Main Image Credit The world looks on: delegates react as results are displayed of the UN General Assembly's vote on the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 2 March 2022. Image: Reuters / Alamy
As evidence mounts that the Global South is leaning closer to the Russia–China position over Ukraine, the West needs to think hard about how to regain the initiative in the narrative battle.
The Ukraine war has further entrenched and exacerbated the geopolitical rivalry between the West and the Russia–China camp. This new 'Superpower Plus' clash leaves the so-called ‘Rest’ in a difficult position, with some countries feeling pressure to choose sides, and others trying to remain neutral. Worryingly, many are leaning closer to the Russia–China position than the West.
In the 2 March vote at the UN General Assembly, 141 countries ‘deplored the aggression’ committed by Russia against Ukraine, with five votes against (not surprisingly, these were Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, Syria and, of course, Russia). But 35 countries abstained, indicating tacit support for Russia, and these votes came from across the globe: from El Salvador to Equatorial Guinea to Namibia to Mongolia. The abstainers also represent places that will be significantly impacted by the negative spill-over from the war, whether in terms of food scarcity, prohibitive energy prices, supply chain blockages or rising inflation, which could lead to a global recession and new refugee flows.
Many in the Global South simply do not share the sense of moral outrage and strategic threat that is felt in the Euro-Atlantic bubble. ‘It’s not our war, it’s a European problem’ and ‘what about the many conflicts on our continent that you ignored?’ sums up the prevailing mood. American and European governments preoccupied by maintaining a coalition at the same time as handling pressing domestic issues have come late to understanding the implications of this.
While they congratulate themselves on the tactical impact of weapons they are supplying to Ukraine, Western powers are only now registering the strategic impact of losing the battle between competing narratives. And this matters, because the political and intellectual isolation of the West will serve only to break apart an already fragile coalition into its parochially minded constituent parts. It will also leave the way open for naked aggression to be rewarded, and repeated. Significantly, it would mark the reversion to an international system dominated by power blocs and the inherent tensions that accompany this.
The evidence for the loss of the narrative battle is there in plain sight, especially among the ‘Rest’. Ukraine no longer dominates the news agenda, and the recurring theme globally is a negotiated end to the conflict on Russian terms, rather than the defeat of Russian forces. Perversely, fighting in the south and east of Ukraine does not elicit the outrage that the failed seizure of Kyiv provoked; indeed, it is in danger of becoming normalised. At the same time, Russian accusations that the West and NATO are responsible for the growing food crisis because of Western sanctions are cutting through to audiences outside the Euro-Atlantic bubble – as is Russian leverage of the European colonial legacy, casting the war in Ukraine as a struggle against NATO neo-imperialism.
Russia's leadership has reason to feel confident that the ‘Rest’ is with them, as the West is being subsumed by political chaos caused by inflation and the energy and food crises
News of Russian losses is filtering through to the Russian domestic audience, and there is some evidence of reserves trying to avoid military service. However, independent and usually reliable sources, like the Levada Center, suggest support for the war in Russia is running at over 80% of those polled. While conventional news coverage globally is increasingly patchy, the Russian narrative dominates discussion on a number of key social media platforms, at home and internationally. The Russians have proven themselves adept at the sort of disinformation techniques that mask war crimes and reframe them as Ukrainian false flag attacks aimed at discrediting the Russian army. While these tactics may look crude, they are capable of engaging audiences that trust neither conventional media nor government-sanctioned statements.
Overall, Russia's leadership has reason to feel confident that the ‘Rest’ is with them, as the West is being subsumed by political chaos caused by inflation and the energy and food crises, to the extent that it will eventually accept a compromise solution dictated on Russian terms. The acceptance of such a compromise could only be seen as a Russian victory, which would change the terms of strategic engagement between the Russia–China axis, the West and the 'Rest', and perhaps encourage the sort of adventurism of which the invasion of Ukraine has been a seminal example.
So, how is the West to regain the initiative in the contest of narratives? Perhaps the first requirement is to recognise the different audiences that need to be engaged and the different messages that need to be conveyed to them. For the Euro-Atlantic audience, the priority should be to counter the acceptability of a forever war and seek a decisive outcome in the short term. For the Russian audience, the challenge is how to widen the existing cracks in civil society and attack the morale of the Russian army. For the strategically decisive audience in the Global South, the focus should be on exposing misinformation about the causes of the war, to constantly restate Ukraine’s legitimacy as an independent entity, and to reveal Russia’s culpability in the food crisis, along with its pervasive attacks on civilians. This could include a reminder and amplification of Kenyan Ambassador to the UN Martin Kimani’s warnings at a Security Council debate just days before the Russian invasion, when he decried Russian recognition of the breakaway republics in the east of Ukraine, pointing to his country’s own experience with colonialism.
The second requirement is to figure out how this will be achieved, which will need some innovative thinking. First up is a reboot of Ukraine’s strategic narrative. The current script of heroic Ukrainians, sustained by Western logistic support, out-thinking and out-fighting Russia is untenable in that it implies a status quo that can be maintained indefinitely. A new script should identify the global consequences of the war – energy, food and economic crises – and reject the appeasement that will only perpetuate them.
China has a clear opportunity to burnish its credentials as a positive actor on the international stage, by encouraging Russia in the direction of moderation
It will not be enough to rely on a traditional news-based methodology to deliver this. The ‘Rest’, in particular, consists of demographically young societies, and – like the young everywhere – they do not consume information in traditional ways. To tell Ukraine’s story will require far smarter application of user-generated material and ways of identifying the organic social networks that share and spread them. In Africa, this will probably be based around the ubiquity of mobile phone networks; in India, around proliferating local wireless systems. And it will need to be done at scale. The traditional and rather bespoke techniques of government communication will need to borrow from the industrial heft and ambition of corporate marketing if they are to deliver global effect.
This might take us in unexpected directions. For example, online games can promote the organic development and sharing of compelling memes, tropes and influencer commentary that has the feel of popular authenticity rather than the manufactured texture of official statements. While gaming might sound like a deeply improbable instrument of strategic communications, it does provide a direct channel to gamers. Advertisers sell commercial products by this route every day; why can’t we communicate political messages in the same way? It would be easy to dismiss the triviality of, for example, TikTok, but considering the huge volume of user-generated material it attracts, especially when content simply captures the zeitgeist and goes viral, that is the effect we need to replicate.
Returning to more conventional methods of exerting influence, the one country that has fully aligned with Russia – China – is also the one that has a clear opportunity to burnish its credentials as a positive actor on the international stage, by encouraging Russia in the direction of moderation. Not only is President Xi Jinping the only leader Putin might listen to, but he is also a voice guaranteed to resonate among the ‘Rest’. Doing so would also significantly improve the current frosty standoff between the US and China, and contribute to a course correction in relations.
Only the Ukrainians can decide when they will come to the negotiating table and what they might be willing to concede – a situation recognised and accepted by Western governments. Those same Western governments can, however, go some way to shaping the strategic context with more effective engagement of the ‘Rest’, a constituency they neglect at their peril.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.
Dr Karin von Hippel
Lt Gen (Ret'd) Sir Robert Fry