It is a cold night in Vienna. The moon shines harshly on frosted Baroque palaces as the Russian diplomat hurries by, his breath painting the air with furtive clouds, he pauses to send a message to his contact when a noise behind him makes him freeze in terror. A man watches from afar as his dogs tear the diplomat apart.
An international incident? A dark tale from the Cold War?
No. A recent event on Twitter when Mikhail Ulyanov, permanent representative of Russia in Vienna, found himself unable to use his Twitter account due to being harangued by hundreds of cartoon dogs, or doges.
Ulyanov was a victim of NAFO, the North Atlantic Fellas Organization, a loose online collective united only by their Shiba Inu avatars and their hatred of ‘Vatniks’.
What’s a Vatnik?
‘Vatnik’ is a name coined in ex-Soviet states for those who blindly follow or spout Russian propaganda. It’s a modern version of the ‘Tankie’ label that was applied to westerners who unquestioningly defended the Soviet Union, even as Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary.
A ‘fella’ is a character loosely based around the Shiba Inu dogs so popular in meme culture. Importantly ‘fella’ is gender neutral: there are male, female and non-binary fellas. Louise Mensch got quite upset about that recently.
Why is Mensch arguing about cartoon dogs? Because NAFO is an online phenomenon. In three months, they have gone from a single goofy character drawn by NAFO president @Kama_Kamilia, to an online movement that has raised thousands of dollars for Ukrainian military and humanitarian causes.
Rules of engagement: how does NAFO raise money?
NAFO encourages its members to try and get well-known Vatnik accounts to block them (@russianEmbassy, @Amb_Ulyanov etc..) then screenshot the block screen as proof of the action. The screenshot is then shared on NAFO channels and either the poster or another NAFO member makes a donation to a pro-Ukraine cause.
If it is a new member, the post will include a request for a custom fella avatar graphic e.g ‘a fella in a flight-suit’.
At the time of writing, NAFO has channelled over a hundred thousand US dollars into Ukrainian causes using this technique.
Effectiveness: the power of doge
I imagine you’re thinking: ‘Wow. I bet the Ukrainian soldiers under 24-hour bombardment by Smerch rockets really appreciate that folks in the comfortable West are prepared to step up and post cartoon dogs on the Russian ambassador’s social media. That’s a lot of help’, but actually, social media is a key battlefield in Russia’s information war.
The Russian tactic of ‘act, deny, deflect’ requires that accounts exist that are able to spread Russian denials and counter-narratives from seemingly neutral actors. One counter-intelligence technique is to have informed people engage with and counter these narratives with facts. Not only is this technique hugely labour intensive, but it also dignifies the hostile narrative as a point of view worthy of debate.
When a Russian story explaining how the Ukrainians bomb their own cities is met with hundreds of small dogs shouting ‘Vatnik nonsense! *BONK*!!!’ It denies the Russians the opportunity to engage and promote. The clownishness of the attacks exposes the clownishness of the narrative.
Kremlin denies Andrew Korybko has a huge head
Andrew Korybko, a pro-Kremlin American commentor living in Moscow, recently upset people in Pakistan with his tweets. The hostile engagement he received (including the #BanAndrewKorybko hashtag) inadvertently allowed him to promote Kremlin views on Pakistani affairs to a much larger audience then he could normally access.
In contrast, when Korybko has to argue with a NAFO account about whether or not he “has a huge head” he is unable to include much in the way of Kremlin talking points. If he blocks the attacker, then he is just encouraging another donation to Ukrainian interests.
There’s no doubt that NAFO tactics erode the effectiveness of voices like Korybko. It will be interesting to see if Russia is able to develop a counter strategy as the war continues.
Emotional support doges
Are NAFO a troll network as Mensch labelled them? Are they a bunch of war-hungry macho hawks who just want to glory in the death of the enemy?
It would appear not. At least, a substantial portion of them aren’t anyway. A user posting on the NAFO hashtag about his personal grief was met with hundreds of compassionate and understanding replies. One fella account posted simply “crying will help. You are not alone”.
So, who are these people that invest time and energy in something so clownish and intangible?
The core could best be described as ‘conflict Twitter’, a collection of serving troops, veterans or military tech nerds with its centre of gravity in the US and Canada. However, the post-Soviet diaspora is also included (as evidenced by the use of the term ‘Vatnik’), and NAFO members post in a number of languages other than English.
The diversity of the NAFO membership is probably best represented in the requests that @Kama_Kamilia receives for custom fella avatars. Requests range from “a fella in a Gundam pilot suit”, “a Florence Nightingale fella”, all the way to “a NAFO face on Klimt’s Pallas Athene”.
The movement effortlessly spans cultural and political divides. US Republican Adam Kinzinger has just declared himself a member. Many NAFO members just seem to be people living in relatively safe countries who are horrified by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, feel helpless and want to be part of a force for good.
NAFO expansion, it would seem, is truly non-negotiable.