How Russia wages war on the information front

Here is the analysis of the main objectives of the Russian information-psychological operations. It is set to make Zombies out of the population of the occupied territories through manipulation with information.

The Kremlin has problems on the real fronts where real fighting takes place. But it has been more successful in the information sphere. Russian information-psychological warfare operations, PsyOps in short, have several main goals:

  • to support the actions of its troops;
  • to reduce the effectiveness of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU);
  • to form the loyalty of residents of the occupied territories, and
  • to “treat” the population of the Russian Federation itself.

To a certain extent, these classification buckets are arbitrary because Russian PsyOps are complex and aimed at several goals at once.

Campaigning on the battlefield – not so successful

Thus, several different means are used to support the actions of the Russian troops. These range from fairly old, time-tested visits by musicians and actors, who arrange creative evenings to support the morale of the military, to conventionally newer methods, such as launching motivational videos on social networks with information about successful offensive of the Russian troops. But the quality and reliability of these materials remain problematic. For example, Kadyrov’s “TikTok-warriors” from Chechnya are supposed to be the main “bogeyman” for Ukrainian forces, but they have become an endless inspiration for funny memes instead.

Audio stations “ZS-88” can be used to influence Ukrainian forces. ZS-88 is a capable speaker mounted on a Soviet-made APC, although we cannot rule out the use of more modern models. Usually, such audio stations call for laying down weapons and surrendering. But the Russians are observed to broadcast the Russian anthem or Soviet military songs from time to time. Videos with these audio stations show that the speech is given against a background of complete silence around them, which means that recordings were made far away from the combat zone. Hence, it contradicts the technical characteristics of the audio stations as their maximum radius of impact is 3 to 6 km, depending on the weather, terrain, etc. This is indicative of the Russians being afraid to bring ZS-88 closer to the Ukrainian positions because they risk getting artillery fire in response to their calls. The fear is not unfounded: one such audio station was hit by the AFU.

Speakers mounted on “BMP” a Soviet-made APC

Also, the positions of Ukrainians may be bombarded with special ammunition made where the shells disperse postcard-like leaflets talking about the conditions of surrender. Typically, the text of these postcards is quite standard. “The commanders abandoned you and fled,” “you are all in the pocket,” “there is no authority in Kyiv anymore,” and “all neighboring units have surrendered.” These messages were noticed before the full-scale invasion started in February 24 and they haven’t changed since then.

Leaflet disseminated through special PsyOps artillery shell
Top: the special artillery ammunition for leaflets. Bottom: the leaflets dispersed from the artillery shell.

A more modern method is to send text messages. As a rule, “Leer-3” electronic warfare complex is used for this purpose. It includes three special “Orlan-10” UAVs. These drones can jam mobile communications and simultaneously imitate a base station, intercepting all communications.

Informational manipulations – quite successful

The work of Russians in virtual space is no less important and quite successful. This includes, for example, the administration of a whole network of Telegram channels that rebroadcast pro-Russian messages long before the full-scale attack (and were very popular among several Ukrainian deputies). An even more interesting example is the creation of a network of regional telegram channels for territories that were to be occupied during the first stage of the aggression. All of them were created before the full-scale anger and were activated immediately with the advent. Today, only the channels targeting the temporarily occupied territories are functioning. They are mainly aimed at the civilian population, assuring them of the negative economic and social situation in Ukraine; that the Ukrainian authorities have abandoned the occupied regions; that Russia is actively helping civilians and restoring order, etc. And, of course, there are Nazis everywhere in Ukraine.

In addition, the main Russian peculiarities are actively relayed: “canonical” Orthodoxy, the cult of the “Great Patriotic War,” confrontation with the insidious West, and the feeling of a besieged fortress.

Significant efforts are thrown at forming anti-war sentiments within society. Information about the problems of mobilization, territorial defense, and support in the AFU is being artificially stirred up on social networks. Of course, it cannot be denied that these problems exist, and it is just as impossible to keep them quiet. However, it should be clearly understood that the enemy uses any scandals in Ukrainian society to conduct its own PsyOps. During such operations, they can provoke inter-regional contradictions (for example, by throwing in theses like “why the residents of Western Ukraine should fight for the East”) or outrage society against ethnic minorities. Unfortunately, sometimes it is the Ukrainian authorities themselves that provide the “shells” for the occupants, creating scandals out of the blue. A recent example is a stir around the issue of the ban on the departure of men outside the regions. Not all officials have yet realized how negative consequences can result from improper communication.

As for Ukrainians in the temporarily occupied territories, the main efforts of the Russians are aimed at breaking consciousness as quickly as possible, reprogramming people per the standards of the “Russian world. It is no coincidence that mobile monitors were brought to occupied Mariupol in the first place to organize the broadcasting of Russian TV channels in this way. During the seizure of Kherson, one of the first strategic facilities over which the occupants established control was the retransmission center, which provided broadcasts throughout the region. Almost immediately a group of specialists arrived there, and in April they began broadcasting on Russian television.

Mobile Russian TV in public places on the occupied territories

A large contingent of Russian journalists creates content for Russians. Among them are already well-known Russian propaganda stars such as Dmitry Steshin, Alexander Kots, Semen Pegov, and Alexander Sladkov. They call themselves “war correspondents,” but they are only part of the combat propaganda of the Russian Federation. They shoot staged stories about mythical “atrocities by Ukrainian troops” and justify the Russian Armed Forces’ war crimes (for example, with stories about “Azov bases” in the Mariupol Drama Theater or the “fake massacre” in Bucha). They coordinate their publications by topic and time, and a whole staff works on their telegram channels because it is physically impossible for one person to generate 400-500 publications per month (not counting reposts) and with such a busy schedule. In addition, working off “tunnels,” they shoot stories about the heroism of occupants and the attractiveness of serving in the Russian army, trying to support the hidden mobilization that started in Russia and the occupied territories of our country. A recent prime example is the blatant advertising of “volunteer battalions,” which even Dmitry Kiselev himself joined. He came to one of the training camps, talked to volunteers, and even showed phone numbers to those wishing to join. Some of this propagandists have been already sanctioned by the UK, the USA and Australia.

Zombification techniques – progress to be seen, potentially successful

Russia is trying to break the resistance of Ukrainians in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. The situation is not easy for the occupiers. On the one hand, the Ukrainian army is gradually approaching the outskirts of Kherson and preparing for a counteroffensive. On the other hand, there are more and more active partisans in the rear, who demoralize the enemy and from time to time liquidate the collaborators. Therefore, the Kremlin’s main narrative is to convince the locals that Russia is here for good, that the population must stop all resistance and obey the new government. For more effective zombification, locals are given free DVB-T2 TV tuners, with which they can watch more than 30 Russian channels. The only condition for receiving such a tuner is to provide their data (which the occupiers need to hold a fake “referendum”).

In addition to the already mentioned television, the occupants have established the production of newspapers The Naddnepryanskaya Pravda for the Kherson region and The Zaporizhsky Vestnik for the Zaporizhzhya region. The newspapers have a circulation of about 10 thousand copies. The titles of the articles speak for themselves: “Kherson Region – Russian Land,” “Russia Came to Kherson Region Forever,” “Road to Russia,” “Kherson Region as Part of Russia,” “We Don’t Abandon Our Own,” “Return to the Family” other.

The Naddnepryanskaya Pravda (translation: Truth from the Dnieper River banks)

In addition, the occupiers are trying to cut off the local population from alternative sources of information. For example, immediately after the occupation of Kherson Oblast, access to the Ukrainian segment of the Internet was physically cut off by installing fiber-optic cables from Crimea. Ukrainian providers were quickly replaced by Russian ones. This allowed them to establish control over the network, limit access to Ukrainian information resources, and monitor users’ actions.

There was a similar situation with mobile communications. Ukrainian operators from the occupied Crimea were replaced by the Russian K-Telecom (under the WinMobile brand), and SIM cards are also issued in exchange for passport data. This creates a “person-number” database and makes it possible to monitor the movement or locate the subscriber. In addition, on a software level, Russian operators can restrict access to certain sites. The new network is currently being developed by taking over Ukrainian base stations. Also, according to the testimony of Ukrainians who have passed through the occupants filtration camps, special TiSPY software is forcibly installed on cell phones to control the device.

The residents of the occupied territories find themselves in a strictly restricted information space with almost no access to news from free Ukraine. On top of that, the occupiers are preparing for a forced transition to the Russian educational program, which they were preparing since April (see below). For example, a batch of textbooks on the Russian language, literature, and history of the Russian Federation was recently delivered to Kupyansk. If this information blockade continues for a long time, the risk that the number of people opposed to Ukraine, its authorities, the Armed Forces, and values in the occupied territories could increase over time.

Lack of meaning – will the outright lies create new symbols?

The Kremlin itself has a problem with values, though. While taking away, the occupiers offer too little in return. Moscow also has a problem with the identities formed around the so-called “special military operation. The use of the letters of the Latin alphabet may indeed make it easier for Russian commanders to identify military equipment, but it contradicts the concept of the Russian world, with all its crosses. That is why attempts by Russian media technologists to create at least some kind of identity and mythology around the symbols Z, O, and V look clumsy and artificial. Even the Russians themselves have questions about all these “Courageous” (Russian: “Отважные”) people who allegedly heard some “Zov” (“Call”). This is one of the indirect proofs that at the beginning of the operation the Kremlin was not ready for a long war, accordingly, there was no need to mythologize it. And, apart from the St. George’s ribbon, Moscow had nothing new to offer at that time.

Latin letter “z” is used instead of Cyrillic “з” in Russian phrases “For the army,” “For the bravery,” “For the truth.”
Latin letter “v” is not used instead of Cyrillic “в” in this instance

Russia has similar problems with its cultural component. It is difficult to call attempts to create “fighting” songs that would become truly folk songs successful. The “motivational” dances of the “girls of Donetsk People’s Rep.” made even the Russians smirk, and no new hits have emerged. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, one can collect at least a dozen songs dedicated to the war, which have become popular and can be heard literally from every corner, from an old bus in the district center to an expensive restaurant in the capital. In response, Russia is forced to use old songs from well-known Soviet films, which do not resonate with the mood of young people.

This also applies to the visual component. While since the beginning of the full-scale offensive in Ukraine a huge amount of graphics have appeared, which later turned into posters, memes, T-shirts, stickers, and chevrons, in Russia it is much worse. And these problems in the cultural sphere are recognized even by the biggest fans of the Russian Federation. Perhaps it is due to the years of “negative selection” and oppression by the regime, which has stimulated the brain drain and the flight of talent from Russia itself.

But despite the many difficulties faced by the Kremlin, the effectiveness of the Russian propaganda machine should not be underestimated. Ukraine has already experienced its poisonous effect in Donbas. Therefore, in addition to the physical liberation of the territories, it is necessary to fight for the “mind and heart” of the Ukrainians in the occupied territories. Because in this case time is playing against Ukraine.

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