A defiant resistance has used the Internet to counter one of the world’s most fearsome war machines, telling the invaders, ‘Welcome to hell’
It has also potentially saved lives: Ukrainians have raced to disseminate defensive strategies, plot escape routes and document the brutality of a raging clash. Some expect that the phone footage recorded in recent days could play a critical role in investigating war crimes after the combat ends.
Russia has long been fabled as the Internet’s most wily mischief-maker, and the nation’s propaganda machine has for years used social and state-backed media to deceive and disempower its enemies.
But Ukraine has in many ways begun to beat Russia at its own game, using constant, colorful communication to foment a digital resistance and expose its aggression on a global stage.
The tactics reveal how social media has opened a new dimension of modern war, showing how the Internet has become not only a territory to fight over but a tool for real-world conquest.
It has also helped Ukrainians feel they can contribute to the fight. Solomiia Shalaiska, a Kyiv-based graphic designer, said she felt helpless until she started posting pro-Ukraine rally images on an Instagram page she previously used for art and design.
One image — a David-and-Goliath-style map comparing the size of both countries titled “Realize the Scale of Ukrainian Heroism” — has been “liked” more than 100,000 times in the past day. Shalaiska said she has joined the nation’s nascent “IT army” of volunteer hackers and hell-raisers, who have worked to counter Russian psychological operations by overwhelming their websites and flooding their intelligence officers with spam. (Shalaiska said she has helped mostly by spreading information and reporting bots.)
“It’s very important to [strengthen] the national spirit in Ukraine, that’s why people are doing memes and encouraging images,” she said in an Instagram message. People “should have sources where they can find not only Russian propaganda.”
The videos helped mobilize antiwar sentiment in the earliest hours of the invasion, when a woman was recorded admonishing Russian soldiers to carry seeds “so at least sunflowers will grow here when you die.” In another Facebook photo, a funeral wreath with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s name on it was captioned: “In Ukraine, the Russian army is greeted with flowers.”
In the days since, videos have helped transform local stories of bravery into viral legends — and exposed a war Russia has fought to keep concealed. Ukrainians have posted videos of themselves thwarting tanks, guarding villages, making molotov cocktails and using them to turn Russian vehicles into fireballs.
As Russia’s troubled blitz has smashed against a defiant resistance, some Ukrainian fighters have tactically trolled the enemy. In one video, a camouflaged soldier talks into the camera at his Russian opponents while screwing a silencer onto a rifle. “Dudes, you are f—ed,” he says with a smirk. “We have tanks. We’ve got everything. … Why don’t you f—ing surrender while you still have the chance?”
Ukrainians have also used social media to spur on fellow civilian defenders. Kira Rudik, a member of Parliament, posted a photo of herself barefoot and holding a Kalashnikov rifle to Instagram and Twitter, saying, “Our #women will protect our soil the same way as our #men.” The Ukrainian rock star Andriy Khlyvnyuk and a former Miss Ukraine, Anastasiia Lenna, also posted photos of themselves with guns in hand.