When it comes to complex situations, it’s easy — but often inaccurate — to understand things if they’re broken into convenient dichotomies. Russians are all bad, and Ukrainians are all good. Putin is crazy, and Zelensky is a hero. Russian media is pure propaganda, but the Ukrainian media tells the truth.
The manner in which an entire country is being cancelled — some are even giving up cooking Russian food and speaking the language — suggest that that’s the case. But what if the truth is somewhere in the middle, as the saying goes?
Controlling the Narrative, from A to ‘Z’
As thousands throng the 81,000-seater Luzniki Stadium — one of the biggest stadiums in Europe and Russia’s biggest — attendees can be seen waving the Russian tricolour and flags bearing the letter ‘Z’ in jubilant support of the Russian president and his “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Across Russia, the Z emblem is being used today to signify support for the ongoing Ukraine invasion. It can be found affixed on cars, t-shirts, flags and even on Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak’s outfit as he shared a podium with Ukrainian gold-medalist Illia Kovtun at the Apparatus World Cup in early March. In Kazan, terminally-ill patients in a children’s hospice were made to brave the cold and form a ‘Z’ in support of the war.
While some may be quick to judge that Russians could not possibly be so blind to what’s happening, and that their pledge of support for the invasion must be due to coercion, the reality on the ground is different.
According to Radio Free Europe, some 71% of Russians — most are from the older demographic — are proud of the war with Ukraine. “Polls also showed that three-quarters of the Russian population learns news about the war from television. Of these, 87% (and 64% of all Russians) are from state TV channels. 22% of Russians use a radio to get news, and only one percent of respondents have access to information on shortwave,” reports the US-government funded organisation.
This is no fluke. Russia is being led by a former Cold War warrior who’s honed his skills to influence and shape worldviews, particularly through the Russian government’s strong control over state media, over decades.
He comes from the same KGB that prided itself in being one of the premier intelligence agencies — if not the best — in the world during the Cold War. “Many experts consider the KGB to be the world’s most effective information-gathering organisation,” wrote John Kohan for TIME in 1983, when Putin was an active-duty KGB officer.
“In the 1930s the KGB was full of thugs. Now it has become an elite that skims the cream from the universities,” said Leonard Shapiro, a Soviet specialist at the London School of Economics, to Kohan.
Indeed, this is the route that Putin took as well. The KGB had targeted Putin as a potential recruit even before the young student had graduated with his law degree at Leningrad State University in 1975.
He joined a KGB that was second to none in human intelligence, being able to persuade, entice or entrap thousands to work for them. If anything, his rise from obscurity to the presidency in a short few years hints at his powers of persuasion.
He is also known to directly address international audiences through op-eds in the New York Times ostensibly without the assistance of high-priced PR firms. At home, he has created a narrative that the enemy in Ukraine is comprised of neo-Nazis and drug addicts who are oppressing native Russians in the Donbas region.
The only reason why more balanced coverage of the invasion has been possible can be attributed to the presence of large groups of foreign reporters in Ukraine, rather than news outlets relying on their Moscow bureau chiefs for reportage.
To that end, those who have been covering the anti-war protests have been detained by the Russian authorities, and some journalists like AP’s video journalist, Mstyslav Chernov, have been hunted for their work. A policeman told him, “If they [Russian forces] catch you, they will get you on camera and they will make you say that everything you filmed is a lie.”
It is of little surprise, then, that we are hearing anecdotes of people being unable to persuade family members in Russia that Ukraine is being attacked. The young-old divide is becoming more apparent when older Russians brand their children as traitors for opposing the war in Ukraine.
In response, a Lithuanian team launched a project called #CallRussia to galvanise the Russian-speaking diaspora to call Russians, at random, to break through the Russian media’s control of the narrative and offer them a different take on the war. The provided script helps Russian speakers navigate the thorny subject, including tips on what to do when the conversation is going the wrong way, or the speaker on the other end claims they are lying.
While the Russian economy has not completely collapsed (yet), Putin is winning the information war at home. But are Russia’s accusations completely without merit?
Actors, Nazis and Bears, Oh My!
In a case of art imitating life, we have, on the other side of the ring, one Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor/comedian who starred in a TV series about a teacher who became the president of Ukraine after his rants about corruption in Ukraine went viral.
His meteoric rise in politics is often attributed to his masterful use of social media during his presidential campaign. It’s no wonder, then, that Zelensky also became a popular figure on social media in the opening days of the Russian invasion. Many postings celebrated the affable president and his wife, who were facing such intense circumstances.
If anything, Zelensky has proven he can match Putin in raw persuasion power. From his casual dress sense and effective use of words, he’s been able to work press conferences like a seasoned professional and galvanise world opinion to cancel an entire country.
But also lost in the noise was any mention that Zelensky himself has been shown to have offshore holdings in the British Virgin Islands (itself not indicative of corruption), which were conveniently transferred to a friend before he won the presidential vote. This comes on the heels of him having railed Ukrainian oligarchs for this very behaviour during his campaign.
Speaking of oligarchs, the man once known as the boss of the actor-turned-president, billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, was also a significant presidential campaign contributor and is also accused of money laundering, violence and corruption.
And to what extent has the beleaguered Ukrainian president played his hand under the threat of the Russian bear?
He recently conceded that “it is clear that Ukraine is not a member of NATO; we understand this” despite insisting on NATO membership just a month earlier. Ukraine’s membership in NATO was one of the supposed reasons for the Russian invasion, and an earlier concession by Zelensky might have altered the course of the war.
And that’s to say nothing of the rest of his administration, media and military. As the information war rages on, Ukrainians have been caught using incorrect, fake or staged media to gain popular worldwide support. These include incorrectly used images of dead toddlers, a misleading video of a brave standoff between a Russian warship and soldiers on Snake Island, and outright propaganda using drone footage from an entirely different event.
But most troubling of all is the involvement of the far-right Azov Batallion in the east. Every profile of the militia on mainstream news channels repeat a familiar motif: They’re far-right, ultranationalist and hold to neo-Nazi beliefs.
Depending on who you ask, the battalion has also been linked to rape and torture of detainees in the Donbas region, besides being involved in breaking agreed-upon ceasefires there. But, owing to the lack of long-term, independent investigative journalists in a literal warzone, how much do we know is true?
Alleged members of the battalion have taken to social media to share their war exploits, from ‘victory’ to ‘victory’, especially on Telegram. Deutsche Welle describes this problem simply: “[Members of the Azov Battalion] released a picture of a dead man in uniform, purported to be a Russian general whom it had killed. It is difficult to verify these claims.”
Amid the chaos and fluid information battlefield, any narrative about the battalion — be it accurate or falsified — can be easily turned into fact, making it easy for Russia to justify its accusations.
What’s more sure is that the major powers are still split on how they are addressing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
What’s an Invasion Between Friends?
The two most populous countries in the world, China and India, have not condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. China has described its diplomatic ties with Russia as a “limitless” friendship, whereas India has taken the stance that historical ties with Russia, which came to India’s aid in the 1971 war against Pakistan, prevail.
Behind the Great Chinese Firewall, the Xi Jinping government has been effectively controlling the narrative on the invasion. For one, the word “invasion” is often avoided when referring to the conflict, and the government mimics Russian talking points on the casus belli of the war — US and NATO expansionism.
But there have been pockets of dissent. According to the BBC, Douying, China’s TikTok equivalent, Weibo, Bilibili and WeChat have all actively removed posts and banned user accounts deemed not to be in lockstep with the central government’s narrative.
In a rare rebuke by Chinese scholar Hu Wei, a political scientist from the Counselor’s Office of the State Council, he cautions that China should “cut off” their relationship with Putin at the soonest. “China should avoid playing both sides, give up being neutral and choose the global mainstream position… If China plays a part in ending the war — potentially a nuclear war — its tense relations with Western nations will ease and it will be able to emerge from isolation,” he stated.
In her recent article for the South China Morning Post, senior correspondent Maria Siow dug into how China and India’s refusal to condemn Russia will affect its reputations in ASEAN. Unsurprisingly, Indonesia, which relies on Russia for weaponry, has not condemned Russia, nor have Vietnam and Laos, who have longstanding ideological ties with China.
According to Siow, the diplomatic calculus is that although India is not taking the same side as the world’s diplomacies, its reputation in ASEAN will be less affected because it will likely be against China if the latter decides to be aggressive. But when it comes to China, the concern is that the refusal to condemn Russia’s actions indicate what it might do to its weaker neighbours — and the ASEAN community will likely take a stronger, united stance against China in that scenario.
Questionable news and social media tactics can do much to degrade people’s trust in the news coming out of Ukraine. People naturally feel a deep sense of sadness and concern over images of dead bodies amid the violence and destruction taking place there. It would be a shame if those feelings were betrayed by lies.
As the information war rages on in the coming months, we as media consumers would do well to be more critical of what is being fed to us from all sides — and not jump to conclusions amid the fog of this chaotic mess we call war.