Kremlin relies on Ukraine fatigue to win against Kiev

Short summary of the recently prepared report by the Centre for Information Resilience, whose full text can be found HERE.

From the very beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022, the 'Ukraine fatigue' - a term used to describe the process in which international allies, donors, and supporters of Ukraine lose interest in the war due to its excessive exposure - is presented as a risk factor. Potential consequences range from the West's refusal to support Ukraine to growing discontent among Ukrainian refugees throughout Europe and the possible cessation of their acceptance. One year after Russia's war on Ukraine began, signs emerge that the unified international solidarity with Ukraine and its people is weakening.

Motivated by the global food and energy crisis, the Kremlin, its proxies, and malignant actors attempt to turn these growing concerns into a large-scale communication and disinformation campaign. In the past, Putin's regime used 'compassion fatigue' during conflicts in other countries, notably Afghanistan and Syria. Now, the Kremlin's campaign finds supporters among various far-right and far-left groups, jeopardizing the West's determination to continue supplying arms and providing financial and humanitarian aid to Kyiv. Ultimately, while Russia's campaign to intensify 'Ukraine fatigue' is something new, the communication war is not yet lost. The international community still has the opportunity to continue and even strengthen its support for Ukraine.

How "Ukraine fatigue" is connected to "compassion fatigue"

"The 'Ukraine fatigue" is a component of a broader phenomenon called 'compassion fatigue.' It manifests when society, politicians, and media begin to psychologically disengage from the crisis of human suffering - during wars, famine, diseases, or natural disasters. Initially defined as a problem affecting those who provide assistance in various sectors during such situations, 'compassion fatigue' now means that maintaining empathy becomes increasingly difficult over extended periods and in complex circumstances. This fatigue intersects with various other types of fatigue - refugee fatigue, donor fatigue, information fatigue, social media fatigue, volunteer fatigue, and war fatigue. It forms the critical foundation of the current state described as 'Ukraine fatigue.'

'Compassion fatigue' is part of another story. Within the framework of its influence campaigns, the Kremlin has long taken advantage of sharp and divisive issues in Western societies to provoke their polarization and detachment from the international community. On a global scale, Moscow, among other things, focused its efforts on pre-election politics, the right to bear arms, and racism in the United States, the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, and the coronavirus pandemic. Through state media such as RT or Sputnik, it employed methods such as disinformation, extreme politicization, or emotional provocation; narrative laundering - when the narrative is shifted from state media, pro-government NGOs, and pseudo-experts to authentic local media; fake amplifiers and paid advertisements on social networks; direct financial support for those media, political parties, and influential individuals who support Russian rhetoric. These assets are being increasingly activated in the course of the Kremlin's information war against Ukraine.

The narratives about "Ukraine fatigue" in Europe

The interrelated factors contributing to the emergence of 'compassion fatigue' have matured to be exploited by malevolent actors. Moscow is adept at identifying and utilizing these opportunities, which, as with its other disinformation campaigns, ultimately feed on pre-existing dissatisfactions and divisions within targeted societies. Despite Ukraine's success in withstanding and overcoming many challenges encountered during similar conflicts, analysts from the Center for Information Resilience (CIR) have found that some narratives regarding 'Ukraine fatigue' are gaining popularity in countries such as Bulgaria, Cyprus, Germany, Greece, Hungary, and Slovakia. Each of the narratives described below has been observed repeatedly in various traditional media and social networks (if necessary, CIR can provide additional and country-specific examples for each of the mentioned narratives).

Narratives about Ukrainian refugees. The fatigue from refugees has the potential to amplify the "Ukraine fatigue." The CIR report identified several narratives that can increase general dissatisfaction with Ukrainian refugees in a given country. In some cases, Ukrainian refugees are portrayed as ungrateful, with claims that they refuse the provided housing, considering themselves "royalty" and engaging in "social tourism." In other instances, Ukrainian refugees are described as "trash" and "criminals," to whom trust should not be given as they pose a threat to national security. There are suggestions that refugees receive more from host governments than the local population.

Narratives about support for the Ukrainian government and international protection of Ukraine. This is a popular method of manipulation that reinforces "Ukraine fatigue" and aims to reduce international support for the Ukrainian government and the protection of Ukraine. It suggests that such support will have negative implications for the respective country's economy, that Ukraine's defense requests are excessive, and that the West should not impose sanctions on Russia, as Putin can easily overcome them. Many of these narratives repeat various conspiracies and lies, claiming that Ukraine is governed by Nazis. Others contain misleading or exaggerated claims about corruption. In countries where Orthodoxy is prevalent, different narratives argue that supporting Ukraine damages Orthodox unity. Anti-war activists also share narratives suggesting that it is reasonable to expect Ukraine to give up its territory for the sake of peace.

Narratives about alleged hypocrisy in supporting Ukraine and Ukrainians. Several narratives that fuel "Ukraine fatigue" are associated with perceived inconsistencies or hypocrisy regarding Ukraine from the West. It is suggested that NATO provoked Russia or that Russia's so-called security concerns are legitimate. In other cases, it is claimed that Ukraine also commits atrocities during the war or that the Russian diaspora in host countries is under attack, creating a false equivalence.

Almost all of these narratives identified in this study have been previously propagated by the Kremlin or the far-right (and in some cases, the far-left) ideologies. On their own, these narratives are not surprising. However, analysts from the CIU believe that these narratives are becoming increasingly popular as part of internal discourse in the countries where they are disseminated. Local actors, some of whom are marginal, but many of whom are popular (including elected leaders), have started using these narratives to gain political advantages. This allows these actors to present themselves as defenders of the local population against "invasive" migrants and "straw" elites (i.e., the EU, NATO, and the World Economic Forum), claiming that they want to involve the local population in a Third World War. While these malevolent actors attempt to use the narratives for domestic political purposes in their respective countries, the risks should not be overlooked. Many people around the world face financial and personal difficulties due to global events and, in certain cases, due to ineffective management of the local economy.

Outside of political elites, the analyzed sources form a complex network of media, religious, and influencer accounts, many of which use this subject matter for self-promotion or to promote their websites. Regardless of their motives, there appears to be an increase in the quantity of this type of content reaching the audience. This content can provoke waves of outrage and concern, which can ultimately lead to "Ukraine fatigue." While the current level of "Ukraine fatigue" in Europe is low – although not everywhere – politicians and the public need to be aware of how these narratives are disseminated through both traditional and non-traditional media and penetrate society's agenda.