Dispatch from Ukraine: Social media is more powerful than Western Sanctions
Social media may be why Ukraine is not flat on its face while Russian President Vladimir Putin dances a jig on its remains
By: Joti Heir
KYIV — It’s a sunny toque-and-mittens kind of day in Kyiv, students sit and scroll through the latest social media feeds on the campus of Kyiv National Economic University. It looks like just another school day, except for the intermittent pop-pops of gunfire at a distance that remind everyone Ukraine is at war. Scrolling through social media isn’t mere entertainment, it is a matter of life and death.
Air raid warnings in the city of Kyiv are sent via Telegram. Ukrainian government agencies post updates on food and medicine supply availability on Facebook. TikTokers share near-instant visuals of Russian attacks on local streets. Information on curfews, enemy movement, and evacuations are all shared on social media.
Igor Stroy is a little stand-offish when I approach him in front of the university. Most Ukrainians are wary of strangers these days as stories abound of Russian saboteurs infiltrating cities. But he soon relaxes.
“Do you hear? Since the night,” he says after another round of gunfire cracks the air.
“Our president is with us and he stay in Kyiv, we don’t scare [of the] Russian army,” explains Igor.
“Russia, welcome to hell,” adds Igor’s friend Viktor Bogdan.
This courage, bravado, hope, whatever you want to call it, is what's keeping Ukraine afloat. It is a result of a strong social media effort on the Ukrainian government's part. In fact, social media may be why Ukraine is not flat on its face while Russian President Vladimir Putin dances a jig on its remains.
Social media is the war’s frontline in every aspect from communication between the state and its citizens to communication between Ukraine’s people and the world’s people. While the Vietnam War may have been the first televised war, this is the world’s first viral war.
The inauguration of this viral war happened at 6:55 p.m. EEST on February 25. That’s when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posted his foundational wartime selfie video.
On a dimly-lit Kyiv street, surrounded by top advisors, he says, “Good evening everyone, the faction leader is here, head of the president’s office is here. President Shmyhal is here. Podoliak is here. The president is here. Our troops are here, our citizens are here. All of us are here protecting the independence of our country.”
The video, a cross between a rag-tag group of friends coming together to fight evil and a Ukrainian Peaky Blinders, resonated in a big way. It has more than 5 million views on Telegram alone. The following day, after a night of heavy artillery fire and rumors swirling that he’d fled the country, Zelensky posted a second one in front of one of Kyiv’s iconic buildings in the city center, Horodecki House.
“I am here, there is a lot of fake information saying I am telling our soldiers to lay down arms, I am here, our soldiers are not laying down our arms. We will fight for our land. Glory to Ukraine”
These videos have been followed by posts of Ukrainian farmers hauling Russian tanks, images of Ukrainian soldiers taking POWs, and videos of Russian soldiers receiving brutal tongue-lashings from little grandmas.
I meet Artur Kovalov outside of a small market, waiting in line to get supplies. A man comes out with a bag full of what appears to be bread, the others in line yell out in protest. Bread has been hard to find. The air raid sirens are going off, the weather is face-freezing and Kovalov is 12th or 13th in line.
“I am from Luhansk so it’s second time it’s happened with me so I already prepare for this. I came to Kyiv to start my new life, but here again it start. Look at this.” he says as military vehicles speed past.
Kovalov doesn’t have any plans to go westward. He says he’s staying and helping the elderly and people with health problems.
“We strong people, you know, you see what’s going on, we never die,” Kovalov says.
Zelensky’s video addresses provides that kind of hope. The Ukrainian president’s approach is two-pronged. He continues to ask Western governments to close the sky or provide aircraft for self-defense. Neither will likely happen, but the appeals have resulted in other aid the West sees fit to give without triggering the wrath of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
His second prong are the social media appeals to ordinary citizens both inside and outside Ukraine to join the fight.
The Ukrainian National Guard says more than 100,000 civilian volunteers have joined the army’s Territorial Defense Force. Ukraine’s International Legion of Territorial Defense has reportedly brought in 20,000 foreign fighters including those from Canada, the US, UK, and France.
Putin is watching these events closely. On March 13, Russian forces hit a military training facility where a large number of foreign fighters were bunkered. At least 35 were killed. In recent days Russia has specifically addressed foreign fighters in Ukraine, warning that if they’re caught they won’t be getting POW treatment.
With foreign boots on the ground, even if they’re not backed by foreign governments, the battle becomes the world vs. Russia, of good against evil. The closer to home it gets, the more the world scrolls and sympathizes.
Sympathies speak through wallets forcing the money to listen. For example, while Apple stopped sales in Russia on the first of March, McDonald's stayed mum. However, a week later after the hashtags #boycottmcdonalds started to trend on Twitter, they too halted operations.
The list of companies that have pulled out of Russia includes Ikea, Coca-Cola, Mercedes-Benz, Harley Davidson, Shell and BP. No rinse and repeat of 2014 here.
Now, how about those sanctions?
The West placed sanctions on Russian entities and oligarchs after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Rossiya Bank stakeholder Yuri Kovalchuk was on that sanctions list. According to current Forbes numbers, he is worth $1.5 billion today. He has been added to the latest sanctions list.
Gennady Timchenko, stakeholder in natural gas producer Novatek, is another 2014 sanctions list hall of famer. Today, the oligarch is the 78th richest person in the world on the Forbes tally with a fortune of $12.7 billion. He too is on the new list. There are others.
Banks and oil producers like Sberbank and Gazprom Neft were also targeted by 2014 sanctions. They are alive and kicking and back on the 2022 list.
Zelensky says the fourth round of talks with Russia has been positive. However, on the ground shelling continues. Ukrainian troops are holding the line outside of Kyiv’s city center, but what was 50 kilometers out has whittled down to 20.
Igor has since told me he and other students are helping the military dig trenches.
“When the guns will appear, we going [to] defend our Kyiv,’ he says.
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