Ukraine’s official Twitter account is no stranger to memes.
Courtesy of Adult Swim

First the Cold War, now the Twitter war.

By Linda Kinstler
July 28, 2017

When a massive cyberattack hit Ukraine’s airport, government agencies, and national bank in early June, the country’s official Twitter account, @Ukraine, responded with a GIF. “Some of our gov agencies, private firms were hit by a virus. No need to panic, we’re putting our utmost efforts to tackle the issue,” read the tweet, which was accompanied by an illustrated GIF of a dog sitting in a room ablaze, drinking coffee, saying “This is fine.”

The cartoon, a meme generally used to signify disastrous government inaction, seemed to send the wrong message: “Guys you’re doing this meme thing wrong,” one journalist replied on Twitter.

But the oddball tweet had the intended effect: it garnered 7,800 retweets, 10,600 likes, and brought the accounts follower count to 42,000 (it’s now 45,400). And it wasn’t unique: Since May 2016, @Ukraine has been engaging in “twiplomacy” in a similarly self-deprecating, sardonic tone, making consistent use of GIFs and emoji. Some tweets highlight Ukraine’s natural beauty and national holidays (“#BeautifulUkraine”), while others enter the diplomatic fray, at times sarcastically trolling official Russian accounts (“#DecommunizationBenefits”) and giddily @ing friendlier nations (“Hey @Nigeria!”).

Who’s behind it? Fortune tracked down the team with the gumption to casually refer to a “bromance” Sweden, and blatantly troll Russian accounts. They are Yarema Dukh, 30, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s press attaché, Oleg Naumenko, 24, a Cambridge graduate who helped build the Ukrainian government’s communications team before joining the private sector, and Artem Zhukov, who coordinates strategic digital communications for the presidential administration. All three became politically active during Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution three years ago, joining Poroshenko’s new administration—which took office with the aim of reforming and modernizing the country.

Yarema Dukh, 30, a Ukrainian presidential spokesman, runs the @ukraine account along with two colleagues.
Photo: Courtesy of Yarema Dukh

Dukh registered the account after discovering Canada’s official accounts (@Canada and, in French, @AuCanada), which advertise the nation’s abundant natural beauty, and he thought Ukraine should have a similar outlet. The effort to turn a faceless institution—be it a country or company—into a personable online presence will be familiar to anyone who follows U.S. corporate accounts—see Wendy’s, Square, and Delta. But for a nation at war, the stakes are considerably higher.

Throughout much Ukraine’s long-running conflict with Russia, Russian leadership repeatedly insisted the country did not have troops in Ukraine. Details have only recently started to reach the public. On Twitter, though, @Ukraine is spreading the word, and periodically reminds its followers of the war’s ongoing toll. That includes calling out accounts like @Russia, a promotional Twitter feed run by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The feeds most famous clash came this spring. During a speech in Paris, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that French-Russian relations date back to an 11th century French queen whom he called “Russian Ani.” @Ukraine promptly responded, clarifying that “Russian Ani” was in fact Anne de Kiev, who married French King Henry I in 1051, when Moscow did not yet exist.

“We are proud of our common history…which should unite our nations, not divide us,” @Russia shot back, prompting to @Ukraine to respond with a Simpsons GIF equating Russia and the Soviet Union, adding, “You really don’t change, do you?”

The levity was a conscious choice for @Ukraine’s creators. “Humour, even the sardonic kind, is the only thing that allows us to talk about hard topics and see the bright side even in the most tragic situations,” Naumenko says.

The tweets are also intended to counterbalance the Russian messaging and propaganda that has become increasingly pervasive on social media sites. “At the very beginning, @Russia tweeted something like, ‘Welcome to Crimea, a beautiful Russian land,’” recalled Dukh. Crimea was a part of Ukraine Russia forcibly annexed in 2014. “We reply to their claims, and we always get more likes and retweets than them.”

On Twitter, at least, Ukraine can reclaim lost ground—in late June, Dukh registered the @Crimea handle. When the official Twitter of the Russian Embassy to the U.S. tweeted, “Goodnight America! #VisitRussia #travel #Crimea,” @Crimea replied, “If you’re a tomb raider, this could be a good movie. But sanctions & isolation is the only prize you get for violating int law,” accompanied by a GIF of a gun-toting Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft (in which she is, presumably, breaking into UNESCO World Heritage sites).

Soon, Dukh hopes, every Ukrainian region will have its own official account. @Ukraine is already broadcasting the country’s latest diplomatic news. It celebrated the European Parliament’s approval of visa-free travel to the EU with a Minions GIF, and congratulating Lithuania on its independence day with a GIF of a jubilant Neil Patrick Harris as Barney Stinson, on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother. It can also strike a somber tone, at times reminding followers of how many Ukrainian servicemen have lost their lives at war in the east, and of Russia’s Crimea annexation.

But @Ukraine was not created solely to respond to Russian propaganda or aggression. Its primary focus is still to promote a positive image of the country, and to provide a means of reaching out to fellow nations. “Ukrainians are extremely open-minded and friendly nation with a great sense of humor. Twitter is just the mirror,” Zhukov says.

“It’s a good opportunity for international interaction,” Dukh wrote in an email. “Not necessarily to settle beef with Russia, but to have a nice exchange with friendly countries like Poland, Israel, Canada or Lithuania—we’re happy to have some banter and to raise a glass of e-wine! :-)”

The feed has been remarkably, if haphazardly, successful at doing so, one follower at a time. It “gives a new, unconventional perspective on Ukraine and puts the country on the map of English-speaking world,” says Dukh. “Even if you need to use a few memes and Simpsons GIFs to do so.”

A version of this article appears in the Aug. 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “First the World War, Now the Flame War.”

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