OPINION - Ukraine knows winning the information war gives it the edge on the front line

 (UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SER)
(UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SER)

The strange twists of the Twitter story under Elon Musk’s ownership throw light on one of the crucial fronts of the conflict in Ukraine — the information war.

Twitter, along with Telegram, Instagram and other platforms like Tik Tok, You Tube and Reel, has been a main channel for propaganda, information, disinformation, misdirection, deceit and fake news. They have also been a means of getting out eyewitness reports from disgruntled Russian recruits, amateur military analysts on the frontline, cities under siege and bombardment.

Testing the truth of such reports from the new breed of Russian dissident ‘Milbloggers’ is all but impossible. An Elon Musk blue badge of credibility which he now proposes for Twitter authors is not an emblem of veracity. Presumably he is going to give this cyber version of a Blue Peter Badge to Donald Trump.

Retired Australian general Mick Ryan has just lamented the possible demise of Twitter as so many of Mr Musk’s Twitter workforce head for the door.

“What will it mean if Twitter dies?” he writes for ABC Australia. “Twitter is the emergency tool of choice for many emergency services, politicians and academics.” It has played a powerful role in the Green Protests in Iran in 2009 and the Arab Spring manifestations of 2011.

With anyone with an iPhone capable of grabbing attention as a citizen journalist, mainstream media — the hard work of the likes of Orla Guerin, Sara Raynsford, Alex Crawford, Kim Sengupta and Anthony Loyd — seems to have ever less space. But they are of vital importance.

The information picture is all the more complicated by this being the first major digital war. Cyber and AI, for targeting and jamming, surveillance and intelligence, hacking and disseminating information, are being employed on an unprecedented scale.

The cyber war began before the main Russian force crossed into Ukraine on 24th February. Russia deployed WhisperGate malware to take down Kyiv government systems. According to Sir Jeremy Fleming, head of the UK’s GCHQ cyber and signals intelligence centre, an attack was launched on the Government’s links through the ViaSat system.

Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky during an address to Ireland’s third-level sector (PA) (PA Wire)
Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky during an address to Ireland’s third-level sector (PA) (PA Wire)

Ukraine was prepared, and the UK and US were aware of the impending cyber offensive from Moscow from the previous autumn. The damage was mended.

Ukraine has proved to be nimble at managing information — from the media-savvy and skilled Volodymyr Zelensky at the top. In the battle of information and disinformation Ukraine is winning, according to Sir Jeremy. Russia so far has failed to co-ordinate the virtual war — the cyber war — with the kinetic war of the battles on the ground.

Within weeks Kyiv had managed to convey to its citizens and the world that while they were not winning outright, they would not lose any time soon.

As summer wore on, the Ukrainian armed forces began to generate the new offensives on Kharkiv into Luhansk and down the mouth of the Dnepro to Kherson. They did so without letting on how they were doing it.

Operational security has been extraordinarily tight under General Valeriy Zaluzhny, who has kept information tight, even to close allies like the US and UK and their advisers. He and his commanders, such as Oleksandr Syrsky, who directed the defence of Kyiv, and Andriy Kovalchuk, who has led the push on Kherson, have built the most effective, improvised army of our times.

They have been helped by the information activities and operations of allies. The UK has pioneered the effective release of gobbets of secret intelligence in UK government briefings. This has caught the attention of the world, not least the Russians, whose efforts across state media look crude by comparison.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) shaking hands with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (L) during their meeting in Kyiv, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SER)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) shaking hands with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (L) during their meeting in Kyiv, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SER)

But the British approach to media briefings is quite openly part of an information operation. It has a tactical, operational, even strategic aim in support of Britain and its allies, including Ukraine. It is interesting to spot what these briefings will discuss, and what they avoid. It is a game of direction, information and misdirection. In his BBC show starting this weekend, The Story of Now, Simon Schama claims the term “information operations” is one of the most perilous notions of the digital world.

Brave journalists in the field give us the facts, the basis of truth and trust essential to all reporting. The hard job is to match the digital information operations with that real information gathering on the ground.

The story of now and the story of Ukraine are an epic of war and truth.