Russia's war in Ukraine has shifted the tone of EU digital diplomacy

EU digital diplomacy during the Russia-Ukraine war has led to the rise of hard-power discourse, writes Maria Merkouraki. The war has disrupted traditional pro-European soft-power messaging, and shifted the EU's approach to digital diplomacy

Juggling power and values

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 resulted in unprecedented EU sanctions against Russia. Early in the war, the EU, adopting digital diplomacy, took to its official social media accounts to declare steadfast unity with Ukraine.

This new digital narrative has unwittingly revealed the brittle, vulnerable nature of the EU. The EU's outwardly strong political stance may encourage sustainable integration and cooperation between member states. But it also signals a new internal conflict within the EU – one that requires liberal values to coexist pragmatically with the need for survival.

Can we measure the influence of the EU in a turbulent environment? The war casts doubt on whether this is possible. The war also raises questions about the effectiveness of EU digital diplomacy. Does the EU’s new digital-diplomacy approach signify an ambitious diplomatic restart? Or is it another liberal challenge? Experts in digital diplomacy remain divided.

EU digital diplomacy

EU digital diplomacy has faced many challenges. To improve communication, the main EU institutional bodies have worked hard to strengthen their diplomatic priorities at a digital level. The European External Action Service (EEAS) outlines a three-fold strategy for EU digital diplomacy: securing its global role; protecting its strategic interests; and promoting a human-centric regulatory framework for inclusive transformation. Indeed, over the last decade, EU digital diplomacy has been informed by the unofficial motto 'understand, inform, influence'.

The EU's digital communication strategy aims to position the bloc as a paragon of international trustworthiness

The European Commission was quick to recognise the significance of digital diplomacy, identifying it with greater self-confidence at the international level. Through transparent digital communication strategies, focusing on soft power tactics, the EU aims to establish itself as a paragon of international trustworthiness. Against this background, the Council of the EU concluded in 2022 that periods of international instability pose a threat to the EU's vision. In 2023, the Council of the EU reiterated its intention to prioritise improved digital diplomacy. The EU aims to increase its influence by creating a common understanding between multiple actors.

Since the Russian invasion, EU digital diplomacy has shifted to a distinctly political tone. The implication is that fighting talk will translate into action.

Mapping the change on EU X accounts

EU institutional accounts on X (formerly Twitter) show how the war has damaged EU-Russia relations. This creates a reputational challenge for official EU communications. Putin's coercive foreign policy, conflicting agendas, and mistrust of a shared neighbourhood have all exacerbated tensions between EU leaders and Russia. On official EU X accounts, European authorities lined up to offer scathing condemnations of Russian aggression.

For all its horrors, the war has fostered solidarity among Ukrainian people. Behind the EU's strong political stance on X are a wealth of #StandWithUkraine hashtags supporting Ukrainian independence.

EU digital messaging confirms that Ukraine is fighting not only for its own survival but for the security of the entire EU

The EU's digital messaging indicates that Ukraine is fighting not just for its own survival but for the security of the entire EU. EU leaders' X accounts encourage full integration of Ukraine into the EU. In short, two parallel wars appear to be taking place: a conflict of ideologies and identities, and a battle of narratives between Russian expansionism and European liberalism.

A single voice for the EU

The Russia-Ukraine war marks a turning point for EU digital diplomacy. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen posted on X to assure followers that the war would be a defining moment for the EU. Describing the war as a genuine threat, she invited all EU countries to stand firm with Ukraine.

Similarly, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell Fontelles has stressed on social media that Europe must assume full strategic responsibility for Ukraine. And in contrast with the EU's soft messaging, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola's posts denouncing Russia are couched in powerful geopolitical language. Clearly, the war has ushered in a new style of official discourse.

In his recent speech at the European Defence Agency Annual Conference, Charles Michel echoed Council of Europe founder Robert Schuman's famous quote, reconfirming the EU’s shift in Realpolitik:

Europe will not be made all at once, but it will be made

Charles Michel, president of the european council, december 2023

Increasingly, new digital technologies are becoming drivers of geopolitical competition and barometers of global influence. Still, it is difficult to see how EU digital diplomacy will facilitate transparent decision-making processes.

Will the EU's new diplomatic digital language still benefit the EU's digital diplomacy ambitions after the conflict is over? For the EU, the Russia-Ukraine war addresses issues beyond the conceptualisation of digital diplomacy discourse. The war has revealed how the EU needs to reconsider its narrative strategies. Digital diplomacy must combine with digital foreign policy to enhance an ambitious new smart power digital language.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Maria Merkouraki
Maria Merkouraki
PhD Candidate, School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

Maria is a member of the teaching staff at the Hellenic Coast Guard.

Her academic research focuses on EU digital diplomacy, EU public diplomacy, and EU foreign policy, and extends to the study of strategic communication, geopolitics, human rights diplomacy, and international relations.

She has attended and participated as a speaker in seminars and workshops.

She has also published a number of articles and research papers, including:

ErdoÄźan's Twitter Diplomacy ahead of the 2023 Presidential Elections

A Historical Review of Beijing's Soft Power

Analysis of the Geopolitical Implications of the Russia-Ukraine War

The Israel-Hamas War: is Russia an Ambitious Diplomatic Player?

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