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Ukraine vs Russia: who’s Winning the Infowar


Russia used a deception operation to hide its intent to invade Ukraine, but this ploy failed. Why russia is loosing the infowar?

Paul Baines, Professor of Political Marketing and Deputy Dean (Strategic Projects) at the University of Leicester School of Business in the United Kingdom, co-editor of The SAGE Handbook of Propaganda (2019), specially for SPEKA & The Page.

Photo: cranfield.ac.uk

Photo: cranfield.ac.uk

Wars can be lost when one side gains an information advantage over the other despite having numerically inferior troop numbers. North Vietnam’s General Giap won against the US in the 1970s by raising American casualty levels to levels unacceptable to the American population, forcing a withdrawal after mass citizen protests. Could Russia lose against Ukraine in the same way? Possibly.

Russia experienced its own Vietnam, when it withdrew from Afghanistan after 11 years, admitting losing more than 13,310 soldiers. In the current war, although Russia has not said how many casualties it has suffered, Ukrainian officials estimate it to be 30,000 Russian soldiers killed. The UK MOD estimates Russia has lost one third of its ground invasion force; over double the losses of the Afghan war, in 3 months.

The frustration on the battlefield explains Russia’s changing strategy to reinforce the Donbas and develop a ‘land corridor’, connecting it with Crimea and Transnistria, the break-away region in Moldova. These secret plans were revealed by Major General Rustam Minnekaev, when interviewed for Russia’s State News Agency, TASS. Supporting this strategy are Russian information operations to foment unrest and encourage Ukrainians to vote for secession in illegal referendums, as per Crimea in 2014.

Such Russian ineptitude in the current conflict is surprising given their prowess in previous wars. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was far more adept, using deniable troops, not wearing Russian-badged uniforms to invade Crimea and arguing that the referendum was a local grassroots democracy movement rather than a Russian invasion. This pretence that Crimea’s local population had risen spontaneously, and the fake referendum to endorse it, took Ukrainian and Western governments by surprise, making it difficult to forge a coherent response.

Russia’s information operations effort against Ukraine uses censorship and police repression to quell Russian domestic protests, and spin to label the conflict a ‘special military operation’. The Kremlin’s narrative, which talks of ‘denazification’, is aimed at pacifying Russian domestic opinion. Nevertheless, despite the risk, Russians are demonstrating in large numbers.

Russia used a deception operation to hide its intent to invade Ukraine (amassing troops on the Russia-Ukraine and Belarus-Ukraine borders under the pretence of a military exercise). In an unprecedented move, this ploy failed because Western security agencies highlighted the Kremlin’s real intentions by publicly revealing their intelligence assessments.

Explaining Ukraine’s Success

In stark contrast, Ukraine’s information operations have worked more effectively. Efforts at the beginning of the war sought to control how citizens disseminated information useful to the Russians for targeting purposes including Ukrainian troop movements and blast sites. Legal sanctions including imprisonment were imposed for transgressors.

Photo: facebook.com/mykhailofedorov.com.ua

Photo: facebook.com/mykhailofedorov.com.ua

They also focused on setting up a cyberwarfare organization to conduct both offensive and defensive cyber-operations, under Deputy Prime Minister, Mykhailo Fedorov.

A key element of Ukraine’s approach has been public diplomacy efforts to secure weapons, weapon systems, intelligence, financial support, diplomatic support, and support for refugees, from Western governments. This request has been very successful because NATO countries, particularly Germany, have been shamed into providing support. Germany originally stated it would neither allow weapons manufactured in Germany to be sent to Ukraine nor would it send any tanks. Since, it has announced a complete u-turn and sent tanks, despite initial concerns that Russia might start World War 3 as a consequence.



Ukrainian success has partly been down to President Zelensky’s own communication approach. As an ex-actor skilled in self-presentation, he epitomises the David and Goliath fight that Ukraine is in versus the overwhelming military might of Russia. In the UK, PR Week has named President Zelensky the Global Communicator of the Year. While Putin was dressed in a £10,000 Loro Piana jacket in his pro-war address in Luzhniki football stadium in Moscow, Zelensky dons khaki fatigues to address his people, often in videos filmed on his mobile phone.

This has created an underdog effect that has maximised his support in the West, and particularly in the UK. Such popular support was in evidence in Ukraine’s win for Kalush Orchestra at the Eurovision Song Contest, by gaining huge support from the popular vote. When Zelensky pleaded for more weapons and support from individually NATO country parliaments, he was applauded for his country’s heroic efforts to deter Russia. Military support was provided accordingly. His calls for an embargo on oil and gas from Russia were also heeded, even by the EU, who are very dependent on Russian oil and gas. The EU announced a partial ban earlier this month. The significant drop in state revenues that Russia will feel will have an effect on its ability to wage war and creates a finite timeline by which the Kremlin can prosecute the war and still win.

The tempo of the war has shifted as Russia’s intent changes from trying to effect regime change to carving off parts of the south and east of Ukraine. Accordingly, Ukraine’s strategic communications efforts have also started to adjust. This has meant maintaining the West’s interest in supplying Ukraine with the kind of military materiel needed to fend off long-distance artillery attacks, continued diplomatic support to continue to and extend the isolation of Russia in international commerce and politics, and a renewed focus on persuading the Russian people to stop supporting a war that is not fought in their interests, but is costing them in Russian lives.

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