The war between Russia and Ukraine is a great example of what happens when you get narrative war wrong. The biggest problem with narrative war is the semantic overload of the term narrative. It gets used to mean a lot of different things and many of those meanings matriculate to the discussion of narrative war. People think that narrative war is about words, or ideas, or story, or framing of a situation in a way that is advantageous for one side rather than the other. These expressions of narrative have some value when discussing narrative war, but they are insufficient for appreciating the full concept of narrative war theory. What I plan to do in this post is discuss the fundamental aspect of narrative war by using two examples coming from Ukraine. The first is what Russia got wrong and the second is what the United States or the West got wrong. I conclude with my thoughts on meaning.
What Russia Got Wrong – Misreading the Narrative Space Terrain
It is important for me to state that I haven’t spoken with Vladimir Putin, and I have not had access to transcripts of his phone calls or any technical surveillance or intelligence on his personal communications. My suppositions come from observations of open-source material since the Russian invasion of Ukraine that commenced on 24 February 2022. With that statement made, let me begin.
Vladimir Putin misread the narrative space of Ukraine in that he seemed to have believed that the Ukrainian national government was weak, and that the president of Ukraine held a tenuous grasp on leadership that could be broken by a large Russian invasion oriented on the Ukrainian capital. It also appears that the Russian leader perceived the West writ large, and NATO more specifically, to be weak and divided and that a strong and aggressive action, if objectives were accomplished quickly, would result in no effective action against Russia.
Putin had many reasons to believe such things. CNN provided a poll on the day before the invasion that showed responses from Russians and Ukrainians on a range of questions regarding the issues associated with the anticipated invasion:
In addition to the numbers, Ukraine was perceived by many people as a corrupt and poorly run country. Readers may recall that accusations of Ukrainian government corruption were very close to the center of the first impeachment of U.S. president Donald J. Trump. In addition to perception of Ukrainian corruption, the country had been successfully invaded with little effective resistance in 2014 and 2015, losing Crimea and portions of the Donbas region to Russian aligned or Russian forces.
In addition to perceptions of Ukrainian weakness, the world in early 2022 was just coming out of COVID lockdowns and much of the Western world was torn by political divisions within countries, regional associations like the European Union and NATO, and globally. It seemed as if every country wanted to move forward and not deal with another tragedy.
Finally, in this regard, the American and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan that concluded on 30 August 2021 tore the alliance and humiliated the superpower. Members of the British parliament called out the United States leadership for abandoning its responsibilities to the Afghan people and to the alliance and debates raged within the United States about the embarrassing images and the ineffectual response to the Taliban regaining control of the country.
I give these points of data to explain why Vladimir Putin might be excused from misreading the narrative space terrain. His reading seems to have been that Ukraine wouldn’t fight, the leadership of the country would flee, and the West would be too ineffective to stand up against his actions. Most of that turned out to be wrong. The Ukrainians have fought, the Ukrainian leadership has stood strong and gained in popularity as a result, and the West has opposed Russia’s actions, though not singularly or effectively. What did Putin miss?
I reference a poll that was published in The Kyiv Independent in December 2021; the same time as the lowest approval ratings for President Zelensky. In this poll the Ukrainian people were asked “In the event of an armed intervention by Russia in your city or village, would you take any action and if so, which ones?” The options included put up armed resistance, civil resistance, go to a safer region of Ukraine, go abroad, do nothing, do not know. More than half of the respondents said that they would resist in one form or another. Armed resistance was the single largest response for every region of the country (west, centre, south, east).
Putin failed to grasp the narrative space of his opponent. He missed the changes in Ukraine since 2015. He failed to see that Russians and Ukrainians saw the issues associated with Ukraine and NATO from radically different perspectives. This meant that his initial plan, as I understand it to have been, was doomed from the start. That said, he wasn’t all wrong, which leads to the second example.
What the United States or the West Got Wrong – Misreading the Narrative Space Terrain
It is interesting to note that both sides got the same thing wrong.
I do not have a significant social media presence. If I interact on social media, it is mostly through LinkedIn where I have a network of subject matter experts who often provide really informative material and recommendations. As Russia invaded Ukraine, I immediately started to see on LinkedIn a lot of comments on the moral outrage of such an invasion and praise for the Ukrainian defenders and the leadership of President Zelensky. Vladimir Putin was often characterized in many of these posts as a villain. In addition, there were those who characterized his acts as doomed to failure. They regularly pointed to the Russian military failures in maintenance, logistics, or tactical accomplishment covered by the media without taking the time to question media accuracy or sourcing. I warned in those initial days and weeks that it was too early to predict how this would end up. In response to one article that claimed that Putin’s actions would fail, I replied with the following:
While the author may be right, it is still possible, and maybe probable, that Putin does succeed. This campaign is just a week old and there is much of the story to be told.
My students believe that Americans are impatient for success and that they demand rapid, decisive victories. What this conflict is showing is that the media (of seemingly all nationalities) is impatient and seeking to predict final outcomes from limited data.
About three months later, I expressed the following in posting an excellent summary of the first 100 days of the fighting:
I am concerned that this war will end badly for Ukraine as it becomes the first “Virtue Signal War.” What I mean by the term virtue signal war is a war where people and states make bold pronouncements of support but do little with respect to action. I know that the United States has spent a lot of money on this war and that is a good thing, but nearly 32 years ago, we sent nearly three quarters of a million service members halfway around the world to defend and regain a small sheikhdom that few Americans had ever heard of.
The purpose of our commitment to Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm was to demonstrate to the world and global bullies that it is unacceptable for the Melian Dialogue to be enacted in the post-Cold War world.
It still amazes me that we haven’t properly stood up and committed ourselves to expelling an invader and reestablishing the borders of a state, not in the Middle East or Africa or Southeast Asia, but very much a part of Europe. This is the place about which we developed the UN charter that informs the world that aggressive war is illegal and not to be tolerated. And, here the world and the United Nations sit and tolerate it.
Russia has a narrative that includes national suffering. The Great Patriotic War (World War II in America) saw the Soviet Union lose as many as twenty-seven million people (a significant number of which were inflicted by its own government). The people in Leningrad (now St Petersburg again) were under siege for nearly two and a half years. Many starved to death, and those who lived shared stories of surviving off roots and shoe leather. Vladimir Putin was born to a family who lived through that siege.
George Kennan, a U.S. diplomat and historian who served as the deputy chief of mission in U.S. Embassy Moscow in 1947, wrote a long telegram to explain Soviet thinking that was later edited and published in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym X and with the title “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” In that article Kennan gave one of the best expressions of then Soviet narrative space. My interpretation of his writing is that the Soviet leader was paranoid because Russia, and later the Soviet Union, was always surrounded by enemies, but the Russian and Soviet people persevered through patient suffering.
My primary point is that the Russian narrative has built in a conception of the ability and need to endure suffering for the sake of the state. Russians are narratively prepared for a war of attrition. They believe they will win such wars, because they have won such wars. The Russians defeated the will and the force of the French armies of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812 through drawing him into the heartland of Russia, wearing his army down physically, and exhausting the leaders emotionally. The Soviet Union defeated the armies of the Third Reich Wehrmacht of Adolph Hitler by drawing them into the Soviet heartland, wearing the force down physically, and exhausting the leaders emotionally. By 1945 dozens of Soviet armies were breaking through German units and attacking toward Berlin.
Russians endure and Russians persevere because they must. It is a core element of their societal narrative.
The West lacks a similar societal narrative. American military doctrine calls for decisive operations. The NATO alliance is designed to deter aggression, not to stand up to a military hegemon with control of continental energy supplies and global food security. This is what the West got wrong. It misread its own narrative space as it signaled support for a war that it wasn’t willing to actually fight: only support. All of the media personalities, pundits, and early proclaimers of Putin’s folly and Russian defeat failed to understand the power of power. Military commitment means something. The willingness to inflict violence month after month and year after year means something.
If the West wants to defeat Vladimir Putin and see Ukraine as a viable and capable part of Europe, then it will require more than virtue signals. It will require troops on the ground, aircraft in the air, and ships opening and controlling the free flow of grain and energy. It will also require the disentangling of European energy resources from a single oppositional provider. Is the West actually willing to do that or will it simply continue to virtue signal its support for Ukraine until Ukraine is attritted and/or exhausted?
Narrative isn’t just about words and stories. It is about understanding the narrative space terrain on which one operates. Who are we and who is our opponent? What is our narrative regarding war? How much are we willing to suffer for what we say we want? Understanding yourself and your opponent is why narrative matters. If narrative space terrain is understood, it can inform us how we will behave and how our opponents will behave.
Narrative war is about shaping and changing the narrative space terrain. China and Russia have waged a seventy- and hundred-year war, respectively, to change the American narrative space terrain. They have been successful in achieving some significant gains. I cite two different Quinnipiac polls. One that showed shortly after the beginning of the invasion that only 70% of Americans said that U.S. troops should get involved if Russia invaded a NATO country. While that number may seem high, it should be much closer to 100% given that this is a treaty obligation. The other poll, taken more than a week later, showed that number had risen to 80% when the question reminded participants of NATO obligations, but it also showed that 38% of the American respondents would leave the country rather than stay and fight if the United States were invaded. It is important to compare that with the fact that two-thirds of the U.S. military in the Vietnam War era (1964-1973) were volunteers and only one third were conscripts which often contradicts what most people think about the military draft during the Vietnam War. The questioning of defending an allied country or fighting for one’s own country shows the success of transforming the American narrative space terrain.
A proper understanding of narrative space terrain is crucial for any conflict that will involve suffering whether that suffering is economic, emotional, or physical. This is why a proper understanding of one’s own society matters. Who are we? The answer to that question matters. If you believe that your country is corrupt and systemically flawed, then why would you be willing to suffer for it? On the other hand, if you believe that your country is the bastion of freedom, the arsenal of democracy, the shining city on a hill, then you will probably be willing to make those sacrifices.
Vladimir Putin didn’t understand his opponent’s narrative, but he did understand his own. Volodymyr Zelensky’s popularity has risen, but so has Putin’s. Can Zelensky rely on a Ukrainian narrative of long-term suffering for success? Putin knows that he can rely on Russia’s narrative of stolid perseverance.