Transparency for Victory: How Openness Can Improve Ukraine’s Public Relations
During my November 2023 visit to the front lines in eastern Ukraine, a commander from the 120th Territorial Defense Battalion described the country’s military as “swimming” between an outdated, secretive, and backward Soviet-era force and a modern NATO one. “Without transparency,” the commander lamented, “we cannot expect trust.” Emphasizing the crucial role of transparency in building trust, the commander underlined the consequences of withholding the truth from foreign journalists, equating it to betraying the country’s partners.
As the commander knew all too well, the war is not going very well for Ukraine right now. This much was conceded by Ukraine’s military top brass when commander-in-chief Gen. Valery Zaluzhny admitted in an interview in The Economist that his military’s long-awaited and hyped-up counteroffensive had reached a stalemate. With growing fears both internationally and inside Ukraine of a returned Russian offensive, as well as Western support of Ukraine beginning to falter, Ukraine’s military and government find themselves in a daunting predicament, prompting a reevaluation of their public relations strategy.
Much has changed since the early days of the war when President Volodymyr Zelensky’s public relations tactics garnered international support for the country’s defense. His green t-shirt, daily war updates on social media, and slogans such as “I need ammunition, not a ride” may have helped Ukraine defeat Russia in the battle of Kyiv, take back Kharkiv some months later, and surprisingly send the Russians fleeing from Kherson. But a year and a half later, Zelensky faces a barrage of concerns over corruption in his country’s army, lack of enthusiastic support from Western partners, and an uphill battle in preventing further Russian military gains.
The time has come for Ukraine to change its public relations strategy. For much of this year, Ukrainian and Western publics were in the dark about the status of the military’s counteroffensive. Supply and logistical issues, death counts, struggles within the military itself, troubles with recruitment and mobilization, and corruption have been concealed, locked up, labelled top secret, and thus brushed over. For international donors, governments, and partners, never mind skeptical populists looking for an excuse to prevent further funding of Ukraine’s defense, opening up about the problems that Ukraine is facing, both on the front lines and throughout the country, appears to be Ukraine’s last chance of turning the tide in its favor.
Front Line Concerns
Ukraine’s soldiers, fully aware of the challenges within the army and the looming threat of Russian advances, have no illusions about the situation facing them. Time and time again, soldiers explained to me that they were aware of the issues within the army and the growing threat presented by Russia’s advances. Yet their awareness is sobering: “Any negotiations will only result in a bigger war down the road — remember Minsk,” explained one officer in Kramatorsk fighting in the Bakhmut direction.
While the Ukrainian army does not seek NATO boots on the ground, their focus is on defending their land and preventing both a prolonged war and the grim prospect of Russian occupation. Acknowledging the need for a transformed military, the emphasis is on working together with Western partners to modernize Ukraine’s forces through the incorporation of NATO technologies and strategies, as underscored by Zaluzhny in his November interview. “A small Soviet army does not beat a big Soviet army; for us to win, we need to change the army,” the Kramatorsk-based commander declared frankly.
Logistical challenges carry existential consequences for Ukraine’s soldiers, with incorrect deliveries and shortages resulting in units trading and bartering among themselves or defending ground without proper materiel. Oftentimes, munitions arrive in incorrectly labelled boxes, packaged and sealed by foreign suppliers. Others get lost within the country. To address these issues effectively, transparency becomes the top priority, aligning with the European Union’s principles and shedding light on the struggles, losses, and realities of Ukraine’s fight against Russia and domestic issues like corruption.
A New Approach
Heroic maxims and battle cries no longer suffice. The European Union is built upon the notion of transparency. For Ukraine to fit well within the European family, fully incorporating this philosophy is long overdue. This means being frank with the world, inviting journalists to see wartime realities, and underlining the military’s struggles and needs in conversations with the general public.
Naturally, in the case of war, not everything can be said or written. Military secrets are more often than not a key to success. The element of surprise should be closely guarded. Yet confronting problems head-on, acknowledging losses, and, moreover, demonstrating a willingness to learn from those mistakes will only assist in Ukraine’s fight for democracy and victory.
Providing local and Western journalists with (nearly) unfettered access to the front will help to disseminate wartime realities. Soldiers want to speak, share their stories with the world, and most of all communicate the difficulties and realities they face. Rather than putting press officers between journalists and soldiers, allowing journalists in-depth access — where strategically and tactically possible — to write the stories of Ukrainian soldiers and share them with the world will contribute to underlining the cruelty of Russia’s invasion. The realities of the front line are far worse than most people can imagine; sharing the human aspect of the war rather than strategy and weapons types can regain some of the global attention lost over the past half year.
Giving journalists greater access will bring a number of additional benefits as well. First, it will enhance accountability within the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Second, it will reduce the payoffs of corruption both within the armed forces and society in general, as the risks will simply be too high and pressures will increase among individuals to prevent corruption. Third, it will be a trust-building exercise that over time will demonstrate through hard facts and evidence that the funds given to Ukraine are serving their intended purpose. Finally, as a result of the aforementioned processes, it will make it more difficult for populist narratives to make fabricated claims to the contrary. Additionally, this approach might also have the effect of again winning back the hearts of Western publics and demonstrate that Ukraine is exerting all efforts to prove it is worthy of European integration by following the rules-based system, as well as by showing the at times desperate conditions and needs of the armed forces in the face of Russia’s continued invasion.
Being upfront about issues, such as personnel and equipment losses and corruption, will also assuage government, donor, and investor fears. In addition to foreign aid, private investors and global civil society have donated millions of dollars to Ukraine, yet fears that that money is not being correctly placed continue to exist among potential donors and investors. Initiating a campaign of transparency to show where money and equipment are going, including eventual losses, has the potential to gain further trust among foreign societies while signaling to Western partners that all efforts are being made to incorporate European values and regulations.
Beyond this, Ukraine should make further efforts to prioritize transparency at the political level, working side-by-side with Western partners to demonstrate its commitment to combating corruption. This aligns with the principle of “trust but verify,” popularized in the 1980s during the Ronald Reagan administration in which the United States took steps of rapprochement with the Soviet Union to overcome weapons proliferation.
Ukraine’s current strategies are no longer as effective as they once were, resulting in a gradual loss of support for Kyiv’s war effort. Amid rising populist efforts to defund Ukraine and the potential for a second Donald Trump presidency that may see an end to the United States’ leadership role in supporting Ukraine, urgency is paramount. An immediate shift to genuine transparency can alter current trajectories, whereas maintaining the status quo is likely to worsen Ukraine’s position in the mid to long term as populist and Ukraine-skeptic politicians gain more power in European Union and U.S. elections in 2024.
Transparency is, of course, not a panacea that will cure all of Ukraine’s ailments. It surely will not stop Russia’s war efforts. But it has the potential to do a lot. It will signify Ukraine’s incorporation of European values and help to cut populist Western leaders’ unfounded narratives off at the knees. By working together with foreign and local journalists and observers, Ukraine can once again show the world the horrors and realities of Russia’s war and what it needs to take back its internationally recognized territory. Only then will Ukraine manage to win back the hearts and minds of the world’s democratic nations and their people. In this pivotal moment for Ukraine, with Western support faltering and Russian confidence on the rise, a full transformation toward European values, norms, and, ultimately, transparency, will be essential for the political and military boost needed to edge Ukraine closer to victory against Russia.
Joshua R. Kroeker is an independent researcher, founder of the boutique analytic and consulting firm Reaktion Group, an analyst at the political analysis project R.Politik, and an editor at RANE. He holds degrees from the University of British Columbia in Canada, Heidelberg University in Germany, and St. Petersburg State University, Russia. @jrkroeker on Twitter.