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Ukraine: Perception Shapes Victory and Defeat

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In March 1918 Imperial Germany was preparing to accept the surrender of revolution-torn Russia. By November of that year, it was Germany that for a brief period, when the military outcome seemed in doubt, perceived itself as having “lost the war” – and that, ultimately, proved fatal.


Ukraine: Perception Shapes Victory and Defeat

In March 1918 Imperial Germany was preparing to accept the surrender of revolution-torn Russia. By November of that year, it was Germany that for a brief period, when the military outcome seemed in doubt, perceived itself as having “lost the war” – and that, ultimately, proved fatal. As the US received German messages asking to agree terms for the cessation of violence, the Allies also started to perceive Germany as having been “defeated”. It was, therefore, too late for the German High Command to try to reverse those perceptions when, shortly after contacting the US, it decided that it would reverse course and instead continue to fight. The die was cast, domestically as well as internationally, by the fatal perception of weakness.

German public opinion quickly turned to “defeat” mode, only to turn again shortly afterwards and adopt the narrative of having been “betrayed” by the politicians”. This became the prevailing German domestic political mantra, born out of the perception that “defeat” could have been averted. The Allies were perceived to have unjustly “victimized” and “penalised” Germany.  In fact, some German units continued to fight in the Baltics well after the armistice of 11 November 1918 and into 1919. The rest, as they say, is history: Versailles, reparations, the Weimar Republic, National Socialism, rearmament, and World War Two. There are many lessons here in the context of the current Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. Perceptions and narratives matter greatly to war and, critically, to the durability, or otherwise, of peace.

Military Outcomes and Perceptions: The Siamese Twin

Military outcomes and perceptions generate their greatest mutually enhancing impact when the military outcome falls short of an unambiguous victory or defeat. Ambiguity leaves plenty of room for varying perceptions and narratives to emerge. There is an acute need, therefore, for political rhetoric to adjust well ahead of time to accommodate the military realities on the ground. Politicians and the media bear a heavy and special responsibility in this regard.

This tale of how perceptions and military operations intersect should serve as a warning tale for all sides in the current war. Germany’s perception of what constituted its defeat, and the allies’ perception of what constituted their victory, didn’t match. Narratives were born out of these perceptions that took hold on both sides. They ultimately created their own attendant facts on the ground, leading to another war. In the current war, Russian disinformation has aimed to shape perceptions and narratives as far away as possible from perceptions in the West and Ukraine. This yawning perceptional gap is a key battle ground that should not be left to accident.

Disinformation Distorts Perceptions of Victory and Defeat

Disinformation operations matter greatly to the story a nation tells itself about the perceptions of victory and defeat, and of the relative geopolitical position in the world. The “stories” feed the public’s psychological thirst for simple coherent explanations of “what happened”, rather than the raw messiness of facts and details. These “stories” reflect how a nation sees itself. Together with perceptions, they bore deep into the souls and political consciousnesses of societies, and are the fuel for the continuation of war or the endurance of peace. The European Union’s greatest achievement is that it dealt with these “stories” and perceptions successfully, and created a new narrative of collective peace, security, and prosperity.

There is one crucial difference with the analogy with 1918: the Allies were then more or less united in their perception of what constituted German defeat and what an Allied victory was. Today, however, EU Member States and NATO Allies, have varying perceptions of what constitutes defeat and victory in the war against Ukraine.  This perceptional gap also needs to be tackled.

Europe and the Allies need to influence perceptions not only in Europe, but also in Russia and the Global South. The greater the gap in perceptions, the greater the likelihood of endemic geopolitical instability, potentially culminating in yet another clash of arms. The consequences of narratives of history, national pride, victimhood, and entitlement cannot be wished away. Russia has been deploying such narratives for a long time, through proactive voluminous dis/misinformation operations. There is an urgent need to tackle these Russian narratives at the perceptional, i.e., mainly the emotive level, rather than simply debunking them with cold facts. The emotive engagement with the public will become increasingly necessary to sustain the long-term democratically mandated support for Ukraine.

 “How to Think” Is More Critical than “What to Think”

Shaping perceptions makes up the core of the cognitive domain. It is about managing and influencing “how to think” rather than “what to think”. Perception manipulation is a key area of Russian mis/disinformation and hybrid operations, to shape perceptions of what constitutes victory or defeat, the causes of war, sanctions, and so on. In addition, it aims to cause as many cracks as possible in European societies, exploiting the openness of democracies. We need to “get our skates on”, not only in countering disinformation, but also in proactively shaping perceptions.

The challenge of hostile perceptions is that they are capable, when not defeated early, of establishing narratives that are very difficult to dislodge once they take hold.  The Western Allies urgently need to map out practical measures to establish, in addition to effective “emotive” counter-disinformation operations, offensive capabilities in the cognitive domain aimed at reclaiming the perceptional and narratives space, with the aim of securing dominance.

The modus operandi adopted so far in the “Western camp” is that of the knee jerk reaction to counter the “how to think” with the “what to think”. This factual response sets the record straight, which is necessary. It is, however, unwieldy in countering emotive narratives.

The “West” should also develop a powerful “positive emotive narrative” (that is based on facts). Europe has a great positive emotive story to tell. This means that the delivery mechanisms employed should not be designed by committee to suit our own pet likes and dislikes, but to focus on the “delivery of effect”.

Conclusion: Emotive Narratives before Legalistic Reasoning

At a very basic level, many Russians have swallowed the official line and perceive this war as a fight for Russia’s survival against NATO – not just a war against Ukraine. The West sees this, on the other hand, as an illegal war of aggression by a permanent member of the UN Security Council against another member state of the United Nations, in violation not only of the UN Charter but also of the various treaties signed between the former Soviet Union and its successor state, Russia. This legalistic approach, if adopted in countering emotive narratives, is unlikely to engender the sort of earth-shattering perceptional reaction in our own societies, let alone in Russia and indeed Ukraine, as well as in the Global South. It is difficult to see how these vastly differing perceptions, unless dealt with effectively, will produce anything but continued conflict.

Beyond Europe, a NATO-EU coordinated emotive narrative can play a key part in garnering the support of the Global South as many continue to perceive the war as a “European” conflict that does not concern them. Repeating facts ad nauseum won’t necessarily make them stick. Emotive narratives give the facts a better chance of sticking. A reversal of how effect is delivered, therefore, seems necessary: first deliver the emotive narrative, then follow up with the facts.

This will be important at the UN General Assembly, whenever the time comes, to have an internationally accepted perception, reflected in number of votes, of what constitutes victory and defeat under international law. For example, a narrative can be developed to reflect the fact that Russia’s illegal war has turned from a proof of Great Power status (had it achieved swift victory) into a prolonged war of attrition that can be perceived as a defeat by a smaller and weaker state. An analogy can be made with the hypothetical scenario of Poland in 1939 being successful at stopping Germany’s Blitzkrieg and forcing it into a war of attrition.

Moreover, in a war of attrition the economy (and the ability to raise debt) is central, as is the way perceptions evolve domestically as well as internationally as to how sustainable the war is. This can become another component in the cognitive battle for the hearts and minds of the public globally. Using Russia’s weak economic indicators contributes cognitively to a weaker perception in the Global South of its status. The race is on to deny the further use of the congestive domain by other actors. This will require a deliberate effort to fill that domain with our Western narrative.

A great deal of urgent work and coordination on perceptions and narratives awaits, while we are short on time. Time is of the essence in the race to win hearts and minds. This is a process that is painstakingly slow, and that needs to deliver tangible and measurable results before the next phase of the war reveals itself, whether in escalation or cessation of armed violence. Both require the soil of narratives to be tilled urgently with the seeds of perception.


(Photo credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)