In 2022, Russia changed its approaches on how it waged its information war. What can we expect in 2023?
Russia’s classic information war approaches, based on the desire of some Ukrainians to end the war in the Donbas “at any price” and the position of “what difference does it make,” stopped working after the start of their full-scale invasion. And with the retreat of the aggressor’s troops from Kyiv and Chernihiv oblasts, Russia finally concentrated its efforts on hidden tools. Popular conspiracy theories in the Ukrainian information space have significantly diminished.
In 2023, Russia will continue to work using the information war tactics which have shown high effectiveness. Now every second user of Ukrainian Facebook is spreading messages that strengthen Russian information operations. Most of them work to split the country. What can Ukrainians expect next?
First, we can expect attempts to fracture the country through the energy crisis to continue. Periodic power outages make people less resistant to infoviruses. As soon as electricity comes back, everyone goes to Telegram or Facebook for news, and there they are waiting for “correctly chosen messages” offering quick solutions to complex problems: protest and there will be light, demand negotiations with Russia and the bombardments will stop, and the like.
Secondly, “negotiation coercion” will become one of the key vectors of the information war in 2023. Russia is working along a wide front — from Western lobbying to attempts to bring Ukrainians to the Maidan in order to force Volodymyr Zelenskyy from power. Given Ukrainians' distrust of their authorities and unwillingness to make any compromises with Russia, the enemy can achieve certain results by, for example, popularizing opinions about "agreements" or "betrayal of Ukraine by the West."
The euphoria of victories will be changed by the realities of post-war life
Thirdly, Russia will try to push messages about corruption in Ukraine, saying that everyone is stealing. Russian propaganda has been working in this vector for years, but it is now gaining new weight. Under this kind of slogan, one can lobby for a reduction in military and financial assistance. Any cases of corruption among officials which emerge during the war will provide additional arguments for lobbyists of Russian interests in the West and for the formation of dissatisfaction with the authorities within Ukraine.
Fourth, the discrediting of volunteers will continue. The focus will continue to be on large organizations. Russia is well aware that by undermining the credibility of one of them, it will significantly discredit the entire volunteer movement. This vector of information struggle would not have been so successful if it were not for the political struggle and the growth problems of humanitarian organizations themselves.
Fifthly, the return to conspiracy theories and the formation of “not everything is so simple” opinions in society. The objective vacuum of information and misunderstanding of the essence of key processes (from how the energy system works to international politics) only increase the effectiveness of this vector.
Sixth, in the fall, Russia stepped up work to soften the reputation of Russians and “reconcile” them with Ukrainians.. We are talking about an offshoot of the large-scale campaign of messages saying “it’s all Putin, and the Russian people are not to blame,” which are promoted by “good Russians.” They mainly resonate with those Ukrainians who until February 24 thought there was little difference between Kyiv authorities and those serving Moscow. However, it is unclear whether Russia will be able to achieve visible results in this vector.
Seventh, Russia's efforts on the information front will continue to be divided. Ukrainian must be set against Ukrainian, and the subject of disagreement does not matter. IDPs, language, electricity, division into those who left and those who stayed – Russia will continue to monitor the information field, identify splits, and work to deepen them.
2023 will be a year of emotional swings. The euphoria of victories will be changed by the realities of post-war life and the challenges of economic recovery. Fatigue, fragmentation of information, and complexity of processes, the understanding of which requires narrow expertise, will not go away. All this will create a breeding ground for the enemy’s information operations. Whether or not they succeed depends directly on Ukrainians — whether they believe Russian manipulations, and whether they will discuss and spread them.