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After more than six months of fighting, the situation in Ukraine has started to feel unreal. This past weekend, the Defense Ministry of Ukraine published a photograph that had been digitally altered to show a Shiba Inu dog dressed in military garb and gazing in awe at the location of a missile launch.
The tweet began with the words “Today we want to give a shout-out to a unique entity,” before directing attention to a group with an unusual name: the North Atlantic Fellas Organization.
If you are the type of person who gets their news from something like the website of a newspaper, for example, you may not have much of an understanding of what NAFO is. But if you’re the kind of person who has spent the past half a year searching Twitter for news about the conflict in Ukraine, signing up for obscure Telegram accounts, and reading accounts of the most recent Ukrainian strikes on Russia on blogs dedicated to open-source intelligence (OSINT), then it’s quite possible that you’re already a fella yourself.
First, let me explain the second question. Internet users who have a pro-Ukraine perspective have banded together in recent months to lend their support to the war effort being waged by Kyiv. The Shiba Inu is a distinct breed of dog that originates in Japan. For more than a decade, Shiba Inu has been a recurring motif in the culture of the internet. You might be familiar with it as a “doge,” which is cherished by Elon Musk and millions of other users of the internet.
According to an article published by Vice’s Motherboard, the use of a Shiba Inu as a “fella” fighting in the war in Ukraine dates back to May, when an artist named Kama began creating custom images of the “fellas” for those who donated money to the Georgian Legion, which was a volunteer military unit in Ukraine that took on board many foreigners. Earlier this summer, Kama told Motherboard that he got bored and started making other Fellas and printing them on random images from Ukraine. “I started making other Fellas out of boredom,”
When Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov got into an argument with a “fella” over threats to civilians in June, the movement went on to have a moment that would go down in history as a watershed moment. It was a mistake for Ulyanov, Russia’s ambassador to international organizations in Vienna and a vocal advocate for Russia’s position on social media, to respond to a NAFO member’s comment.
“You uttered such a meaningless phrase. Not Me.” would become a rallying cry for NAFO, which is an acronym for North Atlantic Freedom Organization (NAFO is a play on the acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). When it came to trolling, it demonstrated how the roles could be reversed with Russia as the target. The guys quickly discovered that they had a growing number of backers in the Western hemisphere; just recently, Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) joined the troll army.
Oleksii Reznikov, the Defense Minister of Ukraine, updated his Twitter profile photo on Tuesday in what he described as a “personal salute to #NAFOfellas.”
This has been a trollish conflict all the way through. That, by itself, should not come as much of a surprise. Over the course of several years, Russia has been employing strategies to use cyberspace to sow discord and create distractions. Perhaps the most infamous of these was the “troll farms” that operated out of St. Petersburg in the run-up to the presidential election in the United States in 2016.
It wasn’t always a secretive operation. The Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in London became known for posting meme-filled statements that were often repurposed from dark corners of the internet such as Reddit, 4chan, and others. These tweets were aimed to simultaneously gather support and stir indignation. There were times when it wasn’t the most thoughtful stuff:
Nevertheless, it gave the impression of being an officially sanctioned policy. Following a report in 2017 by the Guardian that the tweets might have been the work of Deputy Ambassador Alexander Kramarenko, the Russian Embassy speculated that they were actually the result of a “collaborative effort.”
The fact that Russia is not in control of the situation is one of the things that makes this instance of trolling unique. A 7,000-word essay prepared by Russian President Vladimir Putin last summer provided an early taste of exactly how horrifyingly sincere Moscow’s vision of the conflict would be. Russia has mostly been stuck with the same ideological propaganda over Ukraine.
During this time, pro-Ukrainian memes have proliferated over the internet, while supporters of Ukraine have organized themselves into groups such as NAFO. The image of Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine, was rapidly turned into a meme. A new language has emerged on the internet, including terms such as “Rashist” (a pejorative term that combines the words Russian, racist, and fascist) and “Tractor Troops” (the Ukrainian farmers who towed abandoned Russian heavy machinery in the early days of the war).
And the government of Ukraine has fully embraced it, utilizing official websites to highlight memes and personally thanking people who are responsible for spreading them online. Not just Russian leaders and military, but also Russian citizens themselves have been humiliated in official accounts. The video shows vacationers fleeing Crimea after explosions that occurred there a month ago for reasons that are still unknown. The video is accompanied by a song by the 1980s pop group Bananarama and the caption “Time to head home.”
A significant amount of time has passed since then. Charles Shaw, an assistant professor of Soviet history at Central European University in Vienna, stated in an article he published earlier this year in Slate that Ukraine was reusing an old Soviet approach against Russia. Shaw’s piece was titled “Ukraine Is Repurposing an Old Soviet Tactic.” According to Shaw noted, Kyiv was “intentionally utilizing laughter to establish its position on the correct side of a just conflict.” This is a playbook that the Soviets utilized to great effect when they were competing against Nazi Germany.
It’s possible that everything seems pointless. It is the complete opposite.
For instance, NAFO has organized charity events to benefit the Ukrainian armed forces. These events have raised enough money to pay for Ukraine to paint one of their memes on a tank, which has been creatively dubbed the “Super Bonker 9000.” Memes written primarily in English have, in a roundabout way, helped to keep Western attention focused on the conflict in Ukraine, which is extremely important considering the significance of Western arms to Ukrainian armed forces.
The group has also discredited Russia’s gloomy justifications for the war, as well as the testimonies of Russian official friends who had attempted to present the combat proceeding in a better light than it actually was. Both of these arguments have been discredited by the group. It is interesting to notice that a significant number of NAFO’s backers come from the OSINT community.
This past week, Eliot Higgins, the founder of the most well-known OSINT website BellingCat, tweeted that he would be speaking about NAFO in a conference “as an example of online communities organically responding to disinformation from governments and counterfactual communities.” He also mentioned that it was “good for morale.”
However, the strategy is not without its drawbacks. According to Shaw, the surreal nature of the memes shouldn’t serve to obscure the horrific realities on the ground, nor can they become dehumanizing like the propaganda that the Soviet Union spread against Germany during World War II. It is noteworthy that the Defense Ministry of Ukraine has moved to embrace NAFO in the same week that it restricted reporters from traveling to some sections of the nation, which has sparked rumors that a counterattack is on the horizon.
Is there really a counterattack going on right now? To this point, the response from Ukraine has been to not answer, but rather to continue doing what it does best, which is to troll the Russians once more.