked as a corrector for the enemy. We appeal to all citizens: do not publish data on the movement of military equipment of the Armed Forces… they are used by the occupiers in planning further shelling” — but also in the final seconds of the video.

“I completely realized my mistake. And I apologize before all those who I may have caused pain,” Oleksandrovych says to the camera.

“Perhaps you want to add something, for the people of Ukraine?” the unidentified voice prompts.

“Yes, don’t do it, never film or post anything… I don’t recommend it to anyone.”

Why Zelesnkyy is Ukraine’s most powerful propaganda tool

But the Ukrainian government is not only trying to control information, it too is using carefully-crafted propaganda to unify its country, experts say.

Examples of which can be seen as the proliferation of billboards and rallying cries from the government for civilians to stand united, as well as unverified reports, from both Ukraine and Russia, of the success of their respective campaigns.

“Ukraine’s own information operations have motivated and galvanized the Ukrainian people and their forces to stand up against the Russian invaders,” Kolga says.

“The intent is also to deceive, but it’s not malicious. This is a survival tactic that needs to be undertaken.”

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There is also an international element to whipping up national support, Lanoszka says, which has led the Ukrainian government to pay particular attention to how its image is portrayed in the West.

This is why Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy’s global pleas for aid and appearances in front of international governments have been so key. While it won’t necessarily help the Ukrainians win the actual war, Lanoskza says, it could help them parlay more military assistance and global aid.

“They can demonstrate that they can fight and that they’re worthy of more military support. It conveys their seriousness at fighting through this,” Lanoszka says.

“You do whatever it takes to tilt the probabilities in your favour.”

How the information war is being fought in Russia

Meanwhile, in Russia, the great lengths to which the Kremlin has gone to suppress information on their so-called “special military operation” have been well-documented. But the media censorship and propaganda campaign began far before the invasion, experts say.

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Kolga says Putin’s long campaign to clamp down on Russian media and social networks has “conditioned” the public to believe exactly what they’re told.

“Vladimir Putin has weaponized information for 22 years,” Kolga says.

“The intention is to deceive [his] own people.”
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All of Russia’s national television networks are controlled by the Kremlin. Since 2012, the country’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, or Roskomnadzor, has maintained an internet blacklist which has sought to block criticism of the government. In March 2019, a bill was passed that introduced fines for anyone deemed by the government to be spreading “fake news” and showing “blatant disrespect.”

Which is why, for many, Putin taking that law one step further, by passing a law on March 4 imposing a jail term of up to 15 years for spreading intentionally “fake” news about the military, and banning social media, came as no surprise.

“He’s basically hermetically sealed off Russia from the rest of the world,” Kolga says.

“It’s just impossible to get independent real facts and the truth if you’re a Russian. So this war that Putin is waging against his own people, the cognitive war that he’s engaging in, he’s winning it.”

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Following Putin’s “fake news” law, the few remaining Russian independent media outlets with sizeable followings, such as TV Rain and Echo of Moscow, were forced to shut down. International media outlets announced they were leaving Russia. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms were blocked.

According to surveys by independent Moscow pollster Levada Centre, two-thirds of Russians relied on state television to get their news in 2021. Now, it is largely the only option left — heavy with propaganda on Russia’s success fighting the Ukrainians and Putin’s official line that the war is being waged to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine.

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“The narratives are insane. They are conspiracy theories and lies. But the intent has always been and continues to be to deceive,” Kolga says.

“When you’re seeing Russian propaganda, if that’s all you’re seeing, then you’re going to think that Ukrainians are all Nazis who want to kill Russians.”

But although the Russian elite is largely toeing the party line, there has been dissent among the masses. Earlier this month, Marina Ovsyannikova, a journalist at Russian state TV’s Channel One, interrupted a live news broadcast chanting, “Stop the war. No to war.”

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She was later charged with “discrediting” the armed forces.

This war on free information is imperative for Putin to win favour for the war and to remain in and consolidate power, Kolga says. The war itself is a last-ditch attempt for Putin to write himself into the history books, he says.

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“He has no domestic achievements. He has not improved the lives for any Russians outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg. He’s looking in the mirror, he’s turning 70. He sees himself standing beside Stalin. He needs a big victory. He knows that he’s completely failed his own people the past 22 years.”

It is now up to other countries to attempt to penetrate the “Iron Curtain that Putin has drawn around his people.”

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Kolga says third language ethnic media around the world, and in Canada in particular, should be appealing to the Russian diaspora, and said Russia Today should be widely banned, as it has been in Canada. He says Russian-state media has been known to radicalize the Russian diaspora – as it appears to have done in pockets in Canada. 

Satellite internet and wi-fi amplifiers could be used to send unbiased information into Russia he says, perhaps by “setting up towers along the border of the Baltic states along Finland’s borders to blast it in.”

But, above all else, Kolga says “the real hope here is Russia’s youth.”

“The glimpses that they’ve had using Ted Talks and Facebook and all these different Instagram when they were still available, they were able to get a glimpse of what their neighbours lives of their neighbours were like, what life was like in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, France, Germany, in the UK, Canada. And I think those kids are going, ‘Why can’t I have that? I want to choose, I want to be free to make my own choices’.”

Why the public should exercise caution with info from both sides

Historian Ian Garner, who specializes in the study of Russian propaganda, says while social media videos of Zelenskyy in his so-called ‘fortress’ in the centre of Kyiv “look like they’re made on the fly,” they’re actually well-polished and practiced, as the country has been preparing for the possibility of an invasion for years.

This type of homemade, rough-cut video intends to appeal to the public, he says, rather than being a desperate plea for help in survival-mode.

In fact, Garner believes the emphasis on Ukraine’s “war for survival” isn’t necessarily true but it is a useful narrative.

“Both sides to some extent believe they’re engaged in a war of survival,” Garner says.

“It’s the most effective war propaganda that people can have. If you believe the other side is going to annihilate you, you’re going to make any sacrifice whatsoever.”

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That’s why  both governments are attempting to push this narrative — so the Ukrainian citizens believe they will be killed by Russian troops and Russian citizens believe Ukraine to be home to Nazis.

He says the public needs to be “very careful about buying into that” and because of the glut of propaganda from both sides, and its importance to the war itself, there is now no way of separating the information war from the war on the ground.

The emergence of social media as a wartime dissemination tool has made vetting information even more important, Garner says, as not only is information instantaneous and unverified, but social media attention and engagement has become influential in government decision making.

“Zelenskyy asking for a no-fly zone, for example. He knows that’s never going to happen, but as long as he keeps asking for it and people keep sharing it, anything up to that point [is a success]. Our likes and comments and shares have a real-world impact,” Garner says.
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Garner agrees that Putin appears to be winning the information war inside Russia, while Ukraine has won the hearts of the West. However, this was not due to Russian propaganda being sophisticated — but largely due to Putin clamping down on opposition and corruption in his government meaning no one will tell him the “propaganda is terrible.”

“If you’re going to wage a war that needs people to make exceptional sacrifices, you better have exceptional propaganda and I don’t think Russia has it,” Garner says.

But that doesn’t mean it’s about to fail anytime soon, Garner believes. As the war on the ground continues, Garner says the information war is likely to follow suit.

“I see every sign of it ramping up — really ramping people up for a big, lengthy fight that requires a huge amount of sacrifices and that it’s a war of annihilation for our survival.”