Memes of War
The Russo-Ukrainian War and the Effect of social media on Modern Warfare
1st Lt Brendan H.J. Donnelly, USAF
2nd Lt Grant T. Willis, USAF
June 16th 2022
For decades many students of the profession of arms have noticed that the technology of the information age stands as a critical domain of modern warfare. A picture says a thousand words and a video says a million. The United States has been impacted by multiple types of media for decades. Such examples include the American Civil War which by 1864, the United States was plagued with draft riots and anti-war sentiment, in favor of a new president and peace with the Confederacy. Only a series of Military victories by the Union secured Lincoln’s second term, the first election of its sort to be held during a nation engulfed by Civil War. Additionally, during World War II, the Allies and the Axis both used propaganda films to inform their people of events during the war, significant victories and called for people to support the war effort however possible. The importance of propaganda was exacerbated in America’s war in Southeast Asia when television provided a faster outlet for candid war footage and for bloody combat scenes to reach the people back home in a way never before seen or experienced. For the first time, citizens who were far removed from the rigors of warfare received a TV tray side view of war and they did not like it. The images and nightly news coverage of the war harmed the war effort with many Americans, sapping the political will of the people to carry on the struggle from the comfort of their living rooms. Naturally, they did not like what they saw and the will to fight until victory over Ho Chi Minh’s communists faded as it does in most democracies during protracted military engagements that lack a strategy fitting to meet political objectives. Furthermore, uncensored footage and information was not equally available in places like Hanoi, Vinh, or Haiphong north of the 17th parallel in Communist North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. North Vietnamese society took a different approach and took a 180-degree about face to reporting the truth. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, as Americans watched the US embassy in Saigon engulfed in firefights and bodies lying in the street, the communists were not shown the aftermath of B-52 Arclight missions blowing apart NVA formations outside Khe Sanh. With this brief background in mind, the impact of media in past as well as modern conflicts has grown in importance with every leap in social-technological development. Our ability to connect continues to expose our ability to be persuaded in relation to our national will to conduct successful military operations. The rapid growth of various social media platforms available throughout the world today has made the job of finding the truth within the maelstrom of war even more difficult than before. Apps such as Tik Tok, Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Snapchat, Tinder, and Spotify provide avenues for the world to watch the Russo-Ukraine war unfold on their cellphones, while also watching the footage on television hours after it is initially posted. This often makes it more difficult for media outlets to control their information through manipulation and cutting since many see footage as it is first shared, uncut, and available for interpretation by the viewer without external enhancement. The speed of information sharing across the globe adds unforeseen complexities into the battlespace. War planners must now assume they are unable to totally control the spread of information during war and that things such as troop movements, battlefield tactics, damage assessments, and wartime logistics can all be impacted by social media. Every window, nook, and hole in a fence could have a smartphone camera hiding, waiting to send your position to a drone or artillery battery miles away. Throughout the Russo-Ukraine War, social media has been a prevalent source of information for both the Russians and for the Ukrainians, the three sections of the war that have been impacted so far include the build up to war on the border prior to the Russian invasion, the immediate start of the war, and the continued operations that will shape the long-term outlook of the conflict for months and years to come. Each of these sections have presented multiple ways in which social media has affected our conception of the modern battlespace.
Before Russia’s invasion on 24 February 2022, social media provided a key piece of information for the Ukrainians which can be recognized as “indications and warnings”.[i] Indications and warnings provide a country with a series of trip wires which can point to the likelihood of a potential aggressive action. Being tipped off before an action occurs, gives the defending side time to counter and mobilize beforehand. A dating app called Tinder provided information that could have been used as a warning. Along the border with Russia and Ukraine an increase of profiles that were tied to Russian soldiers could have warned the Ukrainian public of an initial increase of troops.[ii] Talking with these soldiers on the direct message function could have also provided indications of how the Russian soldiers were feeling about the potential of an invasion and their positions were passed to Ukrainian units once the war broke out. Other apps such as Tik Tok, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit provided images, messages, and videos of the Russian activities along the border. These apps make it difficult to maintain Operational Security (OPSEC) meaning that details about the Russian operations prior to the invasion could have been easily leaked to the public through social media and relayed to the Ukrainian Armed Forces as well as real time geolocation for artillery and anti-tank teams for ambush.
Another way that social media affected the war prior to the invasion was in support of the Russian military and policy makers such as President Vladimir Putin. Before making the final call to invade Ukraine, President Putin was able to analyze the potential international backlash could likely be through social media.[iii] Millions of people across the world shared their opinions on these various social media apps either condemning the actions by Russia or accepting them. These posts, videos, articles, and opinions showed the Russian government what the international outlook was before the invasion started, providing them a way to assess what kind of international consequences would come after the launch of the invasion. Whatever the expectation was by the Kremlin prior to the “Special Military Operation”, it was a gross miscalculation of the Free world’s resolve. This type of processing of Publicly Available Information (PAI) is called Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT). By using this data on social media, many users and content sharers have become “wartime reporters”, presenting to millions their interpretations of the available information before some of the major news networks can release it officially.
Immediate effects of the Russian Invasion
After months of military drills, diplomatic choreography, and a healthy dose of Russian deception or “Maskirovka,” the Russians launched their attack in the early morning hours of 24 February with a combination of air, sea, and land-based cruise missile strikes against air defense and command and control (C2) sites throughout Ukraine. Motor riflemen manned their armored fighting vehicles (AFV), crews powered up their tanks, and the “Grad” rocket artillery (a.k.a “Stalin’s Organs”) began to rain destruction on Ukrainian targets. The invasion immediately ignited a massive influx of posts, videos, and other images. Media has always played a role in warfare, but in today’s war we find out modern technology and interconnectivity has triggered the sharing of information at speeds we have never witnessed before. As the Russian tanks rolled across the border and the first videos were available of 3M-54 Kalibr cruise missiles impacted their targets, people across the free world awoke to pro-Ukraine sentiments and anti-Russian or anti-Putin posts and news footage.[iv] Information and opinions are traveling at the speed of a finger touching a small screen. The interconnectivity we have today can be used to connect and share everything to everyone in an instant, but this connectivity can be used as a weapon to strike through to emotions of civilian populations on the home front in ways that we have never experienced in a high intensity conventional war before. National will to either carry on the fight or the will to give up is more vulnerable to exploit than ever before in the history of human conflict. Information of enemy movements travel at the speed of a text while in the centuries leading up to the 20th and 21st centuries the movements of regiments traveled at the speed of horseback and halftrack.
Since February 24th 2022, social media has been able to provide real time information on where Russian ground troops are located, where they are likely going, and status on modern air defense battles .[v] These constant updates across social media platforms provide not only the Ukrainians the knowledge of where the Russians are in the country, but it also provides the Russians insight on what information is being posted about the conflict and which ground units may have had their positions compromised.
In addition to situational awareness, the immediate impact on the war that social media provides is for the Ukrainians to show the devastation to the civilians, buildings, roads, homes, and other infrastructure across the country almost immediately. The images of destroyed buildings, videos of rockets, and the audio of missile sirens and warning messages provide a valuable platform for the Ukrainians to present the Russians as the clear aggressors.[vi] Throughout the conflict these initial images and social media outlets showing what the Russians are doing presented to the globe a strong need for medical supplies, weapons, and international support to fight the Russians. Other ways that Ukrainians used propaganda was to show the heroes in the Ukrainian military such as the now legendary “Ghost of Kyiv.”
A unique air power legend has taken his place in the history of combat aviation and in the hearts of many Allied Airmen in the West. In the early days of the war, many videos surfaced of Ukrainian MiGs flying at tree top level over Kyiv fighting for their lives to inflict any damage possible on the attacking Russian Air Force. Wild rumors began to circulate in the media based on these videos indicating that the first 21st century jet ace was a Ukrainian. Affectionately known as “The Ghost of Kyiv”, this MiG-29 pilot was rumored to have downed six Russian aircraft in one day of combat, later being shot down and killed in combat some weeks later.[vii] This air combat legend is unconfirmed, but the hope that it is in fact a true story has inspired online merchandise and “toasts to the ghost” in many bars and heritage rooms across the Allied air services in absolute envy and awe. The well-known air power poster and art company Squadron Posters revealed a “Ghost of Kyiv” exclusive squadron poster selling for $99.99 on their website and on their Instagram page with proceeds going to Ukrainian Refugee and Humanitarian relief.[viii] The legend may only be but an aviation folk tale for future American and Allied children who grow up hoping to be the next generation of combat aviators, but this myth is a powerful inspiration and source of hope for resistance that served its purpose even if it was indeed only propaganda. The knowledge of only some air-to-air kills by Ukrainian MiG and Sukhoi pilots are enough to make the legend of the Ghost a reality in the fact that the feared Russian bear in the air is not all he has been promoted to be. Posters supporting the “Ghost of Kyiv,” were purchased by the thousands, but the posters were not the only instance of “war merch” being available within the first 48 hours of the war. T-shirts, patches, flags, posters, and other merchandise was for sale and a hefty sum of the money raised by these items were sent to the Ukrainian war effort.
They Fought the NLAW & the NLAW Won
As the conflict continues, the long-term propaganda campaign against the Russian government and military is two-pronged, with the Ukrainian people commenting on one side and the noticeable number of Russian people revolting against the war on the other. The days of complete control by the Soviet state are over and the Russians we know today are far more interconnected to the world and have far more access to global thoughts than before 1989. On the Ukrainian side, the propaganda campaign is to show that this war is unjust and that the Russians should be punished for this action, with the hope that once the conflict is over, the international community must come to the aid of Ukraine to assist with rebuilding the nation who fought for the West. The other aspect of the propaganda campaign is showing how the Russian citizens and military members have been protesting the war and lacking in their motivation to fight it. Multiple reports of Russian soldiers refusing to continue fighting or moving to the front have been pushed in western news and across social media to show that even the former Red Army does not want the conflict that Mr. Putin began to restore Russian greatness. [ix]
Aside from the propaganda campaign the other way that social media has been used to support the war effort is by showing off new technologies. The lure of the anti-tank missile and its relevance on the modern battlefield is as potent today as it has been since WWII or the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The primary anti-tank weapons delivered by the thousands to the Ukrainians are the American made Javelin and British NLAW (Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapon). Their effect on the battlefield against Russian armor has been devasting to the crews of T-72, T-80, T-90, and even T-62 variants.[x] Everything ranging between Russian Zil trucks, BUK SAM systems, and BMD armored fighting vehicles have met their fate from the dreaded anti-tank guided missile (ATGM). Helmet cameras, videos of blown out T-72 tanks with the 15-ton turrets being thrown 30 meters from the tank chassis, and intercepted/unencrypted radio transmissions motivates and intensifies resistance across the lines and in the occupied zones. This motivation to resist and rapid global pressure to support the Ukrainians sparks momentum to carry on the struggle. The war is also inescapable for those who follow social media posts. Every day there are citizens across the globe who wake up to war on their phones. Updates, Tik Toks, Instagram videos, and Tweets that show the fluid frontlines and its combat caught on tape sometimes hours or minutes after the fact.
Waking up to War
It is a sad reality that many of us are so connected to our phones that they have become an extension of ourselves; therefore, phones have become a constant in most modern political and military actions. Facebook posts break families apart before they get to Thanksgiving dinner arguments about elections and if one were to watch a wave of humans walking down the street, they would not be surprised to notice that many within the wave are buried deep with their heads bent over, eyes consumed, almost hypnotized by the little screen in their hands. This is a reality that cannot be forgotten; War is everywhere now. It is in our pockets, on our TVs and radios. For years we have been gradually used to insurgencies, Arab revolutions, political violence that has impacted our opinions and the way we see our world in ways and speeds that were never possible before. It is possible for a 12-year-old to get on Tik Tok and see footage of a Su-25 get shot out of the sky by a stinger man portable air defense system (MANPAD) or watch a Reddit video of a TB-2 drone strike on a Russian SA-11 “Gadfly” Buk SAM system.
Every morning Lieutenant Willis, like most of us these days, woke up looking to his phone to start the day. Most people scroll through their Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter feeds to see what is going on in their social lives and around the world. This is a new thing in our society that may not be totally analyzed yet, but he never really checked his social media in the mornings before the war. Lt Willis at the time barely checked social media prior to the Ukraine crisis, but since Vladimir Putin’s war began, he checked multiple social media outlets every day to get the latest on the war. Instagram showed daily videos of commercial drones dropping mortars right on Russian motorized troops and killing soldiers while wounding a couple others. The initial video was followed by another of the same type of drone dropping a round from a couple hundred feet right onto the top turret of a T-72, setting off secondary explosions as the ammunition inside the turret exploded. Another source, Reddit, later paired with Tik Tok had another video of about 10-15 Ukrainian soldiers standing around a knocked-out BMP-1 while two T-64 tanks rolled up to their position. The T-64 is commonly used by Ukraine, so these troops waved thinking that the tanks were friendly. Only when the lead tank’s turret turned and aimed right at the group did they realize their mistake. The following scene showed the point-blank shot from the main gun round of the T-64 tearing through the group of men, evaporating them instantly by the sheer force of the round passing through them. We can watch the horrors of war and interpret that individually, but this phenomenon must be recognized as unusual and new within the historiography of warfare. The value and importance of Public Relations Officers and the role of media cannot be discounted as a critical domain of warfare in our time. Solutions to how to exploit it for victory are still unclear, but the first step to that solution must come from identifying the reality before us and as we see it now, it becomes increasingly evident that any future conflict can be won or lost based on a tweet, an Instagram reel, or a Tik Tok.
Implications for the indopacific
In the indopacific region both the United States military and the Chinese military will look at this conflict taking away the multi-dimensional outlook to then place into plans for a potential conflict in the first island chain, the Western Pacific. The lessons that China may choose to take from the Russo-Ukraine war include nuclear-armed powers can open the door for the use of conventional military force to secure national objectives through the fact that the West will not want to risk an escalation over a situation that does not directly impact their collective security/sovereignty. In addition, everyone is a journalist/has an opinion and is easily able to share it with millions in a matter of seconds. Information interpretation/manipulation matters in modern war, more now than ever before. China’s neighbors include many of the world’s most wired and internet-savvy nations such as India, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, and Japan. The Chinese may utilize this war as a moment to audit their force’s operational security (OPSEC) capabilities. Will the commissars (political officers) in every company confiscate all cell phones and internet capable devices prior to an assault? Will the PLA target information apparatuses first rather than an enemy’s integrated air defense system (IADS) and command and control (C2) nodes? These are a few questions that the Central Military Commission (CMC) in Beijing will need to ask prior to a decision to launch an attack in the Western Pacific. These questions will also need to be answered and accounted for in the pre-war planning at Pacific Air Forces, INDOPACOM, and the Pentagon.
Every video of a Russian Su-34 “Fullback” fighter-bomber crew taken prisoner on Tik Tok and Instagram post of an SA-15 “Gauntlet” that runs out of gas and is subsequently dragged away from a highly motivated Ukrainian farmer in his tractor illustrates the importance of information on the modern battlefield. The Russian Army’s reputation on the world stage has been severely damaged by the iPhone and our ability to see with our own eyes the failure of Russia’s military adventure. China will study this and for a government and party specifically orchestrated to save face at all costs will do the utmost to limit the exposure of defeat or the rumor of defeat in the modern battlespace. In the West, we must take notes on this fact to exploit the power of information as a domain of combat that might make a considerable difference in future campaigns against a China that practices insulation during tests of national will.
A critical lesson that not only the United States and China can take away from the Russo-Ukraine war, but all nations is that social media and the ever-growing OSINT realm can impact warfare in the planning phase, execution phase and an on-going conflict in the present. In the indopacific region along with the technological power houses such as South Korea and Japan, other countries, and island nations have the capability to assist in conflicts solely by using their phones, computers, or cameras.
In summary, the Russo-Ukraine conflict has provided multiple lessons that can be analyzed and put into planning for future wars whether they be in the indopacific region or across the globe. Social media apps and extension of OSINT plays a large part in ways modern war is portrayed to the public domain. The world has seen impacts with social media prior to a conflict starting by providing intent of a nation’s government, a general measure of support and indications, and warnings for the defending nation. Additionally, the following impacts by social media being immediate battlefield situational awareness and continuous impacts with technology and funding for a country are clear. Studying this growing aspect of warfare and how social media can impact human conflict is an area of study that cannot be forgotten in the future due to the drastic affects that public opinion, perception, and national will can bring to any future large-scale conflict.
1st Lt Brendan H.J. Donnelly, USAF
Lieutenant Donnelly is an intelligence officer stationed at Cannon AFB, NM. He has held intelligence supervisor roles at Cannon AFB and Special Operations Forces Africa. He graduated Bowling Green State University, with a Bachelor of Arts of Sciences, majoring in History.
2nd Lt Grant T. Willis, USAF
Lieutenant Willis is an RPA pilot stationed at Cannon AFB, NM. He is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati with a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences, majoring in International Affairs, with a minor in Political Science.
[i] Aloisi, Silvia; Daniel, Jack, “Timeline: The Events Leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine” Reuters (March 1, 2022) https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/events-leading-up-russias-invasion-ukraine-2022-02-28/.
[ii] Bielskyte, Severija “How Tinder became a Weapon in the Russia-Ukraine War” Huck (March 21, 2022) https://www.huckmag.com/perspectives/how-tinder-became-a-weapon-in-the-russia-ukraine-war/.
[iii] Blake, Aaron, “Putin now among most hated world figures in recent U.S. history” The Washington Post, (March 11, 2022) https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/03/11/putin-now-among-most-hated-world-figures-recent-us-history/.
[iv] Baran, Jonathan; Kelly, Meg; Nakhlawi, Razzan; Parker, Claire, “What to know about the long-range cruise missile Russia says it fired” The Washington Post (March 24, 2022) https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/24/russia-kalibr-cruise-missile-ukraine-weapons/.
[v] Tondo, Lorenzo, “Russians advance into largest city in Donbas still in Ukrainians hands” The Guardian (May 30, 2022) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/30/russians-advance-largest-city-donbas-ukrainian-hands-sievierodonetsk.
[vi] Vasovic, Aleksandar; Zinets, Natalia “Missiles Rain down around Ukraine” Reuters, (February 24, 2022) https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/putin-orders-military-operations-ukraine-demands-kyiv-forces-surrender-2022-02-24/.
[vii] Gaely, Patrick, “Ukraine admits the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ isn’t real, but the myth was potent for a reason” NBC News (May 02, 2022) https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/ukraine-admits-ghost-kyiv-isnt-real-wartime-myth-russia-rcna26867.
[viii] The United Nations Refugee Agency, “Ghost of Kyiv” Squadron Posters https://www.squadronposters.com/product/ghost-of-kyiv-art/.
[x] Coelho, Carlos, “Why is Russia losing so much military equipment in Ukraine?” Radio Free Europe Radio Library, (May 13, 2022) https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-ukraine-war-military-equipment-losses/31847839.html.