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Ukraine has been winning the messaging wars. It’s been preparing for years.

My research examined how the country learned to craft a powerful national narrative — and limit Russian misinformation

Members of Congress give Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a standing ovation before he speaks in a virtual address to Congress in Washington on March 16. (Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times/Pool/AP)
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Before the Ukraine invasion, many observers believed that Russia had an advantage in propaganda. But since the war began, journalists and academics alike have expressed admiration for Ukraine’s savvy information narratives and President Volodymyr Zelensky’s effective wartime messaging. This isn’t as surprising as it seems. As my research shows, Ukraine laid the groundwork for its information advantage well before the invasion. Over many years, Ukraine has learned how to limit Russian information exploitation and craft a national narrative.

Russia built a stronghold in Ukrainian media

In 2019, I interviewed dozens of Ukrainian political organizers, journalists and scholars in Kyiv about Russia’s ongoing information war — which had been underway since Ukraine’s independence in 1991 — and Ukrainian efforts to combat it. These interviews revealed Russia’s continuing influence on Ukrainian media. Galyna Zelenko, political science chair at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, estimated in our interview that over 90 percent of Ukrainian media had at one point been backed by Russian investments.

This was facilitated by a controversial 1990s Ukrainian program that privatized state-owned industries and gave vouchers to citizens so they could hold ownership in state property and land. The program was supposed to empower citizens by giving them a share in Ukraine’s wealth. Instead, it allowed several prominent Ukrainian oligarchs to exploit illegal voucher trading and take control of key businesses, including TV companies. Russia used its relationship with these oligarchs to infiltrate Ukrainian media.

Ukraine began to tackle this problem seriously in 2021. But over nearly 30 years of Ukrainian elections, Russia had seized many convenient opportunities to shape the political narrative. In our discussions, Denys Rybachok — an adviser to the Committee of Voters of Ukraine — distinguished Western efforts to influence elections from Russian ones. Western messaging embraced democratization, he said, while Russia’s aimed to either aid or “spoil” a particular candidate and to undermine Ukraine’s government.

My research at the Central State Historical Archives of Ukraine identified how Russia had used Ukrainian media to promote its preferred candidates in every election since the early 1990s, including the one that elected Zelensky. “The keys to Ukraine’s elections have always been in Moscow,” Zelenko told me. Rybachok also emphasized how many Russia-aligned oligarchs have been elected to parliament, allowing Russia to promote its preferred narratives during both parliamentary and presidential elections. This helped Russia consistently fill Ukraine’s information space with messages intended to undercut its government.

Russia's allies have been pretty quiet on Ukraine

Ukraine responded by building up defenses

This long history of Russian manipulation helps explain Ukraine’s recent successes. Many of those I interviewed emphasized that Putin’s targeting of Ukrainian media when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 had provoked Ukrainian officials to restrict Russian broadcasts and media content. This was striking, Rybachok commented, because 74 percent of Ukrainian adults received their news from Ukrainian TV. Limiting TV broadcasts helped shape how Ukrainians thought about politics. Even though citizens were hesitant about efforts to silence Russian media, they still saw Ukrainian television as the country’s most “trusted” news source in 2019, suggesting that TV had withstood Putin’s onslaught.

Turmoil in Ukraine leading up to the Crimea crisis also affected Ukraine’s information space by changing the relationship between Putin and many Ukrainian oligarchs. In 2013, wide-scale Euromaidan demonstrations unfolded across Ukraine, fueled by the public’s growing desire for European integration; concerns over President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a European Union free-trade agreement; and backlash against Yanukovych’s crackdown on protesters. Inaccurate coverage by Russian-aligned media of police brutality against protesters increased Ukrainians’ disdain toward Russian misinformation. This expanded support for stricter limits on Russian media in Ukraine. The unrest led to the 2014 Maidan Revolution and the removal of Yanukovych, which Putin used as a pretext for Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

These events in 2014 further strained Putin’s ties with Ukrainian oligarchs who had amassed a fortune in Ukrainian media. Many oligarchs moved closer to the Ukrainian cause because of political uncertainty, shifting public opinion and financial interests in European integration. Following Yanukovych’s departure, some oligarchs were granted by the interim government controversial political appointments in ethnically Russian-majority eastern provinces.

The reported goal of these appointments was to provide stability both for the government and for Ukrainians there, who were familiar with those oligarchs. However, Russia still maintained influence through other Ukrainian oligarchs with strong ties to the Kremlin, such as Viktor Medvedchuk, who held a 24.66 percent stake in a popular Ukrainian television channel.

In 2021, the U.S. government said Russia had put Medvedchuk on a “short list” of politicians it might use to replace Zelensky in a coup. Zelensky’s government put Medvedchuk under house arrest. The government also levied sanctions on some oligarchs, including Medvedchuk, for promoting “anti-Ukrainian propaganda.” At the time, many Ukrainians criticized this as government overreach.

But in 2019, Viktor Zamyatin of the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv-based think tank, suggested in our interview that this new gulf between the Putin-backed narrative and blossoming Ukrainian patriotism might also suggest a growing national recognition of the need for a distinctly Ukrainian information space.

Find all of TMC's analysis of the Russia/Ukraine conflict at our new topic guide: Russia and its neighbors

Zelensky’s media profile builds on these efforts

Zelensky’s renowned media savvy was reflected in his election promises to digitally modernize the Ukrainian bureaucracy. Since then, he has appointed colleagues from his television production company to top advisory and security positions. Though initially controversial, this has provided valuable government expertise in wartime media. Zelensky also initiated the first “paperless” government, including a fully digitized passport system, which has been critical in allowing Ukrainian refugees to enter other countries.

Many political organizers I interviewed said Zelensky’s aspirations expanded existing grass-roots efforts to confront Russian propaganda, such as StopFake and Euromaidan PR. These efforts happened at the same time that citizens started watching more Ukrainian-focused television, a signal that they’ve more fully embraced a Ukrainian national identity.

These initiatives have paid dividends over the past month. Ukraine benefited from Zelensky’s personal media experience, and Ukrainians often recognize information manipulation when it is happening. The Ukrainian government, independent organizations and Western partners are also undertaking measures to combat Russian information exploits, including Russian plans to use fake videos of a Ukrainian attack as an excuse to invade.

Since Putin’s invasion, four Ukrainian oligarch-owned media channels have collaborated with the parliamentary channel to broadcast the same programming, reinforcing the Ukrainian parliament’s message. Telegram, a communications app used in Zelensky’s presidential campaign despite its susceptibility to privacy issues and Russian misinformation, has this past month been widely used by the Ukrainian government and armchair sleuths alike to debunk Russia’s wartime propaganda.

Ukrainians are rallying global support via social media. But don’t call it a TikTok war.

Some of these actions were controversial when introduced. Together, they have mostly helped Ukraine to build an information advantage against Russia. If Ukraine succeeds in resisting the invasion, these communication strategies are likely to help sustain a shared narrative of national resilience and national solidarity after the war is over.

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Torey McMurdo (@tormcmurdo) is a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University and an information warfare-qualified officer in the U.S. military. The content expressed does not represent an official position of the U.S. Department of Defense.

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