Are We Informationally Disadvantaged? The Realities of Information War in Ukraine

By COL David Acosta

 

The war in Ukraine stands out as the classic David and Goliath story between the larger, more powerful Russia and the smaller, more agile Ukraine. It is a tale of how Ukraine wielding the West’s spigot of truth, a deluge of TikTok videos, a band of Eastern European Elves, and Elon Musk’s satellite constellation, converged information power to challenge Russia’s firehose of falsehoods. Historians will study this conflict for years to come, and the information lessons are critical, especially to the US Army as it develops its emerging information advantage concept.

Since the first mention of information advantage in the Joint Concept for Operations in the Information Environment in 2018, the Army struggled to understand what achieving information advantage really means. Much of the Army’s focus is on network degradation, systems, processes, and formations, which claim to all ensure information advantage. These discussions fail to comprehend the activities taking place in Ukraine and their implications. In essence information advantage isn’t about a unit, a computer, or even a doctrine; it’s all about the narrative.

The narrative is the backbone of any information advantage, and its why   Ukraine dominates Russia in the information environment currently. Narrative is about the meaning and interpretation of facts, ideas, and the story. The narrative is so crucial to warfare today because in the words of author Peter Singer, “if your ideas don’t win out, you can lose the war before it even begins.” In analysis of the current conflict there are five factors as to why Ukraine dominates the narrative and maintains an information advantage:

  • Information for effect
  • The power of Open-Source Intelligence
  • The Rise of Elves, Cyberpartisans, and Hackers
  • The mobilized information warrior
  • Information enabling

Only by understanding and harnessing these factors and their convergent power, under a credible narrative, can the US Army achieve an information advantage against future threats and adversaries.  

Information for Effect

One of the first information salvos fired in this phase of the Ukrainian conflict came in the form of strategically timed public releases by the governments of the United States and Great Britain, foretelling of the Russian invasion. While many questioned these claims validity without accompanying declassified intelligence, the releases’ accuracy bolstered the credibility of the West’s narrative and stripped away the Russian element of surprise. This concept of releasing factual information to negatively affect perceptions and/or damage credibility and capability of a targeted group is known in US Army doctrine as “information for effect.” Singer also refers to this as “Pre-bunking,” which is leveraging information to get ahead of an adversary’s own narrative. Historically adversaries leveraged information for effect against the United States as was the case with the hack and release of the Democratic National Committee emails in 2016 and the 2010 WikiLeaks scandal. In the case of Ukraine, however, information for effect resulted in seizing the initiative, swaying the narrative away from Russia, and galvanizing support across the world for Ukraine, all before the first Russian tanks invaded.

Military commanders and planners must recognize the importance of information for effect to shape their information environment. Commanders must weigh the outcomes of the release of intelligence to bolster their mission’s narrative and legitimacy while reducing adversary credibility or deterring an adversary from planned actions, all of which contribute to an information advantage. Commanders must realize, to paraphrase General George Patton— that good information shared now is better than perfect information shared next week.   

Open-Source Intelligence

Another emergent factor commanders must address is the ability of private citizens, reporters, and amateur sleuths to aggregate their own intelligence picture from publicly available information. Commonly referred to as Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT), this capability can both assist and harm friendly forces in the execution of their mission. While some of this OSINT work comes from individuals, often formal organizations work together to provide analysis on key topics. One of the most well-known is Bellingcat, a British-based group describing itself as an “independent international collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists using open source and social media investigation to probe a variety of subjects.” It was Bellingcat’s work on the 2014 Malaysian Air Flight 17 shootdown over Ukraine which exposed Russian involvement. These groups, some would argue, not only help to reduce the “fog of war,” but also force a certain level of transparency by governments and armed groups.

In both the Russian buildup and invasion of Ukraine, OSINT proved decisive in confirming US and allied claims of a potential Russian invasion, thus reinforcing the narrative. Before Putin’s announcement of a “special operation,” OSINT observers on Twitter posted screenshots of traffic buildups along major routes into Ukraine, a sign of imminent military action. In the days following the invasion these groups identified uses of possible war crimes, mapped combat events, and even reported on reinforcements moving across Russia to the frontlines. This analysis works both ways as a recent piece in the Russian Военно-промышленный курьер (Military-Industrial Courier) illustrated. The article reported on NATO aircraft, their roles, and capabilities as they flew through eastern Europe, all compiled from the website FlightRadar24. In the future, commanders and their staffs must understand their actions will be identified, analyzed, and tweeted in near real time by the masses and adversaries, and must ensure their deeds match their words. As Ukraine shows, being able to hide one’s plans is now harder than ever before.

The Rise of Elves, Cyberpartisans, and Hackers

Even as Russian forces massed on the Ukrainian border, the conflict raged in cyberspace as non-state actors challenged Russian information warfare primacy. Cyber activist groups such as the Elves helped to identify pro-Kremlin propaganda and disinformation campaigns with over 4,000 volunteers in 13 Central and Eastern European countries. The Elves’ activities focused on engaging, collecting, identifying, and neutralizing messaging coming from Russian trolls or bots. While these groups’ efforts are defensive in nature, others work specifically to attack and disrupt Russian activities in cyberspace. In late January, the Cyberpartisans, a hacker group from Belarus, compromised that nation’s railway system with a ransomware attack as means of preventing Russian troops from moving into Belarus. This group prides itself on resisting the oppression of the Lukashenko regime, particularly in the wake of the widely disputed August 2020 National Election. Finally, hackers groups such as Anonymous declared cyber war on Russia and sought to disrupt everything from Russian domestic television to the Russian Space Research Institute in an attempt to make this war costly for the Kremlin.

These non-state actors pose a challenge for military planners as they do not fit into the traditional roles of combatants and non-combatants. While some might be recruited or co-opted for defensive cyber and disinformation identification such as the Elves, other more disruptive groups have questionable loyalties and might be at odds with US military operations. Such was the case in 1991 when Dutch hackers broke into Pentagon databases, stole critical military information, and attempted to sell it to the Iraqis shortly before Operation Desert Storm. In either case, commanders must identify the role of these groups and understand their place and actions in the information environment and towards one’s own narrative.  

The Mobilized Information Warrior

The power of today’s social media-enabled individuals to engage on the world stage is not new. Books like David Patrikarakos’ War in 140 Characters and Peter Singer’s and Emerson Brooking’s LikeWar highlight the power of these individuals from the streets of Cairo to the apartments of Gaza. While the Arab Spring saw the rise of Twitter, the Ukraine war in the words of Wired’s Chris Stokel-Walker, is “the first to play out on TikTok.” Views of TikTok videos tagged with #ukraine jumped from 6.4 billion to 17.1 billion views over an eight-day period alone. These short videos allowed users to quickly capture battle scenes, edit then, and then post them to the web in minutes after an event. These videos along with a bombardment of tweets and other social media posts created such powerful symbols as the Ghost of Kyiv and the Heroes of Snake Island, and serve as powerful reminders of social media’s continued importance to the modern battlefield.

While such activities by populations prove decisive in achieving an information advantage by sharing the narrative in billions of posts each day, they cannot be controlled or co-opted through military means. Furthermore, dangers exist from misinformation as these powerful images explode onto the internet without proper verification. Such were the cases with the Ghost of Kyiv and Heroes of Snake Island, but their power and symbology continues to reinforce the narrative of Ukraine’s valiant resistance to the Russian invader. US military planners will never be able to compete with this kind of mass message dissemination. Instead, planners must understand the environment and the level of sophistication of the population to social media trends and applications, while remaining cognizant of misinformation and disinformation, which if shared, damage a narrative’s credibility and legitimacy.  

Information Enabling

While much of US doctrine focuses on ensuring continuity of US military networks, there is no mention of a population’s networks. This is the last factor of Ukraine’s conflict which US military leaders much recognize: ensuring information continuously flows to and from audiences, a concept I refer to as information enabling. In this war, information enabling came in two forms: enabling the Ukrainian population to share the narrative, and ensuring the Russian population received this same narrative.

The most symbolic information enabling effort in Ukraine came from Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet system. Musk personally responded to a tweet from the Ukrainian Minister of Digital Transformation and sent shipments of Starlink receivers to Ukraine to ensure continued internet access. While Starlink’s criticality to Ukrainian communication is debatable, downloads of the Starlink application in Ukraine reached 21,000 in a single day and have tripled since the war began. With Starlink and the rest of the internet service providers inside Ukraine, the country continues to share its narrative with the world.

 In Russia, where officials shut down many social media forms and enacted a “fake news” law about the war, information enabling worked to ensure Russians continued to hear the narrative. News sources such as the British Broadcasting Corporation and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty posted instructions on their websites on how to use virtual private networks, download proxies, and access the Onion Router on the dark web in order to receive reports. Hackers and activists looked to breach the Kremlin’s propaganda firewall by embedding comments about the war in Moscow restaurant reviews and sent millions of text messages and emails to Russian phones and internet users to share the truth about the war. As a result of these efforts and many others, Russians continue to protest the war despite the risk of arrest and prison.  

Conclusion

Whatever the final outcome of the war in Ukraine, one thing is certain: Ukraine, enabled by the West, and assisted by its army of Elves, hackers, and its information warrior citizens, destroyed the notion of Russian information primacy. The convergence of the five factors described here provided Ukraine and the West the powerful narrative necessary to succeed in the information environment after years of dismal failure against Russia. 

The US Army and by extension the Joint force must study and incorporate these critical lessons into any future information concept. They must realize future conflicts are not two-sided, but multi-player and multi-agenda. These factors must be accounted for and incorporated into operational planning throughout the competition continuum. Furthermore, commanders must look beyond their own formations and leverage other elements of national power along with joint, interagency, multinational, and even the private sector for solutions to address these critical factors. Failure to address these factors leaves the future force informationally disadvantaged and naïve to the future perils that await.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. No special information or classified intelligence material was used in the writing of this paper.