Should Ukraine Refine Its Media And Narrative Strategy?

INTRODUCTION

We fight not because we hate those in front of us, but because we love those behind us!

The slogan above – by Roman Shukhevych, the commander of a Ukrainian insurgent army in the 1940s – is very popular, and symbolic of Ukraine’s current military quagmire.

This section discusses Ukraine’s narrative and media environment, and its potential role in achieving the policy aims stated in the following sub-section. They have had a significant role as well as impact in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War of 2022, capturing global headlines, airtime, minutes of meetings, among others.

In the build-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – analysts had predicted that President Putin would utilise its powerful cyber warfare capabilities to open the campaign – but this was not the case. Moscow’s targeting of Ukraine with cyber warfare is nowhere close to its full capability: Ukraine’s electricity grids, communications networks and other vital infrastructure have been largely unaffected. This has bewildered many experts. However, there are a few possible reasons for Moscow not having used its full complement of cyber tools.

Firstly – although cyber warfare is a potent tool today – it does not instil fear and intimidation among a populace. Second, perhaps Ukraine was able to counter it sufficiently and has not released details publicly. Third, the officials involved in the war-planning process were an extremely small group, and those outside the circle were probably unaware of the invasion until the last moment. In all likelihood, Russian Military Intelligence’s/GRU’s Unit 74455 personnel were not looped in.

The fourth and final potential scenario is also the worst-case one: Moscow probably wants to reinforce the next round of its military offensive with large-scale and powerful cyber operations. The most sensible reason for Putin having held back is that it would be counter-productive to target energy and communications infrastructure which the Russian military would use once in Ukraine.

POLICY AIMS

Ukraine hopes to achieve its dual policy aims of restoring Ukrainian sovereignty over the territory it lost post-February 2022 and ensuring security for its population. Neither of these aims take priority; rather, they will be implemented simultaneously.

STRATEGIES

Ukraine must adopt a multi-pronged media and narrative strategy to be able to counter Russia at the bare minimum and then push for strategic gains. This can be realised by adopting the following five strategies that are not in order of priority.

Strengthen defensive capabilities and conduct offensive operations

Ukraine’s strong online campaign must be enhanced to continue receiving military aid which has gradually become more advanced, only adding to its armoury.

This can be seen by President Biden’s latest announcement of providing a $700 million weapons package, which includes “high mobility artillery rocket systems, which can accurately hit targets as far away as 80 km (50 miles).” These measures will enable its troops to maintain high morale, which will aid in preventing subsequent territorial losses and then conduct offensive operations. High morale through a strong Ukrainian online narrative will also be beneficial when conducting offensive operations against territory taken by Russia post-February 2022. It will also go a long way in attacking all internationally-recognised Ukrainian territory to regain control from Russia.

Enhance international humanitarian aid

Food, water, clothing, blankets and medicines are synonymous with humanitarian aid and human security. And major shortages of these are not just impacting Ukraine but also the Middle East, North Africa and the Sahel. The United Nations has stated that this war “… Is Creating the Greatest Food Crisis since WWII”. The International Committee of the Red Cross’ (ICRC’s) Mariupol warehouse was attacked by Russia on 30th March 2022. Media and online campaigns work well to involve more international non-governmental organisations like the ICRC to establish humanitarian corridors. On 3rd April the Mariupol-Berdyansk humanitarian corridor was opened. An independent organisation like Bellingcat’s mapping expertise can be also used to authenticate war crimes in humanitarian corridors and make for a more powerful case against the war.

Economic action, and diplomatic and media outreach

When it comes to economic action and diplomatic action, the media plays an impactful role in shaping the narrative. For the former, it is sanctions. Ukraine must not only collaborate with states but also non-state actors like the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project’s (OCRP’s) Russian Asset Tracker. While for the latter, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister/Foreign Ministry/ambassadors must reach out to their foreign counterparts and the diaspora to discuss aid and airtime with the first and protests, public lectures, discussions and debates. Print, online and social media must continue sharing stories sympathetic to Ukraine’s cause, as well as remove anti-Ukraine/Russian fake news/propaganda.

Narrative Warfare

Dr Ajit Maan – a renowned international security expert – has refined “what has been referred to as information wars and psychological warfare to also serve as the basis for information, psychological or other non-kinetic warfare techniques.” This approach must be fully utilised as there is already significant traction and will boost both troop and public morale further. Essentially, Ukraine cannot wait for morale to drop and must wrest the narrative warfare initiative in a planned manner to give its people hope.  

TACTICS

This sub-section analyses the narrative and media techniques Ukraine must adopt in conjunction with military tactics for each strategy to achieve its policy aims.

Military

Ukraine needs to first shore up its defences and then continue launching offensives in the disputed regions. The US can easily provide more Switchblades to be used as suicide drones to attack Russian tanks as these cost a mere $6,000 per unit . Ukraine should also make international requests for more weapons as the thawing ice will force Russian troops to primarily move via roads. When the ice melts, their morale will decrease more significantly than before as the temperature falls. Again, this can be exploited through social media. Ukraine can post an online campaign requesting “‘Honest’ Belarussians … [to continue] Cutting Russian Supplies by Train”.

Augment global media sympathy

To maintain positive global attention on Ukraine and ensure international humanitarian aid continues, Ukraine must – among other stories – share powerful imagery of its wounded and fallen citizens online.

For economic action, Ukraine must do an online series on Putin’s senior leadership/inner circle publicising everyone’s foreign assets to reinforce the case for stronger sanctions/asset freezes at the earliest. Diplomatic outreach is easily done by posting from official and unofficial Ukrainian online accounts regarding upcoming discussions/meetings as well as the highlights.

Media outreach requires the establishment of an organised and protected network of journalists/photojournalists. Multiple buses have already gone to Mariupol but Russia stole the aid they brought and let few people on. In one location in the East/Northeast – Russia usurped the aid – let no one on – and then shipped the aid straight back to Russia.

Influence the media narrative

One tactic Ukraine can implement to take the offensive by controlling the media and narrative is drawing parallels with Russia’s invasion and Nazi Germany, especially after its role in the Second World War and the treatment it received at the hands of Hitler and his forces. This can be done as both textual analysis as well as through memes as humour to highlight the irony. The parallels are as follows from the Russian perspective:

  1. Justification of Ukraine’s denazification and demilitarisation.
  2. Wagner Group commander Dmitry Utkin is a neo-Nazi, sports the Waffen Schutzstaffel insignia on the right side of his neck; Parteiadler – the Nazi Party symbol on the top right of his chest and; the rank of sturmhauptfuhrer, a company-grade captain on his neck’s left side.
  3. Non-combatants were targeted by Russia quite harshly.
  4. Incorporate Ukraine into its federation.

Clearly, Russia has been active on the psychological front as well, but it takes only a concerted strategy and meticulous execution by Ukraine to turn the tables as far as media and narrative are concerned.

Image credit: The Guardian

REFERENCES

“Exclusive Look At New ‘Killer’ Drone Small Enough To Fit In A Backpack.” YouTube, uploaded by NBC News Digital, 7 Dec. 2021, youtube.com/watch?v=W-ZtFUxXzQg. Accessed 20 May 2022.

“Hospitals Bombed and Apartments Destroyed: Mapping Incidents of Civilian
Harm in Ukraine.” Bellingcat, Bellingcat, 24 Mar. 2022, bellingcat.com/news/2022/03/17/hospitals-bombed-and-apartments-destroyed-mapping-incidents-of-civilian-harm-in-ukraine/. Accessed 18 May 2022.

“Impacts of Ukraine Conflict on Food Security Already Being Felt in the Near East North Africa Region and Will Quickly Spread, Warns IFAD.” ReliefWeb, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 17 Mar. 2022, reliefweb.int/report/world/impacts-ukraine-conflict-food-security-already-being-felt-near-east-north-africa-region. Accessed 20 May 2022.

“Soviet Ukraine in the Postwar Period.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., britannica.com/place/Ukraine/Soviet-Ukraine-in-the-postwar-period#ref404634. Accessed 1 April 2022.

Dihmis, Lara, et al. “Russian Asset Tracker.” Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, 21 Mar. 2022, occrp.org/en/asset-tracker/. Accessed 28 May 2022.

Holland, Steve, and Doina Chiacu. “Biden Announces New $700 Million in Military Aid for Ukraine.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 1 June 2022, https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/us-rocket-systems-ukraine-not-meant-strike-russia-white-house-official-2022-06-01/. Accessed 11 April 2022.

Issa, Tala Michel. “Red Cross Confirms Strike on Mariupol Warehouse, Unable
to Deliver Aid since March 15.” AlArabiya News, AlArabiya News, 31 Mar. 2022, english.alarabiya.net/News/world/2022/03/31/Red-Cross-confirms-strike-on-Mariupol-warehouse-unable-to-deliver-aid-since-March-15. Accessed 13 May 2022.

News, VOA. “Head of UN Food Agency Says War in Ukraine Will Lead to Worst Food Crisis since World War II.” VOA, Head of UN Food Agency Says War in Ukraine Will Lead to Worst Food Crisis Since World War II, 30 Mar. 2022, https://www.voanews.com/a/head-of-un-food-agency-says-war-in-ukraine-will-lead-to-worst-food-crisis-since-world-war-ii/6507466.html. Accessed 25 May 2022.

Rehimov, Ruslan. “Humanitarian Corridor Opened in Ukraine’s Mariupol at
Request of Turkish President.” Anadolu Agency, Anadolu Agency, 3 Apr.
2022, aa.com.tr/en/russia-ukraine-war/humanitarian-corridor-opened-in-ukraine-s-mariupol-at-request-of-turkish-president/2553684. Accessed 23 May 2022.

Tahanovych, Yevhenia. “Ukrainian Railways Chief Says ‘Honest’ Belarusians Are Cutting Russian Supplies by Train.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, Ukrainian Railways Chief Says ‘Honest’ Belarusians Are Cutting Russian Supplies By Train, 20 Mar. 2022, rferl.org/a/ukraine-russia-belarus-railways-supplies-cut-off/31761964.html. Accessed 25 May 2022.

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