Information Warfare: Behind Enemy Lines In Ukraine


July 6, 2022: For centuries Ukraine has suffered periods of brutal occupation by invaders. The most frequent brutal occupier has been Russia, which has played the homicidal villain several times in the last century. The most infamous Russian occupation incident was in the use of famine during 1932 and 1933 to suppress Ukrainian opposition to Russian rule, especially new Russian dogma of communism, which prohibited private farms and expected all farmers to work for state-owned collective farms. This was resisted by many farmers throughout Russia but the opposition was most stubborn in Ukraine, where about 20 percent of the Soviet Union population lived. Ukrainian farmers were the most productive in Russia and produced most of the exportable wheat. Ukrainian resistance produced a horrific response, the seizure of nearly all the wheat crops in the areas of most resistance. This lasted two years and killed nearly four million Ukrainian, about an eighth of the population in what Ukrainians called Holodomor (great famine).

Russia denied the Holodomor ever happened and many Western nations, and their mass media, went along with that. One exception was Britain, where one British reporter risked his life by going to Ukraine and obtaining proof of the Holodomor. The Russian government kept denying the famine ever happened until 1983, when a more open communist government admitted that many communist crimes were true. This made an impression on Russians because they realized more of the victims of prison camps (Gulags) and communist terror in general were Russians. As a result, during the 0ccupations of Crimea and parts of Donbas in 2014 the Russians tried to win the support of locals.

That lowered the civilian death toll but did not turn most of the occupied population into loyal citizens of Russia. By 2020 most Ukrainians in the occupied territories wanted out. The most desperate moved to Russia, many others wanted to get to Ukraine and others sought to go anywhere but Ukraine and Russia.

The Holodomor and many other past incidents of Russian brutality led to Russian troops being ordered to not attack civilians during the 2022 invasion. That failed to cause civilians to be any more receptive to the Russian presence and, within a month troops were told they could loot and not tolerate any resistance from civilians. Russia denied that civilians were being killed or that widespread looting was taking place. Cell phone cameras carried by most Ukrainian made that disinformation difficult to sustain. Nor were the heavy casualties inflicted on the Russian forces who believed they would easily defeat the Ukrainians and occupy the capital, Kyiv, within two weeks. After a month of this Russian troops around Kyiv were ordered to withdraw to Russia and try to conceal evidence of mass murder before they left. This produced some mass graves but many bodies were left in plain view and many surviving civilians had video evidence of who did what. Russia again denied it, insisting these civilians were killed by Ukrainian forces to make the Russians look bad. Once more the video evidence, especially from Ukrainians who witnessed it and could identify some of the perpetrators, made the atrocities difficult to deny.

Mindful of that, Russian occupation forces in parts of Ukraine that were seized early on and are still under Russian control, were ordered to try really hard to win over the locals without resorting to mass murder. The main occupation zone is north of Crimea and centered around the city of Kherson, which is the capital of Kherson province. Kherson City was captured during the first week of the invasion and Russia has held onto most of the province ever since. The city is a major port because it is located near the mouth of the Dnieper River and the Black Sea. The Dnieper is a major navigable river for Ukraine and has long been used to handle the movement of cargo, especially wheat being exported.

Ukraine has been trying to recapture Kherson City and province ever since, and is making progress, aided by a growing partisan movement inside Kherson province and passive resistance to Russian occupation by most Ukrainians in the province. Some Ukrainians agreed to work for the Russian occupation and they were soon the targets of attacks by Ukrainian partisans. Some of the turncoats were killed but more worrisome to the Russians were indications that other Ukrainian officials quietly agreed to work for the partisans. The Russians now believe that many of their Ukrainian administrators were working with the resistance from the beginning. At the same time the Russian occupation forces still have their orders to try and win over the Ukrainians or at least discourage them from joining an armed insurrection. To help with that the Russians sought to Russify the province as quickly as possible. That meant replacing the Ukrainian cell phone service with a Russian one. Ukrainian TV and radio transmissions are blocked. Russian ID documents became mandatory and use of any currency but the Russian ruble was forbidden. Russia controlled utilities (especially water and electricity) and every effort was made to link Kherson to the Russian economy. The initial reason for pacifying the population was to make life safe for Russian troops in Kherson. That was never fully achieved and now Russian troops have to worry about roadside bombs or anti-vehicle mines as well as sniper fire and assassination via pistol or a bomb planted in a vehicle.

The goal of this was to hold elections that could be depicted as honest and show a majority of Kherson residents supporting annexation by Russia. The Ukrainians are not cooperating and doing so in clever ways that Russian Information War specialists can recognize and struggle to counter. The Ukrainian resistance is both armed and dangerous but also mindful of the importance of outperforming the Russian Information War campaign.

The Ukrainians depict the Russian occupiers as worse than the German Nazis of World War II infamy. This is particularly embarrassing for the Russians because the official Russian government justification for the invasion is to liberate Ukrainians from neo-Nazi Ukrainians led by president Zelensky, who is Jewish. This tragicomedy was understood by many in Russia early on and led to a largely unarmed, but often violent, resistance movement inside Russia and Belarus.

Russia denies the extent of the resistance in Kherson, calling armed partisans local bandits and gangsters. Video proof gets out of Kherson and Russian troops stationed in Kherson complain to friends and family back home. This intensifies resistance to the war inside Russia, where the government is waging its own Information War to generate support for the war or at least discredit the critics. It was the growing inability to suppress accurate news that played a role in causing the Soviet Union to dissolve in 1991. The former KGB officers who brought back so many aspects of Soviet rule during the last two decades are having a hard time dealing with media and image control. It’s the 1980s all over again but worse. This is a reminder that the Information War is not a state monopoly and often a multi-sided conflict.




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