One week since Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine, Russia has failed to control the narrative at home and abroad.
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war with Ukraine is being fought on multiple fronts. On the ground, Russian troops are descending upon Kyiv from the north, east and south, aiming to encircle the capital and other cities with a massive military assault.
But there is another front that is no less important — not of territory, but a battle of conviction, truth and will: the war of information.
Russia launched a direct hit Tuesday when a missile destroyed Kyiv’s main TV tower, but Ukraine’s national television broadcast was only temporarily disrupted. Indeed in a war waged in 2022, the lines of communication are seemingly as numerous and resilient as the battlefield updates and propaganda campaigns themselves — with Elon Musk’s delivery to Ukraine of his Starlink satellite internet connections, as a notable reminder.
Video testimony sent home
One week since the invasion, it is becoming clear that — largely on account of the free flow of digital communications and the vicinity and affinity of the Ukrainian and Russian populations — Putin appears to be losing the information war. Not just abroad, but also at home.
Ukrainian authorities have launched a website to help Russian families track down soldiers who had been killed or captured during the invasion. The site — 200rf.com — contains pictures of the identity documents and corpses of Russian soldiers who Ukraine says have been killed, as well as videos of captured personnel stating their name and intended purpose for being on Ukrainian territory.
These videos, which have been verified by various agencies, are going viral on TikTok and YouTube. Russian liberal daily Novaya Gazeta has confirmed the identity of one of the soldiers, while at the U.N. General Assembly on Monday, Ukraine’s United Nations Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya read a final text message exchange between a now dead Russian soldier and the soldier's mother.
Increasingly, a thread that connects many of the reports from captured Russian soldiers is that many didn’t know the true reason they had been sent to Ukraine. Ukrainian news outlet Livy Bereg reported details of interrogations of eight Russian soldiers who had been detained. The soldiers claimed to have come to Ukraine for training exercises, not to wage war, having been deceived and coerced into fighting through threats of imprisonment and, in some instances, even execution. Of course, it is impossible to verify the stories or know if the soldiers have been coerced by their captors. Still, the storyline is spreading rapidly back in Russia.
Video of captured soldiers
The 200rf portal has since been banned in Russia, adding to the list of websites and platforms (including Twitter and Facebook) that the Kremlin has unplugged the past week.
Meanwhile, Russian State TV has dismissed the videos of captured soldiers as "fakes." Instead, Pervaya Kanal continues to maintain that the invasion was a defensive "special operation," heroically launched to protect two separatist regions and rid Ukraine of the corrupt regime in Kyiv. Furthermore, Russia's defense ministry has so far given no details of any military losses in Ukraine since the operation began.
Back home, the information is having an impact.
Early Wednesday morning, state-run Tass media reported that Russia’s prosecutor general also ordered the country’s media watchdog to “restrict access” to the oppositionist Dozhd TV channel and Ekho Moskvy radio. The former was expected, but the latter remains a surprise. Owned by Gazprom-Media, whose shares are majority state-owned, people assumed it would be safe. But it’s clear that no matter who you are, the Russian state is cracking down and tightening its grip on the information front.
Back home, the information that has gotten through appears to be having an impact. Anti-war protests continued on the streets of Moscow on Monday and Tuesday and the gates to Red Square have been closed to the public, resulting in another bout of arrests and another wave of anger.
View of the TV tower after a Russian attack near Kyiv, Ukraine
Ignacio Ortega/EFE via ZUMA
Erasing the truth
But suppressing the people is one thing. Erasing the truth is another. And that’s exactly what Vladimir Putin is attempting to do. Lev Shlosberg, a prominent liberal Russian politician, has suggested Russia's military was using mobile crematoriums to destroy evidence of those killed in Ukraine. "There is no war. No dead. No tombs. People will just be no more. Forever," he wrote on his blog.
But Moscow is unable to shut down the flow of information, and shared testimonies from the front lines are proving to be a weapon in the hands of the Ukrainian “enemy.” Viktor Andrusiv, an adviser to the Ukrainian Interior Minister, said in a video posted on rf200 that "I know that many Russians are worried about how and where their children, sons, husbands are and what is happening to them — so we decided to put this online so that each of you could search for your loved one who Putin sent to fight in Ukraine."
The name of the site references the well-known term Gruz-200 (Cargo-200) that was used by the Soviet military for corpses being flown back from the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It is Ukraine’s reminder to Russia of the fate facing their fathers and sons if the war starts to drag on.
"Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth." The infamous Nazi Joseph Goebbels’ law of propaganda is central to the Kremlin’s current war policy. But what happens when things are reversed? When the truth is revealed to be the lie it always was? To some degree, at least, the free flow of information that the internet allows appears to subvert Goebbels’ formula.
That leaves the tempestuous President Putin, enraged at seeing his swift attempts to take Ukraine thwarted and his justifications for invasion increasingly dismissed by Russians and the international community alike.
The good news is that Putin is unlikely to find the channels or arguments to convince people of his reasoning for the invasion. The bad news is that this may leave him with only one option: to dig in deeper, get bloodier and simply stop caring what anyone thinks about his war.