As the world tries to understand and learn from these horrific unfolding events, one aspect of Russia’s vicious attack that hasn’t been interrogated to the same extent is the battle of images and words that has been a constant sideshow to the geopolitical and military developments.
Vladimir Putin is no communications mastermind and is (rightly) often mocked for his attempts to project a strongman image, but Russia cultivated a psychological advantage with its deluge of images in the days preceding the invasion of tanks rolling seemingly unopposed towards Kyiv. Those images were countered in the UK only by the picture of a frazzled and dishevelled Boris, a deer in headlights.
Nor is Putin a particularly stirring orator, but he is one of the architects of a world in which the truth is often lost in the saturated smog of contradictory information emanating from media and social media, and the powerful can therefore say whatever they like without enduring consequence.
Since the attack started the ‘fog of war’ is a prominent description of the proliferation of fake and unreliable reports seeping out of every orifice of our communications infrastructure, further obscuring Russian crimes and falsehoods.
Putin and Russia’s verbal propaganda has been years in the making. Russia Today initially steered clear of naked pro-Russia promotion in favour of amplifying negativity against its enemies. It’s a short hop from hating America because of Iraq and Afghanistan, to siding with Russia’s criticisms of NATO, to an apologist for its ongoing crimes.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been brave and dignified in how he’s conducted himself, but where are the rest of the world leaders? As Putin confidently tells Ukrainian troops to overthrow their own government, Joe Biden squints into a teleprompter mumbling a speech he’s apparently seeing for the first time, Germany protects its gas supply, Liz Truss huffily pleads with China to intervene.
The communications battle pales in significance next to the unimaginably bleak human cost of this war; but, in terms of words and images, the West has allowed themselves to be walked over by a flat-track bully, and in doing so made Putin’s sadistic mission just a little easier.