The concept of war has irrevocably changed in the post-modern world. Unlike the industrial and traditional societies, today it’s not only important to know the number of tanks, aircrafts, soldiers, but also the target audience of the local and global media in a country, the public opinion in it, and the presence of opinion leaders, etc. The propaganda disseminated by Russia’s central information agency ITAR-TASS showed that a team of dedicated reporters and cameramen can have a considerable impact on the outcome of a war.
The lessons of Russia’s information war against Ukraine
Russia’s war against Ukraine has several components – trade war, technological war, and information war. While the trade and technological wars lead to economic losses, the information war has much wider consequences.
Firstly, this information war, which intensified since Euromaidan, reached its peak during the Crimean conflict, and continues today, has highlighted the role of propaganda. The Ukrainian revolution from the very beginning has been seen through a haze of propaganda. Russian media have claimed that Ukrainian protesters were right-wing extremists and that their victory was a “fascist coup”. The incursion into Crimea is another proof that a team of clever journalists and cameramen can make a bigger influence than military weaponry and personnel. All in all, propaganda has been important to Putin’s regime in order to prepare the way for war. As pointed out by Timothy Snyder: “An excellent propaganda apparatus, such as the Russian one, can find ways to repeat its message over and over again in slightly different ways and formats.”
Secondly, the information war against Ukraine has exposed the fact that the world is still created by TV news and press, even though the Internet and social networks are becoming more and more important. In this regard, how is something said is more important than what is said, with made-up stories creating real motivations that may lead to a radical change of reality. Thus, Putin has manufactured a version of reality to create the discourse he needs to destabilize Ukraine. The concept of the information war entails that the virtual reality affects and even replaces actual reality.
Finally,the Ukrainian case has demonstrated that a side that is preparing for an “old-type-war” will likely lose as it needs to operate within the narrative propagated by an opponent. As pointed in the article by Washington Post on the subject: “Putin is no longer bound by the constraints of nation-state warfare. Years of confrontations with separatists, militants, terrorists and stateless actors influenced his thinking. In Crimea, Putin debuted a pop-up war — nimble and covert — that is likely to be the design of the future.” While Putin has been “redefining 21st-century warfare”, the Ukrainian state has failed to provide an adequate response and ensure its information security.
The events of the Arab Spring, the defeat of Muammar Gaddafi, the crisis in Syria, the “white stripe” movement in Russia and, most recently, the invasion of Ukraine highlight the following trend: a key element to gain a victory in the present-day wars is the ability to work with people’s beliefs. Beliefs create motivations; motivations create actions; actions change social and political landscapes. What is more important, virtual reality creates real motivations that ultimately bring real changes. As formulated by Milton Friedman:
“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”