How Anton Gerashchenko is waging an ‘information war’ against Russia
Over the last several months, Anton Gerashchenko has been on a mission to expose people living in Russia to the realities of the war in Ukraine.
As the advisor to Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Gerashchenko has been on the front lines of what he calls an “information war” with Russia’s propaganda apparatus. He’s gone so far as to help advertise graphic videos of dead soldiers on streaming sites popular with Russian audiences.
“We were paying these companies, which are not Russian, to show them these videos before every [Russian-language] movie,” said Gerashchenko, a former member of the Ukrainian parliament. “Millions of Russians were forced to see it because the film doesn’t start until the advertisement is played.”
Gerashchenko has amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on Telegram, Twitter, and other social media sites. Videos posted to his YouTube page have racked up more than 87 million views over the last year.
Geraschchenko sat down with The Record to talk about bringing images of the war to people living in Russia, as well as ways that the U.S. and European countries can help dismantle Russia’s “propaganda machine.” The interview was conducted with the help of a professional translator, and has been lightly edited for space and clarity.
The Record: What’s the role of propaganda in the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine?
Anton Gerashchenko: Putin would not have been able to start this war — neither in 2014 nor in 2022 — without the massive propaganda machine he created. He spent lots of effort creating this machine. Billions of dollars were spent on it, and it is the basis of Russian influence worldwide. And actually, this is the basis of Putin's power in Russia nowadays.
I think propaganda is a more massive weapon and a more terrible weapon than nuclear bombs. Nuclear bombs can kill thousands of people, but disinformation, fake news and propaganda can kill millions and millions. You can see the effect of fake propaganda back to the time of the Second World War, when the German fascists were using it to zombify many people. Now we have nearly the same.
Putin has been able to persuade his country through propaganda that liberal democracy is no longer needed in Russia. And the opposition are like pests which are useless and which should be destroyed because Russia doesn't need any opposition. Then he started to create the image of the enemy, because he needed this image of the enemy to keep his population and millions of Russians in line. The first enemy he created is the Western democratic world. And the second enemy, which he started to create before 2014, was Ukraine.
TR: How would you describe Russia’s strategy with propaganda?
AG: First of all, Putin simply showed that the Western world is extremely dangerous and presented different opinions. He was actively working within the Western world itself by creating alternative TV channels, like Russia Today. And he used these channels and brought on famous and prominent speakers like Larry King and used it to broadcast worldwide and enter into the minds of different citizens of the Western world. Not only Russians, but using these TV channels to get to the minds of people worldwide.
And what’s interesting is that only after the first attack on Ukraine when Crimea was invaded in 2014, Ukraine started talking about this immediately: That it is necessary to ban Russian TV channels worldwide and to close this space for the whole world from Russian propaganda. But they were not seriously hurt until the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, when a large number of civilized countries stopped Russian TV in their countries and to stop this Russian propaganda. Ukraine understood this much earlier, and we completely cut off Russian TV broadcasts in 2014 and closed their channels. We started blocking Russian internet sites, social networks such as Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki — kind of like the Facebooks of Russian social networks. They were banned and blocked in Ukraine beginning in 2017.
It's also worth mentioning that Russia was very active in social networks, not only in Ukraine but worldwide. Russia is actively working now in manipulating social networks in the West. It's not secret information — it’s been confirmed about interference into American elections, into Brexit, into voting processes in Germany and other countries.
"Western countries should understand that when we start fighting against Russia on our battlefields, it's also very necessary to fight with Russia in the information space. We need to bring the real, true information — not the fake news they are providing — to their people."— Anton Gerashchenko, advisor to Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs
TR: What do you think can be done to counter these efforts?
AG: My belief is that Western countries should understand that when we start fighting against Russia on our battlefields, it's also very necessary to fight with Russia in the information space. We need to bring the real, true information — not the fake news they are providing — to their people. The main aim of this is to persuade residents of Russia that Putin is leading them to a bad end. To poverty and isolation. His promises are nothing and the news they hear is fake — it's quite important to tell people.
I’m convinced that the West needs not only to develop its broadcast channels to Russia — like the BBC and others — but also to promote the Russian opposition, which at the moment is not recognized enough. The West should help and support these efforts through satellite television, through internet networks, through different sites and social networks. They need to use these tools to bring real news and to help the Russian opposition — to help the truth reach the Russian citizens.
Let's be clear — at the moment we are already in the Third World War. And it's not a special operation, it's a real war. And in war, all methods must be used to achieve victory, and this is one of the methods we need to use.
It's also very important to compare the situation with the Cold War years with the Soviet Union. Now it's radically different because at that time the Soviet Union informational space was completely closed. Nowadays, we have many ways to bring this information to the end consumers.
It's also worth mentioning that after the start of the invasion, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians began to voluntarily help to inform the Russian citizens about the mistakes, about this tragedy, and telling them through different ways of communication that Putin has committed crimes. Writing to their friends and relatives in Russia, explaining to them that what Putin started is evil, is a tragedy.
They began to write these messages of truth on Facebook, Instagram, on Google — even messages on Google Maps, as comments on famous Russian restaurants or supermarkets or cafes — and post photos and videos of these nightmares which were happening all over Ukraine during Russian shelling and bombing of citizens.
By doing this, we managed to show the real suffering and the pain of the Ukrainian people. And Russia failed to hide that it was a real invasion, a real war, not the special operation like Putin was trying to call it.
We were publishing information about killed Russian soldiers with photos and real-time videos. Actually more Russian soldiers died in the first month of this war than died in the nine-year Afghanistan war. We were also showing the terrible and torn bodies, broken military equipment. And also in this way we managed to organize the demoralization of the Russian army and we managed to disrupt the ability to employ new recruits in sufficient quantities.
TR: How do you measure success with these efforts?
AG: With this information war, Putin is afraid to announce the mobilization of the Russian Federation, knowing that in Russia a huge number of people are now afraid of this war. And he has to hire only mercenaries or volunteers, he has to pay them lots of money, which significantly reduced the number of soldiers in Ukraine. And by this information war, we didn't allow him to move at a fast pace at the beginning of the war.
It's also very important that another purpose of our work, our information war, is to inform Russian citizens about the severe economic problems they are going to face. Now they have these severe sanctions and they will have real economic problems with unemployment and other severe effects.
Another important thing for the West to do is to reinforce Russian sanctions and strengthen these sanctions and monitor their implementation. Maybe we need more sanctions, or maybe make them more strict in some ways, or find more people to be sanctioned. This is another important part of the work and where we need help.
I want to stress that at the moment the Russian propaganda machine has begun to break down in the Russian Federation and it's also losing its influence in Europe and in the world. Putin is losing the opportunity to control his people and use his authorities to kill Ukrainians. And the opposition is doing quite a lot to show the real situation and explain the real facts and real truth about what is going on in Ukraine.
TR: You said you believe propaganda is stronger than nuclear weapons. Has Ukraine tried to create its own propaganda infrastructure to compete with Russia’s?
AG: In the first two months, it was mainly volunteers who were trying to make anti-propaganda, as well as make a Ukrainian propaganda infrastructure. The total effect of the work of these hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian volunteers, and volunteers who allocate their funds to help break the Russian information blockade — we succeeded during those times. But now a lot depends on the availability of finances, of the budget for further informational work, in order to promote the truth and to inform the Russian people about what is really happening.
It's very important to understand the role of Russian opposition and to also help this Russian opposition. So many normal, civilized people were forced to leave Russia due to the adoption of terrible laws. These people need support worldwide so they can continue their work through social networks to combat the disinformation of Putin and his fake propaganda.
Do you know the TV channel Dozhd? It’s a Russian opposition channel [now based in Latvia]. It's necessary to support such channels because, for example, Dozhd was banned immediately after the start of the war because it was the only one that started telling the truth. And they recently restarted their broadcast, they're working now outside of Russia. It seems like the West should help to organize broadcasting for such channels, for such thinkers and opinion makers, via satellite or via any other ways for bringing this information and bringing these channels to Russian people, to the territory of Russia, which is extremely important.
It's very important that the West should continue working on the information war, like closing access to Russian channels and the Russian government’s presence on social networks. Keeping the media space clear of these channels, banning the propaganda channels, is extremely important because we still have some countries that keep watching Russian propaganda channels.
There was a recent symbolic event where Britain imposed sanctions against Graham Phillips, a journalist. This guy has been working for Putin for many years and Putin was paying him lots of money to spread fake news — he was telling lies in English about the situation in Crimea and Donbas, and also about the war going on now in Ukraine. Shamelessly unprincipled work, he's not a journalist — he's British, but he sold his soul to the devil. And I must say that there are other journalists who are like this guy that are still working.
Let me show you some examples, some videos and photos that we are sharing with people in the Russian territory.
[Editor’s note: Geraschchenko starts playing a video that pairs images of Russia’s Victory Day military parades with graphic images of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine.]
You know, Russians aren’t paying for Netflix or Apple TV — they’re watching films on pirate sites. And we were paying these companies, which are not Russian, to show them these videos before every movie. We were paying them, and they were putting these advertisements before every Russian-language movie. Millions of Russians were forced to see it because the film doesn’t start until the advertisement is played.
"You know, Russians aren’t paying for Netflix or Apple TV — they’re watching films on pirate sites. And we were paying these companies, which are not Russian, to show them these videos before every movie"— Anton Gerashchenko, advisor to Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs
TR: Do you believe propaganda has backfired in Russia? For example, did it mislead Putin and other top officials into believing that the war would be easy to win?
AG: One of the examples is that none in Russia wants to go fight and they don't want mobilization to be announced. Putin feels unable now to call on hundreds of thousands of Russian men to go fight in this war in Ukraine, and this is a problem for him, which I think we created. It's the start of his propaganda fall.
We also show that many Russians are killed in Ukraine. Many are imprisoned. That is why people in Russia don't want to go to war. I think that in these cases, propaganda already doesn't work in Russia. If you look at why the USSR collapsed, the propaganda machine was telling people that everything is fine, everything is superb, life is wonderful — but in fact, millions of people no longer believed in it because they started to see the real situation. Their propaganda stopped working and people saw the truth.
I’m really proud of this video, it was quite a nightmare for Russians and it was a big scandal there — look [video continues to play]. We show the same weapons, the same machines, that Russia is parading on one day, and then the next frame they are already destroyed. They were speaking about new tanks, which they were proud of. And then we were showing them these tanks which were destroyed by Ukrainians on Ukrainian land. Then they were speaking about other new machines and new tanks, and again, we show how Ukrainian soldiers are destroying them on the front line. So it's like from the parade to the war, from their crowds to real destruction of the Russian ammunition and Russian army. That’s the kind of shock content which we are using. They saw the real situation.
[Editor’s note: Gerashchenko opens up a different photo, depicting a disfigured soldier’s corpse].
We were using lots of photos like this because for Russians it is very important to explain that they will be killed. Not bravely in Ukraine, but severely and in a terrible way. For many men and for many soldiers, they had to understand that the war is not patriotism. It's not Putin who is fighting, it's not his kids who are fighting. It's real people who have died in terrible ways, torn into pieces and returned to their parents unrecognizable.
TR: In the early days of the war, there was a legend about the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ — a fighter pilot who shot down multiple Russian planes over the capital. The Ukrainian Air Force later said it was fictitious propaganda, and warned people about checking sources before sharing content. How was this myth created, and what do you think of them?
AG: At that time, during the first days of the war, the ghost of Kyiv had an extreme effect on the motivation of people and lots of us were proud of it. He had a very big impact because during the first days people were really disoriented and stressed and depressed. So we really needed something to keep us positive.
But this legend has two sides, and we should be very careful about such legends. When truth comes, it can demotivate people. Especially if, for example, a hero dies on the front line. Then it's a huge demotivation for people. Therefore it's important to act very carefully with the heroes at the front and we should be very cautious in creating the legends like this.
We have a very great symbol of the war, the dog called Patron. Have you heard about this dog?
People call him the Ghost of Kyiv. And rightly so — this UAF ace dominates the skies over our capital and country, and has already become a nightmare for invading Russian aircrafts. pic.twitter.com/lngfaMN01I— Ukraine / Україна (@Ukraine) February 27, 2022
TR: No, I don’t think so.
AG: I’ll send you some information about this dog, but for us it symbolizes Ukraine. We are small, but we are really brave and we are ready to fight. We have a brave heart and are ready to risk our lives, like this dog does when it neutralizes landmines in dangerous spots. Ukrainians are ready to do many things for our victory.
TR: Any final thoughts?
AG: To finalize with a strong message… The truth always wins when the truth has the fist, when there are people who are ready to move this truth and who are ready to spend their time and money to bring up the truth. Truth is always in a very difficult position because there is only one truth.
And there is a very prominent saying by Churchill, my favorite politician. He said a lie can travel the world while the truth puts on shoes. [editor’s note: ironically, this line has been attributed to several people, including Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde] To the Western politicians and the Western community I’d say let’s organize together and combine our efforts to wage our informational war inside Putin’s country. Then we will definitely win.
Adam Janofsky is the founding editor-in-chief of The Record by Recorded Future. He previously was the cybersecurity and privacy reporter for Protocol, and prior to that covered cybersecurity, AI, and other emerging technology for The Wall Street Journal.