We thought the Russians were masters of the information war; that they’d sweep Ukraine aside. Why is it not turning out that way?
Why this story?
Alongside the fighting in Ukraine there is an information war playing out on traditional media and online.
For Ukraine controlling that narrative feels like it really matters, as they try to boost morale and galvanise support from the West when faced with overwhelming Russian military might. You may have come across stories such as the one about the Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island, a rocky outcrop in the Black Sea, telling a Russian warship to go f*** itself as they faced a bombardment. Or the ace fighter pilot, known as the Ghost of Kyiv, who reportedly shot down six Russian planes in one day. It’s widely accepted that these stories are a blend of fact and fiction. And they are amplified by thousands of Ukrainian volunteers who make up an IT army fighting Russia online using every platform available.
But whether the stories are true or not hardly seems to matter. They’ve helped build a narrative in which Ukraine, led by Volodymyr Zelensky in combat fatigues, is the heroic underdog battling against an all-powerful Russia. And the Russians are a formidable online enemy. Few countries are as adept at spreading misinformation and waging war in this way. In this instance western media outlets have identified a number of false bloggers connected to the St Petersburg troll farm writing articles critical of Ukraine. But for all its efforts most experts believe Russia is currently losing the information war. But could it be that it’s not really fighting it with all its convictions? President Putin presumably knows that he’s unlikely to persuade people outside Russia that he’s right. So perhaps his focus is more on tightly controlling the message inside Russia, using state TV which remains in lockstep with his propaganda message. Jasper Corbett, Editor
[clip from Russian warship (in Russian)]
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: This is a Russian warship issuing a warning
[clip from Russian warship (in Russian)]
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: The Russian naval officer is saying:
“This is Russian military warship. I suggest you lay down your weapons and surrender to avoid bloodshed and unnecessary casualties.
[clip from Russian warship (in Russian)]
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: “Otherwise, you will be bombed”
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: The warship is just off the coast of a small island in the Black Sea. If you can picture a map of Ukraine, it’s down the bottom – the only sea that Ukraine has access to.
The island has a Ukrainian name. But I’ll call it by the name everyone knows it by. Snake Island.
It’s called an island but really it’s more of a rocky outcrop. Desolate, windswept – with a tiny village of less than 30 people
And – living among them – are 13 Ukrainian soldiers… stationed there as border guards.
The warning from the Russian navy is directed to them – to the soldiers
It’s clear and unequivocal
[clip from Russian warship (in Russian)]
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: So too is the Ukrainian response
[clip from Ukrainian soldiers (in Russian)]
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: The actual words matter in this story.
Because the words of one soldier on a small rocky island in the Black Sea have become a slogan.
One that’s been scrawled on buildings and written on signposts. One that’s become a rallying cry.
What the soldier says is – “Russian battleship. Go fuck yourself”
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: That’s quite brave, right? – facing down a warship and telling it to go fuck itself.
A heroic “up yours” to the invaders before being blown to smithereens.
The events of Snake Island were quickly adopted as a symbol of Ukrainian courage in the face of overwhelming odds.
The soldier’s defiance became a key piece of propaganda in the fight against Russia and was reported by almost every major media outlet on earth.
But one of the surprising things about snake island …. is that the rest of the world might not have noticed
If it weren’t for a Ukrainian musician called Andriy.
Andriy was one of the first to put a video of the incident on social media; the first to post an english translation.
Snake Island didn’t go viral because of a government spin doctor or a professional PR firm
It went viral – at least partly – because of a citizen
Andriy is one of thousands of ordinary Ukranians fighting an information war against Russia – a battle for ideas and for truth.
On the one side are Russian bots, troll farms, state media channels and Putin sympathisers in the Western Media.
On the other are people like Andriy… ordinary people… Students, musicians, computer programmers,
– bound together by the collective aim of fighting Russian disinformation, keeping up morale and making sure Ukraine’s plight is being heard around the world.
And… you know what… every expert we’ve spoken to thinks they’re winning.
I’m Alexi Mostrous and in this week’s Slow Newcast
I’m looking at the information war in Ukraine.
Andriy Vasilenko: I appreciate that you contacted me. And it was just in time as we just got to the shelter. We got a siren half an hour ago, but made it.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: If you’d asked Andriy Vasilenko, just two weeks ago, what he did, he’d have told you
Andriy Vasilenko: I was a musician
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: But now?
Andriy Vasilenko: Now I’m a reporter. This is my mission now
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Andriy sees himself as on the frontline of an information war.
Andriy Vasilenko: My first video, I did not plan it. But the first video I shot and upload, it was February 24th. Uh, when we heard this siren do a red alert for the first time in queue, I captured it and I said, here it is happening.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: When we speak to him he’s in Lviv in the west of Ukraine. But at the time of the Snake Island attack he was still in Kyiv with his wife and two children.
Bags packed, ready to flee.
Andriy Vasilenko: It was about one, about midnight from February 24th and 25. My family were asleep, but I was on the news and Ukrainian TV. And they had this live, this piece of audio, of the talk radio. I heard it, probably one of the first in the world. I heard this, I heard what, what our, uh, hero said and responded.
And well, I had a bit of a laugh because I knew it was very courageous, but it boosted my morale and mood.
And then they said that they are probably killed and it was devastating to me,
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: The altercation between the Russian warships and the soldiers on snake island had been broadcast on state television
Pravda, a Ukrainian newspaper, had put a clip of it online
But neither had an english translation.
Andriy Vasilenko: So the moment I heard it live on TV, I scroll it back. I captured the audio on my phone. I download it on my laptop. It was already packed, ready to go. But I took it out of my bag because I knew I had to make a video about it to the world. Translate it, translate it to the world. Uh, I just made the translation a bit rough. I know, but the point was clear what was going on there. And I uploaded about one o’clock in the morning.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: It didn’t take long before the video became a hit.
Andriy Vasilenko: I woke up, it got over a hundred thousand views. I understood that I was one of, one of the first, if not the first to make the English version of it. And I knew if anything, I’ve done my job to spread awareness, because there was something that I knew people would pick up if you, if you want to make a meme out of, because. People heard the courage then. And it was so bittersweet and they spread it. It helps when it’s like a meme.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: I feel uncomfortable looking at events like Snake Island through the prism of internet culture – whether or not it was a meme seems unimportant – at least on one level.
But Andriy – on the ground in Kyiv – could think differently.
He recognised that what he’d just seen on TV was a properly viral bit of content – and it took off like one.
Other YouTube channels quickly reposted his video, and soon all the world’s major news outlets followed up.
President Zelensky – who has proved himself to be a brilliant communicator – recognised the power of Snake Island himself.
He released a video, promising to honour the fallen soldiers and to award each of them the posthumous title “Hero of Ukraine.”
As the views racked up, it was clear that Andriy had helped Ukraine score a major victory in the information war.
And what became obvious was that Snake Island was far from the only example.
Jack Pearson: Ukrainians are used to dealing with Russia. And they used to having to compete with them in the information space. One of things is very interesting that the Ukrainians more generally use of comedy and the fact that they sort of pour scorn and they poke fun at the Russians.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Russia and Ukraine have been fighting an information war for years.
When Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, Moscow took Ukrainian TV off the air and replaced it with Russian broadcasts.
They painted the Ukrainians as fascists who were taking money from bogeymen like George Soros.
Today Russia is using the same playbook – its accused Ukraine of plotting a genocide against ethnic Russians, of bombing a kindergarden… of harbouring neo-nazis and thugs.
I’ll come back to how effective Russia’s tactics have been later
But most experts we spoke to agree that Ukranian has been remarkably effective in promoting its own counter narrative
Jack Pearson: Even, you know, very close to the, to the conflict beginning, you know, Ukraine was posting memes about, you know, different types of headache and the sort of biggest one was having Russia as a neighbor.
Um, you know, humor played part in the information battle and it continues to now, albeit in a much darker way
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Jack Pearson is spent nearly five years at the UK Foreign Office working on digital diplomacy.
When he mentions humour, he’s talking about stories like “Panther of Kharkiv”.
If you haven’t seen this one – it’s really good.
It’s about a Ukrainian tabby cat called Mikael who single handley exposed the location of dozens Russian snipers….
I mean – it’s almost certainly not true – but it’s funny, and it’s human, and it’s shareable.
After all, on the internet…everyone loves cats.
But humour is just one part of Ukraine’s success:
Jack Pearson: the fact they’ve been so strategic in what they’ve done and the tempo and scale of what they’ve done in the circumstance has been very impressive.
Some of this more, comedic content, um, which is dark and it reflects the gallows humour, it also reflects stoicism.
We’ve seen examples of Russian tanks being pulled out of fields by tractors. We’ve seen road signs being edited to point to the Hague.
Following the snake island incident, um, people writing on some road signs, uh, “Russian tanks go fuck yourself”. Um, “Russian trains go fuck yourself”. You know, it’s become a sort of motto that the interaction between things that happened in the real world and online culture, kind of blurring and amplifying each other
It hits the sort of sweet spot of internet culture as well and makes it more shareable. And that’s where I think they’ve been quite clever
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Now – it’s important to say – when Jack mentions words like “strategy” and Ukraine being “clever”, I don’t think he’s implying that the country has some sort of central PR plan – deciding which stories should be promoted and which shouldn’t be.
Frankly – Ukrainians have more important things to worry about than social media tactics.
But if you look at the stories that have broken through – they do have a few things in common
We’ve mentioned humour…but other stories that gain a lot of traction seem to involve individual heroism and martyrdom; or stories that mock the Russian invaders; or ones that show Russian brutality.
And maybe such stories emerge in every war – but now that everyone has a mobile phone, more of this grassroots material is finding its way online – and it seems to be having a real effect.
Take the sunflower seeds video.
[Clip of woman talking to soldiers – in Russian]
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: You’re hearing a Ukrainian woman shouting at two Russian soldiers, asking why they’re in her country.
[Clip of woman talking to soldiers – in Russian]
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: As she walks away she says, “You should put sunflower seeds in your pockets so that they will grow on Ukrainian land after you die.”
I didn’t know this before but the sunflower is Ukraine’s national flower.
It represents power, strength and warmth.
So it makes sense that – like the Snake Island story – the sunflower story has grown into something bigger – a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance.
Marta: My name is Marta Vasyuta and I’m 20 years old. I’m a Ukrainian girl who was born in London, but very in Ukraine, in very beautiful small town.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Marta’s in London right now, unable to go home.. And her TikTok videos were, until recently, pretty standard for a 20 year old having fun in a big city.
Lip Syncing, messing around…
There was a recent one about storm Eunice which featured the character Shrek – a bit random for anyone over 30.
But pretty standard for TikTok… and Marta shared it with her 400 followers.
But the next day she posted a very different video. It’s called “Ukraine right now”. So far it’s got more than 30 million views.
Marta stopped posting videos of lip synching and started posting videos of her homeland.
[Clip from TikTok video]
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: So over the next week she uploads videos of explosions, tanks, and missiles lighting up the sky over Ukraine, all set to music. The views tick up and up. Millions tune in to watch.
There’s one of bombs falling over Kyiv that’s been viewed almost 50 million times.
Marta Vasyuta: So. When I first posted, I didn’t have anyone who it’s going to be so popular. And after that, when I realised I have a platform. I can help people with that. I can understand, and I can help my country, I can not do anything physically, but we also having informational work. We also have media work. So that’s what I’m trying to do.
Alexi Mostrous: And do you, do you get the sense that you’re not alone in that war? That you’re part of a wider movement. That’s helping fight the information.
Marta Vasyuta: I don’t realise that yet, to be honest. But I just, when I got blocked on TikTok for posting violent content a few days ago, um, so many people started to message me to write comments, direct message me on Instagram, that they want me to continue posting because some of them thought I didn’t want to post. So some people believed me more than the news channel, because I’m the same person as they are. I’m just a 20 year old student, as most of the users are. So that make easier for them to trust me.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Marta’s account has become one of the important ways that young people have accessed news about Ukraine.
In fact, TikTok as a platform has had a huge effect – with videos tagged Ukraine seen 20 billion times.
Part of the reason for TikTok’s popularity is that it’s so easy to use. In a conflict, it’s given people like Marta the ability to become a media outlet.
Jack Pearson: Political cartoons in past wars, propaganda videos, all these things have always existed. And what I can’t tell is whether what we’re seeing now is that it’s just being. Democratized more people can take apart. And the information warfare on behalf of their country, you know, TikTok puts editing tools in the hands of millions of people. Yeah. Is it a case of people seeing it as a national duty to support these things? Because that’s one way of representing your nation?
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: It’s important to say – Ukraine’s success in controlling their own narrative isn’t just down to grassroot support.
The US and the UK did something even before the invasion that all the experts I spoke to agreed had a big impact.
Dmitri Alperovich: The Biden administration was very successful at declassifying intelligence early on about what the Russians were planning to do.
Jack Pearson: They were calling out what Russia was going to do ahead of time. It’s very unusual to declassify your intelligence assessment and to very publicly call out, a foreign actor in that way.
Natalia Anteleva: I’m very used to Russia being on the offensive and the West always being on the defensive. And the opposite happened here where suddenly the message he’s going to invade, he’s going to invade. He was he’s going to invade. It was coming from Washington. And it was very obvious that it was part of a very kind of thought-through strategy.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: What they are all referring to is known as pre-bunking. Or to use Jack’s more impressive description:
Jack Pearson: Preemptive attributional first strike communications.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: It’s getting on the front foot.
Trying to discredit Putin’s arguments before he’s even made them.
In the past, Western intelligence services would have kept their reports on Russia’s military moves secret.
But this time – that changed. Way back in November, the White house publicly warned European allies about a possible invasion of Ukraine.
In December, the Washington Post published intelligence documents showing satellite photos of Russia’s military buildup.
In January, British intelligence agencies went on record to suggest an invasion was likely. The Pentagon was even more specific – it said that Russia was planning to publish a “very graphic” fake video to create a false pretext for war.
After several years of being outflanked by Russian misinformation, it seemed like the US and the UK were finally fighting an information war on its own terms.
Dmitri Alperovich: The Russians have really been very slow in pushing back on their own narratives have not been effective. And they’ve really, lagged behind significantly, uh, in terms of, um, confronting the, the Ukrainian information,, operations.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: This is Dmitri Alperovich, Chairman of Silverado, a geopolitical think tank and the former CTO and founder of the cybersecurity firm, CrowdStrike.
Dmitri Alperovich: One of the prerequisites for a successful information operations campaign is having at least a kernel of truth that you can then expand upon. You can manipulate, you can present a different light. And the problem that they’ve had in Ukraine is that they went into this invasion really with no pretext, or at least no pretext that anyone took seriously.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating:And then there’s Zelensky himself. The former comedian turned Ukrainian war time president is pretty magnetic.
Isolated at one end of a very long table, with his cowed generals silently grimacing at the other.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: But, you have to ask, does any of this matter?
Putin may be losing the information war online, but he knows that at home the majority of Russians get their news from TV.
Russian TV is pretty much in lockstep with Putin’s propaganda machine.
On stations like Russia 1, Putin is only carrying out a special military exercise – a limited campaign designed to rid Ukraine of neo fascists.
And that kind of propaganda….to a large number of people, works.
Pensioner: A lot of what they say on TV is true.
Interviewer: How do you know?
Pensioner: You know when I read in a foreign newspaper you know Russians bomb Kharkiv. I know that it’s not true, because they promised not to do this. And they will never do this…
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: The story of Ukraine’s information war is a story of a generational divide: about different messages reaching different audiences.
Andriy – the musician behind the snake island video – has seen the effects of Russian domestic propaganda up close.
Andriy Vasilenko: I had one episode which broke my heart. My uncle, he called my mom and said, “why are you bombing the Russians?” So he, um, he has been watching, Russian television exclusively all the 30 years he has been living there. He does not accept anything else. So you see that even leaving outside Russia, but by watching Russian TV and living in your own bubble of your own little community of whatever, a little block it’s enough to bring completely my own uncle… also Andriy, my mom named me after him.
So you see how deep it goes. And now imagine in the Russia, the level of brainwashing, I have no compassion now to the Russian nation. They now have to think for themselves. Do you go and do something? But now I have no compassion if they didn’t see that coming, but they must’ve and now they just pay the price and we are just defending our country here.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Putin may well feel that winning the information war outside Russia is unlikely
But that doesn’t mean he’s given up.
Take Vladimir Bondarenko.
He’s a blogger from Kiev who’s written dozens of articles critical of Ukraine.
Vladimir used to be an aviation engineer until he took up blogging when he lost his job.
Except Vladimir doesn’t exist.
He’s AI generated, as is another blogger – a woman called Irina.
Analysts working for Facebook uncovered the scam last week.
They told NBC News that Vladimir and Irina were part of a larger propaganda effort by Russia – and that it all linked to a guy called Alexander Malkevich.
Malkevich was involved in the St Petersburg troll farm that tried to influence the 2016 US election.
And now – it seems – he’s turned his sights to Ukraine.
But here’s the thing…
It feels like the world has moved on since 2016 and troll farms and fake accounts.
We’ve become more internet savvy… less likely to accept a Tweet or a Facebook post at face value
And maybe that’s a weird silver lining of the infodemic of misinformation of the past few years….
That people are less likely to fall for fake Vladimir or fake Irina
And more likely to respond, instead, to true stories about real people
And images of sniper-hunting cats.
Certainly Jack Pearson feels that something’s shifted in the way Russia interacts with the West.
Moscow seems to have lost its swagger.
Jack Pearson: I think you can even look at the social media accounts, the official social media accounts of their embassies around the world that no one is as active as they have been before. I don’t think they have the usual panache that the Russians have sort of prided themselves on or the assertiveness or the competence. I think that sometimes it qualitatively feels less and less. Kind of less forceful. I think that in and of itself is quite telling
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Any information war is about controlling the narrative. But it’s also about stopping your opponent controlling theirs.
And that’s where Ukraine’s cyber army comes in.
On the evening of February 26, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Mykhailo Federov, called on Ukrainian developers, cyber specialists, designers and marketers to come together to fight Russia in cyberspace.
So far, about 200,000 people have signed up.
Alexi: I started DOS attack from first day of war as I had no idea what to do and I want to help somehow.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Take Alexi, for instance. Before the war he was a computer science teacher… but now he’s part of his country’s cyber army
Alexi: I found channel of IT army of Ukraine. Where I can receive targets for attack. I can’t say which websites I take down personally but sites like Kremlin, Russian MBA down for a few days.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: I asked our reporter Luke Gbedemah to have a look at what other kinds of cyber attacks have been taking place.
Luke Gbedemah: So a lot of what seems to have been happening from the Ukrainian side are these large scale DDoS attacks, which are when hackers organise for there to be loads and loads of automated requests to a particular website. And those requests can overwhelm the website and cause the server to temporarily shut down. A lot of the .ru websites have been targeted with this and it looks like there’s been some success in bringing them down and stopping other people from being able to see them. But some of the rest of it is a bit more serious and I managed to speak to a hacking group called Cyber Partisans who are operating in Belarus, and they told me that they successfully disabled and slowed down some of the Belarusian railway network
[Clip from Cyber Partisans: We just received information from, employees, uh, saying that, the railway are just not able to ensure the safety of its infrastructure. So military, troops from Russia Federation didn’t move at night. Um, and some of them are coming to a close. Became afraid to even go to shifts and carry and like move and carry trains.]
Luke Gbedemah: Which had meant that not only Russian troops, but materials and tanks and vehicles and things have been slowed down in getting to Ukraine, which is a really significant thing. And I’ve seen reports that corroborated that elsewhere in the past few days. Another hacking group claimed to have been able to get data from the Russian Space Agency. So there is some significant cyber intervention going on. And I think that the Ukrainians have demonstrated that their cyber potential is pretty significant.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: So that’s the view from Ukraine. But what about hackers in Russia?
Before the invasion, some analysts predicted that they would unleash a cyber onslaught against Ukraine – power networks knocked out, telecommunications cut off – that sort of thing.
It didn’t happen and Dmitri Alperovitch thinks it now won’t
Dmitri Alperovich: If the Russians, uh, did not use cyber operations extensively at the start of the war, um, and they didn’t, I think they’re unlikely to do so now it’s it’s way too late. I think they’re going to focus on trying to achieve their objectives, um, in the traditional kinetics sphere. And I fear that life is going to get very, very tough for the Ukrainian people.
Alexi Mostrous: What went wrong for Putin this time around? Or is it that he just doesn’t actually care?
Natalia Anteleva: I’m just thinking about how I answered this question. What went wrong for Putin? Um,
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: I’m talking to Natalia Anteleva, she’s the co-founder and editor in chief of Codastory, a newsroom that focuses on global crises and disinformation. I wanted to know why Putin seemed to be losing the information war.
Natalia Anteleva: I mean, we don’t think he miscalculated, uh, I think what went wrong for Putin is, um, the Ukrainians. That’s what went wrong. You know, it’s Zelensky and it’s every single Ukrainian who is resisting. That’s what went wrong. That was his miscalculation.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: What Natalia is telling me is that Ukraine isn’t like anything that’s happened before –
That in previous conflicts, Russia had more of a chance to muddy the waters, to use disinformation to suggest that there were other ways of looking at things.
Natalia Anteleva: Maybe, maybe there’s a really simple answer. Maybe because Russia’s wrong and Ukraine’s right in this war, maybe as simple as this.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: But with Ukraine, it was so obvious who the villain is, and who the victim is, that the opportunities for Russia to win the information war were limited… right from the start.
Her argument, and it’s a powerful one, is that stories of incredible heroism and defiance were always going to emerge in such an extreme situation
And this organic process was all it took for Ukraine to “win” the information war.
Natalia Anteleva: Imagine Alexi, sitting in a bomb shelter, um, uh, with, you know, your cat or your dog or your six year old daughter, Yeah.
With the sound of bombs around you, not knowing whether you, what will survive, whether you’ll have a house to go back to or a country to live in. what would you do if you still had access to your phone and to social media?
I bet you be, you know, tweeting out what was happening too. And that’s what lots and lots of people in Ukraine are doing. They’re not being clever and they’re not, they don’t have a social media strategy they’re trying to survive. And these days, you know, putting your story out as part of. Part of everyday life for everyone.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: What Natalia was telling me made total sense – most people using social media in Ukraine aren’t thinking about likes, or impact – they’re not engaged in an active campaign to promote a particular narrative… They’re just documenting a horrific war.
But there are exceptions. One of the main social media stories to emerge in the first days of the war was about a fighter pilot called the Ghost of Kyiv.
[Clip from Ghost of Kyiv video]
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: This guy had apparently single handedly shot down several Russian fighter jets. The Ukraine government shared the story on Twitter in a montage video set to thumping music….
Videos of the Ghost of Kyiv racked up 10 million views on Twitter and reached almost a billion Facebook followers.
Except…the Ghost of Kyiv is almost certainly a myth.
This sort of story – promoted by Ukraine’s official accounts and of questionable veracity – has more in common with state-sponsored propaganda campaigns of hte past.
But it’s an exception. As Natalia says, most of what we’re seeing in Ukraine is coming from the people – and is arguably more powerful for it.
It’s hard not to be uplifted by some of these videos… you feel yourself cheering the Ukrainians on.
But Natalia has a warning for people like me – not to become complacent.
Natalia Anteleva: The West has won this round of this information war, but this victory can be very, very, very short-lived if, the slogans are empty.
Alexi Mostrous: What kind of empty slogans do you mean?
Natalia Anteleva: the slogan; Stand with Ukraine. Collectively, you know, you’re left with the feeling that everyone’s quite pleased with themselves for being so united, and standing with Ukraine, uh, that is not making a difference to lives of millions of Ukrainians who are. You know, it being bombed by Putin right now. I mean, it is making some difference because the arms are making difference. You know, the weapons are making a difference, arming them and so on. So it is, but if the Russian disinformation machine is able to show very clearly that the West is being hypocritical and it is saying one thing, but really doing another, which is exactly what they’ve done. You know, every major crisis, then, that that will really undermine whatever gains the West has made in this information war with Russia.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: At around 11am on 28 February – last Monday – the Ukrainian naval forces revealed something on Facebook that changed the whole Snake Island story.
The Ukrainian soldiers hadn’t been blown up after all.
The Russians had captured them..
They were still in danger – but they were alive.
And it made me wonder – does it matter that the original story of 13 heroic martyrs wasn’t quite what it seemed?
It’s true that Andriy’s video might not have gone viral without that element of tragedy and sacrifice.
But then again – telling a warship to go fuck itself is still a pretty brave thing to do.
The story of Snake Island might have changed shape – but at its core it remains the same.
Because – ultimately – it’s a story about heroism and defiance. And to Ukranians right now – that’s really important.
Andriy Vasilenko: When you defend yourself, you need to create some myths and legends to boost morale. There were two warships and… it’s not important. actually. It was incredibly accepted by the world. They saw we can fend for ourselves. We have guts.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: A day after the Ukranians revealed the soldiers were alive, a new video emerged online.
It was posted on youtube by an account called I Stand With Russia.
It shows several Snake Island soldiers – or at least, that’s how they are presented.
“They buried us,” one soldier tells the camera. “They awarded us their medals, posthumously,”
“Our government are bad people. We were abandoned.”
It’s hard to tell what – if anything – is true about the video.
But it’s obvious that Russia is trying to turn the propaganda tables on the whole Snake Island affair, by forcing the soldiers to denounce their own government.
But you know what? – that video – it’s got fewer than 2000 views.
Not exactly viral content.
Throughout reporting this podcast, I’ve wavered between optimism and a deep sense of foreboding.
Yes – Ukraine seemed to be winning the information war – but it wasn’t like it was having any effect on Putin’s plans.
His determination to ride roughshod over the country remains scarily intact.
And yet… the longer the conflict drags on – the more important stories like Snake Island become. They’re crucial to keeping the flame of resistance alive.
Jack Pearson: The more interesting element will be how information, social media, and communications between the diaspora, between the government, between people in Ukraine may fit into a pattern of resistance and may keep the idea of and the nation of Ukraine alive.
Alexi Mostrous, narrating: A couple of days ago, a Ukrainian citizen opened his phone and clicked on the Apple Pay app.
A picture of his credit card popped up.
But the card looked different.
There was writing on it – in large cyrllic text.
Perhaps a member of Ukraine’s cyber army worked at his bank.
Because written on the credit card was the now classic Ukrainian war slogan:
“Russian warship, go fuck yourself.”
This episode was reported by me, Alexi Mostrous, Patricia Clarke and Luke Gbedemah. It was produced by Katie Gunning, with sound design by Studio Klong. The editor was Jasper Corbett.