U.S. Embassy Shares Anti-Russia Twitter Meme As Digital War Over Ukraine Intensifies

Nearly a thousand years ago, the newly converted Christian population in what is now Ukraine decided to build something grand, a church to rival the Hagia Sophia, then the gravitational center of their Eastern Orthodox faith. So sometime in the 11th Century, an army of builders—likely recruited directly from the Byzantine Empire, the home of the Hagia Sophia—constructed a blue, many-domed cathedral in Kyiv, filling it with over 800 square feet of mosaics and frescoes.

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In this century, Kyiv’s St. Sophia Cathedral has continued to enjoy pride of place in Ukrainian consciousness. In 2019, over 100,000 people lined up outside on cobblestone streets to see an official declaration: The Ukranian Orthodox church would seperate from the one in Russia. Around the same time, Ukranian Orthodox officials gathered there to vote and elect a new leader.

And most recently, U.S. officials used St. Sophia in a Twitter meme on Tuesday morning.

The tweet, sent by the State Department’s official account for the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, is meant to underscore Ukraine’s longtsanding history seperate from Russia, a key argument by both Western and Ukraine governments to dispell Russian claims over territory within Ukraine. The casual, conversational nature of the embassy’s message—delivered in a format usually meant for light-hearted jokes—contrasts starkly with the increasingly dire situation in Ukraine with America and other allies rushing to forestall a full-scale Russian invasion.

The tweet reflects a broader truth about the confrontration between Ukraine and Russia: Like so many modern conflicts, the contest will not only unfolding between forces on the ground but also between adversaries online. (The State Department did not return a request to comment about the Twitter meme.)

Russia, of course, has long understood the strategic imperative to operate a virtual frontline against America and other opponents. For example, Russian hackers tried to obtain emails sent by the aides connected to the Orthodox leader who decided to split the Ukrainian and Russian churches, a move Moscow feared would further strengthen anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine and push the country farther away from the Kremlin.

Russia has ochestrated its own digital campaign in recent weeks, too, and much of that has come from the websites of Russian state-owned media outlets, like RT, Sputnik News and TASS. The disinformation is then spread substantially through Telegram, a messaging service created by a Russian billionaire and popular in that part of the world. Recently, the pro-Russian news services have shifted from carrying stories denying there’d be any invasion to different angles: baselessly suggesting the West had previously staged a coup in Ukraine and that ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s contested Dombas region have faced government-sactioned violence and persecution.

With night falling on St. Sophia Tuesday, Dmytro Zolotukhin, Ukraine’s former deputy minister of information policy who tracked Russian disinformation tactics against Ukraine’s 2020 presidential campaign, likened the current situation on the ground to another style of gallows humor on Twitter.

“You know the picture of the dog sitting in the burning house and saying, ‘No, no I’m ok—it’s fine?’” he asks, referencing this meme. “That’s our absolutely ‘normal’ situation right now.”

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