December 15, 2023 - 7:00am

Following the failure of Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive, an air of despondency has settled into Western coverage of the war. Momentum now seems to be with Russia, attacking all along the eastern front and slowly bringing its superiority in men, materiel and industrial capacity to bear as Ukraine struggles to maintain American support. 

Yet the situation is not as desperate as the recent pivot in coverage implies. Ukraine can still make Russian advances slow and costly and a determined strategy of defence, such as the Pentagon is now urging on Kyiv, could well stabilise the line over the course of the coming year.

The current doom-laden discourse, while more realistic than the frantic boosterism of the past two years, is therefore perhaps better understood as a product of social media dynamics than of the battlefield situation. In its urge to win the support of Western publics and policymakers, Ukraine leant into social media activism in a way we have never previously seen from wartime governments. Whether this, in the end, helped the Ukrainian cause now seems doubtful. 

The clash of online supporters on the virtual battlefield helped obscure the war’s real-world dynamics through their parasocial relationship with the conflict. Like the weaponisation of consumer drones, the fusion of war and social media was a development pioneered in the Syrian Civil War that reached full fruition in Ukraine. Yet the Syrian rebel success in social media narratives did not translate into battlefield victory, and Ukraine risks a similar mismatch paving the way for military defeat.

As a result of the internet attention economy, much of the discourse around the Ukraine war turned into reckless boosterism. Voices urging Ukrainian caution as the Kyiv government’s war aims escalated were shouted down as defeatists or pro-Russian propagandists. An unhealthy dynamic was created, where the most accurate analysis either retreated into closed discussion spaces or was carefully hedged into vapidity to avoid trolling by Ukraine’s online army of foreign cheerleaders. Most dangerously, to even broach the idea that Russia retained vast and underused military potential would bring accusations of closet Putinism. 

As only the most optimistic Kyiv claims were shared, it created, according to the former Ukrainian defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov’s head of communications Iryna Zolotar, “a confusing narrative where ‘expectations are overstated and do not correspond to the real state of affairs.’” And as Zolotar remarks, “the current strategy had left audiences in the West asking why they should contribute their taxpayers’ money if Ukraine was always ‘about to win.’”

A Top Trumps-like overemphasis on supposedly war-winning high-tech weapons, delivered in small quantities after interminable debate, likewise outcompeted the argument for Western munitions factories to scale up the unglamorous but vital production of basic artillery rounds, like those with which Russia is now pounding Ukrainian lines. The West gave Kyiv symbolic support, while Kyiv pursued symbolic war aims, such as the wasteful struggle over Bakhmut: both appeared dangerously downstream of social media incentives. 

Yet while the war has entered a dangerous phase, it is far from lost. Much of the current doomerism is arguably an overcorrection to the enforced over-optimism of the past two years. As the Ukrainian flags are virtually lowered from social media accounts, and the grifter economy moves onto the higher levels of engagement now offered by the Gaza war, Ukraine will be better served by supportive but objective realism, rather than a superficial and ultimately counterproductive boosterism.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.