The Geopolitical Dimension Of Cognitive Warfare In The Ukrainian Conflict


OneWorld is sharing the remarks that Andrew Korybko prepared ahead of his participation in the webinar on cognitive warfare in the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict that was held on 18 April. It was co-hosted by the Beijing-based Global Governance Institution and Malaysia’s Centre For New Inclusive Asia. Korybko ultimately gave a summarized version of his prepared remarks due to the eight-minute timeslot for each expert.

Hi everyone, and thank you to the organizers for inviting me to participate in this very important event. I appreciate it. Today I’ll briefly discuss the geopolitical dimension of cognitive warfare in the Ukrainian Conflict as regards the relevant intentions of Moscow and Kiev’s US-led Western partners. Each side employs different tactics aimed at advancing their own geopolitical interests vis-à-vis different targeted audiences with varying levels of success. I’ll begin with describing Russia’s modus operandi followed by the US-led West’s, after which I’ll share some basic conclusions and then suggest some directions for future research.

Russia’s geopolitical motivations differ depending on the domestic, Western, and non-Western audiences. At home, Moscow wants to rally the country on a patriotic basis in order to preemptively thwart weaponized protests that it fears could be connected with foreign intelligence services. When engaging the Western audience, Russia tries to discredit those governments in the eyes of their people in order to reduce support for their military assistance to Kiev. As for the non-Western audience, the Kremlin hopes to inspire and subsequently sustain grassroots support for the majority of those governments that have defied US pressure to sanction Russia.

Domestic tactics include regular emphasis of President Putin’s claims from 24 February onward that NATO clandestinely established military infrastructure in Ukraine ahead of a planned surprise attack against Russia that would have followed the neutralization of their country’s nuclear second-strike capabilities as well as the completion of Kiev’s suspected Weapons of Mass Destruction programs. Its Western-directed narratives focus on those same suspected programs as well as the ultra-nationalist element of the Ukrainian leadership and their militia allies while non-Western audiences are exposed to concepts connected to multipolarity, anti-imperialism, and the importance of strategic autonomy.

The US-led West’s geopolitical motivations are different from Russia’s though their targeted audience is the same. At home, they seek to rally their people around their governments’ interpretation of international law, democracy, and human rights in order to prepare them for accepting impending economic sacrifices connected to their leaders’ planned “decoupling” from Russia. When engaging with Russians, they try to convince them that their government is carrying out an unprovoked illegal war characterized by countless war crimes in an attempt to inspire anti-war protests. The non-West, meanwhile, is exposed to a mix of these narratives.

The tactics employed by the US-led West concern dramatic comparisons of President Putin to Adolf Hitler and the Russian Federation to Nazi Germany when addressing their domestic audience in order to evoke the memory of World War II. Russians are told that their sides’ casualties are much greater than their authorities claim and that their armed forces are slaughtering innocent fellow Slavs in Ukraine, which is supposedly why they should protest in order to stop the conflict as soon as possible. Non-Western audiences are made to think that Russia is isolated. They’re also warned that economically engaging with it might prompt so-called “secondary sanctions” from their Western trading partners.

Russia and the US-led West employ similar tactics to defend themselves from one another’s cognitive warfare narratives that can objectively be described as censorship. The Kremlin has banned Facebook and Twitter on the national security grounds that these platforms have been propagating provocative fake news about the conflict, meddling in internal affairs by attempting to inspire unauthorized protests, and spewing hatred against ethnic Russians. The US-led West isn’t traditionally known for censorship since it’s considered to contradict its socio-political values but many European countries have nevertheless banned publicly financed Russian international media or impeded their operations.

Russia is concerned that what it regards as the US-led West’s hostile narratives could prompt unrest at home while its opponents appear to have similar concerns about Moscow’s narratives though they don’t openly acknowledge that the Kremlin might also succeed in inspiring protests in their own countries. Objectively speaking, there exists practically no difference between the motivations behind each side’s de facto censorship policies since they’re predicated on national security grounds. They also have the same domestic motivations to rally their people behind their governments. The most significant difference between them is what they’re trying to achieve in non-Western countries.

This majority of the world is the true cognitive warfare battleground of the Russian-Western competition. Moscow needs reliable non-Western partners to serve as valves from Western pressure and sustainable opportunities for future economic growth amid the unprecedented US-led Western sanctions recently imposed upon it. Washington’s interests are in pressuring those same non-Western states to not fulfill this role for Russia but it thus far hasn’t been that successful as evidenced by China, India, and many other developing countries in Africa, Latin America, and West Asia defying its demands. This is in spite of the US’ “secondary sanctions” threats against them, especially against China and India.

Since those two are the world’s largest developing countries, I’ll now discuss their interests in the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict a little bit more as well as the influence that each side’s cognitive warfare has had on their societies. China’s media environment is closely regulated on national security grounds so its population isn’t that exposed to either Russia’s or the US-led West’s narratives. The Communist Party of China (CPC) proudly practices a policy of principled neutrality towards international conflicts in line with its decades-long traditions. It articulates the wisdom of this approach to its people so that they can better understand it. China also opposes illegal sanctions so it wouldn’t ever comply with the US’.

India’s situation is altogether different considering its socio-political system. A diversity of discourse prevails and practically nothing is regulated, which leads to its people being exposed to both sides’ narratives that are sometimes massively amplified by domestic voices who take them to an extreme. Although India has moved a lot closer towards the US over the past decade, Russia still remains its special and privileged strategic partner. The emotional element of their half-century-long relationship is very strong and inspires Indians to sympathize with Russia. New Delhi also practices a policy of principled neutrality in pursuit of strengthening its strategic autonomy, which its people support.

It was to be expected that China would remain neutral and not comply with the US’ anti-Russian sanctions but India’s neutrality and brave defiance of America surprised many observers, US officials included. Instead of respecting India’s strategic autonomy, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki accused her country’s South Asian partner of being on the wrong side of history in remarks that riled Indians. US President Joe Biden’s description of India’s stance towards the Ukrainian Conflict as “shaky” also offended many. These cognitive warfare narratives were counterproductive to US interests since they strengthened popular support for the Indian government’s ties with Russia on a patriotic basis.

Since I’m approaching the end of my allotted time, I’d now like to share a few basic conclusions and some recommended directions for future research. Russia and the US-led West’s cognitive warfare largely succeeded in rallying their domestic populations behind their authorities’ approach to the Ukrainian Conflict but failed to influence the other’s populations to turn against their government. This is attributable to the de facto censorship that each side practices as well as the patriotic basis upon which their people support their authorities. Regarding their engagement with non-Western audiences, Russia has mostly succeeded while the US-led West has mostly failed.

This isn’t so much due to either of their cognitive warfare narratives but is likely influenced by the ongoing global systemic transition towards multipolarity that inspired many non-Western governments to flex their strategic autonomy in pursuit of their national interests. The US-led West’s influence has comparatively declined since America’s post-Old Cold War unipolar hegemony started to fade at the turn of the century and especially after the 2008 financial crisis and former US President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Russia hasn’t expanded its influence all that much in the years since but it’s regarded by the non-West as an opponent of the US’ unipolar goals and is thus widely sympathized with.

India is exceptional among all non-Western countries apart from China due to its massive size, vast economic potential, balanced relations between Russia and the US, and its Great Power ambitions in Afro-Eurasia. Its socio-political system which is very different from China’s made it difficult for many to predict how it would react to the US-led West’s pressure campaign upon it to isolate Russia, which was advanced to a large degree by that bloc’s cognitive warfare against its government and population. This South Asian state can in many respects be regarded as a bellwether of the Global South. Its example can also inspire others to maintain their principled neutrality and continue defying US pressure.

Future research into the geopolitical dimension of cognitive warfare in the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict should therefore focus on those non-Western societies that are battlegrounds in this competition. Their governments’ historical relations with the US and Russia are also worthwhile paying attention to, especially since traditional American allies like the Gulf Kingdoms, Israel, and Turkey have also refused to sanction Russia in solidarity with their Western partners. Their media environments should be more closely studied as well as their leaderships’ geopolitical strategies amidst the ongoing global systemic transition towards multipolarity.

It’s hypothesized that such research will reveal that global systemic factors more powerfully influence those countries’ approaches towards that conflict than each side’s cognitive warfare narratives except in those societies where the US-led West might ultimately succeed in provoking weaponized protests (also known as Color Revolutions) or other types of regime changes against those neutral governments that Washington regards as Russian-friendly due to their refusal to sanction Moscow. Those scenarios and related risks should also be studied in countries where foreign-backed leadership changes could have a decisive impact on the balance of influence between Russia and the West. Thank you for your attention.

Andrew Korybko shared a summarized version of his prepared remarks while participating in a webinar that can be watched here.





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