Abstract: The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine is a pivotal moment in strategic competition between the U.S. and Russia and their respective allies and partners. A defining element of this conflict is defending the rules-based order and the European security architecture anchored along transatlantic ties. This paper explores two elements of these transatlantic security bonds: Instrumentality of strategic communication (StratCom) and security force assistance (SFA). We argue that StratCom – a mix of information warfare, public affairs, and public relations – and SFA (i.e., helping make another military more effective) have been mutually reinforcing elements, critical for Ukrainian success thus far. Political and military leaders must master the art of strategically conveying narratives to their armed forces and civil society while tailoring foreign messaging with clear StratCom approaches meant to leverage information space opportunities at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.
Problem statement: What is the value of aligning narratives at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels, ensuring economic and military aid flows to Ukraine?
Bottom-line-up-front: The Russo-Ukraine War (2014-Present) has demonstrated the importance of Strategic Communication and Security Force Assistance. It is crucial to understand how interdependent these two approaches have been in generating critical narratives of Ukrainian battlefield success.
So what?: The success of Ukraine on the physical battlefield and in the digital space demonstrates the conceptual value of what war-fighting looks like in the New Battlespace. In the Information Age, traditional domains like air, land, and sea remain relevant. Still, less traditional domains like cyber, outer space, and civil society, become equally crucial components in 21st-century warfare because each is highly interconnected and dependent on one another. Policymakers and military leaders must alter their approaches to strategic competition to leverage each domain in pursuit of objectives against adversaries.
On 15 February 2022, deputies of the State Duma of the Russian Federation voted to support the resolution “on the appeal of the President” and the “need to recognize the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People's Republic (LPR).” One week after this resolution passed the Duma, in his 21 February address, President Putin played out an alternative version of the situation in Ukraine, one in which he emphasized a common “history, culture and spiritual space.” By the morning of 24 February, Putin took to TV once again, announcing the initiation of a “special military operation” to “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine. Such events are likely to re-shape the post-Cold War international. Moreover, political and military leaders are rethinking how their armed forces should function in the new battlespaces. The Information Age of warfare places increasing value on using non-kinetic capabilities to influence and shape battlefields and audiences around the world. Months into the conflict, the international community, and especially the West, are astonished by the resolve and effectiveness of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) against a numerically superior aggressor. Naturally, the question arises, which elements contributed to said resolve and effectiveness, and are there any lessons that can be drawn from the example of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war?
Political and military leaders are rethinking how their armed forces should function in the new battlespaces. The Information Age of warfare places increasing value on using non-kinetic capabilities to influence and shape battlefields and audiences around the world.
Within the geopolitical context of Russia reasserting itself in Eastern Europe and the U.S. reinforcing the rules-based order, this article explore two major components of the transatlantic security “bond”: The instrumentality of strategic communication (StratCom) and security force assistance (SFA). First, StratCom is about employing information warfare, public affairs, and public relations – to achieve influence and alter perceptions more favorably. Ukrainian officials, formally and informally, have effectively generated narratives about Russian aggression, atrocities (e.g., “Butchers of Bucha”), and their military incompetence. Such efforts have ensured most western audiences – and their political leaders – keep supporting the Ukrainian government, civil society, and military. Secondly, since the Russian “Little Green Men” events of 2014, sixteen western countries have bilaterally provided SFA to Ukraine. Such train, advise, assist, and equip missions to UAF via formal mechanisms (e.g., training courses, weapon deliveries, etc.) and informal channels (e.g., secure messaging on Signal; sharing of information, intelligence, manuals, etc.), has increased militarily effectiveness. Moreover, such SFA has contributed to Ukrainian military leadership capabilities – with Ukrainian forces exhibiting higher levels of morale – while enabling a mix of Ukrainian forces (e.g., special operation forces, soldiers, volunteers, territorial defense units, partisans, foreign fighters, civil society actors, etc.) to outperform Russian forces. Most remarkable, the emergence of informal SFA (i.e., unofficial communication, donations, etc.) has enhanced UAF effectiveness. This has enhanced capabilities, ensuring UAF have higher morale, better discipline, and more willpower to fight compared to Russian troops, which have been deserting at high rates in Ukraine.
Combined, Ukrainian StratCom and Western SFA, have proven mutually reinforceable positions within the broader framework of the war as Ukrainian messaging has ensured steady flows of Western economic aid, intelligence, weapons, and training. In turn, Ukrainian StratCom abilities have reinforced positive Ukrainians narratives about such Western assistance being put to effective use against a belligerent Russia. Military leaders of today and tomorrow must master the art of strategically conveying narratives to their armed forces as well as civil society and political leaders, domestically and globally. StratCom, when properly employed in the new battlespace, ensures effective messaging to audiences domestically and globally. Additionally, effective StratCom requires planning at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels for gaining desired influence outcomes. Achieving unity of effort across all three levels enables lines of effort to attain objectives against an adversary.
StratCom is instrumental in building trust, confidence, and credible deterrence. Carefully crafted communication can also act as a tool for shaping attitudes and perceptions of domestic and global audiences. Similarly, StratCom is an effective non-kinetic weapon against an enemy and its supporters, while making adversarial influence initiatives less effective. What is said or, conversely, what is not said, are 'signals' to allies, partners, and adversaries. The way information is disseminated impacts modern war in its totality, be it for reasons of deterrence or compellence. Moreover, the internet and advanced communications has given way to cognitive warfare, which are digital and virtual “activities undertaken to manipulate environmental stimuli to control the mental states and behaviors of enemies as well as followers in both hot and cold wars.” Such StratCom actions – when combined with other instruments of national power – can be synergetic, influencing the minds of supporters through tailored messaging that shapes the information environment.
StratCom is instrumental in building trust, confidence, and credible deterrence. Carefully crafted communication can also act as a tool for shaping attitudes and perceptions of domestic and global audiences.
Narrative Warfare: Influence Operations Shaping Audiences Globally
Influence operations – including weaponized narratives and cognitive warfare – are by no means a new way to conduct war. Ukraine has been a perfect example of how Russia has weaponized narratives to legitimize their illegal annexation of territory and brutal ‘denazification’ behavior. Simultaneously, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict has illustrated how powerful influence campaigns are, how important preparedness is to counter them, and how instrumental social media can be in achieving strategic goals. Through effective StratCom, Ukrainians have seized the digital high ground with weaponized narratives. This has facilitated the isolation of Russia while enabling western aid flows to Ukraine.
The Russo-Ukrainian conflict has illustrated how powerful influence campaigns are, how important preparedness is to counter them, and how instrumental social media can be in achieving strategic goals.
The internet and social media enable low-risk, cheap StratCom operations against an enemy and their supporters. NATO identified the power of influence operations by establishing the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga, Latvia. The Centre defines StratCom as “the coordinated and appropriate use of NATO communications activities and capabilities in support of Alliance policies, operations and activities, and in order to advance NATO's aims.” While this is an all-encompassing definition, it can be best distilled as “it is not what you say, but how you say it and when you say it” in such a way to achieve objectives. Hence, when it comes to influence and persuasion, there are four pillars: “knowing your purpose, understanding your audience, selecting an appropriate message structure strategy, and identifying the appropriate channel.” Finally, informational influence is best defined by the American Psychological Association as “interpersonal processes that challenge the correctness of an individual’s beliefs or the appropriateness of his or her behavior, thereby promoting change.” This influence may occur directly, as a result of communication and persuasion, or indirectly, through exposure to information and comparison of oneself with others.
Strategic Shaping through Weaponized Narratives
A major reason why Russian Armed Forces failed to achieve initial political objectives in Ukraine is due to years of Western SFA, which facilitated the creation of effective UAF combat power and political willpower for Kyiv to resist Moscow. Initial Ukrainian narratives centered on freedom, sovereignty, and a nationalist identity. Such efforts were tied to pursuing simple political goals: the survival of the Ukrainian state and the nation. Nevertheless, the invasion of Ukraine is part of a broader Russian ideological war against the Euro-Atlantic community and its security architecture. Before invading, draft treaties presented to the U.S. and NATO by the Kremlin attempted to limit transatlantic security ties. Western leaders wasted their time trying to ‘interpret’ such drafts, but they were illusions of grandeur provided by “leaders in Moscow attempting to reestablish Soviet Union 2.0.”
In the months leading up to the Russian 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. intelligence community released specific, timely INTEL regarding Russian intentions. Unfortunately, many European leaders hurried to the Kremlin to appease Putin and “negotiate the war away,” instead of pursuing effective StratCom campaigns through speeches, social media, memes, and conventional media. The lack of Western unity signaled weakness to Russia. Leaders in Moscow had discerned similar Western apathy before invading Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014). Much like other Eastern European cultures in general, Russia does not respect weakness, flexibility, or negotiations without the threat of violence. Winning the war of narratives is why Russian convinced themselves that their 2022 “special military operation” would succeed.
The lack of Western unity signaled weakness to Russia. Leaders in Moscow had discerned similar Western apathy before invading Georgia and Ukraine.
With social media growing in prominence over the last decade, Russia has tailored messaging to undermine the transatlantic community, amplifying societal divisions and polarizing politics. For instance, when the Taliban conquered Afghanistan in August 2021, the Kremlin flooded the information space in Ukraine with narratives of how the West would abandon Kyiv just like Kabul. The imposition of pro-Kremlin narratives against neighbors fits a pattern of gray zone activities since the Bolshevik Revolution. Even as the Soviet Union was nearing collapse, they conducted influence operations that encouraged revolution against the Romanian dictator Ceausescu. The goal was to depose Ceausescu and keep Romania within the USSR sphere of influence. These tactics still inform the Kremlin’s information warfare playbook: create chaos and build a weaponized narrative of ‘others’ to create strife.
However, Russia eventually failed to keep Romania in its orbit because the average Romanian wanted relations with the West, which included numerous non-security benefits. The Kremlin failed to deter and prevent Romanian NATO accession because the Romanian education system and political leaders ensured the memory of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Relevant domestic discourse and narratives guaranteed the historical relevance of the Soviet Red Army marching through Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, raping, killing, and pillaging. Russian military behavior was no different during the 2022 invasion of Ukraine (e.g., Bucha, Bersiaka, etc.).
Even after Romania joined NATO in 2004, the Kremlin continued information operations against Romania. However, with NATO Article 5 protection, Moscow utilized options below the Article 5 threshold. A similar Russian modus operandi was established against Estonia through the cyber-attacks of 2007, and in many other eastern European countries. The logic cannot be missed that Russia decided to invade Georgia and Ukraine on the eve of discussions about these countries beginning their roadmaps to NATO accession in 2008 and 2014, respectively. Such Russian signaling has been projected against neighbors showing signs of shifting towards Europe or the U.S.
Narratives are a powerful weapon via the internet, shaping the human domain in ways not possible in the pre-internet age. For instance, on 4 September 2022 tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Prague to protest against their pro-West government. Protesters aired many pro-Kremlin narratives about high energy prices in Europe because of support for Ukraine. While the Czech Republic is a member of NATO and the EU, Russian hybrid warfare actions stoke societal angst across Europe. When weaponized narratives are applied consistently over a long period, they affect human cognition and implicitly influence decision-making at all levels across civil society and government. Cognitive dissonance remains an effective approach for the Kremlin in dividing and polarizing NATO countries. Former Warsaw Pact members joined NATO because they wanted protection from Russian repression and control. Europeans without personal experience living under Soviet rule are more likely to entertain Kremlin narratives about NATO being an American tool for maintaining rule over Europe and provoking Russia. In a September 2021 interview with Lithuanian StratCom officials, they described how Russia had weaponized immigration against the EU, especially the Baltic states. Officials provided evidence of Russia using social media advertising, which encouraged immigrants to fly to Belarus, where they were bussed to EU borders to create issues.
Dis-, mis-, and mal-information activities are non-kinetic 'thought bombs’ that are not perceived as national security threats in Western capitals. Hence, it is difficult to mobilize support and policies to defend against since it does not conceptually cross the ‘red line’ of a conventional attack. Moreover, one European country being shaped through Russian influence operations can have a domino effect on neighbors.
Social Media in Modern Competition
Ukrainian StratCom success has been a crucial element of current UAF counteroffensives against Russian forces occupying Ukraine. From the beginning of the conflict, Ukrainian soldiers and civilians posting live on TikTok and Instagram kept the international community alert to Russian movements across their country. Simultaneously, social media posts of Russian military movements normalized open-source intelligence (OSINT) sharing, making it difficult for Russian forces to move covertly, and also communicated to Ukrainians – and global citizens – that the fight was worth fighting. Such actions enabled high Ukrainian morale, despite initial Russian advances. As few journalists were on the ground when the war began, many conventional media outlets used OSINT posts to keep their audience updated. Later on, the UAF dropped surrender leaflets on Russian positions with a QR code, with the message of “Your ticket to a peaceful life. Show this card to a Ukrainian soldier - it will save your life and help you get back home.” While such propaganda messaging is as old as the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, advertising these actions on social media further shapes and influences the information space against an adversary.
Influence and shaping operations throughout social media can be a double-edged sword since the validity of the posts can be questionable. The visual impact of seeing wounded Ukrainian civilians or of Russian troops being unable to cross a river sends powerful messages to global audiences interested in the outcome of the Russo-Ukraine War. The Ukrainian military's sinking of the Moskva is a good example. While Moscow-backed Ria Novosti reported 14 April 2022 “The cruiser Moskva sank while being towed during a storm,” the UAF announced their role in destroying the Moskva, the symbolic jewel of the Black Sea fleet.
The visual impact of seeing wounded Ukrainian civilians or of Russian troops being unable to cross a river sends powerful messages to global audiences interested in the outcome of the Russo-Ukraine War.
As the UAF conventionally defends their homeland they simultaneously engage in StratCom operations, ensuring positive narratives that reinforce the need for continued economic and military aid. National instruments across the DIME (Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic), are synchronized by the Ukrainian government in keeping Western audiences and governments engaged to ensure aid and support continue flowing into the country. Ukrainian civil society has also been vital in keeping audiences engaged through social media posts, to include pictures and videos, meant to go viral. Such informal StratCom by civil society enhances the formalized StratCom actions of the Ukrainian government and military. Ukrainian OSINT hobbyists like InformNaplam, facilitate the bridging of the gap between Ukrainian audiences and global netizens by them scouring information on the Russian military and translating it into English so that more prominent OSINT outlets like Bellingcat can use it to piece together damning intelligence reports about the Russian military and its conduct. Other StratCom efforts elevate public discussions about rebuilding Ukraine after the war. It influences Western audiences from whether their governments should provide aid towards a narrative of how much their government should provide to Ukraine as part of a 21st-century version of the Marshall Plan.
Formal and Informal Aid to Ukrainian Forces
Even before the Color Revolutions swept across Central and Eastern Europe after 2004, the U.S., UK, and certain NATO members had been working with the Ukrainian government and military since 1991, per a UK government report, to foster and assist with “defence reform, defence planning and capacity building.” In 1993, the California National Guard via the U.S. National Guard State Partnership Program, codified a relationship with the UAF with “many objectives, including helping the nations become more interoperable with NATO forces, helping the partners become more transparent in military affairs and, perhaps most importantly, helping the nations know how a military works in a democracy.” From 2000 until the February 2022 invasion, the U.S. provided the bulk of western SFA to Ukraine, including almost $2.8 billion in security assistance, about 16,000 Ukrainian troops trained, and over $700 million in arms sales. The Russian invasion of Ukraine drastically changed this rate. Per the Ukraine Support Tracker at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Ukraine has received over $25 billion in U.S. security assistance, with other large notable military aid provisions from: UK ($4.05 billion), Poland ($1.8 billion), Germany ($1.2 billion, and Canada ($930 million). More notable are the above-average contributions of smaller states. Estonia (0.9% of GDP), Latvia (0.9% of GDP), Poland (0.6% of GDP), Lithuania (0.4% of GDP), and Norway (0.4% of GDP) have provided the most support (as a percentage of their GDP) to Ukraine.
From 2000 until the February 2022 invasion, the U.S. provided the bulk of western SFA to Ukraine, including almost $2.8 billion in security assistance, about 16,000 Ukrainian troops trained, and over $700 million in arms sales.
It is important to demarcate the time it took for larger amounts of SFA to flow towards Ukraine after the 24 February 2022 invasion. For instance, the Biden administration only committed $350 million of military aid to Ukraine two days after the invasion. This is because “In the days leading up to the war, the intelligence community told [American] policymakers that Kyiv would likely fall within three to four days of a Russian invasion.” By 8 March, the political willpower came as there were “growing calls in Washington for the CIA and the Pentagon to support a potential Ukrainian insurgency.” By 11 March, a U.S. defense official noted that the “Russians did not expect the ferocious defense by the Ukrainian military and Ukrainian civilians.” The following day, the U.S. pledged $200 million, and another $800 million in military aid on 16 March. Such SFA came flowing due to a flurry of videos, memes, and StratCom activities by the Ukrainian government and civil society that highlighted Russian “blunders, [and] stiff Ukrainian resistance.”
Even though the Ukrainians initially sacrificed large swaths of territory, Russian forces became overextended with their logistics and artillery, which allowed the UAF to easily ambush Russian troops. Meanwhile, UAF and OSINT hobbyists filmed and captured much of these events, such as the infamous “40-mile-long armoured military column of tanks and heavy weaponry near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv for days” that was constantly ambushed, as some Russian troops froze to death in the stalled convoy. Such a timeline of events demonstrates how initial SFA contributions before the war, such as Javelin and NLAW anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft Stinger missiles, stalled Russian advances. UAF videos of these western weapons employed effectively against Russian forces spread throughout social media, shaping and influencing views about UAF capabilities. It provided enough evidence to policymakers in Western capitals to unleash waves of economic and military aid to Ukraine. Meanwhile, purposeful Ukrainian StratCom elevated narratives of unity and UAF bravery in standing up to a supposedly larger, better-equipped Russian military. Once the battle of Kyiv concluded on 31 March with the UAF victorious, international journalists and OSINT hobbyists identified numerous war crimes committed by occupying Russian forces, which further enhanced anti-Russian narratives through images of atrocities via social media that cemented western support to Ukraine.
Purposeful Ukrainian StratCom elevated narratives of unity and UAF bravery in standing up to a supposedly larger, better-equipped Russian military.
Beyond aid and codified bilateral security relationships between western countries and Ukraine, in 2016, the militaries of Lithuania and Poland formed a military unit with the UAF. Known as the Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian Brigade (LITPOLUKRBRIG), this trilateral military unit is jointly based in Lublin, Poland, capable of commanding 4,500 troops for joint combined military operations. Moreover, based on a 23 August 2022 interview with the LITPOLUKRBRIG Commander, his unit functions “outside of the NATO umbrella,” which means their unit can engage in some informal military activities with the UAF that formal NATO military units are unable to do. Such informal SFA occurs within this space as LITPOLUKRBRIG personnel utilize first-hand intelligence reports from Ukrainian troops to inform and improve the training courses and military exercises that the LITPOLUKRBRIG regularly conducts.
The power and value of informal SFA is missing from most academic research and literature. This is because informal SFA – such as advising and assisting without an explicit mandate – is more common than is assumed, not to mention difficulties tracking since military members typically do not report or tabulate the times in which they provide advice and guidance to a partner or allied military. For instance, in a 23 July 2022 interview, one U.S. service member described his time commanding an airfield in Qatar, where he commanded the airfield but spent more of his time advising Qatari military personnel on how to conduct their airfield operations. This type of informal SFA equally happens to deployed peacekeepers across Africa and the Middle East, where commanders of peacekeeping units have an explicit mandate for peacekeeping operations. Still, they spend more time consulting and advising host-nation military leadership on best practices, such as coordination and planning activities. Just through simple training courses and military exercises, when joint military forces work with one another, osmosis occurs, where best practices are developed to enhance professionalization among all participating military personnel.
According to Max Boot, there are four reasons why the Ukrainians have been so successful: (1) Western aid, (2) unity of Zelensky’s government, (3) “ingenuity, skill and fighting spirit of its armed forces,” and (4) “corruption and stupidity of the Putin regime.” However, Boot omits the most crucial factor that has tied all four into a cohesive narrative, namely the value of StratCom. Robust pro-Ukrainian social media campaigns, alongside elite narratives, have vitally enabled Western SFA flowing formally and informally to Ukrainian forces. Moreover, Ukrainian narrative warfare has provided a singular voice of Ukrainian unity against Russia while equally showcasing the corrupt conduct of Russian political and military leadership.
As Clausewitz astutely identified the importance of government, military, and people in war, the Russo-Ukraine War has showcased a new battlespace where internet connectivity enables citizens around the world to participate in the war (i.e., informal SFA and StratCom, OSINT, etc.) or be shaped through desirable narratives. Successful Ukrainian StratCom has been utilized in unison with combat operations, ensuring internal cohesion while supporting transatlantic security ties. European militaries and NGOs should collectively function as a defensive community to shape the new battlespace because of the value of democratic, open systems that can operate more organically against authoritarian countries like Russia. Thus, any politician, citizen, or soldier can be a digital warrior because anything and everything will be weaponized, as anyone who uses the internet or engages in social media discussions is now a combatant in sociopolitical-information warfare.
Ukrainian narrative warfare has provided a singular voice of Ukrainian unity against Russia while equally showcasing the corrupt conduct of Russian political and military leadership.
Russian leaders present ‘reimagined’ history and engage in revisionism to condition the world into an alternative version of events. President Putin provided his own vision of past, present, and future in his 12 July 2021 letter to Ukraine, stating Ukrainians and Russians as “one people” and that the “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia. Our spiritual, human and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources.” Such imperial ambitions and narratives by Putin made clear his StratCom narratives to domestic and international audiences. The arrogant view of Russian dominance over Ukrainians, the letter provided the veneer of legitimacy for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The only way to prevent revisionist authoritarians from trying to ‘reset history’ is to ensure education systems, both military and civilian, are proactively discrediting any attempts by leaders – domestic and foreign – that attempt to revise and alter reality. Since the invasion, President Zelensky made country-specific historical references in many speeches. This form of StratCom works because it keeps historical facts anchored in truth. Each reference is a reminder of Ukrainian sovereignty and their role in defending the European flank and rules-based international order.
The only way to prevent revisionist authoritarians from trying to ‘reset history’ is to ensure education systems, both military and civilian, are proactively discrediting any attempts by leaders – domestic and foreign – that attempt to revise and alter reality.
Finally, given that the survival of Ukraine and the transatlantic security community is dependent upon the U.S. – and somewhat on the UK, Germany, France – institutions like NATO must move beyond symbolic connections and interactions. There needs to be more formal and informal security cooperation, mentorship between NATO allies, and security cooperation with non-NATO militaries. Regardless of the Russian threat, the longer-term threat to NATO is China. Since 2019, NATO has been trying to pivot its resources, strategic thinking, and security cooperation to countries in the South China Sea region. A future crisis involving China will necessitate Western political and military leaders implementing reforms based on Russo-Ukraine War lessons learned, especially SFA and StratCom.
Dr. Olga R. Chiriac: Title VIII State Department Research Fellow, Middle East Institute, Washington DC; Associated Researcher, Center for Strategic Studies, Bucharest.
Dr. Jahara "Franky" Matisek (Lt Col, U.S. Air Force): Military Professor, Department of National Security Affairs, U.S. Naval War College, Newport, RI; Senior Fellow, Homeland Defense Institute, U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, CO; Fellowship Director, Irregular Warfare Initiative at the Modern War Institute, West Point, NY.
This article was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under award number FA9550-20-1-0277. The views expressed are those of Lt Col Matisek and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Naval War College, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.
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