• Stephan Raab

Tanks on the ground and fake news in the mind - (Re)thinking Warfare in Ukraine

Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/s/photos/russia-and-ukrain

The 24th of February 2022, with a global pandemic still in full swing, marked the beginning of another historic event, a war in the heart of Europe. Something previously found in history books on the shelf suddenly became a reality, f, pictures of migrants pouring in the European Union on a daily basis in the news. This conflict, however, is unlike anything we have seen before involving a special kind of warfare as it combines the conventional concept of troops on the ground, conquering territory through hard power, and remote warfare through cyber technologies. Based on this argument, this contribution is structured as follows. The first part will outline some general thoughts about how to conceive war and the principles or rules of warfare. The second part will introduce the new aspects of misinformation and disinformation. In the third part, both parts will be led together to show the intricacies of information warfare.Finally, the fourth part will elaborate on certain perspectives on the war in Ukraine.

What is the nature of war? - A conceptualisation of war

Imagine you are searching for a restaurant to have dinner at after a troublesome day but scrolling through the reviews, you receive news about a war taking place in your direct neighbourhood. “The food is good, but the war in Ukraine is not” states a Google Review given for a McDonald’s south of Moscow (Bateman, 2022). Many examples like this can be found when scouting restaurants and leisure facilities in Russia. Those Google Reviews, which were formerly used for advertising and marketing in peacetime, have now become a weapon in a battle that isn't just about territory but also about the truth. Especially, the conflict in Ukraine requires a rethinking of concepts of modern warfare.

The Prussian general and Strategist Carl von Clausewitz defined war as “merely the continuation of policy by other means” (Clausewitz, 1976, p. 87). Here, he legitimised the use of force as a means to an end to achieve political goals against enemies. Similarly, Chinese general Sun Tzu considered the military staff as assistants to the nation, arguing that: ”The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin” (Tzu, 1998, p. 1). However, both strategists disagree on one essential aspect. While Clausewitz focuses on the time when hostilities have already begun, arguing for a destruction of the enemy (Clausewitz 1976 p. 75),Tzu concentrates more on the time before the hostilities begin. He searches for means to frustrate the plans of the enemy before they have a chance to implement them (Tzu 1998 p.35ff.). Here, the difference between both strategists becomes obvious, with Clausewitz focusing on time in war looking for operational tactics, while Tzu tries to avoid bloodshed through the means of intelligence (Bowen, 2010). Consequently, studying Sun Tzu seems to be more applicable for modern wars, as a final victory seems to be ever more surreal (Miller, 2012).

A just war or just another war? – Defining reasons to go to war

Both theoretical thinkers share the idea of war as: “a collision of two living forces, with each seeking to impose his will on the other.” (Howe, 2015, p. 69). During the process of global digitisation, new platforms for settling disputes, either peacefully or violently, have been established. \ Sun Tzu, unlike Clausewitz, offers an additional component to the understanding of the contexts of modern warfare - focusing on the trinity of people, government and military, he takes the terrain into the mind, where the war is fought. Considering the times of cyberwarfare, the Chinese general concentrates on intelligence activities and manipulation in times of war (ebd. p.70f.). In Ukraine, two battlegrounds are active at the same time. Firstly, the massive destruction of Ukrainian cities and infrastructures by the Russian army. Additionally, and more innovatively in a negative sense, cyberspace such as Google Maps and Facebook or Apple has turned into a simultaneous battleground. As tens of thousands of people are trying to flee Kyiv and other cities, Google Maps decided to switch off its service in Ukraine to protect civilian people on their flights (Cieslak and Gerken, 2022).

Nevertheless, considering the tremendous cost of resources and human lives threatened by war, what justifies declaring a war on an opponent, using weapons instead of words? Several philosophers agreed that war, despite being considered a human tragedy, might be a natural component of the global system. Simultaneously, there have always existed intentions to civilise the war. Notably, Hugo Grotius, having lived through the times of the Thirty Years War, has been a prominent believer in the idea. Facing the suffering of his time, he argued that there are only three reasons to unleash a war. First, every state has the right to defend itself, when being attacked by another state or foreign invader. Second, if property has been stolen and there have been insufficient opportunities to return it , a state might turn to belligerent action. Eventually, in case a government has committed crimes against human rights, punishment might be allowed. Those arguments include certain restrictions. Above all, civilian people, not involved in military actions, are supposed to be protected. Moreover, there should be a solid assumption that this kind of war might be successful. Grotius elaborates on a primordial form of international law that is placed above the government. Above all, war may not be started merely to obtain an advantage, whether military, political, or economic (Olsthoorn, 2017, pp. 49ff.). Therefore, it is essential to see potential reasons behind the conflict.

Turning words into weapons - The Ukrainian conflict as a knowledge war

The unimaginable happened on the 24th of February,suddenly, after many years of tense but peaceful stability. Now, a war is in full force right next to the European Union, which often boasts itself as a project of peacebuilding after the miseries of the World Wars. Considering the isolation of the Russian Federation on the international level, there is also a rising internal opposition of the Russian civil society condemning the war; for instance, about 7.000 Russian scientists signed a petition against the war in Ukraine (Gaind and Else, 2022).

Consequently, a question arises - what are the motives and expected gains for Vladimir Putin to wage this war, not just against the Ukrainian people, but against NATO and the West? Answering this question requires the understanding of the principles of the territories and warfare, as it was proclaimed by Sun Tzu. On the one hand, using tanks and troops to invade Ukraine, using boots on the ground and destroying infrastructure has happened throughout history. Nevertheless,an arms race for superior weapons must be considered. On the other hand, there is a war going on, an even longer one, a war fought in cyberspace. Different from geographic space, cyberspace is not delimited by boundaries such as mountains or seas as well, as there are no national borders hindering from passing through. Cyberspace stands as “a metaphor for describing the non-physical terrain created by computer systems. Online systems, for example, create a cyberspace within which people can communicate with one another (via e-mail), do research, or simply window shop” (Beal, 2021). Those worlds only come into existence when they are actively generated through the exchange of information. Yet, considering the rising complexity ofcyberspace, it is becoming more and more difficult to navigate through this world. Therefore, it becomes essential to rely on narratives to orient in a space that knows no concrete direction. Different from other technologies such as telephones, digital tools do not only serve to bridge the distance between two spaces, but rather start to create their own space (Beck, 2006, p. 3ff.).

Conquering the Cyberspace - A new battleground arises

Beyond the military operation taking place in Ukraine, from the Russian side, termed as “Operation for the Liberation of Ukraine”, the war began years prior to the attacks in 2022. According to the New York Times essayist Tom Friedmann, Putin has waged a war to conquer cyberspace all the way back in 2014 through fake news and disinformation (Friedman, 2022). Digital war is based on a different paradigm than conquering geographic space. Different from conquering territory through tanks and weapons, digital warfare is about conquering the mind of the public, presenting a particular perspective as the only legitimate truth. Where the latter is about getting control over territory, the former aims at controlling the truth. The use of propaganda and disinformation is by no means new to war, however, it is the intensity and dynamics of sharing news that are unprecedented,

Here, three different types of information need to be distinguished. Misinformation is false information that is shared without the knowledge that it is false. Mal-information conversely is information that is true but shared with the intention to decry the reputation of another actor. Lastly, disinformation is information that is intentionally generated with the intention of manipulating and deceiving a certain audience (Wardle and Hossein, 2017, p. 20).

Figure 1: What is Disinformation? (depicted after Wardle & Hossein 2017 p.20)

As the Covid pandemic has already shown, obtaining reliable, trustworthy information is becoming ever more difficult with more information to be processed. The spread of the virus was accompanied by a massive “infodemic” – an over-abundance of information –some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance” (World Health Organization, 2020). The same counts for the conflict in Ukraine, where the authenticity of footage and news shared on social media cannot be guaranteed anymore.

There are three ways of establishing the truth. The first is correspondence theory, whereby a statement is considered true as long as it corresponds to reality. Those are primarily descriptive claims, which are barely contested, as, for instance, stating that Russia is a country spanning Europe and Asia. However, already at this stage, it needs to be asked whether there might be a common reality accessible for all actors. Consequently, things are becoming more complicated with the other theories, mostly defining truth according to the perspective taken. Looking through the lenses of coherence theory, a statement is considered true, as long as it is fitting without contradiction into a system of other statements. This leads to an ambiguity- a statement may be deemed true within a system but untrue outside of it due to a different perspective.

Eventually, the consensus theory argues that something is to be considered true when a majority agrees that it is indeed true. It is difficult, however, to define what constitutes the actual truth. Every person and every actor perceives the world through particular cultural lenses. Proving the real truth, as mentioned in the case of the metaphor of the philosopher and the cave by Plato, would require access to the world as it really is, rather than the way people and communities are perceiving it. Contemporary examples of this are given in the movie series Matrix.

Here, great power exerts its influence in distorting the truth, as power implies not perceiving the truth at face value, but intentionally distorting it (Harari, 2018, p. 294). This can be seen in the case of Ukraine, with the Russian invasion legitimised by allegedly liberating the country from Nazis, despite the fact that the president of Ukraine Zelensky himself is of Jewish origin.

Further beyond this controversial claim made by Russian President Putin, there are different perspectives to be unearthed, drawing conclusions from the end of the Cold War. Some argue that the newly established Russian Federation was betrayed by the West with the enlargement of NATO and the European Union. Others argue that those countries were joining the Western alliance voluntarily, therefore Russia should not have the right to make any claims upon this. It is difficult to determine who is to blame, as well as what is the truth of history that has led to the tragedy in Ukraine. However, what can be ascertained is the existence of a window of opportunity - when Putin visited the German Reichstag in 2001. Unfortunately, this historic chance was not utilised by both sides.

The last (out)post – Rethinking how to think about war

Wherever this war might evolve, it can now be followed directly by observing the movements of troops and people on services such as Google Maps. Probably just a few months before the invasion of Ukraine, such a kind of warfare would have been unthinkable for many. With the events of February 2022, it is time to rethink the concepts of war in times of cyberspace and digitisation. Modern warfare is fought not just on the battleground but also concerns access to the minds and control of the public.

An invasive and offensive war started by Russian forces is not to be justified by any means. Nevertheless, more than tanks on the ground, it reveals the fight for truth in the digital and real-world, with each side trying to justify their story of the past and the future, through the means of (dis)information. In times when access to information and communication is easier than ever, we might recall D. Wright Eisenhower’s words from the Second World War: “public opinion wins wars.” (Rodríguez, p. 182). “Psychological warfare has communication as a transmission channel and propaganda as its content” (Rodríguez, p. 185).

Concluding this analysis, the military conflict in Ukraine serves as a harbinger for a new kind of war. Different from its predecessors, as nowadays everybody can share their interpretation of truth, as well as manipulate others, forcing them to consider their perspective on history. The war in Ukraine has reached a new dimension of conflict, where the fight is not just about territory, but also about the truth. Now anybody can join the fight, often from a device, without putting their lives at risk. As we are confronted with a massive flow of information and disinformation, it is becoming ever more complex to figure out what is true and what is false. What has become obvious is that not only tanks and missiles but disinformation is a powerful weapon in the war of the mind. Hopefully, the suffering of the Ukrainian people will end as soon as possible and belligerent parties will come together for a peaceful diplomatic resolution of the war. This war is a war of the mind, fought about different ways of sense-making, as history has told several times: “ In a war, it is the truth that dies first!”


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