The 20th Century Propaganda Poster is Still Fighting in 21st Century Ukraine
Classic PSYOPS in the iPhone epoch
By the end of the 19th Century, the industrialized masses were literate enough, and the industrial presses fast enough, to have mass culture. Advertisers and other propagandists took note right away, but of course the whole project got its biggest boost after 1914 and 1939 amid the outbreak of World Wars. What’s new today is the QR code on this poster, spotted in the Kherson region of Ukraine.
I suppose any Russian who tried to scan it would turn their phone into a Ukrainian intelligence outpost by doing so, but more to the point the content behind the QR code is is probably instructions to surrender. Key to “psychological preparation of the battlefield,” as we called it back in the day, is making sure that the enemy knows what the rules of surrender are.
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As I recently explained in this Substack, this process of “market penetration” was key to how a US-led coalition broke the Iraqi Army twice. History shows that political arguments have no influence on the enemy. But tell the enemy that he can surrender, tell him how he may do it safely, and the morale of an entire army can collapse. Nowadays it is done with personal pocket phones, but the old technologies are still quite useful as gateways.
Creating psychological conditions for victory also requires an effective fire plan. In recent weeks, this Substack has focused on the artillery battle in Ukraine as the culmination of an American firepower century — a time in which the world order has been defined by success at indirect fire battle. As I had expected for weeks now, the shifting balance of weight of fire in Ukraine is visible to everyone. No one thinks that Russia is winning anymore, least of all the Russians in Kherson.
Ammunition is short. Accurate western artillery is preventing resupply. A massive counterstroke to reclaim southern Ukraine was never going to be kept quiet, so instead the idea is to make sure every Russian knows what to do when it happens.
Much of that is thanks to weapons systems designed long ago to do exactly this kind of work: damage bridges, inhibit columns, and cover them in fire. Hit ammo dumps, jamming towers, command posts. When there is nothing left to shoot with, soldiers begin to shed useless weapons. Cut off from relief, they think of escape. Worried for their safety, they look for a way out. Maybe a QR code on a random poster. See how that works? I wrote about this recently, too.
I predict that after this war, the HIMARS will remain a meme, even a whole culture in Ukraine, long after Americans have forgotten it existed. People will probably want to drive something like it. Civilian vehicles will consciously recall it, or even take the model name.
Posters are up everywhere in Kherson Oblast, which is indicative of how little control or support Russia actually enjoys there. Open sources have Russian troops afraid to patrol aggressively in the city of Kherson, reporting a sense that partisans already control it and are simply waiting for them to wise up and evacuate. As I have suggested for weeks now, Ukraine has spent the last two months infiltrating capabilities into this region. We are seeing the fruit of them now in the poster.
Meanwhile, President Zelenskyy and his wife Olena have appeared on a fashion magazine cover. Whereas the audience in Kherson is a Russian soldier in dismay, the comedian-turned-war leader must also reckon with American taxpayers bound to gripe about the price of grinding down Russia. No doubt a whole platoon of consultants has told him the value of image in America.
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