Analyzing Storytelling About the Ukrainian Conflict

Note: This article series in no way minimizes the Ukrainian suffering. It is simply an attempt to analyze the storytelling applied by various entities in the Ukrainian Conflict.

Humans have been telling war stories for millenniums. Many of those stories were about glorifying the victories and the victorious. Some detailed the brutality of warfare. Others described the inherent passions of war. Since the advent of the Internet, storytelling has become more democratized, more personal, and more instant. With multiple types of unstructured data being uploaded by hundreds of thousands of eyewitnesses of wars to millions of commentators, a new type of storytelling has emerged. The frames and themes of war provide elements whose complex interactions generate narratives that show and document the atrocities of war, human suffering, punitive actions, moral standing, changes in social and global order, and other dynamics of war.

In the theatre of today’s great power competition, the Ukraine conflict offers a first look into the storytelling related to new geopolitical dynamics: a hot conflict where major powers found themselves on the opposing ends. When combined with the deployment of artificial intelligence based narrative analysis, the Ukraine war offers significant insights into the evolving global narratives and how war stories will shape the geopolitics in the future.

This is a series of two parts of articles. The first focuses on major story themes coming out from countries. The second part of the article analyzes the narratives and positions taken by companies.

Theme 1: It’s about the history (Russia’s emotionless story that backfired)

The Russian storyline was based upon showing NATO and the Ukrainian government as the aggressors who were threatening the national security and interests of Russia and attacking ethnic Russians in Ukraine, and therefore Russia had no option but to attack Ukraine. A story that depicts lack of options is often a tragedy that invites sympathy, but its appeal must be emotional. The Russian story came across as too rational and lacked any emotional appeal for the global audiences. President Putin’s attempt to position NATO as a goliath failed terribly. If NATO weren’t turned into a goliath, Russia could not be viewed as David.

Despite the claims that Russian bots were superactive and that Twitter removed over 75,000 accounts during the war, the overall Russian story and communications were highly ineffective.

The text coming out of Kremlin, the images, and the visual storyline, were not designed to determinedly project Russia either as a decisive aggressor (goliath) or as a victim (David). It was somewhat a mixture of the two. Here was President Putin explaining why Russia went to war, but his explanation seemed like a lesson from a boring history class. Dwelling over a century old Ukrainian and Russian history, he easily lost global audiences. His speech was not designed to inspire his nation or to even make a strong case for the invasion, but instead seemed like an attempt to provide a justification for the invasion that was based upon some type of a historical account. In a world where emotions and drama dominate the narrative setting discourse, Putin was walking into a landmine. His grievance centric appeal did not have the emotional depth to resonate with the global audiences. Maria Zakharova, Russia’s spokesperson, became emotional about the fact that her side of the story was not being acknowledged and the plight of ethnic Russian in Ukraine was being ignored. But by that time, it was already too late for global audiences to develop any sympathy for the Russia’s position.

On the visual storytelling side, President Putin’s posture of leaning back, even slouching, while speaking with hands holding the edge of the table depicted someone drowning who needed to hold on to something. It brought to mind the iconic scene from the movie Titanic, where Leonardo DiCaprio was holding on to the edge of the wooden panel, right before he let it go.  But by the time that scene takes place in Titanic, audience has already developed deep sympathy for DiCaprio’s role. With the established image of a strongman, President Putin carried no such sympathy.

Further, on the visual storytelling side, the shots for the speech switched between showing President Putin slouching back and looking tiny behind the desk, overpowered by a TV screen, computer screen, keyboard, mouse, and four phones. The noise in the imagery was intense. If the idea was to show President Putin in action, that was not the right time or avenue. If the goal was to show him deliver a strong message, the visual noise was intense.

At the ceremony of signing DPR and LPR, the visual storytelling seemed cold and impersonal. The size of the room presented the image of a lonely emperor conducting business in a giant palace. There were no cheers or human emotions. From a Russian perspective, two states were being born, but the presentation seemed so solemn as if a death sentence was being awarded. Contrast that with when American presidents sign bills, applauding supporters of the bills are shown standing behind the president. Similarly, the audience at bills signing ceremonies is composed of citizens who cheer and applaud.

Russia’s failure to make the alleged NATO push and the Ukrainian neo-Nazism an emotional sell to the world was obvious. Unlike the US president who talked to the global audiences, President Putin limited his messaging to his domestic audience. There was no emotional depth, no drama, and no framing in President Putin’s claim. His speeches looked like long and boring history lessons rather than the great oratory to inspire nations or to make a strong case.

If this was all done intentionally, it is hard to imagine what it accomplished. If it happened because of incompetence, it would probably be seen as a bigger failure for Russia than the poorly executed war itself.

Theme 2: “We Understand” (Minimizing the Ordeal, China)

The Russian story was communicated in China very differently than in many other parts of the world. The word “invasion” was not used in China, and the images shown on national TV were of Russian soldiers distributing food and water to the Ukrainians. On social media any criticism of Russian aggression was removed. The official line of the Chinese government continued to be: We don’t want war in Europe but also don’t want any sanctions on Russia.

This narrative is designed to position NATO as the aggressor and Russia as the optionless victim. The official line of the Chinese government attempted to position NATO as hegemonic and intrusive, and that NATO was the threatening and destabilizing force against Russia. This was architected to create a preemptive story about Pacific QUAD (not a formal alliance, officially the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, is a group of four countries: the United States, Australia, India, and Japan) as a hegemonic and destabilizing force. This narrative was being framed by not only what was being said or communicated but also by what was not being said and shown. Thus, not communicating a story is itself a story.

The dominant narrative in China was shaped by silence and gentle nudge to request both parties to reach peace.

Theme 3: We have come to honor that allegiance (Indian business-ism)

In the second Lord of the Rings movie, Haldir says: I bring word from Lord Elrond of Rivendell. An Alliance once existed between Elves and Men. Long ago we fought and died together. We come to honor that allegiance. The messaging coming out of India was similar. As the war progressed, India increased its trade with Russia. It was more than business as usual. The White House’s reaction to India’s position was that they found it to be “unsatisfactory” but “unsurprising”. While it was hard for India to justify its position with its Western partners, the Indian story needed to be of pragmatism and opportunism with an undertone of amorality of political affiliations. Terminating its longstanding relationship with Russia was not an option. Neither was becoming a hard critic of President Putin. If you can’t take the Western side, might as well benefit from the situation – turned out to be India’s story. India was willing to trade its “Gandhi” image for the image of India is open for business. The Indian story was of pragmatism and astuteness. It was saying: you don’t have to trust us that we will always stand for the oppressed, but you can trust us that we will make good business decisions.

Theme 4: Please let us help you (Caught in the middle, Israel and Turkey)

Israel was caught in the middle. On one hand Israel needed to stand with America and its Western allies and on the other hand Israel had to maintain good relations with Russia. The Israeli story could not have been about taking sides. Unlike India which took the Russian side, the Israeli story developed as of a mediator and of a refugee host. In the mediator role, Israel offered to mediate peace between the two warring parties. On the refugee host side, the country’s situation gets even more complicated as about two-third of the Ukrainian refugees arriving in Israel are non-Jewish. Israel was able to keep a balanced position. Turkey’s position, like Israel’s, also turned out to be of a mediator.

Theme 5: We are against the war but stand with Russia (the anti-imperialist story, Iran)

Iran took a position of blaming the NATO for pushing Russia into a corner but also claimed that it is against the war and human suffering. This position allowed Iran to develop a narrative of standing for the oppressed without disparaging its close ally Russia. This was in line with the Islamic Republic’s overall narrative of anti-imperialism.

Theme 6: We are all victims of hegemonic powers (Pakistan’s story)

Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan used a unique angle and turned his story into a narrative of victimhood of weak nations suffering the consequences of a war between the two giants (America and Russia). It brought to mind the images from the first Hobbit movie where two mountain giants are fighting as Bilbo’s party tries to save itself from the falling rocks. Pakistan’s story of strategic neutrality with victimhood was designed to deflect the decision to choose. That positioning of a victim was also meant for the domestic audiences who are greatly impacted by the rising inflation in Pakistan. PM Khan is fighting for his prime minister position against a no-confidence motion in the parliament, and the broader global conflict allows him to blame the rising inflation on geopolitical realities.

Theme 7: I am on nobody’s side, because nobody is on my side, little orc (Hungary)

Just as Treebeard in the movie The Two Towers claims that he is on nobody’s side, Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary said “Russia looks at Russian interests, while Ukraine looks at Ukrainian interests. Neither the United States, nor Brussels would think with Hungarians’ mind and feel with Hungarians’ hearts. We must stand up for our own interests.” The story of Hungary is about focusing on its own interests. This is different from India’s story as it is based upon a clear and overt claim of self-interest whereas the Indian story is based upon preserving old friendships.

Theme 8: The David vs. Goliath (Perfect execution by Ukraine)

On the other side, Ukraine offered the story of Russian aggression and backed it up with strong emotional data. President Zelenskyy’s used the right messaging and imagery – both in text and the visual elements. President Zelenskyy ditched suit and put on a military t-shirt and allowed his beard to grow. The visual imagery of a leader fighting aggression was delivered perfectly. The Russian aggression was captured in video and images, in news and social media, and the story was backed by proofs and strong emotional content. It quickly became the most touching story in the world. Even those countries that did not vote against Russia at the United Nations condemned the Russian war against the Ukrainian civilians. For example Iran, a strong ally of Russia, offered help to Ukrainians. The power of the Ukrainian storytelling was amazing. It touched hearts and it appealed to reason. The Russian story was crushed by the power of the Ukrainian story. The Ukrainian story gained enough momentum for the US and EU to enact sanctions and terminate business with Russia.

But David vs. Goliath story requires David to have a stone and a sling, and for him to use that to hit Goliath with some force. For Ukraine to pull that story, a significant victory over Russia, even if turns out to be of resistance and defiance, will be critical. So far, the storyline of the Kiev defense is working out in Ukraine’s favor. Russia understands the risk and has decided to refocus the campaign in the eastern Ukraine and has announced that the Phase One of the war is over. The end of Phase One was not turned into a victory lap by Kiev. This could be because the timing of the story is slipping. The story has climaxed, and short attention spans of modern audiences quickly lead to cognitive saturation. The long-drawn fight and the words like “stalemate” and “stymied”, if not linked to a victory lap, may work against the Ukrainian story. For global audiences these words signal “move on to something else”. Suddenly, Will Smith punching Chris Rock in Oscars will become a far bigger story.

Important Considerations

The question here is that whether Ukrainian story can sustain its power? Emotional stories can lose momentum quickly as human emotions are designed to be reactive, but they can’t maintain a state of hyperactivity for too long – especially when things are not too personal. Slowly, people will move on to other stories. Alternative explanations will emerge. Counternarratives will rise. NATO will be blamed for fueling and extending the war. The stories about the economic toll of the war for Americans will start taking center stage. Would Americans be okay with paying nearly twice at the gas pumps in the first summer after two years of struggling with Covid related restrictions? President Biden’s approval rating has already fallen to the lowest level in his presidency.

Russia will undoubtedly try to take advantage of these conditions and rearticulate its story to a narrative that shows that the world’s largest democracy (India), the world’s largest economy (China), and a country that understands human rights better than anyone (South Africa) stand on its side. But that depends upon Russia recognizing the importance of storytelling. Since President Putin likes to talk about history, if the recent history is any indicator, Russian storytelling was a dismal failure.

American Institute of Artificial Intelligence (AIAI) is an institute focused on using Machine Learning to analyze stories and narratives of companies, countries, and government agencies.

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