In this exclusive interview, Professor Maria Repnikova (Georgia State University, United States) addresses Russia's War in Ukraine, which began on February 24, 2022. She highlights the role of information and the field of international relations. This expert focuses specifically on various aspects linked to the aforementioned military conflict, such as propaganda, psychological warfare, the communication skills of the Presidents of Russia and Ukraine, respectively Putin and Zelenskyy, and U.S. support of Ukraine. Repnikova also provides a few considerations regarding World War II and Russia's military cooperation with China, India and Iran.
Keywords: information; international relations; journalism; media; Russia's War in Ukraine.
On February 24, 2022, Russia began what it calls a special military operation in Ukraine, but which other countries generally regard as a war. In this piece, in the form of an interview, Professor Maria Repnikova (Georgia State University, United States) examines said military conflict, while stressing the relevance of information and various aspects in the sphere of international relations. Repnikova is a distinguished expert in the following topics: Russia, China, global communication, political communication and media activism (Georgia State University College of Arts & Sciences / Maria Repnikova).
Information and Media
Though the hybridization of war already existed prior to 2022, according to Maria Repnikova this conflict between Russia and Ukraine entails the added importance of information. In this regard, Repnikova highlights sharp power. According to this academic, the restrictions on independent journalism that has been taking place in Russia, in the last 20 years, have been heightened with this war. Maria Repnikova points out the closure of websites of several independent media, as they were accused of being foreign agents. This analyst remarks that, despite Russia's attempts to censor or limit social media, Telegram still remains quite open and accessible, unlike in China, with Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter), which is highly censored. Repnikova underscores that Russian President Vladimir Putin needs Telegram to operate, in order to engage in propaganda. She feels that, in Russia, some news outlets, such as Meduza, can still be accessed and are broadly used, without causing major disruptions, that is, without entailing a great deal of domestic opposition to Putin's decisions.
Game theory applies to international relations and to war. Recently, in April 2022, Russia tested a new nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile, which that nation disclosed through the media. This disclosure, according to Maria Repnikova, needs to be viewed in light of information warfare, with the aim of deterring countries from direct intervention against Russia, through military involvement in Ukraine. From the standpoint of the interviewee, as concerns nuclear weapons, there is a certain unpredictability with regard to Putin's decision.
Repnikova states that the conflict under analysis comprises an aspect of psychological warfare, involving manipulation of emotions. This scholar points out Russia's domestic psychological warfare, by citing, as an example, the accusation of treason and anti-patriotism toward Russians who are against the war. To Maria Repnikova, criminalizing opposition to the war is a way of limiting protests. She considers that leading people to be fearful of opposing the Kremlin's decisions is part of psychological warfare.
Storytelling is a keyword in various contexts of communication such as propaganda. From Repnikova's standpoint, a clash of narratives takes place via domestic and international media: on the one hand, Russia disseminates its greatness and, using arguments presented as historical, including from the Soviet era, seeks to convince recipients that the existence of an independent Ukraine makes no sense; on the other hand, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy uses his considerable communication skills to send messages to various parts of the world, regarding his country's independence, strength, resistance and resilience.
Leadership is related to communication skills. This war between Russia and Ukraine comprises two main players: Putin and Zelenskyy. They have distinct verbal and nonverbal communication styles. According to the interviewee, Zelenskyy's communication skills, in some regards, include his ability to adapt the message to multiple target audiences, as well as to interact with different people, such as the presidents of several countries and French students. Maria Repnikova characterizes Zelenskyy as someone attractive who communicates spontaneously, who generates emotions and who appears informally dressed among civil and military Ukrainians. She underlines the differences in relation to the President of Ukraine by describing Putin as someone living in an immense golden palace and who celebrates Easter with a very formal and very removed appearance. From an iconic standpoint, Repnikova highlights the long table used during Putin's official meetings with foreign leaders. She believes that, while Putin's discourses are well thought out, they are quite formal.
Recently, Ukraine and some Western nations boycotted a few Russian media, such as RT and Sputnik. Russia, for its part, banned certain Western media, such as BBC and Voice of America. Currently, countries that are against Russia's military intervention in Ukraine speak of Russia's propaganda machine. In this regard, Maria Repnikova considers that, in comparative terms, in the so-called Western world, there are some media in the public sector that convey narratives of the State that created and sustains them. This, according to Repnikova, occurs, for instance, with the U.S.'s Voice of America, which is linked to the State Department and comprises a diplomatic purpose. This analyst adds that, in the private sector, in general, though commercial media do not suffer greatly from state meddling, they can be influenced by their advertisers, investors and audiences, without constituting propaganda. Even if it is acknowledged that certain Western media serve propaganda-related purposes, Maria Repnikova feels that, comparatively, this still occurs more in state-controlled media environments in countries such as Russia and China.
As concerns war journalism, Repnikova does not overlook the debate calling journalists' objectivity into question, when there is an emotional involvement with one of the parties at issue or when journalists provide coverage on their own country. She thinks that journalists need to diversify their sources and carefully confirm the information they obtain.
Also within the field of journalism, Maria Repnikova states that, to the Ukrainian government, it's very important to be able to influence the news agenda of Western mainstream media, by raising their audiences' awareness, in order to garner military and economic support. This academic feels that the public's interest in the Russia-Ukraine War could wane over time, due to a certain trivilialization of the conflict and the emergence of new national and international news items with high media impact. This, in Repnikova's opinion, would benefit Russia.
Evoking World War II
Within the context of the war under analysis, Russian troops displayed the flag of the Soviet Union on Ukrainian soil. To the interviewee, displaying said symbol in Ukraine means restoring Russia's glorious past under the Soviet empire. Maria Repnikova underpins another relevant symbol: Russian troops recaptured a World War II memorial in Ukraine, while stating that, from that point onward, Ukrainians could celebrate the end of that historical event. This academic considers that the legacy and echoes of World War II are highly important for Russia's defense policy as well as for the domestic legitimacy of the Putin regime. The way Repnikova sees it, annual commemorations in Russia marking the Soviet victory in World War II serve to put current Russian power on display: military parades showing sophisticated weaponry help bring the government closer to the people while exalting patriotism. According to Maria Repnikova, the Kremlin somehow presents the current military conflict in Ukraine as Russia’s continuing the Soviet Union’s World War II-era glory.
Russia's relations with China, India and Iran
Repnikova has no doubts that China is carefully monitoring ongoing events in Ukraine, while seeking to gauge how the West would react to Chinese military intervention in Taiwan. She thinks that, for now, China at least is cautious in facing a future where the war in Ukraine would make the West stronger and more united, while weakening Russia and leaving China a little more isolated. However, Repnikova maintains that the advantages and drawbacks have yet to be cleared up, even though there are those who feel that China can derive economic benefits from this conflict. In the opinion of this scholar, China wishes to remain on good terms with the West, in order to achieve domestic legitimacy and not have to deal with other problems, on top of those that are domestically worrisome, such as COVID-19.
Maria Repnikova underscores that China's official position in relation to Russia's war in Ukraine is that of neutrality, standing in favor of peace. This analyst points out that, in English-language Chinese state media, such as the Xinhua news agency, calls have been made for negotiations between the warring parties, at times referring to China as a mediator of the conflict.
Generally speaking, there are simulations, deceptions and surprises within the context of war. In relation to this armed conflit in Ukraine, could Russia, on top of its military strengths, still end up having a few political and diplomatic assets, in terms of garnering some international backing, considering its influence, for instance, in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and the Middle East? To this end, Repnikova states that it's still a bit too early to actually determine the extent of Russia's victories. This academic adds that, to date, it seems, at least, that Russia is not losing in the Global South, to the extent that some of these countries have yet to speak out against Russia, thus maintaining a certain neutrality. Still, according to Repnikova, it remains to be seen whether African governments will blame Russia or NATO for certain outcomes of the war, such as food shortages, including cereal, and economic problems, which are currently being felt in their countries and which could worsen as the conflict continues. In this scholar's understanding, it's important to know whether Russia has something more to offer African countries besides arms and narratives.
The 12th Edition of Indo-Russia joint military Exercise INDRA 2021 was held in August 2021, in Volgograd, Russia. In September 2021, with the Armed Forces of Russia and of other countries, India also took part in the Zapad-21 military exercise, conducted on Russian and Belarusian soil. In the opinion of the interviewee, Western media need to be more attentive to relations between said countries. Repnikova stresses that, worldwide, India is one of the biggest importers of Russian arms. From her standpoint, Russia seeks to strengthen its involvement with India, in order not to rely too heavily on China. This situation is characterized by Repnikova as being complex, given that there are some tensions between India and China. This occurs, for example, on the border between the two countries.
Also in the domain of international cooperation, in January 2022, the Navies of Russia, Iran and China conducted joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean. This, from Repnikova's perspective, is of symbolic value, to show unity vis-à-vis the West's military might. However, this analyst doubts that said countries currently have a military alliance whereby they are willing to jointly face enemies. In this regard, Maria Repnikova acknowledges that the future could bring surprises.
The U.S.'s backing of Ukraine
The interviewee feels that the U.S. Administration has dealt with this war between Russia and Ukraine in the best possible way, to avoid a direct military showdown with Russia that the American people don't want and that Congress would approve only in the event of a certain escalation in the conflict. To Repnikova, not overstepping the fine line between American backing of Ukraine and its direct involvement against Russian troops is a huge challenge. Among several aspects, this scholar underscores the support given by the U.S. in terms of sharing intelligence, to enable the U.S. to anticipate the moves made by the Russian Armed Forces. Maria Repnikova thinks that the United States, together with its Western allies, have greatly helped Ukraine, in military and economic terms, as well as in the field of information, thereby mobilizing public opinion.
New world order
Repnikova considers that it's too early to present the characteristics of a definitive new world order, before the end of the war between Russia and Ukraine. Still, this scholar maintains that we will likely see greater unity between the U.S. and Western Europe, greater integration of China in the Global South, distancing itself from the West, as is somehow the case right now, along with the weakening economic power of an anti-Western country: Russia.
These days, the hybridization of war amounts to a certain complexity, according to increasingly diversified domains involved in a military conflict. In 2022, the war between Russia and Ukraine is proof of the importance of information regarding civilians and troops, with its psychological aspect and by applying war game theory, in both the domestic and international spheres. To the various warring parties, it becomes relevant to influence perceptions, emotions and public opinion, through the media, increasingly including social media. In Russia, despite attempts at media control, the Kremlin allows Telegram to keep running, to the extent it also serves to disseminate Russian propaganda. For Ukraine, while it's pivotal to keep this war at the top of the news media agendas, this could be more difficult as the conflict drags on and other high-interest topics emerge in the media.
Warranting particular attention, as part of information warfare, is the ability of the two leading players, Putin and Zelenskyy, to wield influence on domestic and international audiences by using the media and different verbal and nonverbal communication styles. As for characterizing both presidents, Zelenskyy can be regarded as a skillful communicator, while Putin is shown to be unpredictable. Within a military context, this unpredictability is viewed as a positive side of Putin, to the extent the enemy is left wondering about the other party's decisions and actions.
The impact of symbols in a war is visible, for instance, when we see that the Soviet flag was displayed in Ukraine by Russian troops in 2022. This, while keeping alive the memory of Russia's glorious past, within the Soviet sphere, is also somehow linked to evoking World War II. This is somehow shown by Russia to justify the current military clashes, as concerns one of its political and ideological goals: denazification of Ukraine. In the present, History could serve to motivate civilians and troops.
It's still unclear whether the Russia-Ukraine war is beneficial or harmful for the Chinese economy. In the international context, China has been publicly in favor of peace and willing to mediate the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Certainly, there are those in Beijing who look at the West's reactions to what is currently happening on Ukrainian soil, in order to draw conclusions as to the possible outcomes of Chinese military intervention in Taiwan.
Also in the field of international relations, while Russia conducted military maneuvers with China, India and Iran in 2021 and 2022, this doesn't mean that said countries have a military alliance in place or that they will actually engage in joint combat. This situation needs to be duly monitored, since the future could bring changes.
It's expedient to point out that, to date, some Global South countries have remained neutral with regard to the Russia-Ukraine war. However, said neutrality can be shaken by economic problems and food shortages, in Africa, due to the continuing military conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In life in general as well as in war, (short-, medium- or long-term) time management is crucial.
The U.S.'s military backing of Ukraine, together with its allies, namely, for instance, arms and intelligence, requires careful consideration, so as not to transition to direct confrontation with Russia.
At the moment, though it's unwise to make definitive considerations, with regard to a new world order stemming from the war under analysis, it's now possible to uncover a few situations: greater unity between the U.S. and Western Europe, China's growing investment in the Global South and Russia's greater antagonism toward the West.
Jorge Marinho. Research supervisor. PhD in Communication Sciences, BA in International Journalism
Júlio Ventura. BA in Law, MA student in Political Science and International Relations at the Portuguese Catholic University (Lisbon, Portugal)
Guilherme Guimarães. BA in Law, MA student in International Law at the Portuguese Catholic University (Porto, Portugal)
- Georgia State University College of Arts & Sciences / Maria Repnikova. Retrieved 25.5.2022 from https://cas.gsu.edu/profile/maria-repnikova/
Photo 1 - Courtesy of the interviewee, Maria Repnikova.
This interview was conducted, via Zoom, on May 19, 2022
Published by Marinho Media Analysis / May 30, 2022