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Ukraine war's most potent weapon may be a cell phone

James Stavridis
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)
People charge their cellphones in a public building in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, on April 6, 2022, during Russia's military invasion launched on Ukraine. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

As the war in Ukraine pushes well into its second month, much of the outcome thus far — including Russian failures in executing their battle plans — is the result of logistics. Moscow has struggled abysmally to get gasoline, ammunition and food to its frontline troops. On the Ukrainian side, the flow of weapons and other materiel from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the U.S. has been breathtaking.

Russia is now forced to reassess its objectives and consolidate its forces in territory it already controlled before the invasion, in the southeastern Donbas region. So far, at least, it is a stunning setback for President Vladimir Putin.

But one area of warfare hangs in the balance: information. Despite ample video evidence of widespread war crimes by Russian troops, provided by Ukrainian forces and international journalists, the Kremlin is still managing the information war with energy, imagination and fairly effective counternarratives.

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It’s a familiar litany by now: The Ukrainian government is composed of Nazis; corpses of civilians in the cities of Bucha and Irpin are staged; missile strikes on targets like maternity hospitals and train stations are “false flag” operations conducted by the Ukrainians; and it is Ukraine, not Russia, that is preparing to use nerve agents.

For the Russians, this is not a trivial exercise. A significant part of the world will regard this conflict through the diet of information it consumes. As the war drags on, this will greatly influence global willingness to support sanctions and increasingly higher energy prices. Inside Russia, of course, Putin has control over almost every aspect of the media and the Internet, at least for the moment, and he can use that to tap into the nationalism of the Russian people.

But in the rest of the world — particularly China and India, where well over a third of the world’s population lives — there are deeply conflicting narratives at work. (China has cautiously supported Russia in the conflict; India is more or less neutral.) The same is true in a significant portion of Latin America and Africa, where there is some sympathy for Putin’s claims that the West has somehow threatened Moscow.

Deepfakes: The Russian leader points to the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as far worse than his “special operation” in Ukraine. The Russians are experts at manipulating information technically, producing so-called deepfake videos that are marketed globally across propaganda machines like the Russian Television Network, or RT. For example, in mid-March a hacked news clip from Ukrainian TV falsely indicating that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was surrendering went viral on social media. (In fairness, the Ukrainians have mounted similar disinformation campaigns.)

How can the Western democracies and Ukraine win the battle of information? What are the techniques and tactics of information warfare, which are just as important as providing anti-aircraft and antitank weapons in achieving success?

America must begin with humility as it seeks to make its case. Sometimes people say to me, “Admiral, you’re right, we are in a war of ideas.” Not quite — in fact, we are engaged in a marketplace of ideas.

We must compete in that marketplace, selling the idea that the Western vision of democracy, liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and gender and racial equality are inherently and obviously the only worldview that matters. Messaging, especially on the Internet and social media, is central to this soft sell.

In many parts of the world, the U.S. and its allies now have to explain patiently to leaders and citizens why those ideas matter so deeply and what their societies can gain from them. For example, we’ve got to be able to explain the differences between this war in Ukraine and previous Russian meddling in the Middle East. What is happening in Syria is a moral travesty, but the geopolitical stakes are far higher in Eastern Europe. But if you are a teenager in sub-Saharan Africa or the Andean ridge of South America, those differences are not always obvious.

Second, there is a fraught technological competition. Winning requires resources devoted to telling the stories from the bloody battlefields to the diplomatic boardrooms. Videos have to be crisp and convincing, showing in graphic detail the war crimes being committed daily in Ukraine. This needs to be packaged and moved over the social networks in creative ways that capitalize on the West’s advantages — from getting them in the hands of social influencers in dozens of key countries to setting up professional-quality websites that are easy to navigate.

Obtaining, validating and editing the millions of cell phone hits generated every day is a key task. So is working with Big Tech to find ways around the blocking of sites and Internet connections by autocratic powers. Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite Internet service, provided free to Ukrainians, is a prime example.

Who's in charge?: For the U.S. government, all this requires a great deal of interagency cooperation. There is no longer an overarching U.S. information agency as there was during the Cold War. That mission today is broadly conducted by the office of the under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

But the State Department budget, never large, has been hammered over the last decade; it needs help to conduct an information campaign effectively. Many other cabinet agencies deal with promoting America’s image abroad, including the Departments of Commerce, Defense and Homeland Security. They must sync up messages and move them globally.

The Central Intelligence Agency must continue its deep involvement in obtaining classified information, and disseminating unclassified versions — including inside Russia itself. The Joe Biden administration’s unprecedented releases of sensitive intelligence before the Russian invasion were key in lining up an unexpected outpouring of global support for the Ukrainian cause.

The U.S. needs to forge more aggressive international synchronization. For example, visits to Kyiv or videoconferences with Zelenskyy by international leaders should be scheduled as part of a planned campaign, not in the current haphazard fashion. In addition to the European Union and NATO, key allies such as Japan and Australia need to be meshed into a consistent operation.

Unfortunately, the Russians have a significant head start in the information war. For a decade, they have been very effective at intruding into Western democracy, especially by spreading Internet conspiracy theories in the run-ups to national elections in the U.S. and Europe.

The West, however, has a major messaging advantage: Its values are the right ones. Russia is conducting an illegal campaign of brutal war crimes in Ukraine; the Ukrainian people are bravely defending their democracy; the West is providing significant military, diplomatic and economic support; and history will judge Putin’s fellow travelers harshly.

But the U.S. cannot simply use its wealth and power to hammer the rest of the world with its argument. Competing in the global marketplace of ideas will require a touch of humility, significant resources, a well-run campaign between nations and government agencies, and — above all — steady belief in the values we cherish.

— James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also chair of the board of the Rockefeller Foundation and vice chairman of Global Affairs at the Carlyle Group. His latest book is "2034: A Novel of the Next World War."