Three years after their military invaded Ukraine, @Russia—a team of diplomats at Moscow’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs—last month tried to rub it in: “We dedicate this video to those who try to hurt us with new sanctions!” they tweeted, with a video of burly knights swinging medieval weapons.
The official account of @Ukraine responded with a cartoon of dopey “South Park” characters thwacking each other on the heads with wooden sticks—a post that got thousands of retweets, far surpassing the original.
Ukraine has taken painful hits in its conflict with Russia, losing control of Crimea and some eastern territory and watching power grids fall to hackers allegedly from Russia. In the Twitter theater of conflict, however, it’s holding its own.
The @Ukraine versus @Russia battle pits one of the world’s cyberwarfare superpowers against the three nerdy Twitter comedians behind @Ukraine. The low-budget effort is run by Yarema Dukh, 30, and a colleague who have full-time jobs as press officers for Ukraine’s president, and a third volunteer.
“It’s cool when we kick Russia’s ass,” Mr. Dukh said in an interview in a coffee shop near the presidential administration.
For all its formidable internet propaganda machinery, the Kremlin isn’t very good at the peculiar and acquired humor of Twitter. About 80% of the tweets on Ukraine and NATO are concocted by Russian bots, according to NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence. They generally aren’t very comic.
Thousands of tweeters have taken @Ukraine’s side in its spats with accounts run by Russian foreign affairs staff. @Ukraine is generally funnier than @Russia, Twitter users say, and better at digging up obscure moments from American cartoons, the kind of retro pop culture humor that resonates internationally—at least judging by the audience reaction.
In one exchange, @Ukraine pasted a clip from “The Simpsons” in reply to @Russia. In it, a Russian diplomat’s nameplate flips to read “Soviet Union.” It went viral.
“Everyone in Ukraine is affected by the war, and it would be wrong not to use every tool we have to fight back,” says Mr. Dukh.
The Twitter fight “is an old phenomenon in a new form,” says Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at Prague’s Institute of International Relations, who compares it to the Space Race or the Cold War’s marquee U.S.-Soviet hockey games.
“Once upon a time it would have been a chess match between the two countries. It allows a certain venting of pressures,” he says. “It’s silly and petty, but then again human beings are silly and petty. So in that sense Twitter is fulfilling its role.”
Many governments are ditching the stodgy politesse of public diplomacy in favor of juvenile tweets. U.S. President Donald Trump’s regular insults of other world leaders have inspired some to fire back. Mexico’s former president Vicente Fox often responds in profanity-packed English.
“He has found a way to make Twitter and Facebook an as effective if not more effective bully pulpit than the actual Mexican presidency,” said Adam Sharp, Twitter’s former head of governments.
“While you were breeding moose, we were busy propagating the world,” tweeted Denmark’s official account to Sweden’s, posting an article claiming Danish sperm donors were in demand.
“Sometimes it gets a bit, how can I say, rowdy,” said Jacob Stenberg, the Swedish government official behind his country’s account. “Everything doesn’t have to be extremely rational all the time. We’re allowed to show that we’re human beings and we can have fun.”
The cyberbrawling echoes a disruption a century and a half ago, when the telegraph turned statecraft into a quick-reaction business of sharply-worded cables. “My God, this is the end of diplomacy,” British statesman Lord Palmerston is said to have remarked after receiving his first wire.
Mr. Dukh and his team don’t need permission to fling cartoon barbs at the nuclear power next door, though they occasionally check in with Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Earlier this month, @Russia posted a picture of a flower taken in “Crimea, Russia.”
@Ukraine replied with a shot of John Travolta looking around an empty room: “The image eloquently captures the number of those who thinks likewise,” it said.
Days later, a Russian embassy tweeted an esoteric summary of a United Nations report about Ukraine.
@Ukraine replied with a clip of Jimbo Jones, a cartoon bully from “The Simpsons,” captioned “WRONG WAY, DINGUS.”
This is all new for Ukraine. When the new presidential team arrived after a pro-Russian president fled in 2014, they found a computer-illiterate bureaucracy. Most computers either didn’t have a password or the password was just one keystroke—a tap of the space bar.
Mr. Dukh, by comparison, says he grew up absorbing English from American comedies, such as “Rick and Morty” and “Forrest Gump.” He first visited an English-speaking country in 2014.
Russia does have some quirky Twitter users. Its London embassy is an eager poster that jabs Western critics. When Louise Mensch, an anti-Kremlin conspiracy theorist and former British member of Parliament, tweeted about the Russian embassy cat, saying the British Foreign Office’s kitty “could run rings round her,” @RussianEmbassy corrected her with a single word: “Him.”
Ms. Mensch, a former employee of News Corp , the owner of The Wall Street Journal, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Ukraine has allies in the fight. When a Russian account in August boasted about Crimea’s recent economic development, @Crimea, an account run by Mr. Dukh and his colleagues, shot back: “Guys, it’s really time to try something new. Upholding human rights and not invading neighbours maybe?”
@Ukraine applauded the zinger: “K. O. with style.”