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Looking through the sights: weapon camera footage in the war in Ukraine Part I

Introduction

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24th 2022 with mass strikes on dozens of Ukrainian cities and ground invasion from several directions. Russian troops were met with fierce resistance, stopped, and eventually retreated in several directions in following months, as a shock-and-awe «special military operation» turned to brutal attritional warfare .

But as the war goes on in the trenches, it also does in the media and on the internet with both major channels and smaller online communities constructing and spreading war propaganda. This war is exceptionally well-covered, not in part because in it cameras and weapons with built-in cameras play a very important role. Both sides emphasize the need for supply of reconnaissance drones and often raise money for such weapons.

Camera-equipped weapons include drones for reconnaissance and coordination, strike drones, «first-person-view» loitering munitions, sniper scopes, etc. Footage recovered from said weapons by soldiers is extensively used in propaganda and is connected with broader discourses. Moreover, camera footage itself is also commonly weaponized and manufactured.

This short essay will be an attempt to analyze these phenomena based on a few notable media discourses (predominantly on Ukrainian side) from the perspective of media theory and using anthropological concepts, as the subject exists on an intersection of these disciplines.

Camera-equipped weapons include drones for reconnaissance and coordination, strike drones, «first-person-view» loitering munitions, sniper scopes, etc. Footage recovered from said weapons by soldiers is extensively used in propaganda and is connected with broader discourses. Moreover, camera footage itself is also commonly weaponized and manufactured. This short essay will be an attempt to analyze these phenomena based on a few notable media discourses (predominantly on Ukrainian side) from the perspective of media theory and using anthropological concepts, as the subject exists on an intersection of these disciplines.

Also, as this is a war, I have to acknowledge my biases as I consider the invasion unjust and support Ukrainian side, however I attempt to make evidence-based claims, not omit important details, and in regards to media sources I only cite uncritically uncontroversial claims that can be independently verified, as any individual claim can be untrue. Since a lot of sources support either side’s discourse, no claim should be treated as established fact.

Propaganda here is defined as «more or less systematic effort to manipulate other people’s beliefs, attitudes, or actions by means of symbols» . In this case, the word is used in relation with the war, so these beliefs, attitudes or actions supported by propaganda discourses are done in favor of the state on particular side of the war fought between Russia and Ukraine, although as I show, war propaganda isn’t only done by states and, of course, it is also not necessarily or usually done purely to benefit of the state. Another word I use is «discourse», defined as «any practice by which individuals imbue reality with meaning» .

Another concept I mention there is cultural memory. As Jan Assman and John Czaplicka describe it, it refers to a kind of collective memory that is detached from everyday life, it «preserves the store of knowledge from which a group derives an awareness of its unity and peculiarity» and exists in objectified form in symbols, rites, etc . As such, for example, Russian cultural memory of the Chechen wars is unique to Russian identity as a whole as opposed to it in Chechnya. My main perspectives are discourse analysis, media studies and online anthropology, although here I won’t attempt to make a holistic view of war-related online communities, and a bit of film studies. The rest of the relevant theory I will explain when needed.

«Bayraktar» porn

Cameras have been used to narrativize wars since mid 19-th century when Roger Fenton’s photographs supplemented Thomas Agnew’s critical accounts of the horrifying nature of Crimean War . Cameras were used extensively in world wars and most other conflicts in 20th century, notably including Vietnam war where a then-new phenomenon of TV reporting has contributed to American public opinion switching against the war . Another notable example was the American TV coverage of the Gulf war. Philosopher Jean Baudriallard in his famous series of essays «The Gulf War Did Not Take Place» controversially argued that the war «did not take place» as media coverage of it as a «war spectacle» created a «hyperreality» that completely overshadowed actual events on the ground . It was also the first war where viewers could see through the cameras built into the weapons themselves, see it as one would a video game.

Since then this has become more common. As some researchers have also noted, emergence of first-person war footage has correlated with action video games becoming more naturalistic, attempting to mimic the mostly American-supplied war footage which in turn have been consciously used by terrorists to film and promote atrocities against civilians . Since then, first-person «helmetcam» perspective has become prominent in so-called «copaganda»  and other militant actions. Gulf war-style footage was also famously used in 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) war as part of state war propaganda in ways very similar to war in Ukraine, with enthusiastic official media messages using war footage uploaded by soldiers . In recent years with wide availability of commercial drones that can be easily used or repurposed for military goals, even non-state actors began using them, and since on their own they usually don’t have much power, they are often being used symbolically in propaganda utilizing recorded images to undermine the states’ notion of controlling the airspace which has been a key part of any warfare .

The first example comes from the initial stage of the war. The name «Bayraktar» has become synonymous with Ukraine’s early fierce resistance to the invading Russian forces. Despite Ukraine initially only having bought around 20 of Bayraktar TB2 strike drones  before the invasion , their name has become extremely well known internationally. Children in Ukraine were named after the weapon . A song about the weapon commissioned by Armed Forces of Ukraine has become a hit in Ukraine in early days . A series of fundraising events called «People’s Bayraktar» has been internationally successful with first Lithuanian media collecting more than 5 million euros in three days to buy TB2 strike drones , then followed by Ukrainian TV presenter and wartime fundraiser Serhiy Prytula collecting money for four TB2s , and a Polish journalist, sociologist and left-wing intellectual Sławomir Sierakowski successfully collecting money for even more . In all cases the manufacturer has agreed to supply the weapons for free, money going for other war-related purposes. Similar campaigns happened in Canada and Norway . Ukrainian media such as UNIAN have mentioned TB2 in hundreds of publications  and so did Russian media, including directly state-owned media such as RIA Novosti . The claim they were going to be supplied with weapons of mass destruction was among many claims proposed by Russia as accusations against Ukraine , footage, real and fake  of them being shot down was widely shared by pro-Russian media, and Russian Ministry of Defense has claimed that many more «Bayraktars» were shot down than were ever in fact supplied by Ukraine .

This amount of media coverage and cultural impact, number and variety of narratives surrounding it might seem unusual for a weapon that has seen limited use and was supplied in small numbers, especially considering the fact since several military analysts have re-evaluated role of the weapon, concluding that while it was effective in the initial stages of the war, its strike capabilities are very limited as it is an air supremacy weapon that can be easily shot down by longer-range anti-air systems and is thus generally only useful for reconnaissance, sharing its role with hundreds of infinitely cheaper commercial drones  and there have been almost no combat footage from them published since the initial months.

This seemingly paradoxical difference between real usefulness and prominence of the weapon can be explained by the fact that TB2 was equipped with a camera that filmed results of strikes, and this footage, promoted by state and non-state media sources has played a key role in promoting Ukrainian media discourses that became dominant in pro-Ukrainian and western mainstream discourse.

Initially, even before the 2022 invasion, western media described Russia’s planned offensive as a «shock and awe» operation, using overwhelming military force demonstrating superiority  . Around that time many prominent foreign media channels predicted quick Ukrainian loss    . Russian president Putin described the invasion as a «special military operation»  which has since become a ubiquitous euphemism, usually in forms «spetsoperatsiya» or «EsVeO» («SMO») , as Russian regulatory agencies have made it illegal to call it a «war»  with people and media disobeying facing sometimes severe charges . This word supports the initial attempt at establishing a dominant discourse using language, buildup of overwhelming military force and devastating missile strikes in the initial hours of the invasion, designed to disable Ukrainian air force and air defense (initial Russian state-affiliated media reports stated that these strikes have crushed Ukrainians’ potential resistance  and have suppressed their air defense capabilities ). In early days a Russian police unit have rushed into the city of Kharkiv in lightly armored vehicles but were met with military and civilian resistance and destroyed as even pro-Russian sources now describe .

Initial coverage in major Ukrainian media falls in line with this discourse with video-supported reports of explosions in different cities and civilians fleeing  . Later, however, first reports of successful strikes on Russian military emerge, and Bayraktars are first mentioned . First compilations of videos of Russian soldiers, tanks, IFVs, and other equipment emerge in numbers   . What was even more surprising, these initial publications of Russians exploding to pieces on camera in a Gulf-war, video-game fashion included not only usual ground equipment as targets but also anti-air systems  , designed specifically to shoot down such drones. These videos, widely shared by major Ukrainian media and by independent pro-Ukrainian channels , as well as by official Armed Forces command accounts on social media, gathering thousands of «likes» .

Although it’s not possible to directly measure the influence of this phenomenon, most prominently associated with TB2 drones, I think it’s safe to assume, judging by later reactions and this weapon’s rise to prominence in media, that these compilations of footage did a great job of undermining the «shock and awe» discourse previously promoted by both Russian, Ukrainian and western media. Of course, Ukraine is a state with a fairly large army, defending against a foreign invasion and not an international Islamist terrorist organization, yet the media phenomenon of «Bayraktar» sabotaging the dominance of discourse of Russia’s overwhelming power reminds of how non-state actors such as ISIS used drone footage to question their enemies’ superiority in the air . Yet, here the effect was visible and immediate, unusually graphic to be normally shown on mainstream channels with people and vehicles full of people going up in flames. Use of overwhelming force by itself cannot force a large nation state to surrender, as obviously the threat of using it should be communicated but almost immediate emergence of videos of this force being destroyed from above by a force, seemingly (since these drones were eventually shot down or stopped being useful to Ukrainian forces, and also because of survivorship bias, which will be explored in more detail later) unable to fight against it, seems to have played a large part in it.

The message communicated by these videos didn’t just show enemies being destroyed in a violent way, it also included many implicit messages. If the videos existed and kept appearing, it meant that the Ukrainian air force was not indeed destroyed and Russia didn’t have superiority in the air. It meant that all the equipment prominently featured in pre-invasion publications and discussions, had weaknesses. The very ability to see an enemy through the sight of a weapon indicated their weakness, and a viewer was allowed to take a look through this sight, quite literally framing this war as a «people’s war» and «gamifying» it through presentation. Comments on social media, such under Twitter posts, celebrate it, comment on people burning and dying, compare it to video games. Comparisons of weapon-filmed footage with video games aren’t rare in this war in general: just recently Ukrainian media shared a popular post of soldiers remotely controlling a machine gun on a turret controlled with a Steam Deck portable gaming computer, commenting «‘GTA’ , then ‘Need for Speed’, and… Fire!» .

At the same time, different videos and photos of dead bodies of Russian soldiers began emerging on various pro-Ukrainian channels    , including even major media  posting them, strangely, with no censorship. The comment sections at least on Telegram are now deleted but most reactions are enabled and are supportive. This unusual trend goes alongside game-like «Bayraktar» videos, carries the same implicit messages and is distributed in the exact same way. I think to understand it better, it’s fair to see them in the same light, especially since dead body footage only reinforces the link between the «Bayraktar» phenomenon and a somewhat similar online phenomenon, «gore websites» where audiences are presented with different violent videos.

In terms of the film studies discipline, the common spectatorship position on such websites are  described as ‘amoral gaze’ when viewer gets pleasure from watching suffering, ‘vulnerable gaze’ «where viewers experience harm from graphic imagery», ‘entitled gaze’ «where viewers frame their looking through anti-censorship discourses», and ‘responsive gaze’, «whereby looking is a precedent to action» . In case of both Bayraktar drone footage and images of dead Russian bodies in early days of the invasion, it seems clear that in general the viewer positions are «amoral» and «responsive», as they both show an invader suffering, getting positive reactions on social media, and position the viewer behind the weapon sights, simulating resistance, undermining the «overwhelming force» discourse and inviting people to donate money for TB2s and other war-related efforts. The same arguments are generally applicable to other kinds of footage that continues to be posted to this day, of enemies dying, getting captured, etc. An interesting case to study would be Volodymyr Zolkin’s interviews with Russian prisoners of war becoming very popular and gathering millions of views. As he said in an interview to «The Guardian», the goal of his program is explicitly set to challenge pro-Russian media narratives about the nature of the «special military operation» .

So, in a sense, the appropriation of shock website style content used as war propaganda by all kinds of pro-Ukrainian actors online, create a kind of gamified «pornography» of war, which positions the viewer behind the weapon sights in an effort to undermine Russian propaganda that was intended to show overwhelming force and pointlessness of resisting, in line with initially internationally dominant media discourses. Next, let’s go a bit more in depth about how this initial shift in discourse, greatly influenced by now world-famous Bayraktar TB2 drones, aligns with broader now-mainstream Ukrainian discourses related to Russian cultural memory.

Witches, guerillas and ghosts

The «Bayraktar» twitter post from Ukrainian Armed Forces command has the phrase «Welcome to hell!». Ukrainian postal service used the phrase in the «patriotic» envelope design . Use of this phrase in relation to the invasion of Ukraine in fact predates the invasion, as it was used by Ukrainian parliamentarians  and by the head of Ukraine’s Armed Forces . This phrase is overall quite prominent in Ukrainian propaganda discourse, it has powerful connotations in the context of Russian cultural memory.

The phrase is most commonly associated in Russia with the First Chechen war (1994—1996) when Chechnya attempted to secede from Russia as the USSR collapsed and Russia unsuccessfully attempted to regain control over unrecognized republic suffering significant losses . The phrase is notably used in prominent Chechen pro-independence singer-songwriter Timur Mutsurayev’s eponymous song . Photos of wartime graffitis featuring the phrase appeared in media publications  , Human Rights Watch reports . This war, often associated with non-conventional warfare, guerilla and terrorist attack tactics, had a deep cultural impact. The war prominently exists in Russian cultural memory  and at least in the past was widely seen as unjustified according to polls  and is recognized as a failure in official discourse (as opposed to the successful Second Chechen war won under Putin’s ruling administration) as part of the broader collapse and degeneration of Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, along with gang crime, poverty and lawlessness . In other words, this war exists in cultural memory as prominent element of national trauma, humiliation that preceded eventual rise to power and revenge against supposed outside forces to which Putin officially attributes existence of independent Ukraine in a speech he gave on February 21st 2022, before formally recognizing Russia-backed secessionist states of Donetsk and Luhansk days before the full-scale invasion .

So, this counter-discourse of Ukraine as a rebel nation fiercely opposing an invading stronger armored force that existed before the invasion and seems to have later became dominant, is prominently using symbols associated with a traumatic event in Russian cultural memory reinforced by Putin government’s official narratives on national rebirth after the «лихие девяностые» (can be translated as «dashing nineties» or «lawless nineties»). This discourse seems to have become dominant, and one of the more prominent symbols in Ukrainian propaganda is the phrase «Russian warship, go fuck yourself», said by garrison of Snake Island before being attacked and captured by crew of a Russian warship  that was eventually sunken in an strike conducted allegedly with assistance of previously mentioned «Bayraktar TB2» , and this event was famously commemorated with a series of post stamps with a print that quickly became iconic in Ukrainian culture . The island was later recaptured by Ukrainian forces .

So, the phenomenon of «Bayraktar», a strike-and-propaganda tool, while influential on its own, is also connected with the concept of a smaller nation’s guerilla war against a powerful military force, Russia’s own cultural memory, and with an extremely symbolically important event of a country with virtually no navy sinking a flagship «in revenge» for it destroying a small garrison that had insulted it for invading and demanding surrender. However, it’s not all that is important to the dominant «guerilla resistance», «non-conventional» war discourse (it is important to outline that despite Russia’s extremely high military advantage in numbers  and the media narratives surrounding it, the war, unlike, for example, Chechen wars, is conventional, fought between two sovereign nations with a clearly defined frontline, land, sea, air and space elements ).

An important part of the Ukrainian propaganda discourse which is related to the use of first-person combat footage is supernatural symbols and forces of nature. On May 6th a video (I haven’t managed to find original source) with Ukrainian actress Andriana Kurylets went viral on Russian media (despite not getting popular in Ukrainian or international platforms) . In the video, she, dressed in traditional clothes, proclaims revenge for Russian war crimes and executes a «Russian soldier» by cutting his neck with a sickle. Russian pro-government media compared it to execution videos published by Islamic State militants, comparing Ukraine to a non-state actor , Russian investigative committee even opened a criminal case in response to this video . The video, using imagery of a vengeful folk girl killing a man in military uniform with a primitive agricultural tool, was associated in Russian media with the witch from Nikolai Gogol’s iconic 1835 short story «Viy» which featured a Ukrainian witch disguised as an innocent girl, drawing influence from Slavic folklore .

Indeed, the symbol of «Ukrainian witch» seems to be one of the most prominent ones in Ukrainian war propaganda discourse. One of many memes of this war is «Chornobayivka witch» which, according to various sources, is responsible for repeated strikes on Russian aircraft in then-Russian-occupied Kherson international airport in Chornobayivka . An actual practicing witch was interviewed and gave comments on magic power protecting the place . The implied witch was also featured in online art . Phenomenon of witchcraft has been prominently studied by anthropologists. One of the key texts about the phenomenon of witchcraft is Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard’s «Witchcraft, oracles and magic amongst the Azande» describes belief in witchcraft among Azande people of South Sudan. There he makes an argument that witchcraft, unlike in western societies, is a matter of everyday life. It does not contradict physical causes of events: if something bad happens and is assumed to be caused by witchcraft, the natural mechanisms still apply. Difference is that if something is supposed to happen and people do everything to achieve an expected outcome, and yet still something goes wrong, then it is a matter of witchcraft. At the same time, while it is believed that «witches» have special anatomical features and there are similar assumptions about them, they clearly cannot exist, and no particular person is blamed for witchcraft. Also, it is believed that some emotional states can be the cause of things going wrong . This description is somewhat contradictory, so Martin A. Mills in «The opposite of witchcraft: Evans-Pritchard and the problem of the person» argues for a broader explanation of the nature of such beliefs. According to him, the notion of witchcraft has to do with cultural construction of personhood. So, acting as a person causes certain events to happen depending on the behavior, and if something goes against it, it necessarily implies work of a (secret) personified agent even if it doesn’t really exist.

This lens is quite applicable to the phenomenon of «witches» in Ukrainian discourse. A good illustration would be a viral (over 16 million views as of the moment of writing) music video «Враже» («Enemy») by the band «Angy Kreyda» . In the music video witches conduct magic rituals against Russian invaders using toy soldiers and playing with them. They are, of course, not implied to be directly responsible for soldiers dying even within the context of the video, yet the transcendent eye of a literal witch in it is implied to be looking at defenseless Russians from above and playing with their lives, causing them to die despite them being armed with weapons and tanks. This, of course, is connected to «Bayraktar» videos and other similar war footage, presenting the war as a kind of game where a camera is watching defenseless Russian soldiers dying on a land that does not belong to them and has agency of its own, able to deliver them death from above.

It is also not random that the image of the witch is highly gendered. In the video with the sickle, just like in other war footage, Russians are male, achieving power through the use of violence and weapons. Meanwhile, Ukraine is often portrayed as a woman, who, in spite of her assumed victim position, is stripping them of their power using non-conventional means. Another reason is also mentioned in the «sickle video», stereotypes of Ukrainians in Russian culture are associated with villages, especially since historically cities in Ukraine were dominated by non-Ukrainians while rural areas were populated with Ukrainians, and this, despite all complicated history of ethnic and national identity, is still the reason why Ukrainian language is more prominent in rural settlements .

Another supernatural propaganda-related concept, while not necessarily related to first-person weapon footage or witchcraft but still worth mentioning here is «Ghost of Kyiv», a mythical ace pilot shooting down Russian aircraft early on in the invasion, that never actually existed . The Ghost is anonymous, silent and defeats a stronger enemy, defending the besieged capital, a Golem-like nameless protector, which supports the same «guerilla war» discourse while also referencing cultural memory of World War 2 with its many ace pilots.

Part II: https://www.kulpologika.hu/posts/looking-through-the-sights-weapon-camera-footage-in-the-war-in-ukraine-part-ii

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