Jen Gerson: Ukraine is winning the propaganda war. That will matter, one day
Wars are fought with more than metal.
By: Jen Gerson
Perhaps it's simply the inevitable consequence of protracted news overload, but the war in Ukraine feels surreal. Pulling up the news, following Twitter, none of it feels like reality, but rather like we're all collectively remembering an event that was always destined to happen. Perhaps I'm the only one suffering from this dissociative state? Or perhaps not; is anyone else feeling as if our daily life has taken on this faded quality of a simulacrum?
Maybe this is the inevitable sensation of watching a war play out on Twitter and TikTok. It has a participatory quality that offers the sensation of being a part of the conflict without the dose of necessary, reality-evoking risk.
Did you see the viral video of the Ukrainian babushka demanding the Russian soldier keep sunflower seeds in his pocket so that he leaves behind flowers when he dies? Or the one of the soldiers on Snake Island telling the Russian warship to "go fuck yourself" when asked to surrender? Reportedly, 13 died after that ship blew the station apart — though it appears that this was false and they in fact were taken alive.
Did you watch the Twitter video of Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelensky filming himself on the streets of Kyiv to thwart rumours that he had fled? Or the guy who moved an anti-tank mine from the road with a cigarette drooping out of his mouth?
Did you hear about the Ghost of Kyiv, a mysterious fighter pilot who has allegedly scored more kills than any other in recent memory?
Or the TikTok video of the young woman teaching her contemporaries how to operate an abandoned Russian tank; the stranded artillery towed by Ukrainian farmers; the men stuffing polystyrene into Molotov cocktails to make peasants' napalm?
Oh, and in case you missed it: an official music video lionizing the Ukrainian drone, Bayraktar.
I can't assess the reality of any of this — and I presume some or all of it is staged. That's what propaganda is, after all. All I can do is examine the transparent unreality of it all, to take note of the ephemeral, the narrative. And from here, the Ukrainians are absolutely crushing the propaganda war.
It was well understood that the Russians were going to flood the zone with competing, sometimes non-sensical propaganda to justify their invasion of Ukraine and confuse Western allies about their intentions. Pessimistic as I was, I rather expected this to work, apparently underestimating the Ukrainians' own counternarrative.
Ukrainians have flooded the zone right back with their own content; all of it betraying a dark, devil-may care humour that makes their plight both grimly entertaining and impossible to dismiss. Rather than go for the easy narrative — to play themselves off as helpless and weak victims of Russian aggression — they've instead chosen to emphasize their strength, morale and social cohesion in the face of certain military doom. This makes Ukrainians seem worthy of support from the rest of the world (why send weapons to people who can't use them, after all?). If they can keep this defiance alive, Ukraine will win this war: it's only a question of how long it will take, and at what cost.
Propaganda and communications is not tangential; they are as crucial to the war effort as drones and Javelins. Russia will almost certainly succeed in taking the country by force by sheer dint of its overwhelming military superiority. Right now, the best-case scenario for Ukraine appears to be establishing itself as a tar pit for Russian sons, equipment and money. It may take a generation, but sooner or later, the power structure within Russia will change, or the will to dominate the region will break, and as long as the Ukrainian spirit can outlast the Russian one, the nation will eventually be restored. The defiant "fuck Russia" road signs, the texts to Russian moms, the laughter in the face of death — all of this will matter. Nothing here is child's play or vanity. Every Ukrainian casualty will be a martyr of a nascent post-occupation state — a state that will have to be welcomed into NATO come that day. Russia may win all the battles, but as long as Ukrainian resolve holds, it will win no wars.
The use of sunflowers is a particularly potent symbol. For years to come, dissidents can show their disdain for their occupiers simply by throwing sunflower seeds onto the earth. Every Russian soldier who passes by a yellow flower in summertime will get the message: "You are not welcome here. You will die here."
As the unequivocal victims of military aggression, the Ukrainians always enjoyed a narrative advantage. By comparison, the Russian casus belli makes little or no sense in the West, being aimed entirely at audiences in Russia and its neighbours. If Russia had stuck to providing discreet military support to disputed oblasts in the Ukrainian east, the rest of the Western alliance would have overlooked his expansionist tendencies, as we had done in Crimea, Georgia and Chechnya. Nobody really wants a war with Russia, especially now, when the economy is teetering and after two years of a pandemic. Ain't nobody got time for the prospect of a nuclear winter.
Instead, Putin squandered the West's complacency. He chose a full-scale attack and justified it with statements about "de-Nazifying" the Ukrainian government. We wrote about this absurd generalization a few weeks ago at The Line (the post was available only to subscribers.) To sum up: there was a battalion of irregular volunteers, since incorporated into the Ukrainian military proper, that has clear neo-Nazi links. But these elements represent a minority. Svoboda, a political party, can credibly be called a neo-Nazi party. It managed to secure one of 450 seats in the Ukrainian Rada. Calling the existing government, led by a Jewish leader who lost relatives in the Holocaust, a Nazi regime is impossible to take at face value.
Even if one were to hesitate to show support to Ukraine for sensible reasons — the country's corruption, or politics, or slightly iffy democratic institutions — surely it's not hard to argue that the country has the right to sort its own mess out: that none of its failures or weaknesses are going to be fixed by a full-scale military invasion by a right-wing autocratic oligarchy.
The only people in the West who seem to be buying Putin's narrative fall broadly into two camps: Tankies eager to frame this conflict as a repeat of the Second World War, and who therefore would like to imagine this as a repeat of Stalin vs. Nazis: and, the far-right pundits who like Putin because he's an anti-woke tyrant who represents the most toxic masculine ideals. They see in him the Great White Hope: the strongman who can unite the white people of the world into a Christian empire. Some of them are more or less explicit about these racial and theocratic intentions. Part of Putin's own calculus here, however — as he has openly declared — is to unite a Russian empire that must re-incorporate the spiritual and cultural traditions of Kyiv. This is a holy war.
It is a war he cannot win, although we in the West can do little but send aid and weapons and watch on. Escalation will cost more lives in the long run, and Ukraine's best bet is to let itself become a quagmire for its would-be imperial overlords. Ukraine must ensure Russia's ambitions come at an extraordinary cost in blood and treasure. The world will lose some very grand cities and lovely places and wonderful people for all of this.
The Ukrainian people know we aren't coming. No one will save them. Yet, still, they throw Molotov cocktails at the tanks and prepare their suburbs for close-quarters urban fighting, and say, "Fuck You, Russia." And you have to admit, for once, it's inspiring to see a Western-ish nation believe in itself enough to fight for a better and freer future. There is a clear purpose, and a sense of nobility and bravery to the sacrifice the Ukrainians are choosing to make. And the West is rallying and unifying at the very sight of it in a way not seen since September 11. Let's hope we don't squander it this time.
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