Hybrid war and visual performances in digital Donbas militarism

  • James Gregg

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This thesis explores online wartime commemoration by pro-Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine from 2015 to 2020 as a part of Russian hybrid war against Ukraine. I analyze two ‘digital memory sites’: the social media account of the Russian-backed Sparta Battalion and an online virtual museum dedicated to the Great Patriotic War in Russian-occupied Ukraine. Employing an interdisciplinary approach, I draw from memory studies, conflict studies, museum studies, media studies, performance studies, and gender studies to uncover how these institutions attempt to politically influence their audience, recruit potential fighters, and promote the pro-Russian cause in Eastern Ukraine. I argue that these sites perform war as a memory-making process and engage in the cognitive battle of ideas by using tropes that conflate World War II and the current war, but moreover, their technological flexibility allows for intimate, fantastical, and dramatically staged representations that draw from popular culture to influence, attract, and attack.

In the first chapter, I address the ethical complexities of studying and disseminating war images and propose a methodology in which I draw the photographs within the corpus to address consent and political positioning concerns. Given the inadequacy of existing ethics guidelines in the context of online wartime imagery, I argue that researchers must navigate precarious personal ethical considerations. The second chapter examines the use of memory as a weapon in hybrid warfare, using both the social media page and the digital museum as case studies. NATO's understanding of Russian influence operations has often overlooked Russia's defensive posturing in hybrid warfare and its use of memory as a strategic tool.

Chapter three positions both the social media account and the digital museum as wartime archives for collective memory construction. It highlights Sparta Battalion's use of social media to establish itself through reenactment as an inter-generational link to Second World War veterans, aiming to shape future Russian cultural memory. Meanwhile, the museum asserts itself as an archive reflecting contemporary Russian colonial control over Ukraine. Chapters four and five delve deeper into the social media page, first examining how wartime memory is enacted through photo narrative scenarios, backdrops, and themes. Lastly, they explore how gender roles in war are employed to attract young men as potential fighters while relegating local women to assistants and prizes of war. This work makes a significant contribution to both the fields of memory studies and security studies by offering unique analyses of previously unexplored content and by emphasizing the mutually beneficial connections between these disciplines.
Date of AwardJun 2025
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorVictoria Sophie Donovan (Supervisor) & Emily Finer (Supervisor)


  • Donbas
  • DNR
  • Ethics of conflict research
  • Hybrid war
  • Memory war
  • Collective memory
  • Performance theory
  • Militarized masculinities
  • Social media research
  • Digital memories

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 20 June 2029

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