“Russia is blackmailing Ukraine and the whole world”, was the answer by Dmitry, a Kyiv resident, when asked to share his thoughts about the increasing Russian military numbers at the Ukraine border. Amidst the growing tensions, diplomatic talks, and geopolitical strategies, the “what if Russia invades” discussions are the most read and prioritised topic in the news. Generally, war is portrayed without particular emotion, deaths of people are reported in numbers, and everything is centered around the elite playmakers, such as Macron, Biden, and Putin. Yet, what garners significantly less attention is the actual feelings of the ordinary people that live their daily lives in Ukraine. They are surrounded by the impending possibility of war, which is the most demoralizing and mentally draining idea out there for both the residents and the troops on the front lines alike. Without Russia opening fire (at the time of writing this article), this current situation feels like, as another resident, Yuri, puts it – “a psychological war.”
Before getting into how Russia is using psychological warfare against Ukraine as well as the wider international arena, one needs to understand what psychological warfare actually entails. Psychological Operations (psyops) mainly consists of using information against people’s minds through information, disinformation, manipulation, propaganda to influence opinions, emotions, and attitudes. The biggest global superpowers are certainly no strangers to carrying out such operations. For example, during the Cold War, the United States spread American culture across Communist borders, notably in terms of music and dancing, which later incited dissent in Eastern Europe. In more recent years, China has been at a border-conflict with India; throughout it, they consistently have shown the prowess of the People’s Liberation Army and blamed India for starting the whole mess, which has incited confusion amongst the Indian people. Evoking emotions, promoting chaos, and deceiving the public are the exact goals of such psyops.
Russia in particular has employed many psychological operations in the past. During World War II, The Red Army’s special propaganda department used leaflets, radio, and loudspeakers to call on Axis soldiers, particularly non-German ones, to lay down their arms and join their respective national fronts in liberating the workers of Eastern and Central Europe from fascism. After WWII, the Soviet Union was arguably one of the smartest users of psychological tactics to influence their target audiences without provoking an armed conflict. For example, during the Guerrilla war in Lithuania in 1945-1956, Russian soldiers would disguise as Lithuanian Freedom Fighters and kill innocent villagers, which was an attempt to make Lithuanians hate their own. By manipulating facts and spreading false information through propaganda, they created narratives. In doing so, they successfully changed people’s attitudes in line with the top priorities of KGB operatives. Of course, it did not stop there: after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia has remained one of the key powers that consistently uses these strategies throughout its conflicts. The deceptive mindset has always remained in the shadows of Russia’s psyche.
Russia’s troops alongside the Ukrainian border. Source: Maxar Technologies
Operation False Flag
The current situation between Russia and Ukraine then is a twofold psychological war. Firstly, it is directly impacting the Ukraine citizens’ morale, as the possibility of war has increased throughout the past months. In November 2021, Russia started amassing troops at the Ukrainian border, which currently total 100,000. Alongside, Russia began trainings in the neighbouring Belarus, which indicates that the possibility of invasion is high. Despite that Russia and Ukraine have been at war for the past 8 years after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, the threat of full-scale war has never been this close. For the citizens, constantly having this at the back of your mind can have severe effects. For example, Anastasia, an Odessa resident, has commented that “I look at the news every 30-40 minutes and it has a huge impact on my mental health … but I can’t stop and I can’t think of anything else. I am very scared for my family – my four-year-old daughter and husband.” This morale shock is very important to consider, as it will heavily effect people’s beliefs and, specifically, the belief in unity. Standing together, consistently and actively resisting by means of protest is one of the most significant and impactful things that one can show to the aggressor. However, those who stand at the front lines have to be ready at all times. The amount of pressure that the troops thus feel is unbearable. In fact, suicide has become increasingly prevalent in the Ukrainian military since the war in 2014, as many soldiers and veterans simply cannot withstand the pain the war has caused.
However, to start a war, there must be a justification. Russia is fully aware of the false flag operation. The false flag operation is a widely used psychological tactic, which derives its origins from way back, when people used to fight in wooden ships. One ship would hoist the flag of its enemy before attacking another ship in their own navy. Because the enemy’s flag was hung instead of the flag of the real country of the attacking ship, it was called a “false flag” attack. In Russia’s case, it might look like Russian soldiers getting shot by Russian soldiers and everything is blamed on Ukrainiain soldiers. To put it simply, Russia is searching for a precedent to start the war; to accomplish this, it seeks to gain the upper hand by discrediting rivals and leveraging public opinion in its favour. In December 2021, Russia issued the list of demands that NATO has to comply with, if peace in the region were to remain. However, NATO stood firm and united, making sure to deter Russia from an attack. Now, after a few months have transpired, with tensions heightened and the international community more involved than ever, Russia has started to blame Ukraine and even Western allies for creating chaos. In fact, Kremlin media are actively pushing the agenda that Ukraine is preparing to invade Russia and not the other way around. They say that the actions undertaken by the Ukrainian government are caused by Western allies and their blind loath towards Russia. Such psychological strategies only bring us closer to war and the moment Putin feels that there are enough justifications, a command to proceed will be issued. That said, the crisis stems far beyond the Russian side.
Panic is our enemy’s best friend
The subheading above is exactly the quote said by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who confronted Western media and diplomats for creating panic in the Ukrainian people’s minds. Undoubtedly, Western intelligence units have helped Ukraine tremendously in detecting Russian troops, their movement, and the actual possible tactics of invasion. Yet, the press have played exactly into Putin’s hands. While, of course, Putin wants to show his power and authority, I am making an educated speculation that his main two goals are to make sure that Ukraine does not join NATO and the nation’s democracy is unstable. The press have created a feeling that there are no other escapes from war and that it is as such inevitable,exactly what Putin wants. In fact, Bloomberg published the headline “Live: Russia invades Ukraine” on February 5th 2022, which was there for at least 24 minutes until they deleted and apologized for it. This is unacceptable journalism, which does not help the Ukrainian public to uphold its morale and unity. Fearmongering is exactly what Putin thrives off of.
On the other hand, while media and diplomats have not done a great job diminishing panic, one imperative message to communicate was that all options are still on the table and that they should be prepared for. Considering that Russia is an unpredictable and aggressive agent, which has one of the strongest military powers in the world, Ukraine is not in a position to fight back. Recently, reports have come out that the Russian foreign minister is encouraging diplomatic talks, seeking to “intensify them”. Such news comes alongside Zelensky’s words that one of the ways to avert war is to abandon the possibility of joining NATO. While this may help in avoiding bloodshed in the short term, it will also indicate a huge vulnerability in the long term. It would give Russia confirmation that holding Ukraine at gunpoint may force them to make more concessions in the future. While the situation remains extremely complex, the threat of invasion is definitely working in Putin’s favor so far.
One thing is clear – neither Ukrainian nor Russian citizens want war. In fact, after the collapse of the USSR, many Russians and Ukrainian’s of today are still connected through their family roots. When interviewed, some Russians noted that they even see the two nations as “brotherly” and they put their faith into the idea that no war will occur. Everyone centered around the crisis can only hope then that the old Russian saying developed by the people after World War II – “anything but war” – becomes a reality.