How Putin’s Russia may win the Kyiv battle but lose the image war First Post 02 Mar 2022 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar

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How Putin’s Russia may win the Kyiv battle but lose the image war First Post 02 Mar 2022

          The Russia-Ukraine war is turning into a war of images as Ukraine seeks to gain global sympathy and support, seeking to enhance pressure on Russia to pull back. Images of residential buildings in Kiev being hit by missiles against claims of Russia that it is not targeting civilian pockets, traffic jams of people rushing to neighbouring countries, haunting images of reunion of family members at borders, civilians carrying arms against Russia and smouldering military tanks and vehicles display the horrors of war, which have not been witnessed for a long time. Added to these are images of the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, dressed in combat fatigues visiting troops on the frontlines, though these images are of his visit to the frontlines in 2021 and not of the current period.

          In contrast are images of a sulking Putin, stuttering while accusing the Ukrainian government of being Neo-Nazi, drug addicts and puppets of the west. Added are images of his meeting with his core group, whose members were being read by experts as being bullied, as was evident when his head of secret service was taunted to speak clearly. It projected the impression that Putin had himself taken the decision to invade Ukraine and was insisting that his coterie accept joint responsibility for it. A recent photograph of confused Russian senior military officers with glum faces on hearing Putin place strategic missile forces on alert displays their helplessness to Putin’s decisions. The world has become more aware that in Russia, challenging Putin could imply prison. Simultaneously were images of Russian anti-war protestors being arrested in different parts of the country while those across the globe being supported by their nations, a vast contrast.

          Visuals of a confused Biden, unaware of what action to take, projected him as an incompetent President and a loser. These images were displayed alongside those of him addressing the media during the rushed withdrawal from Afghanistan, where the US left the nation to the mercy of the Taliban. Together they projected his lack of self-confidence in handling crises as compared to the positive messages displayed by other western leaders, who condemned Putin while placing additional sanctions on Russia. The US’s reputation as a global leader with its ability to influence world events has taken a massive beating as has Biden’s popularity. In the final analysis, Putin got the better of Biden, despite US intelligence being accurate in predicting the invasion.      

          Casualty figures of Ukrainian forces including civilians and children are regularly released while Russia refuses to announce its own, displaying that all is not well with the ongoing operation. Ukraine, on the other hand, seeking to project itself as a nation fighting back against a giant, is providing details of Russian casualties, which go to their advantage. Whether these figures are true are unknown but images of burning Russian vehicles and equipment supports Ukraine’s fight back. Reporters present in Ukrainian bomb shelters and subway stations display calm and composed residents standing in unity to challenge a powerful Russia.

          This has won Ukrainian’s global praise while the Russians are viewed as barbaric, displaying little concern for citizens they have attempted to subdue. Civilian casualties and damaged residential homes emphasizes that Russia has not adhered to its promise of targeting only military installations. No apology flowing from their side implies it accepts collateral damage. Thus, while Ukraine is gaining global support, Russia is losing it.  

Images of horror and suffering populace backs decisions of individual nations imposing sanctions. Global protests against Russia are government supported to gain acceptance for their sanctions, while silencing critics. Simultaneously, countries like India, which displayed neutrality are being questioned by elements of its populace. Across the globe, Ukraine is being termed as the David challenging Goliath and hence must be supported.

          Within India, the coverage being given to returning students, as also media projection of speeches by members of the ruling party on returning flights are aimed at enhancing the image of the party and the prime minister. This, with ongoing elections, adds to indirectly influencing the voting public. There is no doubt that the government worked overtime, coordinated with multiple nations before it achieved this feat, which is just the start of a major evacuation and deserves all praise. Simultaneously, it overrides the reality of the government warning Indian students to leave Ukraine before hostilities commenced being ignored.  The refusal of Biden to do the same has dented his image further. He had done so similarly in Afghanistan. 

          Russia may win the war and compel Ukraine to accept its terms and conditions, however its reputation has taken a beating. Russia will no longer be trusted. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian President, who refused being pulled out by the US, while demanding weapons and equipment, has attained a near cult image. Removing him forcibly from power, as demanded by Putin, would damage Ukrainian reputation. His arrest or elimination by Russia would dent Russian global standing.

The US’s reputation, because of poor display of confidence by Biden has also taken a severe beating. Its global standing as a power which can influence global events has been smashed. It is currently being projected as weak, indecisive and unreliable. European leaders, on the contrary, are being displayed as strong and supportive. The Indian government, on account of efforts to evacuate its citizens has gained in global and national standing.   

At the end of the day, Putin may impose his will, but he has lost the war. Ukraine which has held out against Russian military might may accede to some Russian demands, however, will have gained global sympathy. The ultimate winner will be the theatrics expert President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who projected himself as the leader of his country, standing beside them in troubled times.

In this age of social media, even in times of crisis, timely and correct exploitation of images can positively influence global support. This was evident when neutral European nations, Switzerland, Sweden and Finland were forced by local pressures to back Ukraine including by provision of weapons and ammunition.