The Ukraine-Russia conflict: who is winning the PR war?

Lionel Zetter, Senior Counsel

I was a historian before I was a strategist, and I was a strategist before I was a lobbyist, and these experiences suggest to me that these are the most dangerous times since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

I have followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine closely, and I have done what I can in my own small way to help the Ukrainians in the conduct of their heroic resistance. And perhaps my modest efforts have not gone unnoticed, because I was recently placed on Russia’s sanctions list.

21st century wars are fought with planes, and tanks, and artillery, and infantry. But they are also fought with drones and robots, and increasingly with cyber and AI and deepfakes. Just as the first casualty of war has famously always been truth, the first progeny of 21st century warfare is undoubtedly fake news.

On the ground in the physical battlespace the two sides are evenly matched. The Ukrainians are fighting for their home territory, which gives them a high degree of motivation and provides them with an intimate knowledge of the terrain. They have also been supplied with sophisticated Western weaponry, and many of them have benefited from training in NATO countries.

Where the Russians are concerned, they rely on having a much larger population, and from possessing much greater industrial capacity to supply their war machine. Their tactics are remarkably similar to those they employed in WWII, sending waves of infantry and tanks forward regardless of the casualties sustained. As Stalin once said, quantity has a quality all of its own.

So as winter sets in, the two sides have largely fought themselves to a standstill. But the PR war continues, in all hours and all weathers. The advantage the Russians have is that they only have to fight the PR war on one front: they simply need to shore up support for the war amongst their domestic population.

The Ukrainians have to fight the PR war on two fronts. Like the Russians, they have to keep the morale of their domestic population high, but at the same time they need to convince the West that they are still worth supporting and that they can ultimately prevail against the invaders. They also now have to compete for Western public attention with the increasingly fraught and dangerous conflict in the Middle East.

Although the Russian army relies on numbers rather than sophistication, they have always been practitioners of the dark arts. On the battlefield they use ‘Maskirovka’, the art of military deception. In the intelligence arena they are not shy about deploying what is euphemistically termed ‘active measures’. They also invest heavily in troll farms, and are not averse to deploying ‘Vranyo’, which can be loosely translated as the art of the bare-faced lie.

Russia is pushing the line that the invasion of Ukraine was a pre-emptive strike to head off an imminent invasion by NATO, and also to prevent Ukraine from becoming a neo-Nazi state. And the Ukrainians have created the narrative that they are fighting NATO’s war for them, and suffering horrific losses in terms of people and infrastructure as a result.

Both sides have deployed fake news. When the invasion started in February 2022, the Russians put out a deep fake video of Ukrainian President Zelensky saying he was going to surrender and urging his armed forces to lay down their arms. The Ukrainians have responded by spreading fake news about the state of President Putin’s health, and promoting rumours that he deploys body doubles to avoid the need to appear in public. They also spread rumours that former Wagner supremo Yevgeny Prighozin had survived his years in the Gulag by offering sexual favours to the dominant blatniye caste of inmates, which diminished his standing amongst the macho mercenaries he commanded.

Russia is now relying on war fatigue setting in, with European nations balking at the cost of continuing to support Ukraine financially and militarily. They are also banking on a Donald Trump victory in next year’s Presidential race, which would likely bring about an immediate halt to American aid for Ukraine.

The Ukrainians are hoping that the oligarchs who surround Putin will grow tired of being denied access to their villas, and yachts, and bank accounts in the West, and will move to bring him down. Alternatively, the Ukrainians hope that the Russian people themselves will become disillusioned by the volume of body bags coming home, as they did during the Afghan conflict in the 1980s. And, if the Ukrainians can capture or even just blockade Crimea, this would take away the jewel in Putin’s PR crown, and perhaps bring about a ‘Ceausescu moment’, when a tipping point is reached and public support simply evaporates.

Europe stands at the brink of having to defend itself for the first time since 1945. And, if the Middle East explodes, tensions in Korea escalate, and China moves against Taiwan, we may have to do this with minimal help from NATO’s most powerful member. The destabilisation process is underway now, and unless we Europeans meet it head on, and unless we continue to support Ukraine and even ramp up that support, the chances of having to fight Russia on the battlefield - rather than in the cybersphere - will increase exponentially.

In answer to the title question of who is winning the PR war, it is like the battlefield itself - nobody is. Sadly, it is a stalemate.

This blog is based on a speech given to the European Media Forum in Prague.

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