Small Wars Journal

What Is More Important for Ukraine to Win: The Explosion of a Tank or the Spread of Information about a Tank Explosion?

Sun, 02/05/2023 - 9:27pm

What Is More Important for Ukraine to Win: The Explosion of a Tank or the Spread of Information about a Tank Explosion?

By George Chkhikvadze, Matthew J. McGowan, Trevor Davison, and Corban Pierce


The YouTube video titled “Russian tank explodes in HUGE ball of flames after Ukrainian airstrikes” showcases the immediate effects of a Ukrainian airstrike on a Russian tank on Ukrainian ground troops engaged in combat somewhere on the front line.  In less than one month the video, shared by the United Kingdom outlet, The Sun, accumulated almost 400,000 views and more than 5400 likes. In it, Ukrainian troops seem to smile and joke about the effectiveness of the strike while the tank is still engulfed in flames and smoke billows up to the sky.  These videos are common, with more links available here, here, and here.  The ubiquity of these videos speaks to the power of the image of a burning tank to celebrate Ukrainian victory and shore up support within the country and internationally. 

Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war again reinforces two critical elements needed to defeat an enemy: a military unit's will to fight and a nation's will to fight.[1] In most instances, these two elements work in tandem and define one another. The psychological resilience and support of the community significantly determines the resistance of the armed forces, just as examples of success on the battlefield contribute to strengthening the community's psychological resilience.[2] In 2014, Russia conducted well-orchestrated operations against Ukraine in the information environment.[3] In addition, the Russians successfully recruited high-ranking politicians and military personnel who surrendered without any resistance to the Russian armed forces in the very first days of the occupation.[4] Russia’s preparation of the battlefield through information and media significantly contributed to their successful occupation of the Crimean Peninsula and part of the Donbas and Lugansk regions.[5] At the same time, the population living in Crimea and the eastern regions of Ukraine with ethnolinguistic ties to Russia are more likely to believe pro-Kremlin disinformation.[6] Russian propaganda, which convinced the population that Ukraine's interim government was the result of an illegitimate coup, was crucial in ensuring that the military operation had strong support from the Russian domestic audience while the corrupt Ukrainian government was unable to consolidate the population. [7] ,[8] After the 2013 Maidan Revolution and the 2014 Russian occupation of Ukrainian territories, Ukraine made significant changes, and the public constantly expressed their desire to become a normal, European-type state.[9] Following Volodymyr Zelensky's election in 2019, the administration persisted in its sovereign course of action. Along with bolstering government institutions and modernizing the military, the Ukrainian government also built a potent strategic communication system to counter Russian propaganda and unite the Ukrainian populous. [10],[11]

As it became overt after the first phase of the failed Russian aggression, the actions taken by Ukraine contributed to the government's favoring of the populace and played a significant role in Russia's failure to achieve its goals and overthrow the Ukrainian government. [12],[13] At the start of the second invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ukraine’s state agencies have clearly and succinctly disseminated information about Russia's hostile goals, objectives, and actions with popular "must-see" style articles and videos. These bulletins inform the populace about the assistance provided by Western nations, the military successes of Ukraine on the battlefield, and the war crimes committed by the Russians.[14]

Due to the effective communication system of the Ukrainian government, even in the rain of Russian missiles, the psychological resilience of the society increased.. Almost all bureaucratic levels, from the president to the military personnel, contributed to this success. President Zelensky introduced himself to the public at the outset of the conflict through a video address recorded on a mobile phone, which showed everyone that he was in the heart of Kyiv with the Cabinet of Ministers, that he was unwilling to abandon the nation, and that he was ready to fight to the end.[15] The video spread like a virus throughout social media and broadcasting companies. President Zlensky's unofficial and war-weary image made him the most popular person, whom even the French president tried to emulate. [16], [17] Furthermore, this viral spread to the general public resulted in an international outcry of support for the citizens of Ukraine against Russia, which otherwise may not have happened. 

Ukrainian news sources and social media are massively spreading information about heroic Ukrainian soldiers from different points of the front, which positively impacts the desire of Ukrainians to resist Russian aggression. In the summer of 2022, the Ukrainian fighters besieged in the Azovstal factory in Mariupol became a standard of heroism.[18] At the same time, the words "Russian warship, go f**k yourself" spoken by Ukrainian soldiers to the captain of the Russian warship before their death on the small island of Zmein became the most famous phrase in Ukraine and the post-Soviet space.[19] To raise the sentiments of combatants and the public, the Ukrainian military actively distributes various positive information from the battlefield, including videos of singing a mocking song to the sunken Russian warship "Moscow" or how they play football when the Russians take a break from missile attacks. [20],[21]       

Ukrainian media working on the battlefield continuously report on the thousands of dead Russian soldiers and the success of Ukrainian units. Video collages include reports of Russian conscripts captured by the Ukrainians, who have neither uniforms nor military experience. It is remarkable that along with the information about the brutality and Russian war crimes, there are constant reports about how the Ukrainian military treats Russian prisoners humanely; [22] they allow them to call their families and treat them with hot food. At the same time, videos demonstrating the devastation of Russian military hardware by Western weaponry have a beneficial impact on public opinion.[23] The fact that information is often disseminated humorously increases its persuasive value. For example, collages about a Ukrainian farmer who successfully steals tanks left behind by Russian soldiers fleeing from the battlefield are trendy on social networks. According to social media clips, the farmer already has a relatively solid fleet of Russian tanks.[24]

The purpose of spreading such information is to emphasize the bravery of Ukrainians and to indicate that the information about the invincibility of the Russian army is a myth and nothing else. Such a campaign played an essential role in the fact that many Ukrainians express their desire to join the Ukrainian army and take part in the defeat of the Russians[25] while Russia is trying to complect the army by declaring mobilization.[26]

The Ukrainian military on the front line has shown that the spread of positive information can support their cause and strategic level objectives while also providing a psychological impact on the enemy.  Without the spread of battlefield footage through social media, would the general public continue to call for their governments' support if they cannot relate to their Ukrainian brothers and sisters fighting? 






[1] Ben Connable et al., “Will to Fight: Returning to the Human Fundamentals of War” (RAND Corporation, September 13, 2019),

[2] “Psychological Capabilities for Resilience,” War on the Rocks, December 27, 2022,

[3] “Defense Primer: Information Operations” (Congressional Research Service, September 12, 2022), chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/

[4] Дмитрий Евчин, “Подальше От Крыма: Где Оказались Офицеры, Предавшие Украину,” Крым.Реалии, accessed January 15, 2023,

[5] Gwendolyn Sasse, “Revisiting the 2014 Annexation of Crimea,” Carnegie Europe, accessed January 14, 2023,

[6] Aaron Erlich and Calvin Garner, “Is Pro-Kremlin Disinformation Effective? Evidence from Ukraine,” The International Journal of Press/Politics 28 (November 1, 2021): 194016122110452,

[7] Michael Kofman et al., “Lessons From Russia’s Operations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine,” RAND Corporation, ISBN: 978-0-8330-9606-7, 2017, 1–128.

[8] “2014 Corruptions Perceptions Index - Explore the Results,”, accessed January 15, 2023,

[9] Steven Pifer, “Ukraine: Looking Forward, Five Years after the Maidan Revolution,” Brookings (blog), February 22, 2019,

[10] “Sovereignty – Foreign Policy,” accessed January 15, 2023,

[11] “About Us | Center for Strategic Communications,” Centre for strategic communication, accessed January 15, 2023,

[12] Peter Dickinson, “2022 REVIEW: Why Has Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine Invasion Gone so Badly Wrong?,” Atlantic Council (blog), December 19, 2022,

[13] The Associated Press ·, “Moscow’s Goal Is to Oust Ukraine’s President, Russian Foreign Minister Says | CBC News,” CBC, July 25, 2022,

[14] Kitsoft, “Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine - 10 Facts You Should Know about Russian Military Aggression against Ukraine,” accessed January 15, 2023,

[15] Valerie Hopkins, “In Video, a Defiant Zelensky Says, ‘We Are Here,’” The New York Times, February 25, 2022, sec. World,

[16] “Volodymyr Zelensky Is TIME’s 2022 Person of the Year | Time,” accessed January 15, 2023,

[17] “Is Macron Copying Zelensky? French Leader Displays Stubble, Jeans and Hoodie in ‘war Room’ Pics | Daily Mail Online,” accessed January 15, 2023,

[18] “‘Defenders of Mariupol Are the Heroes of Our Time’: The Battle That Gripped the World | Ukraine | The Guardian,” accessed January 15, 2023,

[19] Luke Harding, “‘Russian Warship, Go Fuck Yourself’: What Happened next to the Ukrainians Defending Snake Island?,” The Guardian, November 19, 2022, sec. World news,

[20] “New Photos Show Russian Warship Moskva before It Sank | CNN,” accessed January 15, 2023,

[21] Ukranian Soldiers Playing Football 🇺🇦⚽️, accessed January 15, 2023,

[22] “Video Appears to Show Russian Soldier in Tears as He’s Fed by Ukrainians and Allowed to Call Home,” Peoplemag, accessed January 15, 2023,

[23] Russian Helicopter Shot down by Missile in Ukraine - BBC News, 2022,

[24] Chris Brown · CBC News ·, “From Capturing Russian Tanks to Humanitarian Aid, Ukraine’s Farmers Step up for War Effort | CBC News,” CBC, March 18, 2022,

[25] Michael Levitt et al., “Thousands Rush to Enlist in Ukraine’s Army to Fight the Russian Invasion,” NPR, February 25, 2022,

[26] “What Does Russia’s ‘Partial Mobilization’ Mean?,” accessed January 15, 2023,

About the Author(s)

George Chkhikvadze is the Deputy Head of the Division in the Policy and Development Department of the Ministry of Defense of Country Georgia. He is currently studying Information Strategy and Political Warfare at the Naval Postgraduate School (CA, US). He also owns a master's degree in philosophy and has more than 15 years of experience in analytical and research work. His main research areas are hybrid warfare issues and economic security topics.

Major Matthew J. McGowan is an Infantry Officer in the United States Marine Corps since May 2011.  He is originally from outside of the Philadelphia, PA area.  Since joining the Marine Corps, he has deployed to both the Indo-Pacom AOR, and also to the Middle East with a Marine Expeditionary Unit.  He is currently a student at the Naval Postgraduate School studying Information Strategy and Political Warfare.   

Major Trevor Davison is a combat engineer officer in the Marine Corps from Baltimore, MD.  He has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, most recently in Helmand Province as a member of Task Force Southwest from 2019 to 2020.  He currently studies Information Strategy and Political Warfare at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.  

Major Corban Pierce is an active-duty Marine Corps Infantry Officer. He has had the honor of serving around the world; in major combat operations, crisis response missions, and dynamic force employment. He specializes in Operations in the Information Environment (OIE), multi-domain tactics, and Naval MAGTF employment.