Warfare has always involved an element of propaganda. Indeed, without mass communications that attempt justify violent actions there arguably can be no war. Soldiers need a cause to fight for. Publics need a cause to back. World leaders and influential global figures need to become advocates for one side or the other, or at least have some of their anxieties quelled.
As the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War during the 5th century BC: “If the mind is willing, the flesh could go on and on without many things.”
The primary purpose of propaganda during times of conflict is for combatants to show they have right on their side. Propaganda isn’t something that just occurs during crises. American communications thinker Gerald Sussman, for example, discusses the extent to which we now live in a “propaganda society” – a society saturated by strategic communications that attempt to condition us toward neoliberal outlooks.
But the propaganda environment certainly intensifies and polarises during times of war as decision-makers become more anxious that their message, and only their message, is received by people around the world. This is one of the reasons behind the banning of Russian international broadcasters such as RT and Sputnik across Europe as part of the current hostilities in Ukraine.
Support for the underdogs
Regardless of one’s position on the conflict in Ukraine, it can be of little controversy to say that so far the Ukrainians have enjoyed the lion’s share of international public and political sympathy. They have been depicted as the victims of an unjust attack and very few world leaders have jumped to the defence of Russia and its key ally Belarus.
There have been anti-Russia protests in cities around the world. Global brands have given themselves temporary blue and yellow makeovers, the colours of the Ukraine flag. Messages of solidarity with Ukraine have been seen at sporting events on every continent, and everyday people have been posting and tweeting their support on social media or hanging blue and yellow flags in their windows. Charity campaigns for humanitarian assistance for the Ukrainian people have now raised over £100 million in the UK alone.
There is of course some international support for Moscow – Daniel Ortega, the president of Nicaragua, has been one of the few world leaders to back the Russians, saying: “Russia is simply defending itself”. And in Russia itself, the Z symbol has become a popular way of showing support for the war.
RT and Sputnik news services on social media feature a mixed bag of pro and anti-Russian sentiment in the comments. But whether these comments are primarily by “real” people or from the Kremlin’s bot armies is another matter though.
Nevertheless, Russia almost certainly still perceives itself as being in control of this conflict – Moscow’s military strategists will have wargamed all of the scenarios that we have seen so far. For example, Russia certainly didn’t think that they would be greeted as liberators by the people of Ukraine even if their propaganda encourages that view within Russia. The majority of Ukrainians look to the west when considering the future of their country and its systems of governance.
Many can recall the shambles of the end of the Soviet era and Chernobyl in 1986, for example. We are also taught in schools about Josef Stalin’s holodmor – genocide by famine – against the Ukrainian people in the 1930s.
Moscow will also be aware that western mainstream news media will eagerly report certain aspects of the conflict and neglect others. It will focus on Russian military losses (positive), Ukrainian civilian losses (negative). It will provide favourable coverage of Volodymyr Zelensky’s performance in rallying resistance. It will highlight the plight of refugees and the humanitarian crisis.
The international media will foreground its picture of Vladimir Putin as a monstrous epitome of evil, and downplay other narratives, such as Russian anxiety over Nato’s eastern expansion since the end of the Cold War. So far, so predictable for Kremlin planners.
It’s interesting that, knowing it would achieve minimal traction in the vital battle for hearts and minds, Russia has pushed on regardless, even though history doesn’t generally favour those warmongers who take this approach.
More broadly, academics such as myself, who study propaganda and warfare, take considerable interest in the anti-war movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which focused on the quagmire of US involvement in Vietnam, and is perceived as landmark in modern political communications. Specifically, the extent to which the movement represented a global tide of support for the end of armed combat as a foreign policy option for governments around the world. This tide has since eroded.
In the 50 or so years that have followed Vietnam’s anti-war movement, a sophisticated, multidimensional and relentless propaganda strategy has emerged. It’s a message supported by the world’s weapons manufacturers – whose profits are on the line – to encourage mass acceptance of warfare and to prevent such globally coordinated movements from emerging again.
People have been reconditioned to think of war as part and parcel of world affairs and an inevitable, perhaps even desirable, news event. Moreover, we have also been encouraged to perceive those who see warfare as a heinous, barbaric and criminal activity as being extremist outliers, dreamers who are unrealistic about what is practically possible.
Instead, governments and mainstream media largely promote warfare as a necessity and its combatants as gallant, brave and patriotic.
Therefore, despite what Zelensky, Putin, and other world leaders may say, the reality is that there are no real victors when it comes to war. Not at an emotional or psychological level anyway. There are only losers as the tragedy of Russia’s invasion will echo within the traumatised souls of all concerned for generations.