After months of amassing troops around Ukraine’s borders, Russia’s invasion of its neighbor was met with frantic condemnation from world leaders and an outpouring of support on social media. Russia has long been priming the information environment for this invasion, identifying and exploiting regional grievances in eastern and southern Ukraine since the country’s independence in 1991, and more recently in fabricating pretenses for starting a war of its own making. While Russian narratives continue to be amplified by state media, as well as American politicians seizing the opportunity to attack opponents at home, Western democracies must not be sucked into merely refuting Russian claims. They must shift focus to the disastrous consequences of this war. At the same time, they must not lose sight of other pressure points Russia has been pushing in its digital sovereignty efforts.
Russia hasn’t exactly been subtle about its interests in Ukraine, whose proximity and overlap in populations has encouraged local elites to cooperate with their bigger neighbor in the past. Oligarchs have frequently sided with Russia for their own financial gains, often controlling Ukrainian media outlets to further their agendas. Russia has been adept at understanding regional divisions in Ukraine, conducting extensive surveys in the east to identify issues to exploit, such as existing political cleavages. This has been made easier in part by the close cultural ties between Russia and Ukraine’s Donbas region.
One narrative pushed by Russian politicians since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been particularly troubling: that parts of Ukraine are Russian and need to be recovered. The widespread commentary from Russian officials deepened fears of what Russia might “take back.” Indeed, Putin predicated his 2014 annexation of Crimea on the fact that Russians made up the majority of the population there and needed to be protected from Ukrainian oppression. In this latest escalation, Russia has sought to manufacture justification for invading Ukraine, including claims that Russians are facing genocide in rebel-held areas. Russia has also long weighed in on Ukrainian elections, making its desired outcome known.
The tropes now being proffered to justify a Russian invasion of Ukraine are old—one cannot simply walk into an information ecosystem hoping to shape it. But democracies face a new question: What is to be done?
One possibility is that democracies seeking to respond to this crisis could take a page from the Russian playbook. Russians seeking to influence the information environment often rely on inundation and repetition—a tactic frequently overlooked in the West, given that media outlets prefer novel stories over repeated facts. However, nothing is stopping Western officials from resurfacing key points. Much like Russian officials and their supporters point out past American mistakes, American officials could recycle examples of how Russians have misled audiences in the past, or caused harm, and thus constantly reinforce how unreliable they are as a source.
Another tactic is to appeal to Russians. This will be much harder, as many Russians are skeptical of Western sources. However, there are early indications that this conflict is not popular domestically. Russian citizens in some cities have taken to the streets to protest the war. High-profile Russians have publicly decried the invasion. The ties that bind Russians and Ukrainians will make any losses incurred by Russians extremely unpopular. Amplifying those losses as much as possible will be demoralizing for Putin at home.
Democracies also need to have counterfacts ready. Russians and sympathetic Ukrainian politicians have long painted Ukrainians as fascists, pointing to World War II and modern far-right groups as evidence. While Nazis drew support from upward of a quarter million Ukrainians, some 2 million were taken back to Germany as little more than slave laborers, and yet millions more enlisted in the Soviet Army. This is to say nothing of what Ukrainians suffered under the Soviet Union, from forced migrations to deliberate famines and the Chernobyl disaster. Moreover, Moscow now uses de-Nazification as a pretense for invasion while fostering a network of far-right groups abroad. Democracies need to assert that if Russia is so concerned about such elements, Putin should start cleaning his own house first.
In addition, democracies need to keep an eye on the wider geopolitics. An invasion uncontested by Western partners in any form but sanctions and stern warnings might encourage other actors in Europe to see an opportunity to revise borders. And there are alarming signs of conservative voices on the other side of the Atlantic pushing Russian talking points. It doesn’t seem like a stretch that the same forces behind the protests that took over Ottawa for three weeks could be further provoked to erode support for interventions to help Ukraine. Likewise, Russia has been advocating at the UN for greater control over domestic information ecosystems—a form of digital sovereignty. It is crucial that Western democracies formulate a response in line with democratic values, lest Russia do so first.
All the pretty words of support are meaningless if they cannot be backed up with actions. Many Ukrainians felt abandoned by the West in 2014, and actions like evacuating foreign embassies and advisers when the Ukrainian government was calling on them once again fed a narrative of abandonment. When such news is used by the Russian media to draw parallels with the abandonment of Afghanistan, it reinforces a Russian narrative that the West does not care about Ukraine. Beyond sanctions, Western democracies must find meaningful gestures of support. One such way these countries can aid Ukraine is to join the fight against Russia’s long-standing disinformation campaign by taking pages from Putin’s own cyber playbook—holding the Russian regime to account for its lies and past failures, while spotlighting the costs ordinary Russians are paying for this folly.