The headline recently appeared in the Daily Mail saying “Zelensky declares social media WAR: President launches campaign telling the world to demand politicians act by swamping the internet with signs reading #ArmUkraineNow amid Russian assault on the Donbas.” In March President Zelensky delivered a historic address to the House of Commons that was beamed into the chamber via a live feed invoking Churchill in only a way a seasoned orator could. To the US Congress he invoked memories of Pearl Harbour, to the German Bundestag, memories of the Soviet days splitting Germany into East and West and the Berlin Airlift.
In his address to every country and institution his messaging has been personalised, focused and expertly targeted. However, it is not just his addresses to parliaments, congress, institutions that have an effect but his regular phone calls with world leaders and his nightly address to the Ukrainian people but also the world. Messaging, the power of words is at the core of his political and military defence and this is something we must understand an learn from quickly. President Zelenskyy is delivering a masterclass in the use of information in crisis.
However, the public master class we are seeing is reflected in an understanding of manipulation in the widest sense of the word that has underpinned Ukraine’s transition from a former Soviet State to one courting EU and NATO membership such that Russia felt compelled to act. Russia’s own information campaign is straight out of their books of враньё (vranyo), telling a lie without expecting to be believed, but told often enough through as many outlets as possible and control the truth through маскировка (maskirovka), literally masking, propaganda to many the lie becomes the reality.
Putin, usually through his foreign minister, Lavrov, frequently masks his intentions in an inflammatory way by stoking up the nuclear threat, knowing it will panic different countries in different ways. The statements we have heard the Russian Ambassador to the UN, Nebenzya deliver, beggar belief in their warping of reality, but Russia doesn’t care. What is good about Russia’s information war is their maskirovka and vranyo are so obvious to the free world. In Russia where the state has total control over all media, it is a different matter.
Their use of information is to reinforce their own beliefs, groupthink, and aimed domestically with the odd poorly aimed snipe internationally. An example of the latter is when Putin made his first nuclear threat, he said it was because of comments Liz Truss, the UK Foreign Secretary made. He saw this as a way of worsening a perceived post Brexit rift between the UK and EU and in particular the Germans, he ignored the reality that the international community was coming together as never seen in recent years.
So where did Ukraine come from in the information sphere, to properly understand their development I talked to a former senior Foreign Office official and ambassador, (not to Ukraine) but someone who was involved with many interactions with the Ukrainians before Russia’s first invasion in 2014. Ukraine had been sending officers to the UK Advanced Command and Staff Course at the Joint Services Command and Staff College since at least 1997 and were trained in complex combined arms and joint operations. They had been courting NATO countries and the UK for many years before then.
Scale and capability is important to understand. The Ukrainians have one of the largest armed forces in region apart from Russia. They have at least 6 times as many tanks and APCs as UK and an Army c126K, with 900K reservists. They have some serious military capability and the Foreign Office official said in visiting Ukraine he was at the “Largest live fire power display I have ever seen, including major Close Air Support, battlefield breaching, manned APCs para dropped from Antonov’s.” The “so what?” from this is Western military support in terms of Armour offered from a numbers perspective is almost militarily irrelevant in terms of its scale; it is all about the message it sends and locking the Wests involvement into Ukraine’s conflict.
“The approach by Ukraine pre 2014 to diplomacy was aways to try to get signature to agreements tying us to support to Ukraine of similar nature to NATO commitments and of course support for NATO membership.” The Foreign Office Official went on to add, “Ukrainian delegations arrived for official Ministerial visit to Secretary of State with agreements for signature despite clear agreement before visit that we did not intend to sign yet another support agreement with Ukraine,” the tactic of trying to bounce the government into different positions was commonplace.
He added, “On official visits to Ukraine, the general tenor/approach was very Soviet, a massive reliance on bulk consumption of vodka morning noon and night, raunchy entertainment at official events as well as regularly being implicitly offered female staff as prostitutes,” as was ever, influence and manipulation was conducted the old Soviet way.
Since 2014 the Ukrainians have worked hard on improving their approach, moving from the very Soviet to the more western approach, but not forgetting what worked in the past. President Zelenskyy is giving global leaders a masterclass in leadership under pressure. The messaging, the influence operations he is conducting are all aimed at getting support from NATO the EU and the wider international community, tying them into the outcome of the war, so that Ukraine is not left on its own and the conditions are set for as rapid a rebuild of the country and its welcoming into other international institutions, as quickly as possible.
He has successfully courted the international community to cooperate in a way that has not only helped and continues to help Ukraine but has also brought international organisations and alliances closer together than they have been for many years. His words, his messaging, his actions have brough billions of dollars of aid in financial and equipment terms, he has pushed the boundaries of what the EU and NATO have ever done before, he has united a dividing world and refocused some interesting polarisations. What we have seen from President Zelenskyy is true effects-based influence and messaging.
The effects he is achieving are seen domestically where his relationship with the West maintains hope for the people of Ukraine. The effect he is achieving internationally is an increasing perception that Ukraine is fighting to protect the wider international community. He has achieved this in a very careful and subtle way. His actions, methodologies and achievements show a real lesson in the information sphere that the West needs to learn from.
We must ask why the West ignored genocide in Africa with the Tutus and Hutsis, why the International Community didn’t respond to Russia’s first invasion if Ukraine in 2014 but has responded now, and the answer, or a major part of the answer is the Zelenskyy effect. We must learn how to do this given the growing importance of information and messaging, we must take a leaf out of Zelenskyy’s book.
Philip INGRAM MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and NATO Planner and is available for comment.
The appointment of General Dvornikov to be the overall Russian commander in their new phase of operations which will concentrate on seeking full territorial control of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, part of which make up the disputed Donbas region, is an attempt to bring unity of effort to Russian operations. It makes military sense, and a lack of unified command is one of the reasons why the Russians have failed in their objectives so far.
Dvornikov has experience in Syria, however, Syria was and is not an all arms, combined, high intensity military operation. His experience in high intensity warfighting will only have been tested since 24th February when Russia re-invaded Ukraine, so he is likely the best of a bad bunch of commanders.
So, what is his plan likely to be? I would think that to capture the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts and enable rigged referendums in each he needs to attack towards the city of Dnipro, a key city on the Dnieper River and Ukraine’s 4thlargest city. As such it has a political significance, but it has geographic significance with transport hubs controlling access to SE Ukraine from the West and economic significance as a manufacturing hub critical to Ukraine’s export market. Ideally, to gain a favourable position for a negotiated settlement, Dvornikov would want to capture Dnipro.
Of course driving this are the Russian updated Strategic Goals of February 2022, which are:
Ukrainian recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea
Ukrainian declaration stating rejection of future NATO membership
The ‘demilitarisation’ of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Recognition of the Donbas People Republic and Luhansk Peoples Republic as sovereign states at their pre 2014 Oblast borders
In addition, Dvornikov would want to move to capture Zaporizhzhya again on the Dneiper River, south of Dnipro and utilise land and naval forces to threaten an attack on Odesa, to fix Ukrainian defenders. He will likely continue to pressurise Kharkiv and Sumy in the NE of Ukraine again to fix Ukrainian defenders and protect the flank of his main attacking force. In doing so he could attack from the South and Northeast in a pincer movement to fix the Ukrainian defenders whilst a main effort tries to smash through the centre of their defences towards Dnipro.
Focusing on a more limited objective, given the heavy defeat the Russian forces have suffered so far gives an improved chance for some potential tactical victories. However, one man and a reduced objective won’t make this next phase easy for the Russians.
For the Russians, concentrating on Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts has the advantage of shorter lines of communication for logistic supplies and combat formations from Russia into Ukraine. It allows air support, strategic missile support and other shared capabilities to be concentrated where one commander wants their effect, not split across multiple areas of operation. These are the positives for the Russians.
However, Russian formations will be no better than those that have been defeated by the Ukrainians thus far, their commanders are no more experienced and still not able to carry out complex armoured manoeuvre warfare. Russian logistics and logistic planning will not have improved dramatically as they prepare for this new operation and the Russians still do not have air superiority. In addition the ground is unlikely to have dried out enough to enable armoured formation manoeuvre. This will severely hamper their ability to properly manoeuvre and fight as armoured formations.
The Ukrainians have been defending against attacks from the disputed Donbas region of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts successfully for the past 8 years and have had real successes defeating Russian attacks elsewhere in Ukraine. If they have sufficient manpower, weapons, and equipment available, they are perfectly capable of stopping further Russian advances, especially if they use a tactic of blocking Russian advances with disruptive activity in the Russian rear areas destroying logistics, command and control and artillery as a priority. The question then comes if they can generate enough of an armoured manoeuvre capability to forceable eject the Russian forces from at least further parts of Ukraine.
Should that happen, then the clamour for further international community involvement will continue to grow and the Russian response would be to further up attacks on centres of population to destroy the morale of the people, the economic viability of Ukraine and break political will to continue the fight. A sound planning assumption date, is that Putin would want to be able to announce some success at his annual Red Square Parade on 9th May.
If Putin doesn’t get a victory, then it is the people of Ukraine who will suffer further as Putin has the ability to sustain the attritional battle against civilian centres of population in a policy of ‘rubblising’ towns and cities. If he achieves his objectives or even partially by capturing the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts he is likely to try for a negotiated settlement as quickly as possible. The trouble for him is the price the Ukrainian people have paid already is too much for them to countenance giving Putin one square metre of Ukrainian territory. I believe we have many more horrors to come.
Philip Ingram is a former Senior British Military Intelligence Officer and NATO Planner and is available for comment.
Russia and Ukraine, the Chemical and Biological threat with a touch of Nuclear
By Philip Ingram MBE
The Russian messaging machine has gone into overdrive on its claims that the Ukraine and the US are developing chemical or biological weapons for use against invading Russian forces, as they brought the accusation to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on Friday. So that is the reality, a question I have been asked frequently by many press outlets in the past 24 hours?
At the end of February Vladimir Putin issued a statement where he raised the alert level of his nuclear forces and later his Foreign Minister Lavrov blamed comments from the British Foreign Secretary for forcing them to do so. This one act of putting your foot on the nuclear escalatory ladder then taking it off again says so much about Russia’s approach to diplomacy.
Russia has a policy of “escalate to de-escalate” so threatening the unthinkable to then back down is something in their psyche but they also have a history of following thorough, in particular when it comes to bombing, rocketing and shelling civilian built up areas and in Syria, helping to facilitate the use of chemical weapons.
In Ukraine, Russia’s invasion has become bogged down and in some areas fixed. They have little freedom to manoeuvre. That is why we are seeing what many refer to as the playbook tactics being rolled out. Whenever Russia has been fixed or bogged down in the past, they have rapidly resorted to surrounding cities and pounding them from the air, with rockets, missiles and artillery, in an indiscriminate manner, all to try and break the resolve of the people.
The agreement for humanitarian corridors and ceasefires is also playbook stuff as is mining those routes and shelling fleeing civilians. Again, looking at the response from the international community in the past to these atrocities, there has been none; Russia has been allowed to get away with it.
Many of the commanders involved in invasion of Ukraine will have served in Syria, some may even have been in Grozny in 2008, but that playbook tactics will be in their psyche, Putin likely won’t even have had to order it as it will have been in the wider contingency plans for cities showing too much resistance. What Russia hadn’t expected was that is every city! The last time this level of resolve was shown, in Syria, to break the deadlock, Chemical weapons were employed.
It is that playbook combined with the statements from official Russian MoD channels and the calling of the UNSC meeting that makes the threat of use of chemical weapons in Ukraine all the more real.
I will dismiss biological weapons quickly by saying they are not an act of war. Biological weapons are very difficult to weaponise into battlefield delivery system and their effects more difficult to control. You also need superb medial facilities for your own troops in case of accidental exposure, and the Russians don’t.
However, a real threat doesn’t automatically translate into their actual use. Key to this is that in Syria, Putin had a plausibly deniable outlet for blame when the international community called out the false flag attacks blamed on the Syrian opposition fighters, he could blame Assad and say he was misled too. This is a combination of маскировка (maskirovka), masking the truth behind disinformation and враньё(vranyo), which means to tell a lie without expecting to be believed, both are frequently exercised Putin tactics.
There are 2 scenarios where Putin may use chemical weapons in Ukraine, one is in a false flag incident in the vicinity of a Ukrainian research facility giving an excuse for him to go to the Russian people as say, “told you so, this is why we have to invade all of Ukraine.” This remains a possibility but the fact that western intelligence has already called it out may take that option off the table as it has done before with other potential false flag incidents.
The second is horrific, Putin uses chemical weapons in order to break the blockades around Ukrainian cities. Here I am going to assess this as being less likely to unlikely as no matter what messaging Putin puts out, he knows that personally this gives him nowhere to hide within an international context, ever. He may be a psychopath, but he is in some ways still rational. He knows that use of chemical weapons would have to be authorised by him and that would mean automatic prosecution and a massive withdrawal of the tacit ‘turning a blind eye,’ he is getting from the likes of China and India. His pariah status would be further set in stone; irrecoverably so.
He also doesn’t need to go there yet. He has much more he can do with conventional military capabilities, if he can manoeuvre them and support them logistically, in this case that if is probably the biggest word in the English language. He can threaten other disasters such as nuclear meltdowns in Ukraine’s nuclear facilities currently under Russian control but blame that on counter attacking Ukrainians. He has much more conventional terror to rain down on Ukraine’s cities before he even needs to consider the unthinkable.
The worrying final issue is no matter what the outcome, Putin has lost this war. He has failed, his military have failed. He has strengthened the Ukrainian people as a nation, strengthened the international community including the EU, caused the conditions for possible further NATO expansion.
Sun Tzu says, “Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.” Putin’s forces didn’t listen and are fixed. Unless there is a palace coup in Moscow, this conflict could go on for a long time with all of the associated suffering and deaths. The only other tiny green shoot of hope is that the Russians are becoming so fixed, that if the Ukrainian defenders can generate manoeuvre capabilities to counterattack, their time to push the Russian back in a significant way could come. Supporting the Ukrainian defenders more and enabling them to become attackers is the Wests next logical step.
Philip Ingram MBE is a former senior British Military Intelligence Officer and NATO Planner and is available for comment.
You don’t deploy over 100,000 troops for months in winter on the borders of another country which you have already annexed elements of in 2014, unless you intend to use them. Troops deployed into areas preparing for potential combat operations can sustain themselves for a certain amount of time and then boredom and lack of access to fixed facilities, becomes an issue. The worst ever type of deployment is an open ended one, the very type all the service personnel from Russia are experiencing as they sit within striking distance of the Ukrainian border.
So, what is likely to happen? That is anyone’s guess at this point, but there are certain factors that come to bear. Putin won’t want the full might of the international community to come to put pressure on his fragile economy, but he must be seen to do something for his domestic audience and for the massive deployment to seem ‘legitimate.’
He has sold the threat of NATO expansionism into Ukraine and Georgia to his domestic audience and whipped up a level of threat that NATO isn’t capable of, even if it were politically coherent.
The last few NATO deployments to the Balkans and Afghanistan have shown the very real difficulties NATO has in generating a sustainable, coherent military approach to operations with very real differences between EU members, the US and UK with the UK aligning itself more often with the US and France participating where it can see potential economic advantage.
However, Russia and Putin in particular, have a collective deep-down belief in NATO expansionism for the sole purpose of threatening Russia. Putin also hankers after the ‘good old days’ of the USSR and would love its re-birth (under his control of course).
Putin loves the ability to grandstand, he loves the feeling of power on the international stage, so will happily participate in any and all international ‘de-escalation,’ conferences and meetings. He has one advantage; he owns the information space like no other leader. He is a master of manipulation, disinformation and obfuscation so our participation will just serve not just to embolden him, but provide a stage for him to set the conditions to ‘prove’ to the Russian people and to others that he has tried everything, but it is the West that are being intransigent and not budging, it is others who are forcing Russia’s hands into having to protect itself.
This is the start, the foundation for action, the first Indicator and Warning ticked, and we must now watch for the language to become more accusative and aggressive. This will be the second indicator and warning of impending action. However, Putin knows that winning the war of words won’t be enough for the West to accept him marching into Ukraine or even part of Ukraine, so more has to happen.
He seems to like the NATO Kosovo scenario of going to protect an element of the local population, but to do that he needs to escalate the crisis to the international community before he can think of going, else he needs to de-escalate his preparations in the eyes of the Russian public. In his eyes it is justifiable to the international community as it is just doing what NATO did in Kosovo, so to achieve this he has things that need to happen.
Alongside increasing domestic and international rhetoric suggesting Western Interference and expansionist aims we will begin to see increasing rhetoric around ethnic Russians being targeted inside Ukraine. He will suggest an increase of Ukrainian state and foreign sponsored actions supressing the Russian speaking populations. This could involve terror type attacks, a public atrocity like a school bus or aircraft being hit in the Donbas region, it will likely involve a massive increase in anti-Russian rhetoric on social media, the only difference being, it will be Russia behind it.
At the same time Russia will likely expand their threats, more support to Assad in Syria, courting of other countries sympathetic to Russia, increased refugee activity on the EUs borders via Belarus and elsewhere. Russian conventional military activity, probing NATO airspace, threatening undersea cables, backing Iranian aggression in the Gulf, encouraging North Korea to ‘test’ more missiles with a sprinkling of cyber-attacks would all be used to distract western defence and split its focus.
The next step close to Putin deciding to attack Ukraine may possibly be terror type attacks by element of the state in Russia but blamed on Ukrainian separatists or sympathisers. This would be the trigger for action into Ukraine and in the run up to this we would likely see an increase in targeted messaging against Ukraine as well as more reports of ‘little green men’ popping up, Russia’s deniable contract mercenaries that played a leading part in the annexation of Crimea and of course blunt messaging accusing the west of interfering and aggression. At the same time, we could see the following:
Ukraine Cyber attack(s)
Global Cyber attack(s)
Russian Black Sea fleet deployed
Elements of the Russian Med Fleet deployed
Elements of the Russian Northern and Baltic Fleet Deployed
However, Putin is not daft and will calculate if he gets his messaging frenzy to a point where the world thinks that the whole of Ukraine will be invaded but he only carries out a limited land grab, then he could calculate that there would be an international sigh of relief and he could weather any additional sanctions or measures. His activities with NATO, the EU and the wider international community will be designed to gauge if he could get away with this.
If he does, his limited objectives could be annexing a large part of Eastern Ukraine where the majority Russian Speakers live. He is likely to calculate this as being just under the threshold of a very robust Western intervention as the last thing Putin could afford is a conflict with the West and he knows this, but emotionally he wants all of Ukraine.
Equally, he could easily de-escalate but indicators of that will be domestically focused rhetoric regarding meeting Russia’s objectives and capitulation by the West in some way. We live in interesting times and the robustness of our political leaders will likely be tested to their fullest extent in the coming weeks.
Philip Ingram MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence who has studied Russian tactics from the Geopolitical to Tactical as part of his career. He remains available for comment.