The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukraine’s showdown with Russia plays out one meme at a time

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, touches elbows with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Kyiv on Jan. 19. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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KYIV — With some 100,000 Russian troops and military hardware massing near Ukraine’s border, Ukraine has deployed a force of its own: a state-run Twitter account mobilizing memes.

The address @Ukraine has become a sort of window into Ukraine’s zeitgeist — ups, downs, fears and plenty of dark humor — amid claims by Western leaders that Russia could be planning a large-scale invasion.

While some citizens have started considering evacuation plans, people are largely calm and say they’ve grown used to worrying about war with Russia over the past eight years — since Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

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On Dec. 7, @Ukraine’s tweet describing types of headaches — the punchline was that “living next to Russia” is the worst kind — was shared more than 140,000 times. Social media posts across the globe cheered that a country’s official account had personality, rather than the typical dry posts from government image-builders.

The mastermind(s) behind the current @Ukraine Twitter feed declined to go public, preferring to keep out of the public eye and agreeing to an interview only through Twitter messages with The Washington Post. (The account is verified.)

“Imagine a truly good person who’s been [through] a lot in the past, managed to overcome hardships and developed this very special type of sassy and darkish humor as a byproduct. This is what Ukraine is about,” said the account said in a message. “We laugh in the face of threats not because we underestimate them, but because what else should we do? Laydown and cry? Tears have never won anyone freedom.”

But for @Ukraine, trolling Russia is not just a laughing matter. It’s a way for Ukrainians to counter what many say is a Kremlin disinformation campaign while also capturing the attention of an international audience when they want the world to be watching.

Even as it has massed its military near Ukraine, Moscow has said that it’s not threatening anyone and has no plans to invade. Russian officials have instead blamed tensions on Ukraine’s defense cooperation with the NATO military alliance and are insisting on written guarantees that it be stopped.

“Most probably, in the wider public, especially in countries far from Ukraine, people actually know very little about the real causes of Russia’s current aggressiveness and threats against Ukraine,” the account’s handler said in a Twitter message to The Post.

“So we had one very practical task to achieve with this meme, which is to explain to some large and distant target audiences that Russia is the problem here, not Ukraine, the West, the U.S., NATO, aliens or anyone else,” @Ukraine added. “This meme hit just there, delivering a very simple, yet important message: ‘Russia is the headache, Russia is the problem of the current escalation.'"

The types of headaches meme reached more than 55 million people, the account said, “probably more than any international media could, so we achieved our task.”

Yarema Dukh created the account in 2016 when he was a press officer in the Ukrainian presidential office. The fighting between Kyiv’s government forces and the pro-Moscow separatists in the east was entering its third year, and Dukh was looking for a way to keep the international press’s attention on Ukraine. And so, @Ukraine was born.

The account kept things fairly formal for the first year of its existence. Then in May 2017, it started a Twitter spat with Russia’s main account over the historical origins of Anna Yaroslavna, an 11th-century princess (and later queen of France) born in Kyivan Rus — an east Slavic state formed around Kyiv.

The Twitter account @Russia posted a message that it was proud of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus’s common history, adding that the countries’ “share the same historical heritage which should unite our nations, not divide us.”

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Dukh and his collaborators on the account, Oleg Naumenko and Artem Zhukov, were all big fans of “The Simpsons.” They responded to Russia’s tweet with a GIF from the show that depicted a Russian official laughing while a nameplate flipped from “Russia” to “Soviet Union.”

“You really don’t change do you?” @Ukraine wrote.

The exchange went viral.

“That was when we had the evidence that if we use this account in the proper way, we will get not only fun coverage about Ukraine Twitter, but even more,” Dukh said. “All of the media that was writing about this, they also had to give the historical background and information about the Russian invasion and the occupation of our territories. And it was a tricky way to remind everyone.”

Dukh handed over the reins of @Ukraine in 2018. He said its current curators occasionally consult with him — and also have an appreciation for “Simpsons” GIFs and memes.

“We may not have nukes, but we have memes. Call it a security memeorandum,” @Ukraine said in a message.

“The truth is that humor has an enormous power, especially when facing a brutal, self-aggrandizing and extremely serious authoritarian regime like Russia,” the account added. “They are so serious that they actually fear humor no less than nukes. Memes do just that.”

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