It is often said that practice makes perfect. While Ukraine’s digital diplomacy is not perfect, the Ukrainian government has gained valuable expertise in using digital technologies. Indeed, since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine War, Ukraine has employed a host of innovative digital tactics. These include the creation of a hacker army; crowdfunding aid for its military; national crowdfunding campaigns to purchase new weapons; the dissemination of memes meant to bolster the image of President Zelenskyy and the use of social media to pressure Big Tech companies into exiting the Russian market.
An interesting question is whether Ukraine will now leverage its digital experience to supplement its offline diplomacy. Over the past decade, several states have used their digital experience in order to strengthen bi-lateral ties, foster military collaborations or enhance trade with other states. The UK Foreign Office, for instance, has offered extensive training to Baltic states in combating disinformation campaigns. The UK was in a position to do so having to contend with Russian efforts to sway the Brexit referendum The Israeli MFA also offers extensive training to other foreign ministries mostly in the realm of public diplomacy. Joint training sessions have cultivated closer working ties between Israel and other states. The same is true of Dutch MFA which in the past held international conferences where Dutch diplomats shared best practices with their foreign peers.
Digital collaborations are an overlooked aspect of digital diplomacy. By sharing best practices, specific strategies and lessons learned, MFAs can translate digital prowess into tangible diplomatic assets. This could be true of Ukraine’s government that has gained important experience in three realms of digital activities. The first is that of strategic communications in which governments and diplomats try to sway public opinion in one’s favor. Ukraine’s government has used two tactics to win the battle over global public opinion opposite Russia. First, the government has published open letters to tech CEOs demanding that they suspend activities in Russia. Many of these letters have gone viral and have led to a tidal wave of digital support in Ukraine. Subsequently, giants such as Meta, Apple and PayPal no longer operate in Russia. Through these viral tweets, Ukraine has been able to rally support from global digital publics. Second, the Ukrainian government has used memes to increase the digital reach of its online messaging. From Ukrainian tractors stealing Russian tanks, to images of President Zelenskyy dressed as a Marvel superhero, memes have proven an important diplomatic tool for Ukraine. Given that all MFAs wish to reach larger audiences, and cultivate more followers, Ukraine could build on its new viral capabilities to build stronger ties with foreign governments.
Moreover, the Ukrainian government has been using a digital application to help manage state affairs during the war. Ukraine is by no means the only country looking to digitalize state services. Most countries ranging from Kenya to India and Switzerland are investing in digital platforms to deliver services to citizens. Yet in many countries there are concerns over such digital efforts including the ability to safeguard citizens’ data, the fear of hackers disrupting state services and lack of adequate digital infrastructure. Ukraine has solved some of these problems. The government was able to keep the internet running in Ukraine thanks to Starlink units donated by Elon Musk. Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation has used social media to cement friendly, digital ties with the tech magnet thus overcoming infrastructure problems. In addition, Ukraine’s Diia app, which offers citizens digital services, has been updated and now allows displaced citizen’s to digitally update their place of residence or generate new digital IDs to replace lost physical IDs. Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation has already become a permanent fixture in tech gatherings and symposiums explaining how the Diia app enables the government to continue serving its citizenry. Ukraine’s new status as a digital-service pioneer could help it foster new alliances with future powers such as India, or African states such as Kenya.
Finally, Ukraine has blazed a trail in the use of virtual platforms. President Zelenskyy has used virtual platforms to address rallies across the world and brief parliaments about the challenges Ukraine is facing. Notably, the groundwork for these digital addresses has taken place offline. For example, Ukrainian Ambassadors have often asked parliaments to host President Zelenskyy virtually or even called on nations to gather a special session of parliament. Following Zelenskyy briefings, Ukrainian Ambassadors often appear in the press to reiterate Zelenskyy’s key messages and ensure that these messages reach ordinary citizens, and not just members of parliament.
Virtual diplomacy is likely to play an increasing role in international diplomacy. This was already evident during the Covid19 pandemic and during the current War in Ukraine as NATO leaders, foreign ministers and diplomats frequently meet virtually to coordinate diplomatic activity. Ukraine’s experience in blending the physical with the virtual will thus be of great interest to MFAs across the globe.
It should be noted that Ukraine has already begun to build on its new digital savviness by signing an accord for digital collaborations with Japan. This may be the beginning of a much wider process that will see Ukraine capitalize on its new status as a digital pioneer.