The war(*) in Ukraine is hastening changes in international politics in many different ways.
The possibility to see the conflict morphing into World War III acts as a convincing spur for continuing efforts at understanding and adapting. Concerned and informed actors are thus trying to make sense of the ongoing conflict and of its prospects. They seek to comprehend the way relationships between actors could evolve, and more generally to understand changes at work.
How information is used during the war is one key element that deserves close attention, as it strongly shapes and influences the conflict and its future, as well as global international relations. Indeed, Ukraine has been hailed for its formidable mastery of information and communication (e.g. Michael Butler, “Ukraine’s information war is winning hearts and minds in the West“, The Conversation, 12 May 2022). Actors on the world stage are assessing the way information warfare is carried out during the war in Ukraine and will continue to do so. The resulting lessons learned will deeply impact future handling of information in the international arena.
In this article, we present first what is information warfare, using mainly American doctrine. Then, we turn to Ukraine and some of the features of its information warfare, and give examples of its “strategic communications”. We highlight what can be seen as success, but also point out more worrying potential consequences. As much as possible we tried to include videos to illustrate our points, including a documentary on the history of psyops and an interview by Pr Noam Chomsky on the war in Ukraine and propaganda.
The galaxy of Information warfare
If we wanted to summarise quickly what information warfare is, then we could simply say that it is the use by an actor – usually a state or state-like actor, but that could be any entity, in all settings, be it war or peace, of all possible means related to and involving information to gain influence over others and see objectives met. The “others” can be anyone. It can be for example, a domestic or overseas audience. Let us examine this brief summary more detail.
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War in Ukraine – Commissioned Reports and Monitoring
- The Red Team Analysis Weekly – 23 June 2022
- The American National Interest
- Food Security: China-Russia and Ukraine – Anthropocene Wars (4)
- Information Warfare and the War in Ukraine
- War in Ukraine, Megadrought and the Coming Global Food Crisis – Anthropocene Wars (3)
- Advanced Training in Early Warning Systems & Indicators – ESFSI in Tunisia
- Nuclear Battlefields in Ukraine – Anthropocene Wars (2)
Information warfare, strategic communication and propaganda
The use of information in politics, international politics, and more specifically during war means:
“Any form of communication in support of national objectives designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly”.Dennis M. Murphy “Strategic Communications: Wielding the Information Element of Power”, in U.S. Army War College Guide to National Security Issues – Volume I: Theory of War and Strategy, Edited by Dr. J. Boone Bartholomees Jr., Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, June 2012, p. 162
It is considered as being as old as human history.
For its part, the American Congressional Research Service, using conceptualisations given by practitioners defines information warfare as:
“A strategy for the use and management of information to pursue a competitive advantage, including both offensive and defensive operations.”CRS, Defense Primer: Information Operations, December 2021
For the U.S., information warfare, especially since the 2018 National Defense Strategy, is understood “as competition short of open warfare” (Ibid. – see more below with the concepts of IE and OIE).
Thus, it is indeed the use of information, including when we are not at war, directed at anyone.
When information warfare is used by actors deemed unfriendly or perceived as the enemy, then it tends to be qualified as “propaganda“, which only became a pejorative term around World War I and especially following World War II (Murphy: 162-163). For example, the U.S. Department of Defence defines propaganda as
“Any form of adversary communication, especially of a biased or misleading nature, designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly” .“Psychological Operations,” Joint Publication 3-13.2, Joint Chiefs of Staff, January 7, 2010.
When, on the contrary, information is used by the sponsor itself, as well as allies and friends, then this activity is labelled as “strategic communication.” The U.S. military defines it as:
“Focused U.S. Government efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of U.S. Government interests, policies, and objectives through the use of coordinated programs, plans, themes, messages, and products synchronized with the actions of all instruments of national power”.“Psychological Operations,” Joint Publication 3-13.2, Joint Chiefs of Staff, January 7, 2010.
NATO’s definitions are very similar, if not identical, to those used by the U.S (see AJP 3-10.1: Allied Joint Doctrine for Psychological Operations, UK).
The problem with these dichotomous definitions is that they tend already to incorporate a biased perspective: what comes from the enemy is disinformation, misinformation, in a nutshell “lies” and “false”; what comes from me – or those allies that serve my purpose is “true” or “the Truth”. Somehow, the psychological war has already started. Once an adversary is identified as such, thence all its communication becomes tainted, which definitely will obscure understanding. As a result, this approach is inherently escalating and favours war over peace and diplomacy. It may also generate a feeling of self-righteousness, which then will imply that one becomes so sure of oneself that one becomes prey to any bias. As a result, these dichotomous definitions may end up favouring defeat if comprehension increasingly lacks as one becomes more and more persuaded that everything stemming from the adversary is false, while what comes from one’s system is right.
The “American” understanding of “strategic communication” corresponds almost exactly to China’s approach labelled “comprehensive engagement” by Jeangène Vilmer and Charon (“Russia as a Hurricane, China as Climate Change: Different Ways of Information Warfare”, War on The Rocks, 21 January 2020). Indeed, China’s strategic communication is described by Wallis as:
“A holistic approach in which language and messaging are used in tandem with other elements of statecraft, including diplomatic, military and economic efforts.”Jake Wallis, “China and Russia aren’t the same when it comes to information warfare“, The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 25 September 2019
Whoever the sponsor or initiator of strategic communication, it is key to comprehend that strategic communication is grounded in “the inherent understanding that all Diplomatic, Information, Military & Economic (DIME) activities have the potential to influence the behaviors and attitudes of specific groups” (Steve Tatham, U.S. Governmental Information Operations and Strategic Communications: A Discredited Tool or User Failure? Implications for Future Conflict, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, December 2013: 8).
As a result, all the DIME activities may and should become the target of strategic communication if an actor wants to see its communication succeed. Meanwhile, all these activities should be combined to create a successful “strategic communication”.
Where it becomes even more interesting is when strategic communication itself works at using others’ DIME activities to carry out one’s aim. At individual level this would just be called plain manipulation. The DIME activities that are thus targeted can be not only those of allies and friendly countries, but also those of the competitors and enemies. We are here in the realm of the Russian Reflexive Control (refleksivnoe upravlenie / рефлексивного управления), built upon the Soviet Cheka’s Maskirovka (the art of surprise through deception, concealment, or psyops). Reflexive control can be defined as:
“A means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action.”Timothy L. Thomas, “Russia’s Reflexive Control Theory and the Military,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies 17, p 237.
In this case, it is key to see that there is no need for the information used to be false, biased or directly misleading. Reflexive control can very well be done with something completely real and true. For example, leaking a real information can be very efficient. One can also set up actions in a way that will prompt people in thinking and acting in the way one wants.
Supporting capabilities and related operations
In the U.S., for example, four capabilities are traditionally supporting “strategic communication”: public affairs, military information operations, public diplomacy as well as international broadcasting services (Murphy: 163-164). Any capacity and activity that could usefully support strategic communication should ideally be involved (Ibid.).
Public affairs means information communicated to a domestic and international audience on the activities of the government in the interest of the latter (ibid).
Information Operations (I/Os), Operations in the Information Environment (OIEs) and Psyops
Militarily and operationally, strategic communication is supported by what is called Information Operations or I/Os:
“The integrated employment, during military operations, of information-related capabilities in concert with other lines of operation to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision-making of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own.”U.S. JP 3-13 in CRS Information Primer, 2021.
Actually, I/Os could be designed to involve all available supportive capabilities, and not only military ones, and be carried out in combination by them.
Indeed, in 2016, the DoD added a new concept, the “Information environment” (IE), with its corollary, the “Operations in the Information Environment” (OIE) (Strategy For Operations In The Information Environment, June 2016, revised in 2018 with the Joint Concept for Operations in the Information Environment).
IE is comprised of and aggregates numerous social, cultural, cognitive, technical, and physical attributes that act upon and affect knowledge, understanding, beliefs, world views, and, ultimately, actions of an individual, group, system, community, or organization. The IE also includes technical systems and their use of data. The IE directly affects and transcends all operating environments.Glossary, Joint Concept for Operations in the Information Environment, July 2018, p.42.
Operations in the Information Environment (OIE) [are] actions taken to generate, preserve, and apply informational power against a relevant actor in order to increase or protect competitive advantage or combat power potential within all domains of the operating environment.CRS, Defense Primer: Information Operations, December 2021.
Information warfare would then become either “a subset of OIE” (Ibid.) or coterminous with OIE.
Most importantly, these definitions and thus American actions apply to competitors too and not only to enemies in the framework of war. Competitors may, of course, also mean “friends and allies”. If we refer to the definition of “relevant actors”, we indeed read:
Relevant Actors. Those individuals, groups, populations, and automated processes and systems that, through their behavior, could substantially impact U.S. national strategy, policy, campaigns, operations, or tactical actions. These relevant actors may include governments at the national and subnational levels; state security forces, paramilitary groups, or militias; non-state armed groups; local political, religious, civil society, media, and business figures; diaspora communities; and global/regional intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. Law or policy may further limit the definition of relevant actors at the time of the proposed operation.Glossary, Joint Concept for Operations in the Information Environment, July 2018, p.42.
Hence, relevant actors maybe be close to anybody and anything according to U.S. wishes. The protection (for non-Americans) afforded by the last sentence is rather flimsy.
The IE and OIE’s perspective highlights an extremely offensive approach by America in terms of international politics. The U.S. wants to preserve its status as sole super power. The potential doubts that existed in 2017, for example, were de facto overcome (see Helene Lavoix, “Which U.S. Decline? The View from the U.S. National Intelligence Council,” The Red Team Analysis Society, 25 September 2017).
A detailed analysis of this “new” approach to information warfare, of the way it is implemented, and of the results obtained, for example in the case of the war in Ukraine, would most probably yield extremely interesting results.
A primary capability of I/Os is called Psychological Operations (Psyops) in Europe and within NATO, except in the U.S. where it has become Military Information Support Operations (MISO) (Ibid.). Note however, that in 2021, in the U.S., MISO would tend to become PSYOP again (CRS Defense Primer: Information Operations). Psyops are defined as:
“Planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives.”JP 1-02. SOURCE: JP 3-13.2
The video documentary below presents notably the use of psyops and its historical evolution, as well as real life examples.
Public Diplomacy is classically carried out by ministries of Foreign Affairs.
However, we may also think about other types of activities handling public diplomacy of a sort, and that could thus support strategic communications.
For example, we have Track II Diplomacy, carried out ideally by private individuals, actually usually by academics and ex-officials (e.g. Charles Homans, “Track II Diplomacy: A Short History“, 20 June 2011, Foreign Policy).
NGOs and humanitarian aid, considering notably their funding – through the use of foreign aid programs (see CRS Defense Primer: Information Operations) – and reporting process, may also be seen as being potentially part of the activities supporting strategic communication.
International broadcasting services
Finally, within the strategic communication supporting capabilities, we find “international broadcasting services” (Murphy: 164).
For the U.S., these media are managed and led by the U.S. Agency for Global Media (see also History – renaming in 2018 of the Broadcasting Board of Governors), which oversees Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, etc. The USAGM budget is USD 840 million for FY 2023.
These types of international services exist in most countries seeking global influence, for example BBC World News for the UK, France 24 and TV5Monde for France, Deutsche Welle (DW) for Germany, Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik for Russia (censored in the EU, e.g. HuffPost avec AFP, “Les médias russes Sputnik et Russia Today (RT) interdits dans l’UE,” Huffington Post, 27 February 2022), etc. In the case of China, we have notably China Global Television Network (CGTN), Global Times, and the oldest Beijing Review.
These services have of course adapted to the overall media environment and use the Internet, apps, social media platforms, or, more broadly all device and ways available. They will probably all continue to adapt to new technologies and this may also sooner rather than later mean Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality.
Information warfare in Ukraine
Ukraine, a new master of information operations?
Ukraine seems to have fully integrated the whole extent of information warfare into its strategy and operational capacities.
It benefits from organised capabilities, which, in 2019 under the separate Special Forces Command counted “some 4000 operators under arms” with “four Informational Psychological Operations Centers: the 16th at Huiva, 72nd at Brovary, 74th at Lviv, and 83rd at Odesa” (Max Gaelotti, Armies of Russia’s War in Ukraine, Bloomsbury Publishing, Jun 27, 2019, pp.46-47).
As a result and logically, following 24 February 2022, Ukraine rapidly highlighted the importance of the use of I/Os and psyops by “strictly forbidding” to divulge anything related to them in its “Important information for the media, bloggers and all citizens who take photos or write about the war and the army,”according to the order of the Commander-in-Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, General Valery Zaluzhny (published 2 March 2022; modified 14 April 2022).
A recent paper on I/Os in Ukraine estimates that the Ukrainian political authorities manage and use I/Os “highly efficiently” (Matthew Ford, “The Smartphone as Weapon – part 1: the new ecology of war in Ukraine”, 8 April 2022). Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government contributes to reinforce the emergence of what Ford and Hoskins call the new war ecology (Radical War, 2022):
“In its totality, MSM [mainstream broadcast and print media], social media, military communications and the information infrastructures they depend on form a complex constellation of platforms that interact in a number of different ways, producing …the new war ecology”Matthew Ford, “The Smartphone as Weapon – part 1: the new ecology of war in Ukraine”, 8 April 2022, p.2.
Among what could be seen as an efficient way to use strategic communication, a new supporting capability seems to be fully used by Ukraine: their own civilian population. Indeed, it is likely that Ukrainian citizens received a training in I/Os before the war started (“The Smartphone as Weapon – part 1, p. 4).
This, in turn, for example, allows integrating civilians in the targeting cycle, i.e. the whole process through which an enemy target can be identified in such a way it can be attacked and the effect of the attack is what was expected (“The Smartphone as Weapon – part 2: the targeting cycle in Ukraine, 10 April 2022). As Ford puts it,
“Ukraine’s armed forces have outsourced parts of the kill chain to civilians… On the battlefields outside Kyiv, civilians have become sensors, extending the targeting cycle into civil society.”Matthew Ford, “The Smartphone as Weapon – part 2: the targeting cycle in Ukraine, 10 April 2022, p.1.
Other types of I/Os are carried out in Ukraine, for example “managing” the mainstream broadcast and print media news cycle (e.g. Nick Newman, “Mainstream media and the distribution of news in the age of social discovery“, Oxford University, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, September 2011). Ford reports that Ukraine’s authorities tightly surveil what journalists can report and film (“The Smartphone as Weapon – part 1, pp. 4-5). He then documents the timeline for the Battle for Voznesensk showing that between 9 and 19 days took place between the battle itself – 2 to 3 March 2022 – and first reports on main media – 15 to 22 March 2022 (Ibid. pp. 5-7). He concludes that Ukraine media handlers had thus enough time to put together material to promote a specific narrative (Ibid.).
Meanwhile, communication is broadcast from all levels, from Ukrainian President Zelensky and the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine to armed elements, for example the now famous Azov Special Operations Detachment (Окремий загін спеціального призначення «Азов»), which belongs to Ukraine National Guard, or the less famous but as controversial Volunteer Ukrainian Corps “Right Sector”- Добровольчий Український Корпус “Правий сектор” ДУК ПС (DUK PS), through Ukrainians living abroad (on Azov and “Right Sector”, Hélène Lavoix, “Ukraine Spring 2022: Armed Groups”, commissioned report, 21 April 2022). This comprehensive approach, using multiple channels, allows reaching and influencing all the DIME activities of other states and relevant actors, including through the general public.
A couple of examples of Ukrainian Strategic Communication
Wagner in Ukraine
This message was then “confirmed” by British Intelligence on Twitter and the piece of information was re-shared multiple times throughout social media.
Translation of the message
🇺🇦 “‼The occupiers send another terrorist group to Ukraine in order to eliminate the leadership of Ukraine
▪️Regular groups of militants connected with Yevgeny Prigogine, a Russian propagandist close to Putin and owner of the League (Wagner), have started arriving in Ukraine today. The main task of criminals is to eliminate the top military and political leadership of Ukraine…”.
The Ukrainian Directorate of Intelligence shares what is meant to be an intercepted phone conversation – The 23 May 2022 message had been viewed 80.400 times 1 hour after it was shared on Telegram.
📞Rape, looting, mass crimes – the occupiers are discussing the latest news in the unit.
▪Two soldiers from the so-called “DPR” share their impressions of the course of events in their unit. They were recently told that the once-promised rotation could not even be expected: Until Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are “liberated”, you can forget about rotation. And then we do not move, because the whole group is in the DNR. When they finish there, they will send troops here and we will start moving. “
▪Then we talk about the rampant crime in the occupying army: “They told about the 125th Regiment. Until an eight-year-old girl was raped. Looting. “Squeezed” someone’s gas station. People were deprived of fuel and sold through this gas station. Regiment commander, battalion commanders. And assistant battalion commanders. “
▪DNRivets warns its interlocutor to be more careful and cannot understand why he is taking part in a Russian special operation.
🔥4th Separate Battalion Performs Combat Tasks for Victory over Moscow
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Support by the UK Defense Intelligence and US intelligence carrying out related I/Os throughout media platforms greatly contributes to the efficiency of Ukrainian strategic communication.
In the Western world, outside Ukraine, Western political authorities, elite, mainstream media and social networks then amplify the Ukrainian narratives.
The polarisation at work, where people according to their personal preference tend to flock to one or the other media/social network platform and the speed inherent to social networks serve the direct amplification of narratives, rather than a peaceful and objective analysis (e.g. Matthew Ford, “The Smartphone as Weapon – part 1).
So far, Ukrainian strategic communication, in convergence with American and British ones, were efficient enough in bringing to Ukraine quasi complete support by the European Union and its members states, regardless of the cost, military aid, financial support and, on the contrary, in degrading Russian power notably through sanctions (e.g. BBC News, “What sanctions are being imposed on Russia over Ukraine invasion?” 17 May 2022; CRS “U.S. Security Assistance to Ukraine“, 29 April 2022).
Furthermore, Sweden and Finland, so far European neutral countries decided to abandon this status and join NATO, the fate of their membership being in the hands of Turkey, which by the same token enhances its international power (France 24, “Turkey’s Erdogan sets conditions for Finland, Sweden’s NATO bids“, 23 May 2022).
Support of populations in many Western countries are also indicators of the success of Ukrainian strategic communication.
A global Ipsos survey carried out on 27 countries (but not including China), worldwide, can help assessing the efficiency of Ukraine’s information warfare on populations at large (Ipsos, “The World’s Response To The War In Ukraine“, 19 April 2022).
Ukraine succeeded in attracting attention, which is a feat in a world where the span of attention lasts a couple of days at best and is generally more focused on sport or the latest influencer than in world affairs (mouse over the IPSOS image below to see the percentages).
Ukraine could also garner support for its cause, with a majority of people welcoming Ukrainian refugees, supporting financial help, military aid and economic sanctions "in general" against Russia (Ipsos, Ibid.).
A less optimistic picture?
Actually, according to the Ipsos survey, the effects of the war and of Ukraine's strategic communications are more nuanced than what an average on 27 countries could let us believe.
For example, Ipsos highlights that there is "no consensus on supporting Ukraine’s military response" (Ibid.). Ipsos found, for example, that "those who support sending their own troops to Ukraine are a minority in each one of the 27 countries, averaging 17%."
On average, only "one-third support their country providing weapons – such as guns and anti-tank weapons – to the Ukrainian military (36%), providing funding to the Ukrainian military (33%), and sending troops to NATO countries neighboring Ukraine (32%)". However, as in most Western countries we have more than 50% ("a majority") supporting these propositions, this means that outside the West, the percentage of support is even lower than the average.
Furthermore, only 54 % on average are ready to pay more for their oil and fuel as a result of sanctions on Russia, with "fewer than 40% in Mexico, Peru, Hungary, Brazil, and Argentina" being ready to do so. "While more than 50% in Great Britain, Canada, Sweden, Poland, Australia, the U.S., and France support such a ban [ leading to further oil price increase], it is the case of fewer than 20% in Hungary and Turkey. In Germany, which is highly dependent on Russian natural gas, 45% support such a ban, 30% oppose it, and 25% are not sure".
As a result, what we see unsurprisingly happening is the emergence of a divided world, with the "West" on the one hand and the very large "rest" of the world on the other.
Indeed, in "Saudi Arabia, Hungary, Malaysia, and India, the opinion that “the problems of Ukraine are none of our business and we should not interfere” prevails". Meanwhile, as highlighted in the Al Jazeera's video below, double standards in the perception, concern for and handling of conflicts and refugees are also pointed out.
We thus witness a potential polarisation of the world, with Ukraine and "the West" plus notably Japan and South Korea on one side, and the rest on the other side. The "rest' of the world, may feel all the more alienated that it has to face a tragic food crisis, consequence of the war.
Many scenarios resulting from this fracture, if it is not mended, are possible. Some are negative for the world, such as a new world war. Others are especially negative for the West, with an acceleration of a possible impoverishment, and a demise of the U.S.-led liberal order. Such a scenario could be worse for Europe, notably considering its geographical location and the now defunct importance of European trade and industrial links with Russia (e.g. "Eurozone inflation soars to record 7.5 percent in March", Politico, 1st April 2022; Balazs Koranyi and Dan Burns, "Economic outlook has 'darkened', business and government leaders warn in Davos, Reuters, 24 May 2022).
In that case, Ukraine's strategic communication would have contributed to strengthen its ties with a declining world order, while also accelerating this very decline. This would hardly be a success.
Some voices also start denouncing what feels as propaganda being constantly hammered upon Western audience, as expressed and highlighted by Noru Tsalic in "Russia & Ukraine: The smartened-up story – Chapter IV" (The Times of Israel, 28 April 2022):
"I’ve said in the previous chapters and I’ll mention it again: in the current war Russia (and only Russia) is the guilty party. But that’s no reason for Western politicians and mainstream media to treat us as if we’re all simple-minded, unable to grasp complexity or nuance and incapable of telling reality from wishful thinking.Noru Tsalic, "Russia & Ukraine: The smartened-up story – Chapter IV", The Times of Israel, 28 April 2022.
In this series of articles, I fight the groupthink; I attempt to expose the dumbed-down narrative that’s being fed to us and smarten it up. I trust my fellow human beings: we are able to cope with the stark, unadulterated, unvarnished reality; treat us like intelligent adults."
In this perspective it is enlightening to listen to Pr Noam Chomsky on the war, propaganda and the media:
With time, the negative consequences of what would increasingly be denounced as propaganda and not seen anymore as efficient strategic communication could endanger the political authorities of the countries acting as supporting capabilities for Ukraine's information warfare.
Within these countries, trust could be damaged, and thus legitimacy could decrease. Within "the West", if some countries such as the US are perceived as taking advantage of the situation while not sharing in the cost - the advantage of a US-led monetary system being that the true burden of aid is lowered - the US-led order could be fragilised.
People could start wondering about the national interest of their country regarding the war in Ukraine, and if other alternatives, less costly to everyone and primarily to Ukraine, were not and would not still be possible. For example, if Ukraine had been prompted in being neutral, its security guaranteed through new security arrangement, if Minsk II had been truly respected and enforced, then war would likely never have started. Unfortunately, the US did not favour Minsk II, as highlighted by the signature of the U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership on 10 November 2021 and by the vocabulary used, while the UK did not trust it either (Samuel Charap, "How Could the United States React to Russia's Latest Posturing on Ukraine?", The Rand Blog, 19 November 2021; Office of the spokesperson of the U.S., U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership, 10 November 2021; e.g. for UK sentiment, Duncan Allan and Kataryna Wolczuk, "Why Minsk-2 cannot solve the Ukraine crisis", Chatham House, 16 February 2022; Duncan Allan, "The Minsk Conundrum: Western Policy and Russia’s War in Eastern Ukraine", Chatham House Policy Paper, May 2020).
Internationally, if propaganda were to become increasingly perceived as being blindly accepted and promoted within and by Western countries, the very standing and values of "the West" would suffer, with considerable consequences in terms of influence and power.
Finally, normatively, the use of citizens in the targeting cycle (Ford, ibid. part 2) and as willing vectors of strategic communication adds a new layer of difficulties to the already blurred lines between the status of civilians versus combatants (Lavoix, "Ukraine - Spring 2022"; Ford, The Smartphone as Weapon - part 3: participative war, the laws of armed conflict and genocide by smartphone,). The ICRC and the Law of Armed Conflict could try to argue that "combatant status only applies to those with ‘lasting integration into an organized armed group’ (Ibid). But what does mean lasting? If all civilians are trained in I/Os and henceforth completely part and parcel of the national defense, then is it not a lasting integration? This very evolution could imply renewed international normative discussion and disagreement, and at worst seriously challenge whatever progress had been made in terms of "law of war".
Practically, during war and irrespectively of law, the simple possession of a smartphone could transform a civilian into a target for enemy armed forces and get the civilian to be killed. Later on, there may well be a trial, but the owner of the cell phone will remain dead. The responsibility of political authorities thence knowingly endangering the lives of their civilian population could also be engaged.
Ukrainian information warfare, thus, on the short term appears as efficient. Thanks to its strategic communication, Ukraine could fight more and resist. The price to pay in destructions and probably in death and wounded, however, is very high. On the longer term, if extreme caution is not exercised in dealing with Ukraine's strategic communication and if we do not come back to reason and rational thinking, then Ukraine's information warfare could backfire. At worst, it could lead us all towards not only a world war but also a total war.
(*) We use the term of war following von Clauzewitz definitions according to which “War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will” and “War is a mere continuation of policy by other means” (Carl von Clausewitz, On War, vol. 1. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Company, 1832).
Our choice of word is thus functional and descriptive and not a legal statement.
Russia says it launched a "special military operation" on 24 February 2022 to “demilitarise” and "denazify" Ukraine. Furthermore, it stated it did so “in execution of the treaties of friendship and mutual assistance with the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic, ratified by the Federal Assembly on February 22, …to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime” (Address by the President of the Russian Federation, February 24, 2022, 06:00, The Kremlin, Moscow).
On 22 March 2022, the UN General Assembly voted a draft resolution introduced by Ukraine, with 141 states in favour, five against and 35 abstentions that “deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine in violation of Article 2 (4) of the Charter” (UN, “General Assembly Overwhelmingly Adopts Resolution Demanding Russian Federation Immediately End Illegal Use of Force in Ukraine, Withdraw All Troops”, 2 March 2022; Draft resolution.
Note that the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic are hardly recognised internationally; however, legally, the case is linked to the principle of “self determination”, which is a fundamental principle of the UN charter.