Russia is waging an information war against Ukraine. Similar to their successes on the battlefield against Russia, Ukrainians are undermining Russia’s attacks in the digital realm. This article showcases how Ukrainians are fighting back–and winning–as they demonstrate a powerful digital resistance to Russian propaganda. States wage battles not only with tanks and guns, but through various non-military means as well. There are trade and economic wars, cultural and history wars, and information wars or “infowars.” The latter includes all kinds of media activities, the process of informing the larger public, and the ability to shape a narrative around a specific event, figure, or dispute. This is also known as “cognitive warfare”–an attempt to shape how people think and feel about political issues.
The Kremlin wages information warfare through propaganda channels, armies of trolls, and “useful idiots” in the West and beyond who repeat and share Russian propaganda. Before launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russia maintained a low-scale war with Ukraine beginning in early 2014. That conflict, which culminated in the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the ongoing Donbas war, received less international attention than the 2022 invasion. Russia was able to control the narrative on the situation in Donbas and Crimea and significantly diminish both support and interest toward Ukraine from 2014 to 2022. Yet, things changed after the start of the most recent full-scale war.
In 2022, Ukraine shifted international views on the Russian invasion. Ukraine’s efforts significantly contributed to Russia’s digital isolation, and mainstreamed Ukraine’s counter-narratives with the help of open-source data, digital allies, and successful communication campaigns. Russian capacities for cognitive warfare depend on Western technology, as well as financial resources to fund numerous troll factories, hackers, and “useful idiots”-relatively influential public figures who promote Kremlin-friendly messages in local context in exchange for payments from Russia. Russian “lobbyist” networks attempt to spread Russia’s narrative in countries around the world.
Ukrainians are undermining Russian digital influence by isolating and cutting Russian tech from the rest of the world. In the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation, Mykhaylo Fedorov, launched a campaign to facilitate Russia’s “digital blockade” and encourage Western companies to leave Russia. Such companies as Juniper Networks, Apple, Visa, MasterCard, and Netflix have exited the country, although major companies remained until mid-2022 when a Russian court banned Meta as an “extremist” organization.
As a follow-up to his strategic “digital blockade,” Fedorov also launched Ukraine’s IT Army, a digital movement that now consists of approximately 100,000 people. These are digital experts such as computer scientists and hackers from Ukraine and abroad, armed with the mission of helping Ukraine win the war against Russia through digital means. The IT Army launches cyberattacks against Russian state media and other websites run by the Kremlin.
Ukraine’s IT Army is working to strengthen Ukraine’s capacity at protecting itself from Russian cyberattacks and increase the security of Ukraine’s digital infrastructure. According to Western military experts, Ukraine was able to carry out “a real revolution by moving upmarket in its defensive cyber fight” (Basso, 2023) as the country significantly improved its resistance to Russian cyber threats.
Additionally, Ukraine has partnered with tech companies such as Clearview and Palantir which provide AI-driven solutions to the issues of identification and decision-making on the ground, at the front line (Scott, 2022). Through this partnership, Ukraine’s Armed Forces can now access data that better identifies soldiers from Russia and use this information for its own information warfare to resist Russia. The software matches soldiers committing war crimes with their identities. This is useful for future war tribunals (Lonas, 2022).
Ukraine’s Armed Forces have also established digital approaches to encourage Russian soldiers to surrender. For example, there are Ukrainian drones on the front line that can be used by Russian soldiers to ask for surrender and receive protections guaranteed by the Geneva Convention to prisoners of war. In addition, Ukraine has established digital platforms and chatbots to provide simple ways for Russian soldiers to surrender (Rashid, 2022; Jankowicz, 2022).
Furthermore, open-source data has been instrumental in debunking Russia’s fake news and strengthening Ukraine’s narrative on the ongoing war. For example, open-source data allowed investigative journalists to debunk various statements from the Russian Ministry of Defense claiming they destroyed Ukraine’s ammunition depots and soldiers’ barracks, or killed a significant number of Ukrainian troops (Melkozerova, 2023). Open-source data has been crucial in providing evidence of the crimes committed by the Russian army in Bucha, Borodyanka, and other liberated territories of Ukraine. It is being actively employed as the war continues to help geolocate Russian troops, confirm statements on important battles, and discover locations from which missiles are being launched against Ukraine.
In addition to the Ukrainian digital army of IT experts, Ukraine now has its own army of low-tech citizen “elves.” The idea of a social movement of digital elves fighting Russian trolls originated in Lithuania as digital activists organized themselves to debunk Russia’s narratives in the digital space. Ukrainian elves fight Russian trolls, politicians, and media personalities in the online space.
The most prominent elf group is NAFO, or the North Atlantic Fellas Organization, which consists of volunteers mocking Russian propaganda online and raising awareness of Russian crimes in Ukraine. While there is no official estimate of the number of NAFO members, the total can vary from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands (Braun, 2022). Oriented toward Western audiences, the NAFO movement creates and delivers English content for audiences in the US, Europe, and other parts of the Western world. NAFO presents an important element of the cognitive warfare against Russia as they use memes, jokes, and other creative means. For example, some NAFO members generate discussions on topics related to Ukraine. Some battle “whataboutism,” which is Russia’s propaganda attempt to divert attention away from the invasion so that Russia’s role as an aggressor is minimized (for example, by asking questions such as, “What about the US invasion of Iraq?”).
Ukraine’s digital response to the Russian full-scale invasion and hybrid warfare has been well-received domestically and internationally. Ukraine’s IT army of supporters, both within and outside the country, shows that it is possible to challenge Russia’s digital Goliath. The IT army can continue to promote peace, sovereignty, and the international rule of law with digital tools. However, while Ukraine’s narrative dominates the Western media space, it has not reached the same level of publicity and support in African, Latin American, and Asian countries where Russian media presence remains influential. These four recommendations could further strengthen the impact of Ukraine’s IT army:
1. Expand Ukraine’s communication outreach to the audiences and regions where Russian propaganda remains dominant. Focus on messaging in local languages, creating content that would appeal to locals; researching historical, cultural, and political parallels that can be used to humanize and simplify the Russo-Ukrainian war and Ukraine in general to new foreign audiences; and look for digital influencers and activists who can appeal to locals.
2. Increase cooperation between Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Infrastructure and Ukraine’s IT Army. Encourage volunteers to join and push for more sanctions on Russia’s tech sector, to decrease its capacity to spread false propaganda about Ukraine.
3. Produce digital content such as cartoons, shows, online exhibitions, and virtual meetups. Promote greater awareness about Ukraine and promote understanding of Ukrainian identity.
4. Involve diverse and marginalized Ukrainian voices and citizen-led digital platforms. They can discuss and represent Ukraine’s diverse identities to debunk propaganda and create a more positive and multidimensional image.
Written by Anna Romandash (MGA ‘22), a Brembeck Fellow at Fourth Freedom Forum.