Like Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, Vladimir Putin clearly believes that justice is whatever serves the interest of the strongest. It’s the code of the mafia godfather—and, for a supposed master manipulator of information, Putin has wasted little effort trying to cloak with fine ideals his application of brute force against Ukraine.
The pretext for the conflict—a “neo-Nazi” regime in Kyiv conducting “genocide” against ethnic Russians—seemed almost intentionally lame. No attempts were made to persuade or demoralize the public, either in Ukraine or in the Western democracies, ahead of what was to be the most egregious act of aggression in Europe in at least a generation. Even Russian troops at the front have often looked uncertain about the nature of their mission.
Putin’s lack of interest in explaining or justifying himself suggests reliance on two strategic calculations. First, he expected a short war. If Kyiv could be taken and the Ukrainian government decapitated within days of the start of hostilities, there would be no need for an elaborate information campaign. Power and terror would do the persuading, with a minimum of damage.
Second, Putin held western leaders in the most profound contempt. Even if the war dragged on, he dismissed their willingness to become a serious factor in it. Joe Biden, Olaf Scholz, Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau: individually and as a group, Putin assessed them as weak, distracted characters, devoid of will or tenacity, entangled in a world of short-term political gain and symbolic gestures. My guess is that he prepared for sanctions from this crowd, which he anticipated would be lifted once the news cycle moved on.
As I write, ten days into the conflict, we already know that Putin’s initial supposition was mistaken. This will not be a short war. The failure of Russian forces to advance as rapidly as their boss had hoped opened a blank space in need of a narrative: the information contest was suddenly imbued with tremendous potential to mobilize opinion and define the event. Since the Russians had abandoned this front without a fight, the Ukrainian side of the story was triumphant from Day One.
Smartphone images from battle-scarred Ukraine flooded the web and almost immediately crystallized into a David and Goliath theme. The Ukrainians came across as unexpectedly heroic. The Russians appeared clueless and brutal. Videos of burning tanks and civilians huddled in subway stations had a gritty retro look, like something out of a World War II movie—a setting that called for unambiguous heroes and villains.
Other videos exhibited a dark Slavic humor. A truck driver passing a stalled armored vehicle offers to tow the invaders back to Russia. A paunchy gentleman, well past middle age, cigarette stuck jauntily in his mouth, carries an anti-vehicle mine by hand from a bridge into the forest. In Berdyansk, ordinary people, the sturdy Ukrainian public, wave flags and shout “Go home” at the heavily-armed occupiers; the Russian troopers stare uneasily around.
At the center of public perceptions of Ukraine stood the country’s remarkable president, Volodymyr Zelensky. An entertainer by profession, the 44-year-old Zelensky acted out the part of an ordinary person caught in an extraordinary drama, radiating an unpretentious self-assurance that, under the circumstances, translated into great courage. He proved to be a brilliant practitioner of the video selfie—a sort of next-level Donald Trump, he moved beyond Twitter to Tik Tok-friendly visual snippets that showed him, bareheaded but in battle fatigues, communing with defenders in the dark streets of Kyiv. “The president is here,” he said in one viral selfie. “All of us are here defending the independence of our country.”
He also manifested a knack for words. Following reports that he had been targeted for assassination, he concluded a video conference with leaders of the European Union by calmly announcing, “This might be the last time you see me alive.” When the U.S. offered to spirit him and his family out of the country, he allegedly replied, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” He warned the Russians: “When you attack us, you will see our faces and not our backs.”
Did Zelensky actually utter these lapidary statements? Apparently he did, though what mattered was the universal belief in their attribution. By the first night of the war, he had attained mythical status, winning the admiration of the global public and the unrestrained adoration of the social media throng: becoming, in essence, an influencer on a world-historical scale.
The pro-Ukraine tilt in the information war had consequences that almost certainly played no part in Putin’s original calculations. Failure to prepare opinion meant that the invasion, when it came, caused shock and revulsion in many nations, particularly those that bordered Russia. The hero worship of Zelensky and the Ukrainians meant that the information sphere had found a new object of monomaniacal obsession.
The war replaced the pandemic—which, in turn, had displaced Trump—as the source of all fear and loathing. A conformist public closed ranks around this subject: Ukrainian flags became tokens of online virtue, while hundreds of thousands took part in solidarity protests around the world. Anyone with a deviant opinion deserved to be silenced. Facebook, Tik Tok, and Netflix ostentatiously blocked Russian channels. Elon Musk, conversely, moved Starlink terminals into Ukraine, preserving the flow of precious digital content out of the country.
The massively one-sided tide of opinion emboldened elected officials to impose much harsher sanctions on Russia than anyone could have predicted. These leaders might be as weak of will as Putin believed, but that meant that they could be pushed to extremes by the sweep of events, at least in the short term. Even Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who had cultivated a friendship with Putin as leverage against the mandarins of the EU, refused to stand in the way of sanctions. Orban faces a general election in April.
Neutral European nations took unprecedented measures in support of Ukraine. Sweden and Finland sent war matériel—in Finland, polls showed a majority in favor of joining NATO, a sharp reversal from the past. Even perennially non-interventionist Switzerland joined in the assault on Russia’s financial system. The sanctions left Russian companies unable to do business with most of the developed world and Russian airlines barred from much of Europe and North America. These were seismic changes; whatever happens in the next weeks and months, it’s difficult to see how the geopolitical landscape in Europe can return to its prewar alignment.
In Russia itself, the economy has been shaken while the ruble touches record lows. This, too, will be difficult to reverse. Putin may destroy Ukraine with this adventure, but he will surely wreck the standard of living for a generation of his compatriots.
The Preacher in Ecclesiastes tells us that the race does not go to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. The same message pours out of the information sphere today: yet we would do well to focus on the reality of the situation. This isn’t truly a World War II movie, whose ending we know will be the triumph of freedom. This isn’t David sling-shotting Goliath. Russia is a large and powerful country, Ukraine a much smaller and weaker one. Putin lost his bid for a quick win, but he will grind it out at whatever cost in human life or treasure. He has no choice, really. He must prove himself the strongest or lose his standing, his job, and maybe his own life. That, as I said, is the mobster’s code.
The Russian military will unleash its frightful force against every show of resistance in Ukraine. Terror will be the order of the day, mitigated only by the sense of decency of the Russian soldier. The Russian information campaign can also be expected to make a late arrival. I would be surprised if it doesn’t go after Zelensky. Having failed to assassinate him physically (at least so far), a more significant victory can presently be obtained by assassinating his character.
It is possible, even probable, that the bloodletting phase of the conflict will end with Russia having conquered a sizable portion of Ukraine, including the capital of Kyiv. What follows? Viral popularity always rests on thin ice. The Ukrainian fighters, in particular, represent attributes rejected by many of their admirers: nationalism and violence, for example. Their struggle is conducted with the clarity of existential necessity, but is perceived, through media and stories, by a restless online public trapped in the twilight shadows of post-truth.
A fall from grace in the aftermath of defeat isn’t hard to imagine. The world will move on to the next stirring cause. The information sphere will disintegrate into the usual noise and outrage: the return of the Tower of Babel. Any disruption in the flow of Russian oil and natural gas will induce a supply shock, compounding shortages and cost-of-living hikes that are already politically hazardous. Domestic and economic issues will overshadow any interest in geopolitical security.
The question, at that point, will be whether heads of government in the West will continue to hold Russia responsible for its aggression or follow the public back into navel-gazing and amnesia. Putin, the autocrat, bet heavily that his democratic counterparts lacked the steadiness of purpose to harm his interests in the long term. He hasn’t been proven wrong—yet.
Photo by Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto via Getty Images