On July 20, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, commented that military focus in Ukraine is no longer “only” the east, implying that Russia has expanded its war objectives. Ukraine has lost over 20% of its territory, including the Crimean Peninsula and the Donbas region, and is struggling to take back these areas, in which Russian forces are entrenched.
Key European countries are applying heavy pressure on President Zelensky and on the government in Kyiv to engage in an intense negotiation with the Russians to end the war. The fear of asymmetrical Russian aggression using tactical nuclear weapons, and possibly also further offensive moves against other countries in Europe have all converged into the great unease due to Europe’s energy dependence on Russian gas. The famous phrase from Game of Thrones applies here too — Winter is Coming (again).
Beside analyzing the situation geo-strategically, it is important to examine the broader implications of the war between Russia and Ukraine is having on the West and on the world in general. The rise in the price of raw materials and, the rise in grain and oil prices — all these have triggered a dramatic inflationary convulsion jeopardizing government stability in the West. In Africa and throughout the Third World, severe food shortages might escalate into widespread hunger. Not only is Ukraine standing in danger, stability of governments all over the world is also at risk.
Ukrainian President Zelensky has exploited the advantages he had in the battle for influence over public opinion to the hilt. Outstanding personal conduct, through intelligent use of readily available tools and through profound understanding of the advantages of the various forms of social media — all these dramatically improved Ukraine’s resiliencies. They have become a strategic resource in the battle — in which Ukraine is the underdog according to any objective military parameter.
The resiliency of Ukraine’s cellular and Internet networks established Zelensky on the international scene, shifting the battle over public opinion directly into the court of the key European countries and the United States. The favorable results of this battle have been translated into financial aid, massive weapon shipments, real-time intelligence, and readiness, on Europe’s part, to receive refugees in numbers unheard of since World War II.
Ukraine owes a historic debt to the leader at its helm and to the national ethos he is shaping on the go. However, Ukraine is at a decisive juncture in the perception battle. As both the decisive diplomatic and military moment approaches, strategic and operational.
While the battle over public opinion and the use of influence tools have been favorable for Ukraine’s international position, have spawned social cohesion, and have mobilized the nation and maximized the volunteer force at its disposal — the time has now come for setting the expectations ahead of the battlefield outcome. This will require a totally different mindset of handling the battle for influence, it will mean changes in the target audience, in style and in content.
We have analyzed the bulk of Ukraine war-related articles and publications from January 2022 until the present day. This analysis focused on a quantitative test of relevant references in a Google search in the key target countries: the United States, Germany, France, and Britain. These are the countries whose contribution toward Ukraine and its resilience through the current conflict is the most significant. At its peak (February-March 2022), there were over 3 million references (see keywords in infographic below) and since then the volume has been gradually diminishing. In May-June 2022 the number of references plummeted by over two-thirds. This is a quantitative manifestation of the drop in the intensity of the international interest, as the war enters its sixth month, even in the face of discoveries of war crimes committed by the Russian Army and its proxies.
The strategic importance of altering the perception trajectory lies in the fact that unless Ukraine re-assesses and acts on redefined influence goals — for Ukrainian public opinion, any outcome which will be less than the retaking of its territories in the Crimean Peninsula and in the Donbas region — will be regarded as a failure. For Ukraine to emerge strengthened from this conflict, it will have to adjust public expectations and redefine the achievements to be made.
Ukraine faces a dramatic, continual rise in the number of casualties sustained by its forces. The ammunition stockpiles are gradually depleting. Destruction on the home front is immense. The number of refugees is astounding, and the economy is in ruins. International public opinion is shifting to other crises closer to home and of greater interest, mainly economic concerns — many of which are a consequence of the ongoing war. In this modern era, beset by a chronic attention deficit, it is difficult to focus attention for such a long time.
This being said, Ukraine has survived against all odds. It has engaged in battle with one of the world’s two military superpowers and has survived. What all leading experts at the start of the war predicted to be a foregone defeat just a few days away, has been transformed into exemplary resilience.
Under the current battlefield circumstances, all the building blocks are in place to build a tremendous national ethos and to frame a fitting victory on the way of ending the war. For this, President Zelensky has to define Ukraine’s exit goals, to redefine the Ukrainian national challenge and to build the national narrative for extricating the country from the hostilities.
Most leaders fail to grasp this elusive timing. Israel’s achievement in thwarting the surprise attack on it, launched by Egypt and Syria in the October 1973 war — is still perceived in Israel to be a bitter failure, etched deep in the national psyche. It is remembered as a low point which brought Israel to the verge of annihilation. The Second Lebanon War (2006), which achieved a long-lasting, historic period of calm between Israel and Lebanon, is still perceived by many as a military debacle which failed to achieve its goals.
In the battle over influence, as in life itself, one has to be able to think flexibly and creatively in order for the fruits of this to serve the national needs and objectives at any given time. These needs are varied and dynamic. As in the military battlefield, so in the battle for perceptions, identifying the changes needed, the ability to make the necessary adjustments — all these are essential to achieve the objective.
Lior Chorev is Co-Founder and Chairman of Percepto International, a strategist and international expert on public perception.
Shlomo Guy is COO of Percepto International, an influence and intelligence expert.