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General Andrée Évrard: "The Ukrainians immediately understood the scale of the information war".

A former defence attaché in Ukraine, General Andrée Évrard spoke this week at the Franco-British Strategic Forum about the country's resistance and its President's communication. She shares her analysis of these issues with the IHEDN.
Générale Andrée Évrard

Brigadier General Andrée Évrard is an officer in the French Army's engineering corps. After an initial operational career in the armoured engineering regiments of the French armed forces (3e RG, 19e RG) and in external operations, she has held various positions in international military relations, as head of office at the Directorate General of International Relations and Strategy (DGRIS) and defence attaché in the South Caucasus and Ukraine. Chargée de mission to the Major General of the Armed Forces since August 2022, she has spent seven of the last fifteen years in the post-Soviet space (Abkhazia/Georgia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Belarus). She is Russian-speaking and understands Ukrainian.

SINCE FEBRUARY 2022, THE WORLD HAS BEEN STRUCK BY THE SCALE OF UKRAINIAN RESISTANCE. WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE RECIPE FOR THIS MORAL STRENGTH?

The scale of the Ukrainian resistance is indeed admirable. The strength of moral forces is always a factor in the success of a war. This moral strength can be attributed to the cohesion of the country, which rallied round the desire to defend its sovereignty and integrity. An immediate consensus was formed between the different components of society - political, military and population - to defend and resist, each in its own way.

On 24 February 2022, President Zelensky assured Ukrainians that they would fight for their country. Since then, the entire political class and economic circles have observed a sort of "sacred union" to guarantee the continuity of the state, and to unite and embody this resistance. The security and defence forces are under the command of army general Zaloujny, who symbolises a new generation of military leaders, favouring command by intention, which allows subordinates initiative and freedom of action while respecting the intentions of their superiors.

Finally, the Ukrainian population is demonstrating its resilience in non-combat roles, and its resistance in combat roles. 

Everyone plays a role, committing themselves according to their skills and abilities. Some continue to work in their pre-war profession, or volunteer for the armed forces, territorial defence, a non-governmental organisation, the cyber-army... For the non-combatant part of the population, resilience becomes resistance.

WHAT IS YOUR ANALYSIS OF PRESIDENT ZELENSKY'S COMMUNICATION STRATEGY?

President Zelensky's communication strategy is modern and effective. As you know, he was an actor and comedian before his election. So he knows the importance of communication and masters its codes, particularly on social networks. I think he has made it a pillar of his public diplomacy. His speeches are concise and direct. The key ideas are conveyed quickly and in simple terms.

In addition, his communication is authentic, humanised and embodied. He does not hesitate to show himself in situations, both in his personal life and in the performance of his duties. His communication is not abstract, but shows the facts, the players, each working in their own field. This communication is accessible and understandable by all, and a large majority of the audience can find messages in it. It targets the Ukrainian population, the Russian population and the international community, with references adapted to each audience.

"THE UKRAINIANS HAVE WON THE BATTLE OF STORYTELLING FOR WESTERN AUDIENCES".

It's a shared communication with the Ukrainians. If the President decides on the narrative, the population also feeds into it. This sharing is expressed in the form of a short daily address by the President to the population, in which he deciphers the progress of the war for the country. This sharing was also expressed through the promotion of resistance. Ordinary heroes", both military and civilian, are honoured on the networks every day. The courage and heroism of the Ukrainian people play a major role in its communications.

Finally, from the outset the Ukrainians realised that they would have to wage an information war against the Russians. Right from the start of the war, they implemented a highly effective information strategy, using images of fighting taken by the units engaged against the Russian army, emotional moments, such as the liberation of villages occupied by the Russians, and humorous remarks when they addressed donor countries to thank them and encourage them to give more. They have undeniably won the narrative battle with Western audiences, and we learn a lot from watching them.

WHAT COMMUNICATION SEQUENCES STRUCK YOU MOST DURING THE ALMOST TWO YEARS OF CONFLICT?

There were many memorable moments. I'd like to highlight four of them, which have had a great impact in Ukraine, and which are symbols today.

The capture of Snake Island

The capture of Snake Island by the Russian armed forces on 24 February 2022 takes place during the first hours of the war. The island was guarded by Ukrainian border guards, who were ordered by a Russian ship to surrender or face bombardment. To this injunction, the Ukrainian soldiers are said to have replied: "Russian ship, go to hell". [Editor's note: this last word is a toned-down version of the verb originally used].. This expression spontaneously and virally became the rallying word of Ukrainians, and the first slogan of resistance to Russian aggression.

The Ukrainian tractor

The Ukrainian tractor has also become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. Initially, in the spring of 2022, Ukrainian farmers began clearing broken-down Russian vehicles from fields and roads. The aim was to prevent cultivated land becoming rubbish tips, but also to show solidarity with the Ukrainian armed forces, to whom the farmers were delivering this equipment. The intervention of these "new Ukrainian special forces" [Editor's note: tractors] was widely mocked on Russian social networks. 

In the autumn of 2022, when Russia withdrew from the Kharkiv and Kherson regions, the tractors continued to collect damaged or abandoned Russian vehicles for the Ukrainian armed forces, which repaired this equipment when they could. During this phase, the Ukrainian side emphasised that Russia was Ukraine's leading supplier of military equipment, thanks to this recovery. The Ukrainian tractor has therefore found a place of honour among the symbols of this war...

Timbre édité par la poste ukrainienne en hommage au rôle joué par le tracteur ukrainien
Stamp issued by the Ukrainian Post Office in tribute to the role played by the Ukrainian tractor

The kidnapping of the Kherson raccoon

I have to admit that I didn't immediately grasp the magnitude of this sequence. After twenty-four hours, and having come across the word "raccoon" on social networks, which I didn't know in Ukrainian, I immersed myself first in the dictionary, then in the story of this animal that has become a national muse.

In November 2022, before withdrawing from Kherson, the Russian armed forces abducted several animals from the municipal zoo, including a raccoon, a llama, a wolf, a donkey and squirrels. The animals were reportedly taken to a zoo in Crimea. The founder of the animal protection movement UAnimals reported the abduction on social networks. The raccoon had been brutally dragged from its cage and had struggled. The raccoon's case was the subject of a flurry of media coverage, with the Ukrainian side highlighting the looting, brutality and abductions carried out by the Russian armed forces.

So the raccoon appeared on the poster and became a meme.

Affiche « Il faut sauver le soldat raton laveur »
"Save the raccoon soldier

The Ukrainian government thanks France

France is also present in Ukrainian communications. France's support is welcomed at every opportunity, as shown by the following examples this video published by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, which in October 2022 thanked the Ukrainian government for the delivery of Caesar artillery guns using an unprecedented type of communication, albeit with very French cultural codes. A year and a half later, on 18 January 2024, the Minister for the Armed Forces, Sébastien Lecornu, launched the "Artillery for Ukraine" coalition with his Ukrainian counterpart, Roustem Oumerov.

WOULD THIS PRESIDENTIAL COMMUNICATION HAVE AS MUCH IMPACT WITH LESS RESISTANCE FROM THE UKRAINIAN POPULATION?

These two elements are linked by a reciprocal dynamic. The Ukrainian resistance finds its incarnation in the person of President Zelensky. And he represents and promotes the courage and heroism of his people at international level.

The will to defend the integrity, sovereignty and identity of Ukraine is shared by the President and the people. Despite the hardships endured by both the civilian population and the military, this determination is undiminished and, on the contrary, unites the nation.