When you read this, the war in Ukraine might be over. But as I write it, the Ukrainian people are still showing superhuman bravery to resist Russia's invasion of their country. If Vladimir Putin's powerful forces have prevailed, it might have been because NATO lost the information war.
From the beginning of Putin's deployment of tanks and missiles, Ukraine's most potent defense was the Russian people. Their demonstrations against the war should have swelled to millions, making clear to the nation's generals and oligarchs that Putin had become a pariah.
The battle for Ukraine was as much a war of information as a war of bullets. Putin obviously knew if information outlets could function, and if the Russian people and the rest of the world continued witnessing his war, he would lose it from within. The Ukrainian's brave fight against the Russian army was a holding action while it hoped NATO weapons or the Russian people's anger would save it.
So, Putin dropped an iron curtain around Russia, shelled its people with cluster bombs of propaganda, and locked up anyone who dared utter the word "war."
Information warfare is not confined to wars. Even in America, the land of free speech and the free press, Donald Trump couldn’t outlaw words or stop the flow of news, so he tried to undermine confidence in the news media, the courts, and the electoral process, insisting that real news was fake news and vice versa, firing the government's watchdogs, canning an Attorney General who went off script, and stonewalling Congress's investigations of his conduct.
None of this is new. Warriors and politicians have weaponized information for centuries. The American Historical Association explains warfare has four dimensions used simultaneously: military, economic, political, and propaganda. "An appeal to force alone is not regarded as enough…to win the final and lasting victory," it advises. In this case, the information battlefield was inside Russia, but when Putin dropped his iron curtain, the U.S. and NATO apparently could not show up.
Russia's state-controlled television continued broadcasting during Putin's information clampdown, offering false facts about what was happening in Ukraine. Imagine if the programming were suddenly interrupted by verifiable video of civilians being killed, cities being leveled, cluster bombs exploding in neighborhoods, thousands of Ukrainians braving bullets by protesting in the streets, mothers begging for the safety of their children, refugees struggling to leave the country, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleading to live in peace with the Russian people.
Poets, philosophers, and statesmen have praised the superior power of information since time immemorial, pointing out "the tongue is mightier than the blade," "the pen is mightier than the sword," "the goose quill is mightier than a lion's paw," and "a blow with a word strikes deeper than a blow with a sword."
"Many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills," Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet. Putin is one of them. Before another despot tries to lay waste to a free nation, we in the free world should employ our best geeks and genii to develop advanced weapons of mass information.