“Every seven seconds a German soldier dies. Stalingrad . . . mass grave,” thundered from the crackling Soviet loudspeakers positioned throughout the rubble-strewn city. Interspersed with the monotonous sound of a ticking clock, an orchestral melody dubbed the “Tango of Death,” and the howl of the Red Army’s Katyusha rockets, these nightly torments exerted considerable psychological pressure against the demoralized, half-starving, and chronically fatigued German bastion entrapped at Stalingrad. Blared on repeat throughout the winter of 1942–43, these Soviet taunts precipitated the fate of the Wehrmacht’s besieged forces.
For many, the Battle of Stalingrad conjures images of a herculean struggle between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich with hand-to-hand combat in frigid, frostbiting cold. The Battle of Stalingrad, along with subsequent clashes on the Eastern Front, offers many timely parallels and lessons for the Russo-Ukrainian War, especially with regard to psychological operations. Notably, Soviet psychological operations directed against German forces are a useful case study, highlighting both successes and shortcomings of exploiting psychological stresses and underlying motivators—lessons the Ukrainians have shown prowess in adopting.
At their core, psychological operations are concerted messages and actions, including deception, designed to affect outcomes among adversarial audiences. This is achieved by targeting ideological, political, military, and economic vulnerabilities that alter attitudes and behaviors. Combat operations in Ukraine have revealed the continued importance of psychological operations and the use of propaganda to shape the battlefield. Kyiv’s efforts to discourage Russian combatants from fighting in Ukraine have proven successful but more can be learned and applied by Ukraine and its allies if they are willing to look to the Soviet experience in World War II.
Lesson One: Emotional Appeals Work
One of the prime goals for Soviet propagandists was to encourage German soldiers to surrender rather than continue fighting. At Stalingrad, the Soviets successfully used emotional appeals to influence individual German soldiers. For most Wehrmacht soldiers, a hatred or repudiation of Hitler and the Third Reich did not compel them to lay down their arms. Rather, many were motivated by a determination to survive for family, among other emotionally charged issues. Soviet debriefings of captured Wehrmacht soldiers at Stalingrad revealed that the most psychologically impactful propaganda writings referenced home, family, and children. The Soviets subsequently exploited such emotionally stirring sentiments to entice more German surrenders. “Soldiers eagerly read Russian leaflets,” admitted one German prisoner of war. “[Some] cried when they saw a leaflet representing the corpse of a German soldier and an infant crying over it.”
Additionally, the Soviets deliberately appealed to German concerns about personal safety by promising humane treatment upon surrender. Soviet mistreatment was a common and justifiably held suspicion within the Wehrmacht’s ranks. One Soviet leaflet featured a special declaration by Joseph Stalin: “If German soldiers and officers give themselves up, the Red Army must take them prisoner and spare their lives.”
Lesson Two: Know Your Audience
Propaganda needs to understand the target’s culture and perspective to be effective. After Stalingrad, a widening fissure emerged between Soviet propaganda and its intended audience. Beginning in the spring of 1943, the Soviets pivoted their messaging tactics to amplify political narratives, such as insurrection and reformation within the Third Reich, instead of the previously successful emotional appeals. The narratives, often put together by exiled German communists or turned prisoners of war, largely fell flat. The Soviets’ messaging pivot greatly undercut subsequent efforts to invoke widespread German surrenders and hasten the end of the war. The messaging might have appealed to Soviet political leaders and cadres in Moscow but failed to appeal to the German soldier or civilian.
By contrast, Berlin denounced messages from the Soviets’ cadre of German expatriates, namely authors and political activists, as the work of traitors and Jewish communists. German officials responded with counterpropaganda, encouraging their forces to fight harder by stoking fears of a vengeful Red Army. Most significantly, Joseph Goebbels, the German minister for propaganda, called for total war and progressively exploited fears of a metastasizing Soviet threat. The Wehrmacht—alongside children, grandfathers, women, prisoners, and incarcerated sadistic criminals—stubbornly resisted the Red Army from frozen steppe of Stalingrad to the smoldering ruins of Berlin.
The Ukrainian Battlefield
As revealed around Stalingrad, appeal to emotional issues such as family, home, and personal security were driving factors in the effectiveness of Soviet propaganda. Using political appeals is a trickier tactic. When designing propaganda, Ukraine and its allies would do well to tailor messaging tactics that exploit Russian psychological pressure points. Effective psychological operations can influence populations and affect legitimacy as a subset of irregular warfare. Today, the Russo-Ukrainian War is an active proving ground for the relevance, deployment, and sustainment of psychological operations on the ever-proliferating digital battlefield. Since Russia’s invasion in February 2022, Ukraine’s military and intelligence apparatus has made good use of Soviet lessons and achieved success in its overt psychological operations campaigns.
Drawing from the Soviet experience at Stalingrad, Ukrainian psychological operations tailored to discourage and remove combatants, by means of provoking and encouraging their lawful surrender, may exert additional pressure and further strain the viability of Russia’s fighting force for sustainable operations. “The fight for Ukraine will not just be won on the battlefield,” opined David R. Shedd, former acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Ivana Stradner, an advisor to the Barish Center for Media Integrity. “For all the high-tech weaponry the West has delivered, psychological war against Russia remains a key opportunity for Ukraine and the United States.”
Ukraine manages an astute command of the digital theater of operations. Videos and messages circulated on social media show captured Russian soldiers calling home or participating in news conferences before an array of media outlets. Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense invited Russian mothers to retrieve prisoners of war from Kyiv. In response to Moscow’s partial mobilization in September 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy publicly encouraged Russian combatants to surrender with guarantees of civilized treatment, a promise that Russia would not be told that any surrender was voluntary, and a pledge that those fearful of returning to Russia would not be exchanged. Collectively, such messaging tactics best exemplify emotional appeals and knowing one’s audience.
Most observable among Western audiences is Ukraine’s creative use of lightweight quadcopter drones to foster technologically enabled surrenders of Russian combatants on the frontlines. This is not the first time enemy combatants have surrendered to a drone but the use of psychological appeals and propaganda makes the Ukrainian example unique. Managed by Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence, the “I Want To Live” hotline connects Russian troops with Ukrainian handlers through messenger app, phone, or website to arrange their rendezvous with and surrender to Ukrainian drones. The hotline’s instructional YouTube video choreographs this guidance for its daring Russian viewership seeking to cross no-man’s-land. According to Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, the hotline generated more than ten thousand reports in six months from Russian combatants seeking to lay down their arms to Ukrainian forces. Last month, Ukrainian officials noted that the number of Russian soldiers seeking to surrender grew by 10 percent between March and April 2023.
The Russo-Ukrainian War has unveiled Russian troops as an ill-prepared, misled, and demoralized fighting force, further compromised by desertions, draft dodging, and an exodus of military-aged men from Russia. “I feel sorry for people left in Russia,” one captured Russian colonel mused during a March 2022 news conference. “They are not guilty. Their guilt is that they are misinformed.” Ukraine has seized on Russia’s repeated shortcomings, with digital taunts reminiscent of the Soviet loudspeaker broadcasts directed toward Germany’s weary troops besieged at Stalingrad. “The closer the counteroffensive, the hotter the surrender season,” mused a May 2023 Twitter post by Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense. “Don’t wait for the heat! The most favorable conditions are now.”
Kyle Nappi is a national security specialist with experience advising the US Department of Defense and intelligence community. Additionally, he has interviewed nearly five thousand Allied and Axis combatants from World War II—including many German and Soviet veterans of Stalingrad and the Eastern Front—to further understand and document the human condition in war and conflict.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, via Twitter