Chris York explains how the NAFO phenomenon is just one example of the decentralised ingenuity of Ukraine’s civil society against the centralised troll farms and bots of the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare

Of all the thousands of books, journals and academic papers written over the centuries about the future of warfare, it’s a fair assumption that not a single one mentioned cartoon dogs.

And yet here we are, in a world where an online army of Shibu Inus under the banner of the North Atlantic Fellas Organisation (NAFO) are playing a part in Ukraine’s fight against Russia, significant enough to be endorsed by defence ministers and featured in full-page spreads and front pages on some of the biggest news sites in the world.

NAFO has also clearly rattled the Kremlin, with a recent piece on Russian state-backed news site RT trying – characteristically without any evidence whatsoever – to claim that rather than a network of real people, it’s simply a bot army and the west is hypocritical for lavishing praise on it while criticising Russia’s actual troll farms.

It’s little surprise that Russia is trying to discredit NAFO because it is just a small part of a Ukrainian super-weapon that’s helping fight its war and which Russia has no hope of ever recreating – a thriving and highly effective domestic and global civil society.

“If Ukrainians have a problem, Ukrainians work out how to solve it,” Ukrainian lawyer turned drone operator Yevhen Pronin told Byline Times. “When Russians have a problem, they just wait for someone else to come along and help them. 

“Our mentalities are absolutely different.”


What is NAFO?

What NAFO is and how it works has been covered extensively elsewhere, but for the uninitiated, here’s a quick overview.

The phenomenon was born back in May of this year when a 27-year-old Pole called Kamil posted a picture composed of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) logo with a picture of a Shiba Inu doge on top with NAFO instead of NATO.

The Shiba Inu has long been a staple of internet meme culture, popping up in countless communities over the years, perhaps most notably – until now at least – being the face of a largely useless cryptocurrency that suddenly become worth billions off the back of an endorsement from Elon Musk.

Now it had found a new, and far more useful home, as the face of a fundraising effort for the Georgian Legion fighting in Ukraine. Kamil’s original post and his splicing of Shiba Inus into videos mocking the Russian war effort whilst celebrating Ukrainian victories soon grew in popularity.

A system quickly evolved where anyone posting a screenshot of their donation to the Georgian Legion could request a Shibu Inu-based avatar of their own – called a “fella”,  and within a few weeks, a worldwide movement was in motion.

NAFO has scored a number of online victories, each one a marker of its growing popularity and influence. 

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In June, Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov got into a Twitter spat with a fella who was mocking him over Russia’s killing of civilians. Ulyanov’s reply of “You pronounced this nonsense. Not me.” became a meme in itself and now emblazons the t-shirts, mugs and hoodies of the NAFO merchandise that is now sold to aid the fundraising effort.

Just last week in an ultimate endorsement of NAFO, Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov tweeted a “personal salute to #NAFOfellas” and briefly changed his avatar to his own fella wearing a suit and trying a Ukrainian shield.

Reznikov’s endorsement was accompanied by a slew of articles in western media, detailing the NAFO movement’s origins, beliefs and how it aids Ukraine’s war effort against Russia. And while they all noted the concrete offline contributions made by this very online movement, it’s arguable that they have missed what NAFO truly represents – an army of civil activists fighting a war against an enemy that has no means to fight back against them.


Ukraine’s Thriving Civil Society

Since the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 when Ukrainians protested and died for their express wish to be closer to Europe than Russia, the country’s civil society has thrived, and has been fighting an eight-year information and military war with Russia since the annexation of Crimea and the original Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine.

“The events of [the Revolution of Dignity] taught us how to do things, how to organise, how to mobilise and how to get the things we need,” Ukrainian policy analyst Kateryna Zarembo, tells Byline Times.

Over the last few years this has manifested as countless civil society groups, spanning the entire country with each specialising in a specific area needed to help combat the threat from Russia.

In Lviv in the west, pensioners in church groups weave camouflage netting for troops, in the capital Kyiv, fact-checkers and journalists combat Russian propaganda and by the Black Sea in Odesa, medics rescue civilians and soldiers from attacks, keeping them alive with equipment raised by donations from the public.

“The extent of the Ukrainian resistance has been absolutely amazing, even to ourselves,” says Zarembo. “The scale of common mobilisation is massive. Civil society has helped turn back the Russians. 

“Even the army says it’s not just them that fights, it’s the whole country. The whole country is on the frontline.”

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Back in February just days before the invasion, Byline Times visited a church in Lviv where, for almost every weeknight for eight years, a small group has gathered in the basement to weave pieces of excess cloth from a nearby textiles factory into camouflage netting for their “boys” in the army.

It’s a scene that is not only repeated in halls, basements and rooms across the country, but one that received a fresh injection of volunteers and donations at the beginning of the invasion. While the initial level of enthusiasm was unsustainable long-term and has understandably levelled off, mirroring support abroad, these groups still do their part.

“We have to work,” 64-year-old teacher Liubov Sokil, who organises the Lviv church group, tells Byline Times. “In fact, we work a hundred times more for Ukraine, for our Defenders.

“Each of us is responsible for the fate of our state, because we feel a sacred duty to bring Victory closer with our work. Each of us does what we can.

“This is how we live. Some Ukrainians are fighting, and others are holding the back line, because we understand that only together, supporting and helping each other, will we defeat the enemy and preserve our identity.”


Decentralised Ukraine vs Centralised Russia

In Russia, this system of free-thinking and decentralised civil society struggles to exist. Many decisions have to go through the Kremlin or government officials, slowing down decision-making, snuffing out initiative, and creating a society less inclined to take matters into their own hands when times demand it.

“When I go on Russian forums and someone wants to fundraise money for some drones for example, they just start arguing with each other and ask why they should have to buy them and not the government,” says Pronin.

“But in Ukraine, there are no questions – if it’s needed, they will get it.”

One of the more visible areas in which these two different approaches are at work is that of disinformation. In Ukraine, a number of groups such as StopFake, Texty and Detector Media have spent the years since 2014 honing their skills in the information war against Russia.

The NAFO movement has helped do to Russian propaganda what the Ukrainian resistance has done to its army – showing what was thought to be a formidable juggernaut to actually be an incompetent mess

Between them, they produce articles, videos, newsletters, lectures and countless other things documenting, debunking and fighting back against Russian propaganda.

One of the main reasons Ukraine was so fast and so successful in winning the information war when Russia invaded in February was because all these groups were ready to go, knew exactly what they needed to do and didn’t have to wait for the green light from the government – they just got on with it.

Compare this to the Russian response in which propaganda narratives about the invasion have to go through official state-backed media channels and be signed off by the Kremlin. Even Russia’s attempts to release internet-friendly debunking efforts were produced by the government and released through the social media feeds of the Ministry of Defence and their various embassies around the world.

The result has been a clunky and highly predictable propaganda effort that no one – aside from a handful of die-hard conspiracy theorists – has believed for a second.


The Ukrainian Government Harnesses Public Support

UNITED24 is a fundraising platform launched by President Zelensky in May in an attempt to tap into the global outpouring of public support for Ukraine. It’s been wildly successful, so far raising $180,252,665 to be spent on a whole range of things from demining equipment, body armour, ambulances and a reconstruction fund to rebuild after the war.

A major part of its work is the Army of Drones, which provides Pronin with drones he uses to conduct reconnaissance and attack Russian positions on the front lines of the conflict. 

“It’s so great,” he tells Byline Times over coffee in Kyiv. “When you stay on the frontline you can still feel the support, with people sending messages and more equipment.”

In Odesa, Byline Times met 25-year-old Maksym Viurkov, a paramedic who has been working with new equipment provided by United 24, ALV ventilators that keep people breathing as they’re taken from the frontlines or where missiles have hit civilian targets to hospital.

“It’s vital to have these machines,” he tells Byline Times while seated in the back of his ambulance. “I’ve saved ten lives with this type of machine and that’s just my experience.

“I’m really proud that our people are so supportive. And I’m so grateful that people from abroad are helping as well so that we can continue fighting.”

It has to be noted that there is a flip side to Ukraine’s fundraising movement – some of it is filling a gap the Ukrainian government couldn’t fill itself due to a variety of factors, not least the economic ravages of eight years of war with Russia, but also corruption. (United24 is working with Deloitte to audit its finances).

Despite this, an undeniable fact remains – a huge community both inside and outside of Ukraine is more than happy to do what they need to do to plug the gaps.

Russia is also crowdfunding for supplies but its efforts pale in comparison to those in Ukraine, not least because the Russian government continues to play down the true scale of losses it suffers and the poor equipment it uses.

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So Where does NAFO Fit In?

The fact a movement like NAFO can play a small but significant role in Ukraine’s fight against Russia is because the space created by a decentralised civil society allows an organic and spontaneous movement to find its own place in the information war.

It’s inconceivable to imagine Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, happily endorsing a meme community trying to fight Ukraine. The closest thing Russia has to NAFO is a list of Kremlin-approved western “journalists” who are allowed to accompany Russian troops into occupied areas of Ukraine and who are more than happy to report the obvious lies of the Kremlin.

Then there’s the online activists of the bizarre “Z” movement which, rather than being a genuine civil action, is a Kremlin-backed troll farm with people paid to push Russian state narratives.

The NAFO movement has helped do to Russian propaganda what the Ukrainian resistance has done to its army – showing what was thought to be a formidable juggernaut to actually be an incompetent mess.

Ukrainian civil society groups have for years now done a commendable job of cataloguing, debunking and fighting back against Russian propaganda but what has been lacking from these efforts is the pure absurdity of NAFO, something that Russia appears to not be able to handle in the slightest.

“It’s weaponising humour,” Christian Borys the founder of Saint Javelin, a group that raises money for the Ukrainian war effort and has helped monetise the NAFO movement by helping produce a whole range of NAFO merchandise, tells Byline Times.

“The Russians always had the edge on propaganda because their propaganda was so absurd. We always relied on evidence to counter it, we’d put forward evidence to show they were lying but they’d just show us their made-up proof and you’d just get stuck in this endless circle of bullshit.

“But now we’ve one-upped their absurdity and they’re absolutely lost, they don’t know what’s going on anymore.”

And for all the coverage afforded NAFO in recent weeks, some fellas feel the movement is still being underestimated, with not enough focus on the offline, real-world endeavours of those involved.

“The popular understanding of NAFO is that it’s strictly an online movement, which may provoke criticism that the fellas are “keyboard warriors” or something of that nature,” Andrew*, a Ukrainian-American who came over from the US to fight and spoke on condition of anonymity, told Byline Times.

“But in reality, apart from the fact that many fellas have materially contributed to the war effort, others are volunteers on the ground in Ukraine, and a few, myself included, are actually serving in the military.”

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The Troubles Ahead

The biggest problem facing civil society’s support for Ukraine is just how sustainable it is. The initial first weeks after Russia’s invasion prompted an unprecedented global outpouring of support, from donations, people driving supplies across Europe to Ukraine’s border, to the long-term hosting of Ukrainians in countries all across the world.

Inevitably, this level of support has dropped off considerably but one of the biggest strengths of the NAFO community is keeping people engaged in the conflict and providing a community that can support those who are still helping on the ground.

Petr Simon, a 48-year-old from the Czech Republic, has dedicated a considerable amount of time and money to not only helping nine Ukrainian families staying in his village, but also driving back and forth to the border with supplies.

“I was a volunteer firefighter 15 years ago, I was always helping people around me so when the war broke out it was a natural choice,” he tells Byline Times. 

“But it’s great to get some motivation and feedback because it can be difficult to volunteer and help sometimes, dealing with people who have been through such trauma.”

Vladimir Putin is relying on western support for Ukraine to drop to a level where tensions over the cost of living crisis in countries like the UK – itself caused in large part by Russia’s energy blackmailing of the west – outweigh concern for the fate of Ukraine.

“The Kremlin hoped that people would stop caring and that hasn’t happened,” says Borys. “And I’m sure that in a small way all of this stuff like NAFO that happens online contributes to that.” 

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