As the eyes of the world were transfixed by the bombs raining down on Ukraine on the first day of the invasion, the agents of Russia’s other front got to work in the streets of Kyiv.
At around 8 a.m. on Feb. 24, a man armed with a laptop pulled up outside the offices of counter-disinformation group Detector Media and tried to hack into their networks.
“At that moment, our IT guy was there and was able to shut everything down, so the attempt was unsuccessful,” says Ksenia Iliuk, a data analyst at the organization.
“But that was weird because someone was preparing it. This person must have been given the task to go there.” The police were called, Iliuk explains. “But by the time they arrived, he’d escaped. We just have a blurry picture of a man wearing a hat, so it was very hard to identify him.”
In the six weeks since the war began, Ukraine’s performance has confounded expectations that Russia’s overwhelming military might would make short work of the defenders.
A similar reaction has accompanied Ukraine’s response to information warfare. The Ukrainian side has proved exceptionally adept at countering Russia’s propaganda machine, from the defiant “proof of life” videos issued by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the rapidly produced articles debunking Russian claims that the bombing on March 9 of a maternity hospital in Mariupol was staged.
“A lot of shocked experts in the West said we won the first round of the information war, but this is not a surprise,” says Mykola Balaban, deputy director of the Ukrainian government’s Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security. “In the Western media they underestimated the expertise that was already in place in Ukraine. Everyone knew what to do.”
A crucial part of this expertise comes from the numerous civil society organizations that monitor, analyze and debunk Russian disinformation and propaganda. Groups such as Detector Media, Stop Fake and Texty have been working flat out for almost a decade, since the run-up to the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Whereas in the West, Russian disinformation is mainly associated with specific events such as the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Brexit or the Skripal poisonings, in Ukraine there has been a yearslong and unrelenting campaign to undermine the very state itself.
“We started noticing during the revolution of dignity in 2013 that Russia was actively pursuing narratives of Ukraine being either a Nazi state or a failed state,” says a Ukrainian program manager at an international NGO who wished to remain anonymous.
In the information warfare space, aside from an uptick in disinformation, nothing much changed on Feb. 24. On the ground things were obviously very different.
“We were launching a project on [Feb.] 24, and I remember I was hearing bombing outside my apartment, and I was like, ‘OK, we have to launch it anyway,’” says Iliuk.
“Maybe it was shock,” Iliuk explains. “I love my work and it calms me down, so I knew it was the only thing I could do to be useful.
“I knew if it was a full-scale invasion that there was going to be a flood of Russian fakes, and we needed to inform Ukrainians because there will be panic and a lack of information.”
Like thousands of other civilians, including those interviewed for this article, Iliuk left Kyiv for the relative safety of western Ukraine. “[It] took about 15 hours, and while we were in the cars, we were still trying to analyze the information flow and publish these debunkings.”
“Half the team were very close to the places being shelled, so that was very hard,” Iliuk adds. “Some of them stayed there because they refused to leave for personal reasons, so we have two people working from bomb shelters even now still.”
In addition to the bombs and artillery fire, there were reports Russia had drawn up “kill lists” of people they wished to detain or kill if they managed to overrun the country. While specific names were not reported, those who had dedicated their adult lives to publicly combatting Russian disinformation and propaganda were understandably nervous.
“Personally I was scared a bit,” says Halyna Pastuh of Texty. “For the first few weeks it was difficult to work because of the stress. Even if you were in a safe area, you were thinking about your team members.”
“Even now I don’t know if it’s still safe to stay here as an organization,” Pastuh says. “But we can’t move because we have many boys in our team.”
Ukraine’s mobilization law forbids males ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country. And since both men and women can volunteer for territorial defense units, some fact-checking groups are also operating with a reduced staff.
“We are trying to work as much as possible, but it’s still not 100% of our capacity,” Pastuh explains.
There are things working in their favor, not least the fact Russian disinformation operations have generally been low quality and don’t appear to be deploying any tactics not already known to the Ukrainians.
“They can’t come up with something new that we don’t know about,” says Liubov Tsybulska, founder of the Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security. “We know their tactics. … We know their toolkit, all their main actors, and we know how they operate. … We can think ahead and forecast their actions, and this is very valuable.”
According to Balaban, information warfare has been deployed in tandem with military operations on the ground, with one justifying the other. Russian claims that Ukraine is riddled with Nazis and acquiring nuclear weapons served as the basis for first “blitzkrieg.”
“And now they’re in this stage two, which is like trench warfare,” Balaban says. “This phase will heavily target people by a couple of main Russian narratives.
“The first is equalization of atrocities. Not to say Russians are good, but to say Ukrainians also do atrocities.
“The second one will be a narrative of ‘good Russians,’ and it’s only Putin and the political class [who are] responsible for the aggression, and general society has nothing to do with that, therefore sanctions and embargoes are a bad idea.”
Aside from a handful of “useful idiots,” Russian propaganda makes little headway in the West these days. The same can also be said about Ukraine, particularly areas that, before the war, were considered sympathetic to Russia: being forced to survive in cities reduced to ruins effects mindset change.
“It doesn’t work for Ukrainians anymore because Ukrainians can see their physical actions — they’re being bombed by Russians,” Tsybulska says.
“And it’s quite difficult to convince the West that Ukrainians are Nazis, especially when you expel 3 million Ukrainians into Europe, and everyone sees that they are not Nazis.” As of April 5, 4.3 million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries.
Yet even if Russian propaganda is only effective on its domestic audience, the effects in Ukraine are still very real, and the work of the fact-checkers is more vital than ever.
“Before the invasion people around the world considered disinformation as something far away,” Iliuk says, “something that is hard to get a feel of and difficult to see the consequences of.
“But now we see that this disinformation is the backbone of the military operations in Ukraine.
“This is something that people need to understand — that disinformation is right now killing people in Ukraine.”