Stories matter. Plato feared stories and poems, knowing they were so powerful.
And stories matter a great deal when it comes to war:
- Soldiers must be highly motivated to risk their lives. To fight with courage, they have to passionately believe in the cause.
- Civilians need reasons to suffer and sacrifice to support the war effort–and to possibly lose their sons and daughters if they sign up as soldiers.
- Allies require good narratives to explain to their people why they are sending weapons and financial support to either side of a war.
On all of these fronts, Ukraine utterly crushed Russia’s vaunted disinformation and propaganda machine.
Here is how.
1) We root for the underdog, not the bully
Russia has nuclear weapons and is much larger than Ukraine, and when it invaded, our sympathies naturally went with the smaller country, who did nothing to provoke this war.
From the start, Ukraine celebrated its soldiers and people for defending their country, with videos of average people making Molotov cocktails or camouflage netting for soldiers.
All of Russia’s desperate attempts to portray Ukraine as somehow dangerous, threatening, or Nazi (??), simply did not work.
2) Russia’s narratives conflicted with their military strategy and rampant war crimes
Among other things, Putin claimed that this was about protecting Russian-speaking people, starting with the residents of eastern Ukraine.
His mouthpieces keep talking about how Russia is careful to avoid targeting civilians.
These words mean nothing compared to the flood of photos and videos of Russian attacks on schools, hospitals, and homes. Precision missiles hitting shopping centers and electrical grids turn Putin’s disinformation campaign into a waste of time.
Russia’s military strategy of shelling villages and cities into oblivion, then advancing, also demolished this argument.
And all the evidence of war crimes–including soldiers looting, raping, and killing civilians–completely destroyed any possibility of this narrative working.
4) Russia’s mistreatment of its own soldiers
Putin clearly doesn’t care about those on the front line and treats them like cannon fodder. Intercepted calls and reports from deserters show that soldiers (a) weren’t even told they were going to war, (b) don’t truly understand why they are fighting and dying, (c) don’t trust their officers, and (d) aren’t properly fed, clothed, rested, or treated when wounded.
This wrecks the fighting spirit of Russia’s troops. When you see photos of them compared to Ukraine’s soldiers, it’s clear that Ukraine country cares about its military, feeds them, and keeps them properly equipped, while Russian troops look skinny, dirty, and using a grab-bag of gear, some of it decades old.
5) Ukraine tells us stories of courage and compassion
Every day, we see the people of Ukraine and the jobs they’re doing, whether it’s a combat medic and her crew or a soldier’s mother coming out to hug her son as he liberates her village.
These images stick with you.
Russia doesn’t have anything close to counter those narratives. Instead, they offer up denial, disinformation, and silly threats that they’ve made so often that nobody believes they will invade NATO countries or use nuclear weapons. If they can’t beat Ukraine, what makes Putin think he’d have a chance against a single NATO nation?
6) Trust matters
There’s always deception in war. It’s part of the game.
You want to deceive your enemy and surprise them.
There’s a difference between tricking your enemy and trying to lie to the world.
Ukraine may be understating its losses or wisely choosing not to talk about them too much.
What it’s not doing is trying to sell all kinds of lies to the press, the public, and the world. If Ukraine says X and Russia says Y, journalists and allies know they should put their money on what Ukraine says.
Because throughout this war, Russia has consistently lied. Even massively pro-Russian military bloggers are fed up with the denial of reality, and combat journalists often confirm information coming from Ukraine by getting what’s being reported by military bloggers and accounts of Russian soldiers.
As a former journalist, the last thing I would ever do is take anything Russia says as a fact.
7) People care about the ending of this story
Good narratives have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
They have private stakes–the lives of individual people and soldiers–and public stakes, like the survival of a nation.
In the beginning, we naturally felt sympathetic to Ukraine when it was invaded and bullied by Russia.
Right now in the middle, it’s normal to feel joyous at the remarkable counter-offensive Ukraine waged in September, one that will be written about for decades.
But most of all, people care how a story ends.
Russia has lost the global information war when it comes to this question.
People around the world want Ukraine to be free and democratic. To win this war and restore their sovereignty.
The alternative ending to this story is Ukraine becoming part of Putin’s new empire and the beginning of a new story as he tries to repeat this process in eastern Europe and take over other former members of the Soviet Union.
The contrast between Zelensky and Putin could not be starker.
This is a massive problem for Russia’s disinformation campaign and a huge bonus for Ukraine’s war effort.
Zelensky has served as an amazing wartime leader, uniting the country and rallying the free world to his nation’s defense.
His speeches–to other countries, to the United Nations, and his nightly addresses to the people of Ukraine–have been master classes. I’ll do a whole post talking about these. THEY ARE AMAZING.
Zelensky dresses like a humble soldier, not a CEO, and grew out his beard.
He often visits wounded soldiers in the hospital and regularly travels to the front line. Those photographs and videos are driving Russian military bloggers crazy. As they should.
Zelensky may be one of the most admired leaders in the world right now. Hands down.
Putin may be one of the most hated. He treats his generals with contempt, often removing them from command. He doesn’t visit the front lines and disappears to his villa regularly.
Early in the war, one of Zelensky’s first decisions echoes even today. The United States offered to help evacuate him when it seemed Russia would take Kyiv.
Zelensky refused that offer and reportedly said, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
And that response, in the very beginning, set the course for the end of this story.