On August 9, at least a dozen explosions rocked a Russian military base in Crimea.
Russia’s defence ministry avoided assigning blame – saying the “detonation of several aviation ammunition stores” caused the blast – while, for its part, Ukraine’s military played it coy. It did not claim responsibility for the damaged combat planes, nor for a subsequent drone strike on the navy headquarters in the Russian-occupied area.
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Instead, Ukraine’s defence ministry mockingly warned on Twitter about the dangers of smoking – sardonically suggesting that Russian soldiers caused the explosions themselves by tossing lit cigarettes.
Unless they want an unpleasantly hot summer break, we advise our valued russian guests not to visit Ukrainian Crimea.
Because no amount of sunscreen will protect them from the hazardous effects of smoking in unauthorised areas.
— Defense of Ukraine (@DefenceU) August 11, 2022
“Time to head home … Crimea is Ukraine,” read the text on the faux-tourism video it tweeted, in which Bananarama’s 1983 song Cruel Summer is heard playing over footage of shocked sunbathers fleeing a nearby beach as smoke from the blasts looms in the background.
In the days that followed, a barrage of similar lampooning posts appeared on various Ukrainian military Twitter handles.
One shared a World Health Organization advisory that “smoking kills”.
— Defense of Ukraine (@DefenceU) August 18, 2022
Another particularly barbed tweet sported a Captcha mosaic of the burned-out planes with instructions to “Prove that you’re not a robot.”
“Please click each image containing an airplane. If there are None, click Skip,” it said.
Our new CAPTCHA in Ukraine…
Prove that you’re not a robot: pic.twitter.com/o7EmXWBnra
— Ukraine Territorial Defense Forces (@TDF_UA) August 11, 2022
Digital jokes are Ukraine’s latest weapon in the war. The military outcome is uncertain, as the conflict drags into its seventh month. But the sardonic salvos that are winning millions of views on Telegram, Twitter and other social media platforms are resonating both at home and with a global English-speaking audience.
“The military situation is probably at a stalemate,” says Corneliu Bjola, a professor of diplomatic studies at Oxford University, who specialises in digital messaging. “But humour is helping Ukraine win the information war.”
Messaging was serious right after the invasion began on February 24, he says. The ministry posted information about Russian losses and retweeted inspirational announcements by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
But as the conflict dragged on, Bjola says, the government made a strategic decision to keep locals and foreigners engaged through catchy, short messages that can be shared widely and, being in English, especially resonate with Western audiences.
Just a month into the war, defence ministry wits posted the “Ukraine Oscars 2022”. This entailed several video clips, with such entries as Ukrainian farmers towing Russian military vehicles (“Best Supporting Actress for performance in The Taming of the Shrew”) and of Javelin missiles (“Best Actress” – the Javelin for the powerful performance in Burning Orcs.”)
By thus referencing American pop culture, the tech-savvy propagandists signalled that Ukraine was part of the West. Other tweets quote from boxer Mike Tyson or the movie Rambo. One of the latest nods to the West, released on August 31, features the popular British song from World War II, “Run, Rabbit, Run.”
Run, Rabbit, Run! pic.twitter.com/7A5eKfWKXm
— Defense of Ukraine (@DefenceU) August 31, 2022
Government communicators push a cohesive narrative: cartooning Vladimir Putin and his military as a dwindling power.
Joking recedes when Ukraine experiences heavy losses or particularly horrendous atrocities. For instance, when the military campaign was not going well in June and July, one saw less sarcasm. Now that things seem to be going better, irony has bounced back with a vengeance.
A viral TikTok meme that went out on August 22 superimposes a HIMARS lightweight mobile rocket system – weaponry that has helped Ukraine fend off Russian forces – floating improbably on an inflatable pink raft. Facing the vital Kerch bridge linking Crimea to Russia, the caption says: “We are watching you!”
In another poke, to celebrate Ukraine’s 31st Independence Day on August 24, authorities lined the usual parade route in Kyiv with destroyed Russian military vehicles.
Everyone from ministers to soldiers in the field is tweeting. Independent sources like the Ukrainian Memes Forces create a further reservoir of caustic content that is disseminated widely. The Twitter account has more than a quarter of a million followers, including diplomats.
Photos, songs, videos
Deriding Russia is nothing new. Following the 2014 invasion of Crimea, Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs built its digital messaging capacity in a strategic communications unit helmed by Dmytro Kuleba, with advice from the United Kingdom and the United States. Gifs and memes from the television show The Simpsons began to make appearances in digital propaganda.
You really don't change, do you? pic.twitter.com/HDfS9A8jWZ
— Ukraine / Україна (@Ukraine) May 30, 2017
The ensuing years gave the country ample opportunity to perfect its barbs against Russia, and Kuleba has brought that skill to his current portfolio as foreign minister.
In addition to ridiculing Moscow, the Ukrainian military emphasises its tender care of animals, to stress its soldiers’ humanity. Memes and videos show how they evacuated pets and animals from zoos, juxtaposed with scenes of brutality by Russians.
UkrARMY cats & dogs posts daily pictures of burly soldiers cuddling kittens and puppies. The cute creatures curl up in helmets and next to heavy weaponry.
Random acts of kindness pic.twitter.com/nd8MBKICwh
— Ukraine Territorial Defense Forces (@TDF_UA) August 29, 2022
Patron, an adorable Jack Russell terrier, is as famous as some ministers. Viral videos show him bounding about in his tiny flak jacket, sniffing out unexploded mines to save the nation.
A third line of messaging involves videos that are essentially love songs to destruction, but comic nonetheless; facetious ballads are sung to rocket launchers and scenes of bombing. This glorifying of war borders on fetishising but the catchy music with biting lyrics has gotten hundreds of thousands dancing along.
The rousing ode to Turkish drones, Bayraktar, has garnered nearly two million views. It shows grinning uniformed men dancing with their guns as they deride the Russians as “sheep” and “orcs”.
Russia’s digital messaging
In contrast, we have seen mainly dour social media from Moscow since the start of the invasion. “Russia realised early on that humour might backfire because public opinion was against them,” says Ilan Manor, a lecturer in communications at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev. The victim can make fun of the aggressor, but not vice versa, he notes.
Russian digital messaging instead tends to maximise threats, such as of nuclear war. It is hard to strike fear if you provoke guffaws.
This gravitas marks a departure for Putin’s government, which previously used abrasive parody to disparage Western leaders and narratives, and to blunt criticism about Russia’s interference with other countries.
When, in 2014, NATO published satellite images of invading Russian tanks in Crimea, Russian embassies tweeted a picture of toy tanks, dismissing them as the “most convincing evidence” that NATO could come up with.
President Obama expels 35 🇷🇺 diplomats in Cold War deja vu. As everybody, incl 🇺🇸 people, will be glad to see the last of this hapless Adm. pic.twitter.com/mleqA16H8D
— Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy) December 29, 2016
Diplomatic trolls were at it again in 2016, when then-US President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats. Russian embassies tweeted a picture of a fluffy duckling with the word LAME.
Two years later, when Britain alleged that Russia had poisoned a former spy and his daughter, the Russian embassy in London posted a picture of Hercule Poirot, the detective in Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries. The caption read, “In absence of evidence, we definitely need Poirot in Salisbury!”
In absence of evidence, we definitely need Poirot in Salisbury! pic.twitter.com/EHTlEQmcPp
— Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy) March 18, 2018
‘We make jokes to stay sane’
In today’s Ukraine, belittling Russia in a similar vein helps lift spirits amid the relentless destruction. As the war became the new normal, Ukrainians turned to the dark humour honed during the Nazi Holocaust and Soviet-era brutality, which together killed millions of Ukrainians.
“Historically, our lives have been difficult, so we constantly make jokes to stay sane,” Sofiya Maksymiv tells Al Jazeera. The communications coordinator at the online publication UkraineWorld has written about Ukrainian wartime jesting. “It’s our national trait; we choose to see things through a comic lens. That makes it easier to live through drastic situations.”
When she feels down and fears the bloodshed will never end, she stops watching the news for a while. But the memes – “they are always there for me”.
She cites one viral anecdote that particularly amused her, about a grandmother who threw a jar of pickles at a Russian drone. “People wonder if it’s true,” she says. “But such an absurd situation helps us laugh and calm down.”
Still, humour runs the risk of going too far.
Ukrainian jabs are directed at the invaders, but not towards their own fighters and victims. And it is worth noting that Zelenskyy, a comic before he assumed the presidency, has for the most part avoided jocular tweets during wartime. After all, he wants to be taken seriously as head of state.
“This is a red line,” says Maksymiv. “The whole society understands that.”