Cover: The Nightingale Versus the Bear

The Nightingale Versus the Bear

What Persuasion Research Reveals About Ukraine's and Russia's Messaging on the War

Published Oct 12, 2023

by Alyssa Demus, Khrystyna Holynska, Krystyna Marcinek

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Research Question

  1. Are Ukraine's information campaigns more persuasive than Russia's, and, if so, what does the research on persuasion reveal about why this may be the case?

In the wake of Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine, many prominent Western news outlets and policymakers concluded that Ukraine is winning the information war. Yet the reality may be more complex. RAND researchers used an evidence-based approach to try to understand whether official Ukrainian influence campaigns related to the current war have been more persuasive than Russian ones, and, if so, why Ukraine's messaging may have been effective while Russia's efforts may have fallen flat.

To do this, the researchers examined each side's messaging toward not only its own public and military personnel but also the public and military personnel of its adversary. Specifically, they looked at Ukrainian-, Russian-, and English-language content produced and disseminated by official Ukrainian and Russian authorities and their affiliated institutions in the days leading up to and following two incidents: (1) Russia's initial offensive and the Battle for Kyiv, in February–March 2022, and (2) the announcement of Russia's partial mobilization, in September 2022. The researchers analyzed the two countries' messaging through the lens of persuasion research, which offers insights about the characteristics associated with successful influence campaigns. This report details the researchers' analysis and conclusions.

Key Findings

Persuasion research suggests that the popular discourse, which professes that Russia has lost the information war while Ukraine has prevailed, oversimplifies the issue

  • The dynamics underpinning persuasion are highly nuanced and context dependent. Thus, the answer to the question of whether Ukraine's information campaigns have been more persuasive than Russia's is also nuanced: It depends on the target audiences and the broader context in which they have been steeped.

Russia and Ukraine have taken divergent approaches to their respective influence campaigns

  • Generally, Ukrainian leaders have been vocal, communicating frequently with their intended audiences using all available instruments, from social media to radio, and relying on informal and colloquial communications.
  • Russian officials have been more buttoned up. State-run TV has been the central conduit for Russia's influence campaigns, particularly targeting Russia's own public and military personnel.

Both Ukraine's and Russia's influence campaigns may have struggled to overcome the deeply held beliefs of their adversary's audiences, which research indicates are resilient and often immune to new, contradictory information

  • Early in the war, Russian leaders fundamentally misunderstood their Ukrainian audience.
  • The Ukrainian public's deep-seated negative perceptions of the Kremlin were likely challenging for Russia's messaging to overcome.
  • Of Ukraine's campaigns that targeted Russian audiences, the messaging tailored to certain marginalized groups may have been the most persuasive. Still, these audiences likely possessed little agency to change their behavior.
  • Much of the Russian public had long been steeped in the Kremlin's representation of events. These preexisting beliefs would have been difficult to overcome.

The research described in this report was prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted by International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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