Ukraine is winning the battles against the Russian invaders but has not yet won the information war. This is not just about Psyops (Psychological Warfare Operations) on the battlefield, but changing the minds of many Russians who still see the invasion as justified and the Western economic sanctions as unwarranted. As of March, polls in Russia showed 58 percent of Russians back the invasion of Ukraine while only 23 percent oppose it.
Ukrainian Psyops experts believe more Russians back home would oppose the invasion if they knew what was going on with invading forces and the determined resistance of the Ukrainian population. Westerners do not realize how little most Russians know about the “Ukrainian operation” as the invasion is called by the Russian government. The fact that 23 percent of Russians oppose the war and that over 10,000 were arrested for demonstrating their opposition in public is unusual.
From the beginning Russia sought to justify the invasion with faked videos of Ukraine attacking first and assurances that the operation would be quick and painless. Initially the Russians spared civilians by only using hundreds of guided weapons like ballistic and cruise missiles along with GPS guided rockets. These proved less effective than advertised because many were found far from their targets, often largely intact with their warheads undetonated. It is estimated that only about half these expensive precision weapons hit their targets.
Russian troops were ordered to leave their cell phones behind for security reasons. It later turned out that the Ukrainians managed to keep their cell phone and land-line networks going in most of the country throughout the fighting, something the Russian soldiers and their commanders remained unaware of initially. Russian troops were told their new encrypted Azart radios were superior to the older ones. That was not the case inside Ukraine, where the Russians were not able to keep their Azart repeater towers operational and, once 25-30 kilometers from the border, the troops could no longer contact anyone in Russia or friendly troops more than 25 kilometers away by radio. Meanwhile Ukrainian forces always had dependable cellphone and Internet service along with encrypted apps that prevented the Russians from listening in. Russian forces often turned their encryption off to get more range and reception from the Azart and older radios. The Ukrainians could monitor these unencrypted communications and this put the invading forces at a further disadvantage.
Before the invasion began Russian troops were told there would be little resistance because Russian air power would control the skies and destroy any Ukrainian units that tried to move. That was not the case because the Russian air force was unable to gain air superiority and it was the Ukrainians who had armed UAVs that attacked Russian supply lines, reducing the fuel, ammo, medical supplies the Russians needed to keep going.
Many of the Russian troops were not even initially told they were going into Ukraine, but that they were still inside Russia or Belarus and taking part in a large-scale training exercise. Most Ukrainians speak Russian and Ukraine uses the same Cyrillic alphabet as Russia. Once inside Ukraine some Russian vehicles got lost and asked local motorists where they were. When told they were near a city known to be in Ukraine this often came as a surprise.
The Russian troops and most of the officers were not told to expect much resistance before they encountered thousands of well-armed and trained Ukrainian reservists and later civilians, who had prepared for the invasion since 2014, knew it was coming and had anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons that could devastate Russian tanks and other armored vehicles in ambushes. Russian casualties were heavy and the soldiers discovered that the Ukrainian people were fighting the invaders and doing so in ways that prevented the Russians from fighting back effectively.
Copies of the official plan, known only to senior officers (major and up) were soon captured and it was revealed to Ukrainians and the world that the invasion was supposed to take only fifteen days. This would include the capture of the capital Kyiv and installation of a pro-Russian government. This was supposed to demoralize the civilian population and Ukrainian troops. A few other large cities were to be captured quickly and Ukraine would once more be part of Russia.
In Russia the state-controlled mass-media described how the Ukrainians were not prepared for an invasion. The reality was that Ukraine was openly making preparations and this was known throughout the Western world. This helped lead most Western countries to quickly unite in imposing massive economic sanctions on Russia that, within weeks halted most exports to Russia and reduced the value of the ruble against Western currencies. This was noticed inside Russia as their savings were suddenly worth a lot less in dollars and euros while prices for everything went up. The sanctions soon put a lot of Russians out of work because many manufacturing jobs in Russia, even defense related, relied on some key imported components from the West.
At the same time there was no news about what was happening to Russian troops inside Ukraine. The families of these Russian soldiers, both volunteers and conscripts, did not know what was happening to their sons or husbands. Russians knew one thing; when there was no news, the news was usually bad. This is how it went during the 1980s in Afghanistan and the 1990s in Chechnya. There were two distinct wars in Chechnya, one in the early 1990s that was a disaster and second one in the late 1990s that was a success. The failure was not described while the more successful one was.
Ukrainians took advantage of this, and the lack of contact Russian troops had with their families and Russian media refusing to show what was actually happening. The Russian troops inside Ukraine knew what was happening because it was happening to them and those still alive, or in a hospital, were unable to let their families know their condition, or that of fellow soldiers who were killed.
The Russian military took their wounded, at least the ones the Ukrainians didn’t capture, back to military or militarized civilian hospitals in Russia and neighboring Belarus. Many of the badly wounded arrived dead and their deaths and the condition of the surviving Russian troops, were declared state secrets. There were severe punishments for those who revealed to the public what was going on.
The Belarussian government cooperated because Russia had been propping up a pro-Russian ruler who had recently faced large scale demonstrations protesting his misrule and vote rigging. Russia sent in troops that enabled Belarus to deploy all its more reliable security forces against the demonstrators. Despite that, Belarus would not send its troops into Ukraine but did cooperate in secretly treating Russian casualties. Belarus medical personnel were more willing to talk about what was happening with all those dead and wounded Russian soldiers and it eventually became known that Belarus railroad staff were cooperating with their Ukrainian counterparts to sabotage railroad access to Ukraine for Russian trains crossing the border parts of Ukraine the Russians considered safe.
Ukrainian Psyops and Ukrainians in general found ways to get the news of what was going on inside Ukraine back to the Russian public. By early March most Russians knew something bad was going on in Ukraine and that it involved the Russian military and was not going well for Russian troops. The official Russian position was that this was all about NATO aggression against Ukraine and Russia. Russian business managers and senior officials knew what was going on and more of them began leaving their government jobs or complaining to others that the official government version was a lie and part of the reason the Russian economy was suddenly in a recession and no one knew where this was going.
The Ukrainians used their ability to contact Russians by cell phone or, more slowly via the Internet, to get past the Russian Internet censorship. Initially this was done by allowing captured Russian soldiers to use Ukrainian cellphones to call their parents, often via a video call, to let them know they were OK. Parents could tell from their son’s tone of voice or facial expressions that the Russian situation in Ukraine was worse than imagined and the Russian government was keeping it secret. Groups of captured Russian soldiers were willing to give joint TV interviews about the situation inside Ukraine and videos of this soon found its way back to Russia via the Internet or Russians with cell phones that had recorded TV shows featuring pictures of dead and captured Russian soldiers who were not as secretive as their leaders back home.
Ukrainian Psyops later began using an Internet based facial recognition system that used facial images of millions of Russians who had appeared on the Internet, in social media or in videos. The facial imaging app was used to identify dead Russian soldiers the Ukrainians recovered so that the Ukrainians could notify families back in Russia who were openly complaining about their own government refusing to provide any news. Because of these Psyops efforts the news is slowly reaching the Russian public and many Russians believe this will show up in the opinion polls and lead to a change in government policy or a change in government.
Psyops is a military effort that sometimes relies on deception but is most effective when it simply gets the truth to places where that is not allowed.