Just a week into the Russia-Ukraine war, Russia is underperforming both on the battlefield and in the propaganda sphere. Any hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin may have had of military and popular opposition melting away have evaporated. His Ukrainian opponents have proven adept at manipulating and spreading historical narratives via social media to strengthen unity at home and sow discontent among a Russian population split on the worthiness of war.
Ukraine’s propaganda efforts have focused on painting contrasts between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Putin. Zelensky has recorded a series of apparently ad hoc videos from besieged Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, depicting himself and his cabinet members on site even as Russian forces advance. The cool, calm, and collected Ukrainian president has addressed Russians directly and in Russian—a significant move given Putin’s hyperbolic claims about Ukrainian oppression of Russian speakers—appealing for peace. He seems to show no fear in his media appearances.
Putin, meanwhile, has remained hidden away from view, giving only prerecorded speeches, addressing viewers as the “nation” rather than as “you,” and meeting even his own advisors at absurdly long tables. This approach hardly matches up to Putin’s reputation as a virile action man. In a press conference on March 3, Zelensky—speaking in Russian, his first language—underlined the contrast between the two leaders: “Sit down with me at the negotiating table. I’m not busy. Come sit with me! Just not 30 meters away like with [French President Emmanuel] Macron and [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz. … I’m your neighbor. You don’t need to keep 30 meters away from me. I don’t bite. I’m an ordinary guy. … What are you afraid of?”
Elsewhere, a series of war myths of ordinary people heroically fighting—and dying—in battle against the Russian army have emerged. Apocryphal stories of fighter ace the “Ghost of Kyiv” and the martyred troops of Snake Island, who purportedly died under Russian naval fire but actually survived, hark back to the most effective war myths of the past. Their truth is irrelevant when social media stories spread at lightning speed. These stories of brave leaders and troops are powerful tools in uniting the Ukrainian nation behind the resistance effort.
But critically, the Ukrainian media onslaught is also proving effective in Russia itself. Videos of Zelensky and stories of Ukrainian military heroes are spreading like wildfire to Russians via social media platforms like Telegram, which counts 38 million monthly users in Russia. Unlike state TV channels and radio stations, the Russian government has no direct control over these channels. As a result, anti-government information spreads unimpeded. Zelensky’s March 3 speech, for example, has been viewed more than 300,000 times and received 8,000 likes on one Telegram channel alone run by outspoken rapper Morgenshtern.