Russian troops closed on Kyiv, battering the Ukrainian capital with missile strike on Friday. Russian state media reported that President Volodymyr Zelensky fled.
Zelensky attempted to discredit the Russian disinformation story that evening as he had been doing it for several weeks. In a defiant video posted on social media, he filmed himself by the Bankova, Ukraine’s equivalent to the White House, flanked by the prime minister and other top officials. “We’re all here. We are all in Kyiv. We defend Ukraine,” he said. “Our military are here, our citizens and society are here. We are all here defending our independence, our state, and this is how it’s going to be.”
The Ukrainian government has seen the information battleground as an actual front line in spite of Russia’s invasion. Russian, English and Ukrainian top officials are relentlessly posting their own information to social media.
Citing intelligence, Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba on Friday warned that Russia was planning “a massive false flag operation” to accuse Ukraine of human rights abuses. “Don’t trust fakes,” he tweeted. “Ukraine defends its land in a just and defensive war. Unlike Russia, we don’t target kindergartens and civilians.” The Defense Ministry has similarly tried to get ahead of rumors by releasing frequent updates on its operations.
These efforts to hamstring the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns come as U.S. officials warn that Russia is ramping up efforts to target Ukrainian soldiers in order to “discourage them and induce surrender through disinformation” as Kyiv braces for attack. “Our information indicates Russia is creating a disinformation campaign by publicizing false reports about the widespread surrender of Ukrainian troops,” a U.S. official told TIME in a statement on Friday, adding that the intelligence also “indicates that Russia plans to threaten killing the family members of Ukrainian soldiers if they do not surrender.”
Russia has used this kind of hybrid warfare for psychological damage since its inception. In the days leading up to the invasion, it used the same tactics to create confusion and doubt. They included propaganda campaigns meant to cause panic. One case was where Ukrainians received texts on their smartphones alerting them that ATMs were not working. quickly dispelled by Ukraine’s Cyber Police force.
This recalled a similar effort in 2014 when a mass text campaign targeted Ukrainian troops fighting pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country with messages like “Leave and you will live,” “Nobody needs your kids to become orphans,” and “Ukrainian soldiers, they’ll find your bodies when the snow melts.” They were made to look like they were coming from fellow troops, with some claiming that their commanders had betrayed them, with the clear aim of intimidating and sapping morale.
The role of encrypted messaging has been expanded this time. They are more decentralized than social media platforms and have fewer restrictions. Telegram has seen a lot of pro-Russian propaganda. It quickly showed up on a variety of right-wing English language groups. “Russian troops surrounded Kiev. Zelensky might have fled. Russia is fighting not against the Ukrainian peple and army but against Nazi battalions and foreign mercenaries,” read a message that was forwarded in dozens of U.S. right-wing Telegram channels on Friday.
“It’s incredible to watch modern-day information warfare evolving in real time,” says Cindy Otis, a disinformation researcher and former CIA analyst. It’s too early to tell how effectively the Ukrainian efforts to debunk Russian disinformation narratives are working, she says, noting that their success will depend on whether they’re breaking through to their intended audience.
The disinformation battle has been front and center to the White House’s own approach to the conflict from the beginning. Its unprecedented move to publicly release declassified intelligence about Russia’s plans frustrated the Kremlin’s attempts to establish an effective pre-fabricated narrative to invade Ukraine. “We shared declassified evidence about Russia’s plans and false pretext so that there could be no confusion or cover-up about what Putin’s doing,” Biden said on Thursday. “Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war.”
Although the initial disinformation war was over, it has advanced to a much more serious stage and continues at an accelerated pace. With Putin explicitly demanding regime change in Ukraine, calling on the country’s military to “take power into your own hands” and overthrow the government, the focus has shifted to tactical disinformation, says Otis. This includes “disinformation at the battlefield level aimed at intimidation and demoralizing the Ukrainian military and civilian population,” she tells TIME. “So false narratives about Ukrainian troops giving up, commanders abandoning their troops, claims of successes that didn’t actually occur.”
Although Russia may have mastered this environment over the past decades, signs are beginning to show that it could lead to long-term problems. After a German move the week before, Poland declared that it will ban Russia Today. French lawmakers have asked for RT’s license in the country to be revoked. Several other countries have imposed sanctions on the network’s editor-in-chief.
Short-term, perceptions shaping the conflict seem more equal than those fighting with military equipment. But compelling cases of resistance have increased support and sympathy for Ukraine. In one video that went viral in the first hours of the conflict, a Ukrainian woman berates a Russian soldier and tells him to put sunflower seeds in his pocket “so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here.”
The Ukrainian national flower is the sunflowers. This translation comes from a viral video.