The Information War in Ukraine Is Far From Over
If the first casualty of war is truth, then the corollary in Ukraine is that information is the first battlefield.
That was where the war began, in early 2022, weeks before Vladimir Putin sent the first rockets, armored vehicles and troops into Ukraine, when he claimed that the massive buildup of troops along Ukraine’s borders was but another military exercise. And that was where the United States and its allies scored their first victories, when they made public intelligence anticipating the invasion and the pretext Putin would use for it.
Then, when the invasion began in February, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, opened a second information front. He donned a soldier’s olive-drab T-shirt and issued a torrent of defiant tweets, speeches and images from devastated villages, much of it targeted at Russian audiences. His metamorphosis from a relatively unpopular president to a David defying Goliath has been instrumental in solidifying popular, military and economic support for Ukraine in the United States and Europe.
In these first information battles, the Americans and Ukrainians showed that they had learned the lessons of 2014, when Russia had the upper hand in propaganda, assaulting Crimea and eastern Ukraine while claiming to be responding to pleas from Russian-speaking residents.
But the information war, like the physical war, is far from decided. Fourteen weeks into the war, many Russians seem to accept Putin’s narrative. Around the world, many countries remain on the sidelines or, like China, are on
Russia’s side. While Washington’s public comments have served to bolster the Ukrainians and rally their allies, some of those comments have played directly into Putin’s claims of a malign America determined to neuter Russia, as when President Joe Biden said of Putin, “This man cannot remain in power,” and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declared that America’s goal is a “weakened” Russia.
As the war enters a new phase, as the images and horrors become familiar and the costs rise, it will become ever more difficult for the Biden administration and for Zelenskyy to sustain their early lead in the information war. That makes it all the more imperative for the West to press the message that this is not a war Ukraine chose and that the cost of allowing Putin to have his way in Ukraine would be far higher than the sacrifices required to block him.
文／Serge Schmemann 譯／李京倫