How Ukraine managed to frustrate Russia’s propaganda apparatus – opinion

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo
Sarah Ashton-Cirillo
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Leaving the frontlines wasn’t my idea. Yet within two weeks of having been transferred to TDF Media, the public relations arm of the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force, I was allowed to help craft an undertaking on behalf of the AFU, which would become the most successful info ops produced by Ukrainian Defense Forces during the first two years of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Ultimately running for just four months, it ended with a U.S. Senator accusing me of being an American intelligence officer embedded in Ukraine, representatives of the Ukrainian security services presenting our work to NATO as a case study for what asymmetric information and psychological warfare should look like, and eventually Russia financially sanctioning me for terrorism against the Moscow regime.

Our first announcement was innocuous enough. A tweet in late June 2023 announced that the Commander of TDF Media, Col. Oleksiy Dmytrashkivsky, brought me into his unit to “undertake English language projects meant to combat Russian propaganda and deliver fact-based news to a worldwide audience.” Vague and obtuse, the statement had nothing more than intent behind it. We had no concept of what would come next nor a plan to back up the words that we put out. Despite not having concrete ideas of what to produce, one aspect of this project was clear in our favor: TDF Media consisted of Ukraine’s best journalists, filmmakers, editors, and artists who gave up their careers to serve the cause of freedom.

Days later, several of us from the team joined Col. Dmytrashkivsky for a meeting at the Defense Ministry hosted by then-Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar. While photos from that day showed the Deputy Minister presenting the Colonel with several awards for service and valor, the true intent of the gathering was to open a new front against the Russian enemy in the realm of info-ops.

We left the MoD with an outline of what we needed to do. Deputy Minister Maliar, adamant in the requirement that any actual news reporting comes from official government sources, left us to our own devices in choosing how to fight back against the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, as long as our efforts resonated with the public. Our task was straightforward.

Read also: Putin’s lies go unchecked by American propagandist Tucker Carlson

Shortly after our getting together at the MoD, the Colonel led a mobile media unit to the battlefield, leaving a handful of us to implement our given directive. After tossing around some ideas, we settled on the parameters for a show that eventually became known as “Russia Hates the Truth.” It would be presented as a series character-driven shorts that exposed the absurdities of Russian life while overtly mocking the style of the Kremlin’s many paid media shills. The over-the-top style would be complemented by leaning into exaggerated aspects of my transgenderism, knowing that this was a particular trigger point for Russian war criminals and propagandists.

Having been given editorial control by the Deputy Minister, I wrote the script for the first episode. Once ready, one of the lieutenants and a fellow sergeant sat with me for a reading. After finalizing the text, our senior lieutenant came into the studio, and we discussed set ideas.

The first episode wasn’t perfect. Stylistically harsh and combative, a mixture of real news and swipes aimed at the Moscow regime, the lighting and background needed improvement, and so did I. Having not yet mastered the “bloodthirsty, vengeful bitch” archetype that would eventually make the Cyrillic version of Sarah Ashton-Cirillo the number one Google trending name across Russia, I found myself caught between trying to be a serious anchor and a character-driven madwoman. Unlike anything that Ukraine had put together since the war began, we knew the first episode could be the last. It wasn’t.

As a team, we decided to release the original publicly and only then send it up the chain for approval. The next day, Lt. Pavel called a meeting. Stress and consternation lined his face as we sat around him to hear the verdict. Then, on the creases of his lips, a smile crept up. Command loved it, and we were off to the races.

More a creative agency than a military unit, my colleagues and I loved our work. Col. Dmytrashkivsky guided us in reaching our maximum potential, allowing us an outlet to engage the enemy and cover our victories in a way that was less the gamified version of battle seen in the social media verticals of 2023 and more the ridiculous yet harsh and real depiction of war as shown in M*A*S*H.

In their lack of follow-up, however, the media inadvertently helped us carry out our operations and bring it to another level.

Soon, attention was coming our way from all sides. A steady stream of independent media outlets came to our studios to meet the team and see our work. In addition to my unit, which focused on psyops, we were also members of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, creating critically acclaimed documentaries and holding award-winning photo exhibits. However, the enemy was also taking notice, with our segments regularly appearing across Russian state TV. This feedback cycle simply pushed us to create even more outlandish skits and see more deliver increasingly outrageous commentary.

As we hit our stride, our function was simple: Bring enough heat directly at Moscow that we forced them to respond to us at TDF Media, wasting resources on us instead of the Ukrainian leaders who mattered. In studying and understanding the mindset of the terrorist propagandists employed by the Kremlin, we were able to flourish. Our plan worked. By the beginning of August, we were in their heads and covered by Putin’s supplicants nearly daily. We embraced their hate.

Seeing the stats backing up our wildly successful cultural impact against the enemy, a new level of psychological warfare was dropped on the Russians. A plan that I was neither informed of beforehand nor party to until after it rolled out; it was focused on me and placed me at the center of an international frenzy.

In the early days of August, a “leak” was sent to several Russian Military blogger channels that I was under consideration to be named a “Spokesperson” for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. It even surprised the Colonel, who confronted me outside our headquarters after receiving several phone calls from Ukrainian outlets asking if the team was behind the leaks. We weren’t. It came from much higher. That evening, outrage and encouragement grew as societies in Ukraine and Russia debated this supposed appointment.

Arriving at the office the day following the Colonel’s questioning of me in the street, my creative partner, Sergeant Ivan, told me I had 5 minutes to send my bio and some photos to Deputy Minister Maliar. Then, the Colonel said the MoD would be issuing a statement about me shortly after.

The release on official MoD channels mentioned how well the show was doing, talked about my combat experience and frontline injury, and how I served the Armed Forces with dedication. That’s it. It never mentioned me being appointed spokesperson. It never created a new position for me; nothing had changed officially, nor would it. The media didn’t see it that way.

Read also: Kremlin’s massive disinformation campaign to discredit Zelenskyy a colossal and expensive failure

Because of the strategic leak mentioning that the military had me under consideration for the role, and now, with the glowing follow-up from the MoD, media worldwide presumed my new title was “Spokesperson.” At first, we laughed. Surely, some outlet would get confirmation I was never appointed to the position. No one ever did. In their lack of follow-up, however, the media inadvertently helped us carry out our operations and bring it to another level.

And so, within days, I assumed the de-facto role of spokesperson, a fake title, added to a fake character, in a going reality show style parody of Russian propaganda, a production which allowed us to achieve immense success in a too-real, too awful and too horrible war against the Devil disguised as a creature known by the name Vladimir Putin.

Everything we did was discussed, outlined, and shot to provoke, inflame, and enrage, and then we moved on to the next skit.

A few times, I pushed far enough that the show was nearly canceled. When I called for a boycott against CNN for that network stating foreign soldiers enlisted in the Ukrainian military were “mercenaries,” I was told to apologize to CNN, remove the post, and prepare to be reassigned. I refused. CNN then corrected the story and wrote me a personal apology. When asked by a senior commander why I didn’t back down to the demands of the MoD, my answer was straightforward. “When everything is psyops, nothing is psyops. None of this project is real except the outcome, so sometimes the lines blur, and sometimes nothing matters except the results.”

Another day, I was called to have a coffee near the MoD, where an officer delivered a stern lecture to me for attacking U.S. Congressman Andy Biggs of Arizona as a fascist who hated Ukraine’s government. This officer told me I couldn’t represent Ukraine in such a way. I protested on account of two factors. Andy Biggs is a fascist who hates Ukraine’s government. Furthermore, was I representing Ukraine when everything from the show's premise, title, and character was fake? I then asked him if he wanted me to resign from a position I didn’t have. He relented and told me no, just be more sensitive in the future. I deleted the tweet but also knew the show basked in pushing the boundaries of sensitivity or political correctness; its focus was keeping the Russian war criminals on the defensive and out of sorts.

On we went. Every day, the question of how to top the next show arose. The more criticism we received from audiences, both internally and externally, the higher our numbers grew and the more we influenced the narrative. We successfully separated the real news from the psyops by launching a six-day-a-week live broadcast covering updates worldwide. Yet the audience ingested the work as one linear, continuous piece.

A shift happened, however, when we broke out of the Ukraine/Russia bubble, and the show and I personally fell into the sights of the far right in the United States. Tucker Carlson, Greg Guttfield, Glenn Greenwald, Alex Jones, and Breitbart took turns blasting me. Everything sped up, including the absurdity of what we were saying on the show. Could these mavens of media see the parody? They couldn’t and didn’t. And so when we knew they bit, we also knew the Kremlin must pay close attention to everything we did.

Command instituted security protocols around me due to death threats. My Colonel even went so far as to ask me if I wanted to end the show. That was a non-starter. We were there to embrace the hate, death threats and all.

In the middle of all this, my focus was also on the Gonzalo Lira case. Assisting with the investigation since February of 2023, when between deployments to engage in combat in the woods of Luhansk, members of Ukraine’s SBU security service would come to our safe house and bring me back to Kharkiv to work on it. Lira’s trial was ongoing, and I appeared in court in mid-September to testify against him. Naturally, in a continued blurring of the lines, I brought his case and my role into the show in such a satirical manner that I thought we’d jumped the cliched shark. Instead, U.S. Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio released a letter publicly, addressed to the United States Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Defense, and the State Department, demanding my personnel file and whether or not I had ever been a member of the U.S. intelligence community or was currently working for them. He also accused me of threatening violence, which I never did.

We hit the big time! Reading that Senator Vance demanded the DNI investigate the American host of a show steeped in satire and parody broke my heart for the state of the U.S. political system but also showed just what heights we had reached.

Soon, it would all end, but not before I engaged with the Senator in a monumental back and forth, where I took many criticisms against me and turned it around on him in such a manner that even Breitbart carried my words in a way that could hardly reflect negatively on me.

Despite delivering them in character and studio, my broadsides and barbs aimed at a sitting U.S. Senator brought immense heat from the enemies of Ukraine directly to the highest levels of the country’s civilian government.

Read also: Ukraine warns of large-scale Russian psyops using foreign journalists to justify aggression

We created an exit plan. The day before my official “suspension,” letters were sent out from an official government email address assuring my supporters in the GOP that I was under no investigation. Furthermore, the Colonel gave us an official report from a government analytics department inside the MoD, praising our work. He then informed me I would have to take a public blow from the military and MoD, albeit one orchestrated to silence the critics while President Zelenskyy was in New York and Washington. I didn’t care. It wasn’t even me under attack. It was simply a role I inhabited to fulfill my responsibilities in the information offensive against the enemy.

The notice of my “suspension” from the TDF and MoD showed the creativity of this project. That announcement was the first time the term spokesperson applied to me in an official communication. It became official on my last day on the job!

I never stopped working. Told to stay off social media for a week or so until the President returned to Ukraine, we took the charade all the way, including starting a mail-in campaign demanding the government overturn my removal. Within two weeks, I had been re-instated to my role. Then, another twist took place.

Sitting in the studio, I received a message from a high-ranking NATO member officer telling me that they were sitting in a presentation in Brussels at the SBU Academy, the training school for Ukraine’s security service, watching a whole slide show on my impact and that of my team, in what we managed to carry out against the Kremlin. Photos the allied nation’s officer sent me from the event showed that the SBU considered our work at TDF Media second only to President Zelenskyy himself in successfully owning the information space against Russia. It had all been worth it.

The Colonel and the team wanted to do a second season with a new set and me presenting as a guy. It was a brilliant concept. After asking for some time to think about it, the decision was made for me, as I was transferred to the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s General Staff to work as an advisor to the legendary Ukrainian commander Major General Vladislav Klochkov in the Main Directorate of Moral and Psychological Support.

Even after moving back into the serious work of research, strategy, and planning, our work at the studio still reverberated across Russia. On Feb. 5, Moscow officially labeled me a terrorist and hit me with financial sanctions. This ludicrous label is one I embrace and is the most appropriate one to wear while I continue embracing the hate of the enemy and in service of my love of the United States, Ukraine, and democracy.

We’re bringing the voice of Ukraine to the world. Support us with a one-time donation, or become a Patron!

Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine