Bringing the War Home: Social Media May Be Putin’s Achille’s Heel in the Ukraine War

Bodies of Russian soldiers lie outside a school destroyed not far from the center of Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images.Source: New York Post, March 2, 2022

Russia’s war in Ukraine is showing that its gotten a lot harder to keep the homefront in the dark.

For a long time after invading Afghanistan in 1979, the Soviet government told its citizens that its soldiers were there fulfilling their duty, building hospitals and schools, planting trees and helping the Afghans build a socialist state. It wasn’t until 1990 that a book written in Russian by Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian Journalist, disclosed the full reality of the brutal, horrific war. I read the book a long time ago, but it is still relevant.

“All we know about this war…is what ‘they’ consider it safe for us to know,” Alexievich wrote in Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War. “We have been protected from seeing ourselves as we really are and from the fear that such understanding would bring.”

In an Introduction to a 1992 English translation of Zinky Boys, Larry Heinemann, a college professor and Vietnam vet, wrote of how the book revealed Soviet efforts to keep news of the war and the dead from the people at home:

Letters were heavily censored and photographs were not permitted. So thorough was the censorship that few battlefield photographs by the soldiers survive. Soviet veterans of the war were told bluntly and firmly not to talk about what was going on – a pall of denial by the government not unlike the experience of Vietnam GIs.

The corpses of Soviet soldiers were sent home in sealed zinc coffins, accompanied by military escorts with orders that the coffins not be opened. The families, in their bottomless grief, could never be positively certain that their sons and brothers and husbands were actually dead and their bodies actually present in the coffins.

No explanation for the deaths was given; funerals were conducted at night to keep down the crowds; tombstones were inscribed with the words ‘Died fulfilling his international duty’, which became the euphemism for Killed-in-Action.

Russia also tried to smother information when it seized Crimea and went into eastern Ukraine with unmarked troops in 2014 and 2015.

“Authorities at first denied any involvement, then suggested any Russian soldiers there were on vacation.,” according to The Wall Street Journal. “When Ukraine captured a unit of paratroopers, Russian officials said they had got lost and strayed over the border.”

It’s a lot harder now for Putin and his minions to hide the realities of the Ukraine invasion from the Russian people, including the mothers whose children are dying in the fighting.

Look for Yours, a Ukrainian channel on the Telegram messaging app, is one outlet making sure of that. 

Today’s edition of The Wall Street Journal describes the coverage by the channel and a website, run by officials from Ukraine’s interior ministry, in all its horror.

“In one, the body of a man in camouflage uniform lies rigid in a snowy field, with mangled flesh and blood where his face used to be. “Unidentified,” reads the caption…Some pictures and videos on Look for Yours depict gruesome scenes of charred corpses and twisted bodies amid wrecked vehicles. They also show videos of prisoners and identification documents of the captured and dead.

“Unfortunately, it’s not possible to recognize the person in every photograph,” says Viktor Andrusiv, a Ukrainian interior ministry official, speaking in Russian in a video on Look for Yours. “Those are the horrors of war launched by your president.”

The Ukrainian channel shows videos of Russian prisoners, including several saying that their commanders abandoned them and that they had been sent to Belarus for military exercises last month not knowing that they would be invading Ukraine.

On the Look for Yours website, Andrusiv appealed to relatives of Russian soldiers. “Do everything you can to end this war, and so that your children, husbands and sons don’t die in our country,” he said.

Russia has long tried to obscure the extent of its military operations in Ukraine, which included its seizing of Crimea and direct military interventions in eastern Ukraine with unmarked troops in 2014 and 2015.

Authorities at first denied any involvement, then suggested any Russian soldiers there were on vacation. When Ukraine captured a unit of paratroopers, Russian officials said they had got lost and strayed over the border.

John Mueller, in War, Presidents, and Public Opinion (1973), used data principally from the Vietnam and Korean wars to argue that publics will rally behind presidents who go to war, but that these rallies will eventually fade and support for intervention dissipate as home-country casualties mount over time—something known as the casualty aversion hypothesis. “Some historians have argued that the United States lost the Vietnam War not only because casualties mounted but also because television turned the conflict into a “living room war” that exacerbated the public’s casualty sensitivity by making the war’s human costs more vivid.”

Although some have challenged this proposition, the US government believed there were hazards to exposing the public to the reality of war when images of dead GIs were almost entirely forbidden  in American media during WWI and WWII.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could now be the “first social media war,” as individuals on the ground in the besieged nation are able to share real-time reports from the frontlines, Peter Sucui argues in Forbes. “That ability to post updates, share videos could help ensure that the first casualty of this war isn’t the truth.”

Reuters has reported how some of social media’s youngest users have experienced the Ukrainian conflict from the front lines on TikTok. 

“Videos of people huddling and crying in windowless bomb shelters, explosions blasting through urban settings and missiles streaking across Ukrainian cities took over the app from its usual offerings of fashion, fitness and dance videos. Ukrainian social media influencers uploaded bleak scenes of themselves wrapped in blankets in underground bunkers and army tanks rolling down residential streets…”

Reuters noted that TikTok users have also urged Russian users, in particular, to join anti-war efforts.

Pictures of massacred Ukrainian civilians and dead Russian soldiers lying in the snow on social media may prove to be Putin’s Achilles’ heel.

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