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How Ukrainian Narrative Identity Dominates the War of Influence

The similarities in identity layers not only insulates Ukrainians from Russian propaganda, but it also gives them a tactical advantage.

The Ukrainian example provides the missing link in recent discussions in the U.S. military about information advantage and the cognitive domain in warfare. The link is the narrative foundation of influence.

Ukraine is prosecuting influence campaigning intrinsically linked to their kinetic warfare. It is the core of their missions as they have built narrative-centric strategy into both their offense and defense. Influence campaigning means that everything on the battlefield, not just the cognitive realm, is designed to influence. The cognitive and kinetic are not separate realms in an influence campaign and they are not pigeonholed into separate and isolated professions. Success results from understanding the identity and worldview (Narrative) of the audience, which is the basis of aggressive agile campaigning. These critical factors are nearly absent in western militaries, with few exceptions.

We understand “Narrative” as, first, a cultural product. Cultural narrative demonstrates the way a culture understands its context and its identity. That cultural understanding becomes internalized as a story in the minds of individuals socialized in the culture. The story serves as a meaning map through which incoming information is filtered and then categorized, chronologized, dismissed or prioritized. The result is that the meaning of incoming information is determined by its place in the story in the heads of the audience.

Messages and communications do not “share” nor “disseminate” meaning; they usually only trigger it. That triggering is pretty simple and can be achieved with as little as three words once the story (the meaning map) is understood.

The meaning of the information (not the information itself) will compel behavior, particularly if it fortifies preferred identity. Much of this takes place subconsciously in a somewhat Pavlovian manner.

Meaning is often a conscious part of decision making. Identity defense is often a less conscious motivator. The less conscious we are of the story in our heads, the more vulnerable we are to the manipulation of it.

Those who know the meaning map of the story in the minds of their audience can predictably trigger behavior via narrative-centric influence campaigning. This has been one of the reasons that Ukraine has had significant success against a Russian influence. Simply put, Ukrainians fully understand Russian identity. One way to understand this is that most of us know exactly what to do to trigger a predictable response in a spouse, sibling, or close friend. Ukraine shares so many common layers of identity with Russia that they can easily trigger predictable responses.

Ukraine does so well with its narrative influence efforts because its history, culture, and shared unifying grievances are known well within the Ukrainian-speaking cohesion group. Toss in an inspiring and charismatic leader and you have a system that is hard to defeat. No amount of Russian propaganda will change them – it will only will reinforce Ukrainian Narrative Identity.

The similarities in identity layers not only insulates Ukrainians from Russian propaganda, but it also gives them a tactical advantage. In Narrative Warfare, he who establishes dominance first sets the goalpost others will have to contend with. It is of tremendous advantage to get there first – to establish the meaning of events for an audience. If you don’t assign meaning first you are left playing catch-up (defense) by employing counter-narratives that may cause third- and fourth-order effects themselves.

Ukraine doesn’t micro-manage their campaigners but tends to be more in line with U.S. SOF in the sense that local commanders are in “free-fire” mode and doing their own thing within the wide parameters set by higher command. The result is that they are out in front of their Russian counterparts.

Shared identity and meaning involves a shared understanding of what is possible. And a shared understanding of what is possible can transform an actionable environment; it can influence social movements and even international actors. Ukrainian identification with the Cossacks beginning at the end of the 15th century is an example of one of the key operative pieces of shared Ukrainian identity: semi-autonomous instincts inherited historically from their Cossack forefathers.

One might expect the eastern Russian-speakers to rally to the language-based cohesion group. But a recent unclassified study of social media samples from across Ukraine demonstrated that Russian-Ukrainians support Kyiv and not Moscow. Russian military intervention pushed these regions away from the Russian narrative.

All influence revolves around narrative; all warfare is narrative-centric. This is not limited to messaging or a few tactical maneuvers but critical factors like resilience and what the military has long called “will to fight.” Ukraine is dominating “Putin’s War” because they are agile and adept at employing proactive messaging referencing narratives that support their activities on and off the battlefield. Activities off the battlefield will fill may of the roles critical to success: maintaining optimistic patriotic fervor, generating support from allies, keeping public support firmly behind the military, highlighting the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Putin’s army, and emphasizing the devastating losses by Russian forces.

Ukraine is providing a case study in effective Narrative Warfare.

Key takeaways that should be major focus areas of U.S. and allied national security professionals are:

  1. Narrative-Centric Influence is the core of military strategy
  2. Understanding the Narrative Identity of the target audience is the key to predictably triggering responses
  3. Campaign, Campaign, Campaign with:
    1. Narrative
    2. Agility
    3. Diversity of activities
    4. Primacy – get there first, dominate the narrative space with your meaning, and stay ahead
Ajit Maan and Paul Cobaugh
Ajit Maan, Ph.D. writes the Narrative & National Security column for Homeland Security Today featuring her original work and work by guest experts in narrative strategy focused on identifying active narratives, who is behind them, and what strategies they are deploying to manipulate and muddy facts to the detriment of America. She is founder and CEO of the award-winning think-and-do-tank, Narrative Strategies LLC, Adjunct Professor at Joint Special Operations University, Professor of Politics and Global Security, Faculty at the Center for the Future of War, and member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative at Arizona State University. She is also author of seven books including Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, Narrative Warfare, and Plato’s Fear. Maan's breakthrough theory of internarrative identity came in 1997; she published a book by the same name in 1999 which was released in its second edition in 2010 (with the addition of the subtitle Placing the Self). Her 2014 book, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, examines the scripts perpetuated by a wide range of terrorist organizations while also making important interdisciplinary connections between studies in the humanities and current world events (a workbook companion to the text was published in 2018). She collaborated with the late Brigadier General Amar Cheema on the edited volume titled Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare, published in 2016. Maan's 2018 book, titled Narrative Warfare, is a collection of articles examining the topic of weaponized narrative; her 2020 book, Plato's Fear, examines the relationship between narrative and power. Paul Cobaugh retired from the US Army as a Warrant Officer after a distinguished career in the US Special Operations CT community, primarily focused on mitigating adversarial influence and advancing US objectives by way of influence. Throughout his career he has focused on the centrality of influence in modern conflict whether it be from extremist organisations or state actors employing influence against the US and our Allies. Post military career he was offered and accepted the position of Vice President at Narrative Strategies, a US based Think-Do Tank which specializes in the non-kinetic aspects of conflict. He has also co-authored, Soft Power on Hard Problems, Hamilton Publishing, 2017 and Introduction to Narrative Warfare: A Primer and Study Guide, Amazon, 2018.

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