Rainer Saks: In the information war, a stalemate persists between Ukraine and Russia.

14.03.2024

War blogger and former head of foreign intelligence Rainer Saks says in an interview with Propastop: Russia does not currently have great military enthusiasm, although a lot of patriotic shows are being made. Ukraine’s first serious problem is the inability to explain the necessity of additional mobilization. The presidential elections paralyzed US security policy, weakening the country’s role as a global leader.

On the second anniversary of the full-scale war, both Russia and Ukraine attempted to seize the initiative in communication. Which one succeeded better?

“In the information war, there is a stalemate because both sides are forced to deal more with internal communication. On the other hand, the war has dragged on for a long time, and it is increasingly difficult to come up with new initiatives in the international information field.

Internal communication is currently more important for both sides, as Russia is dealing with presidential elections and Ukraine’s problem is organizing additional mobilization.

According to the Gerasimov Doctrine, it is necessary to control the opponent’s information space to be successful in war. But the Russian president started the war in a way that even surprised many people in Russia. The propaganda system that operated abroad collapsed, and the previous channels of influence did not work. The country came under great international pressure, and Russia’s prestige plummeted.

In the first year of the war, Ukraine dominated communication. The high point of the information war for Ukraine was the Prigozhin uprising last summer when Russia lost all international credibility. Until then, Putin, who had avoided public appearances on the topic of war, became personally the most important Russian spokesperson on the war in the summer of 2023.

Since the last New Year, Russians have been able to again infiltrate Western media with materials that discredit Ukraine, not all of which are entirely false. It is increasingly difficult for Ukraine to maintain initiative in strategic communication because there are no success stories on the front lines.

“Ukraine finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the initiative in strategic communication because there are no success stories to show on the front lines,” notes war blogger and former head of foreign intelligence Rainer Saks.

How successfully has Putin been able to exploit the capture of Avdiivka and maintain the initiative across almost the entire front in the ‘presidential election’ campaign?

However, Russia has not been able to restore its classical communication capabilities. Putin described the situation in Avdiivka at New Year’s, depicting progress ‘house by house.’ Such limited success is laughably small in a situation where the initial goal was to take Odesa and Kyiv.

Russia does not currently have great military enthusiasm, although there are many patriotic shows, and this is not a good sign for the authorities. The Russian authorities have taken a great risk because power can become ridiculous to their own people if the credibility limit is exceeded. Once trust is lost, it cannot be regained – as happened with the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan when people suddenly realized they were being beaten in that war.

In your opinion, President Putin’s recent speech before the Federation Council was weaker than expected. Additionally, his significant “pre-election” appearance was overshadowed by the death and funeral of Alexey Navalny. Can the Kremlin ensure the desired outcome from the elections in this context?

The elections certainly do not pose a threat to the authorities. Ukraine attempts to discredit Russian authorities with military attacks, but so far, it has not succeeded.

For the Kremlin, the danger lies in the elections becoming recognizably farcical for ordinary people. That’s precisely why intrigues were staged during the previous elections, to motivate people to come out to vote at all. If this year it is said that 85% of people voted, but nobody knows anyone who went to vote, then that is risky. However, such a risk certainly won’t lead to a swift change in power.

Does Yulia Navalnaya have the potential to become a spokesperson for Putin’s opponents in Russia?

Yulia Navalnaya has the human qualities necessary for this, but her situation is hopeless because it is impossible to become a leader in Russia while in exile. Western politicians find it convenient to meet with Navalnaya, and Western media find it easy to talk about her. Just as it was convenient to do so with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of the Belarusian opposition leader, however, Yulia Navalnaya will not become a figure capable of influencing events in Russia.

Julia Navalnaya made an address in Munich – Author/source: SCANPIX/AFP/KAI PFAFFENBACH

How serious do you consider Russia’s information operation “Maidan 3,” which Ukrainian authorities have recently been vigorously warning their partners about? The alleged aim of this information operation is to hinder new mobilization and, through misinformation, convince Western partners of Ukraine’s inability to win the war.

Public presentations about “Maidan 3” have been made by Ukrainian military intelligence, but I am not aware of any other source confirming it. I cannot directly answer whether such a large, unified plan exists.

However, Russia has initiated preparations for a larger influence operation against Ukraine and Moldova in Western media. Ukraine is attempting to preemptively nullify future Russian information attacks by releasing information about “Maidan 3.”

Due to the war, presidential elections are not taking place in Ukraine this spring, but “elections” are taking place in Russia. Continuously complaining in the world media that the Ukrainian president lacks legitimacy could start to have an impact.

Ukraine’s biggest domestic political and communication problem is the stretched preparation for additional mobilization. Why has this been presented so uncertainly to the people?

The organization of additional mobilization, which began to be discussed at the end of last year, is indeed the first serious problem in Ukraine’s power structures over the past two years. I cannot explain this.

Presumably, last year, there was hope to bring the war to a quicker end. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hoped that mobilization would not need to be implemented in this form. Ukraine does not have a problem with running out of people in the military. The concern is that if too large a portion of men are under arms, the country’s financial costs will rise sharply, and the economy will suffer.

After the highly popular Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, was relieved of his duties in early February, he was contrasted with his successor, Oleksandr Syrskyi, both in the Ukrainian public and in the world media. Has Syrskyi managed to gain the trust of Ukrainians and the respect of military personnel?

We will see in a few months. Currently, Syrskyi does not have serious problems, and the Ukrainian army has started to function better after the change in leadership. Perhaps some changes made by Syrskyi are contributing to this, or maybe Ukrainians have received more ammunition or new equipment.

It is clear that the rumours about Syrskyi, spread widely through Western media, did not benefit anyone in Ukraine.

I believe Syrskyi is not letting himself be bothered by these rumours. He is a practical officer with a strong background in organizing military operations. It seems that criticism against him has subsided in Ukraine.

“Ukrainian Armed Forces Commander Oleksandr Syrskyi in Soledar on January 8, 2023. Photo: Roman Chop / AP / Scanpix

Since the beginning of March, the People’s Republic of China has sent a special envoy to visit Russia, Ukraine, and several EU member states to initiate peace negotiations. What is China trying to achieve with this PR tour?

China is attempting to help Russia emerge from diplomatic isolation and to suppress support for Ukraine’s peace initiatives. I believe China’s support for Russia was more hesitant at the beginning of the war than it is now. Due to sanctions, China cannot support Russia as strongly as it would like, but its influence has grown.

China is concerned about the possibility of Russia losing the war. China is better able than the West to assess how the prolonged war is wearing Russia down and how the restoration of Russia’s military power is becoming increasingly difficult. China does not want Russia to weaken because it alone cannot provide a counterbalance to the United States.

Strategic communication emphasizes that actions speak louder than warm words. What does it indicate that the US aid package to Ukraine has been stalled for months?

The current state of US domestic politics is such that the country is unable to implement any form of foreign and security policy. This is evident both in Ukraine and the Middle East.

The US cannot remain a global leader for long if every three years, the onset of the presidential election campaign blocks the country’s strategic activities. Those engaged in obstruction in the US also lack an agenda they want to pursue. Instead, they prioritize destructive objectives at the expense of foreign and security policy interests. Thus, the USA loses its international position.

Did French President Emmanuel Macron’s wavering talk about the possibility of sending allied troops to Ukraine ultimately have a positive or negative effect on Ukraine?

Macron’s train of thought was very good, but he should have first coordinated it with the allies and played it out properly. In that case, it would have worked well. Macron was right in his idea that no option should be excluded for supporting Ukraine, including sending allied troops to Ukraine.

Russia needs to be put under stronger diplomatic and information warfare pressure. It is urgently needed to increase pressure on Russia, not necessarily by introducing NATO forces.

Unfortunately, the European Union lacks a unified strategy towards Ukraine. In the current situation, the huge weakness is that the USA is not in its usual role as a strategic leader. It’s not a catastrophe; the European Union has put together effective aid packages, but what’s missing is initiative.

The photos are from the sources referenced in the article and from private collections.