Russia’s war has had a strong impact on Ukraine. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people have been killed or wounded, while millions have been forced out of their homes. The economy, which was seeing enough difficulties even before the war, is now struggling with a profound crisis due to widespread destruction, loss of jobs and the suspension of port activity. Day-to-day life is ridden with difficulties even for those Ukrainians who are not on the frontline, as they have to navigate shortages, power outages, running water cuts and the threat of Russian missiles.
One of the challenges of Ukraine’s leadership has been from the very beginning to maintain morale high for the population and the army, which was a key priority for the war effort. The timespan of the conflict, which exceeded original estimates, the losses sustained so far and daily hardships nevertheless continue to leave their mark, and many Ukrainians now struggle with war fatigue – even though they are still determined to resist. Russian propaganda has been trying, using its specific mechanisms, to capitalize on this fatigue and on any other problems that are inherent to such a destructive war that seems to be never-ending.
Attacks on energy infrastructure have not shattered Ukrainians’ morale, but they did amplify war fatigue
Last autumn, Russia triggered a campaign targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, launching massive drone or missile strikes on a regular basis against such objectives.
Moscow’s goal was to demoralize the population, so that national authorities may be forced to sue for peace. However, Ukrainians did not take to the streets: on the contrary, these attacks, which Kyiv has denounced as a form of “energy terrorism”, have inflamed them further. The authorities have encouraged such sentiments through messages of their own, such as “Without light or without you? Without you!” fostered by president Volodymyr Zelensky.
Even if the Russians failed to shatter Ukrainians’ morale, they did make life a lot harder for them. The constant blackouts have forced enterprises, banks, stores, schools and city halls to use backup generators, which led to new price hikes, given the higher cost of electricity used. The economic situation was already dire due to the war, as countless cities had sustained large-scale destruction and millions of people had to flee, which also entailed the suspension of certain economic activities, while imports and exports were affected by ports being shut down. At the same time, prices for a number of products became comparably higher than in the EU.
All these factors generated a different kind of war fatigue compared to the one reported last summer, which was caused by the military blockade of Donbas. This new type of fatigue has social underpinnings and is specific to most areas located far from the frontline.
How Russia exploited power outages to discredit Kyiv
Russia took full advantage of its shelling of Ukraine’s electric grid in order to launch a number of propaganda narratives meant to smear the reputation of Ukraine’s political elites. The Russian government media wrote that Ukraine was selling electricity to the Republic of Moldova, and that the country’s leaders are lining their pockets while Ukrainians have to suffer the cold and dark. In fact, Kyiv suspended all its electricity exports on October 11, 2022, at the end of the first phase of Russia’s airstrikes, whereas the Republic of Moldova received support from Romania.
What followed was a series of fake news flooding social media, including in Ukrainian, according to which Ukraine is providing electricity to Romania, Poland and Slovakia, which is why its own population was left in the dark.
Obviously, Russian propaganda deliberately omitted the fact that the Ukrainian people are suffering as a result of Russia’s attacks.
The war fatigue, amplified by previous political promises
President Volodymyr Zelensky and his advisers promoted the idea that Ukraine will defeat Russia very quickly, and that the war will end with the collapse of the enemy state. A year later, it became clear that these message played a critical role in mobilizing Ukrainians in the early stages of the war. The downside is that, the longer the war drags on, the more disappointed the population becomes.
Ukrainian society risks becoming the victim of “populist promises” concerning a swift and definitive victory against Russia, Pavlo Kazarin wrote from the trenches at the end of January. Kazarin is a known journalist from Crimea who enrolled in spring last year. He promoted the idea of a new normalcy, trying to make Ukrainians understand that the war could take several years:
“We have been through a single year of large-scale war, and we have no idea how many more will follow. Everything that’s happening right now is not a deviation from the norm, but our new normalcy”.
Deriding Russia’s combat methods, Ukraine’s former Interior Minister, Yuri Lutsenko, who is part of territorial defense units, informed citizens that Moscow was sending more men to the frontline and now has superior numbers, and Ukrainians must be patient because “there is more to a war than reports of victories read by government officials”.
Kazarin, Lutsenko and other advocates in Ukraine say their country will win the war, at the same time warning citizens that victory will require great effort and sacrifice, and hostilities are nowhere near an end.
Russia’s interpretation of messages about a prolonged war: Ukraine is on the brink of surrendering
Russian government media has interpreted the statements of Ukrainian politicians and journalists as clear signs of an impending surrender of the “neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv”. Ukraine’s problems have been exploited on a weekly basis by Russian propaganda in order to undermine solidarity at society level and fighters’ morale. Moreover, pro-Kremlin media has been constantly promoting the idea that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have sustained huge losses.
At the end of 2022, Russian propaganda media wrote that over 50,000 Ukrainian women have been killed in battle, accusing president Volodymyr Zelensky of destroying its own people in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. In fact, according to Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, only 101 women had been killed in the war prior to that date, and most of the women enrolled in the army have never seen any combat action, as they are part of the army’s auxiliary structures and are thus deployed to various regions of the country.
The Russian media also wrote that losses sustained by the Ukrainian army are so great, that school children are forced to donate blood for Ukrainian servicemen. In fact, underage children are forbidden to donate blood in Ukraine. Various news, reports, analyses and interviews shared on social media and on Telegram accounts of Russian media outlets have been drawing on the false metanarrative according to which Kyiv politicians seek to prolong the war against Russia indefinitely in order to profit from the war as much as possible. Russian propaganda is trying to convince Ukrainians there is no use fighting to defend the economic interests of their political class. Additionally, Kyiv stands accused of being indifferent to the hardships of civilians due to its refusal to negotiate with Russia.
At the same time, the actions and behavior of Russian servicemen are depicted as exemplary to a fault. Reporting on the fighting in southern Ukraine, the Russian media wrote that Russian soldiers sowed compassion in relations with the local population during the invasion of Kherson, without recalling the discovery of mass graves and torture chambers which show just how compassionate Russian servicemen really were.
The more people Ukraine recruits for its army, the higher the number of those who try to dodge military service
A number of videos have given rise to debates on social networks over the methods of forced mobilization enforced by some regional military enlistment offices across Ukraine. Even some Ukrainian military analysts admitted, in August 2022, that Ukraine was gradually moving from conscripting “patriot fighters” to “forcefully enrolling volunteers”. Kyiv seldom mentions the losses sustained by its military forces, but the United States estimated that approximately 100,0000 Ukrainian servicemen had been killed or wounded by November 2022. To offset such losses, Ukraine would need a constant flow of new recruits.
At one point, international media wondered why Ukrainian authorities would forcefully recruit men off the streets or in nightclubs so long as there are still volunteers willing to join the war effort, but also why recruitment procedures are no longer that transparent. Mandatory conscription comes with an additional disadvantage: soldier morale is lower compared to volunteers.
The authorities are unwilling to admit they are experiencing difficulties with their mobilization campaign and say that every citizen has a constitutional duty to report to military enlistment offices if they get the summons. On the other hand, some legal experts have provided Ukrainians with recommendations about how to shun conscription and legally avoid the house calls of military enlistment commissaries. Lawyers and legal experts have been in high demand in Ukraine in recent months.
Russian propaganda says Ukraine is trying to eliminate Russian speakers by sending them to the frontline
Russia invoked the mobilization difficulties experienced by the Ukrainian military to disseminate fake news and propaganda. According to Russian government media, whose messages often reach Ukrainians particularly via Telegram channels, Ukraine’s armed forces are mobilizing only Russian speakers from eastern Ukraine in order to replace depopulated areas in the east with Ukrainians from the west.
The Russian media also wrote that internally displaced men are persecuted, sent to the frontline, leaving their women without any form of protection. Furthermore, these people are treated with hostility when they reach other areas of Ukraine and are even fined for alleged offenses, made up by the authorities. Such propaganda narratives have been debunked by Veridica.
To discourage conscription efforts, Russian propaganda also claimed that the mothers and wives of Ukrainian servicemen killed in action have protested the war effort, while NATO is supplying Ukraine with outdated equipment.
Narratives about mobilization are also promoted by Russia, although Moscow itself is struggling in that department. Hundreds of thousands of Russian men fled the country to dodge mobilization. Many of those who were eventually conscripted were immediately dispatched to the frontline, without prior training, which caused significant losses. Pro-Moscow authorities in Donbas forcefully mobilized Ukrainian citizens, making them fight against their own country.