Presidents Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin have provided key lessons for the United States and NATO in conducting information warfare. Zelenskyy has shown the importance of seizing the moral high ground to unify a nation and rally international support. Carl von Clausewitz argued that arousing the will and passion of people behind a credible cause was essential to winning a war. Zelenskyy has implemented those precepts through bold leadership that has resonated internally and externally. Putin’s efforts, however, have whipsawed him into a brick wall.
Putin seems to have forgotten the first rule of information warfare: Tell the truth and be the first out there to tell it.
LEADING WITH LIES
Putin’s lies have become transparent and failed. Outside some domestic constituencies, Putin’s claim that the invasion aimed to eject Nazis from Ukraine fell flat. His 5,000-word epistle arguing that Ukraine itself is a fiction and is a part of Russia has mainly rallied Ukrainians and Russians to oppose the invasion. When those lies failed, Putin turned to label Ukrainians terrorists and cited the attack on the Kerch Bridge as an act of terrorism. Having tolerated mass violence committed by his troops or mercenaries, his terrorist narrative — falsely accusing Ukraine of terrorist acts when Russia is the party actually committing them — aroused the kind of scowls, at least in the West, reserved for leaders who lose their credibility. While nations like China and India have postured themselves as neutral, it’s hard to imagine their leaders maintain the same respect they had prior to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
As the truth has filtered out and Russian families have put his popularity on the line through conscription, Putin’s support may wear thin.
Putin refused to label the invasion for what it was: warfare. He spun it as a “special military operation” and imposed a media blackout at home to conceal the truth from Russians. But these actions had some unforeseen consequences for Putin and his supporters. For example, nationalists known as “milbloggers,” who are former military who support the aim of the war but hold contempt for how Russia has waged it, broke the issue, going public with their criticism. While they carefully spared Putin, they denounced Putin’s commanders.
Lacking a credible cause, Putin has fielded a demoralized army hamstrung by inept leadership, coordination, food, weapons, and ammunition. Above all, Putin miscalculated Ukraine’s response to the invasion, which includes Ukrainians fighting back along with the Ukrainian military, and also engaging in nonviolent resistance. Putin apparently expected Ukrainians to welcome Russians. When that did not happen, and he had no Plan B, he went back to rail against Nazis and terrorists in Ukraine.
The contrast between Zelenskyy’s and Putin’s narratives shows the importance of having a credible strategic goal that arouses the will and passion of their militaries. At first, Russia outgunned Ukraine. Ukraine’s will and determination, and resourcefulness, have made a difference. Russian soldiers have faced demoralization because they possess no faith in their leaders or commanders. Poor leadership and scant supplies have reinforced doubts. The lesson is that winning requires a clear, attainable strategy that takes into account the ground realities. Ukraine has measured up. Russia has fallen down.
Operating in near isolation and from secure palaces, Putin’s stands exposed him as feckless. He has probably alienated important military commanders, making them the fall guys for his mistakes. Putin has riled nationalists like Wagner Group chief Yevgenly Prigozhin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov more powerful because they agree with defeating Ukraine. Even though they despise how he is handling the war, Putin has accorded them leeway in Russian media. The challenge is that they may grow too strong, especially Prigozhin, who first gained wide visibility serving dinner to Putin. Putin’s failure to muzzle their public criticism is striking and may indicate a sufficient weakening of his position among the elites.
LESSONS FOR THE WEST
The failure to define a clear, credible strategy rooted in ground realities and lies forming the basis of a narrative can be fatal to effective leadership. Zelenskyy shows what credible leadership can achieve. Putin is showing how leadership fails when calls for action are based on lies, misinformation, and false narratives. And Putin is not the first leader to have experienced this. President George W. Bush and his administration invaded Iraq based on lies and damaged US credibility on the international stage. As a result, Secretary of State Colin Powell often worried about his legacy.
Zelenskyy has united Ukrainians and the world. Buoyed by high favorability ratings, Putin calculated that he could sustain domestic support by keeping the war away from ethnic Russians, especially those living in St. Petersburg and Moscow. As the truth has filtered out and Russian families have put his popularity on the line through conscription, his support may wear thin. The lesson is that unless you establish and control a credible narrative, as Zelenskyy has done, you risk losing control over it, with knock-on consequences among the population and elites. In other words, information warfare is a two-sided affair, and it’s more strategic to start with the truth rather than lies.
Does Putin realize the costs of his mistakes? That remains unclear.
James Farwell has advised the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and the Department of Defense. An associate fellow in the Centre for Strategic Communication, Department. of War Studies, King’s College, and a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, his books include “Information Warfare” (Quantico: Marine Corps University Press, 2020) and Persuasion and Power (Washington: Georgetown U. Press, 2012). The views expressed are his own and not that of the US government, its departments, agencies, or USSOCOM.