Russia is waging a hybrid war to maintain political control of Ukraine. The West (the US, NATO or the EU, or specific European nations) is reluctant to become a proactive ally of Ukraine and thus an overt enemy of Russia, even in the defense of Eastern Ukraine with areas glaringly under Russian military occupation under the thin guise of defending “independence”-seekers in the Donbas. Lacking in military resources, Ukraine is hard-pressed to repel or deter Russian aggression. However, Ukraine has the latent potential to push back unilaterally and non-militarily against Russia within the information space where a concerted effort to target messaging and communications, including news coverage, to the international audience and their domestic population, particularly its Russian-speakers, could shift international opinion more in its favor and more toward supportive action.
- Russia’s measured “Gerasimov doctrine” soft power tactics of asymmetric warfare involving the information space in Ukraine combined with the Western entities’ perpetuation of the Russian narrative have given the Kremlin a “safe space” from direct and explicit punitive countermeasures from European institutions, such as the NATO and the EU.
- Ukraine’s domestic political issues from Euromaidan to election politicking for the upcoming 2019 presidential elections are being rewritten by Russia to serve as a foundation for its own political agenda while also undermining Ukrainian efforts to obtain Western political, military and economic counter-support.
- Most of the world (including the West writ large) is receiving its news and narrative of events in Ukraine through a Russian lens and script.
Why Should Americans Care?
Because the modern Russian state ideologically—and politically—needs Ukraine, which is not only resource-rich but generally provides the Kremlin’s historic basis for legitimacy, never mind Putin’s rhetoric on the campaign trail. Exploiting this in our favor could be as rife with opportunity to strengthen our hand in terms of a wedge against Russia and a new Eastern frontier for NATO (Belarus may make it sticky). That said, such an endeavor comes with the risk of “poking” Putin. Who knows what Fancy Bear et al. may do to retaliate directly (not very likely) or indirectly (much more likely). Simply put, Ukraine has the potential as a unique point of leverage for the U.S. against Russia, politically, economically and militarily.
While Kiev has already made top-down and grassroots-focused efforts toward this end, in addition to private efforts such as “fake news” social media disruptor StopFake, the measures have yet to successfully target Russia’s practical control over the international media narrative, and particularly its reporting of the war in eastern Ukraine. For even longer-term strategic re-positioning, Ukraine’s unique history which predates yet forms the basis of the modern Russian nation’s narrative could also provide an element for rewriting the relational script between the two post-Soviet nations.
Digital Information Space Opportunity to Crack Russian Control
Western lackluster response thus far to Russia’s violent military occupation in eastern Ukraine has largely catered to Russia in order to avoid “provoking” Vladimir Putin. Two such examples would be the EU and NATO summits’ mutual failure to clearly condemn Russia for its role in instigating and perpetuating a conveniently undeclared and falsely “civil” war in Ukraine.
With the 2019 Ukrainian presidential elections heating up, much of the world’s attention is focused on candidates and parties and who may or may not be in the bag for the Kremlin. This includes how the winner will solve (or fail to solve) Ukraine’s domestic post-Soviet political problems such as oligarchic corruption of a broken and imperfect democratic system. The West, including the European Union, NATO and the United States, will be paying attention to the domestic elections but whose publics at least will interpret the races and implications of the results (carrying over to whether or not there is a stake in Ukraine), at least in part based on the public media reports read. Russia, too, is waiting for the winner.
Still, Ukrainian opportunity for freedom from the Kremlin’s preferred political yoke vis-à-vis its soft power manipulation of reality does not hinge on electing the “right” president, pushing through the right long-term reforms in the interim, or physically pushing or bombing Russia out of its insurgent military control in the East. Rather, it rests with waging an effective, offensive counter-insurgent information war to break Russia’s monopolization of the nation’s own political narrative of its past, present and future, something which is weakening with the advent of the digital global information space.
The unwritten long-term objective of such a strategic media campaign would be the perpetuation of a Western-oriented Ukraine as a stand-alone entity from its self-proclaimed “Big Brother” rather than as part of a package deal. The diversification of Ukrainian media sources would also perpetuate a rather foco-esque counterinsurgency approach to the problem, forcing Putin to play whack-a-mole and perhaps to even argue that “all” Ukrainian media —state-run, public and private— is just a grand conspiracy out to get him. While it may be “true,” a more fundamental truth for Western democratic society is freedom of the press. Forcing Putin to attack it in defense would be a strategic win for Ukraine.
After all, Russia has carefully manufactured a “civil war” crisis in Eastern Ukraine as a pretense for “intervention” in Ukraine’s sovereign affairs. It fits part and parcel with more than a decade of intervention by other means in order to prevent the former Soviet satellite from shrugging off Kremlin control and aligning with Europe. Without a clear exit plan to save face for Vladimir Putin, the situation appears a stalemate. Breaking the Soviet playbook script could hold the potential to give Putin an out, whether offering him a face-saving exit or undermining his pretext for being there in the first place.
Russia’s Penchant for Revisionist History – Even at the World Cup
When Croatian soccer player Domagoj Vida made the “Slava Ukraini!” or Glory to Ukraine! salute to his Ukrainian fans (he had played in Kyiv) during a July 7 victory over Russia, the international football authority FIFA was compelled to intervene, first making threats at Russia’s behest against the player before coercing an apology for the outburst. Showcasing Russia’s strategic love for conveniently revising Ukraine’s and its own history, and its tenterhooks in international media, the incident was reported in the ensuing media melee as an extension of the Maidan “coup” by London’s Independent newspaper, owned by a former KGB agent since 2010.
“Slava Ukraini!” or Glory to Ukraine! is a nationalist chant with a mixed history harkening back to the First World War which has been tempered with time to be akin to Vive La France! It was adopted by the Maidan protestors furious over a president’s betrayal of aligning with Russia rather than with Europe as the voters willed—it made international headlines during the 2018 World Cup hosted by Russia, and it was not the alleged “fascists” who took the public relations brunt. However, “…since Soviet times, the preferred propaganda response to the Ukrainian independence movement has always been to brand Ukrainian protestors as fascists, with ‘Glory to Ukraine‘ as their version of ‘Heil Hitler.’”
Modern Russia, including its current president Vladimir Putin, has stolen and exploited Ukrainian history (even that predating Muscovy by four centuries) to perpetuate a post-Soviet Russian basis for intervention in its neighbor’s otherwise sovereign affairs. Russia’s information warfare re-packaging of current events has been showcased in deliberate misrepresentations of history, and one which resonated with its own voters. For instance, Putin’s timely proffered protection of Russian-speakers and not “Russians” per se plays into Russian media proselytization of this demographic that such “help” is not only needed but warranted from a leader beyond sovereign boundaries.
It could also be seen as stoking global partisan politics when it comes to potential sources of international support. For example, looking at U.S. domestic politics, World War-era “fascist” threats have become a broad brushstroke misapplied to American populism and to President Trump himself. It is not hard to imagine a vicious, self-perpetuating and strategic cycle of kompromat to then be disseminated by the Russian state media to be picked up by the Western media drumming up alleged claims of international support for “fascists” and the ensuing public outcry, especially in the midst of midterms and upcoming presidential elections.
Yet the World Cup illuminated for anyone looking past the term “fascist” clarified—if briefly and on a limited scale— that the conflict is not an organic civil war but one of Russia invading Ukraine in a not very brotherly or even paternal way. Unfortunately, the former KGB officer-owned Independent report was picked up in turn by the British daily The Sun and even Bloomberg, carrying the Kremlin’s extremist-nationalists lineage of the slogan (Glory to Ukraine!) dating back to World War II separatist Stepan Bandera. The “big picture” truth of Russia’s not-so-civil war got lost in the mis-reporting melee. This is due at least in part to the West’s “widespread habit of relying on Moscow correspondents to cover the country.”
Underreported and Misrepresented
The Kremlin, to a point, perpetuates an echo chamber in Western media for its “civil war” narrative (among other topics), a poignant area for concern given the asymmetric “soft power” elements of this conflict. At the same time, Ukraine is rarely the “author” or source of its own organic news picked up by the West. A recent news analysis of more than 6,000 Ukraine-centric headlines in 14 leading Western media entities from October 2016 to March 2018 reveals:
- Ukraine is reported most often in tandem with Russia further perpetuating the Russian historical narrative.
- Ukraine (including the war) is also losing international coverage in the West. It is 2.4 times less at the conclusion of the study than it was at the beginning of it.
- Not only is Ukraine losing an important means of gaining political attention and concern, which translates to support on the world stage, but just three Russian-state media (propaganda) enterprises — TASS, Russia Today and Sputnik — presented a comparable amount of coverage of the events in Ukraine, muddying reality.
Dissatisfied with such a status quo in light of Russia’s increasing media and election meddling, Ukraine in 2014 began developing its own alternatives and means to de-bunk Russian-state media and related disinformation efforts. These efforts include the founding of the Ministry of Information Policy, the UATV television station, and the multilingual Ukrinform. Also undertaken in the wake of Euromaidan (2014), Ukraine in 2017 established the “Doctrine of Information Security” to counter the Russian influence.
In addition to state-led efforts, volunteers, crowdfunding and donors were responsible for the creation of StopFake and Ukrainian Crisis Media Center, as well as the broadcast of English-language TV channel Ukraine Today, in order to wage “information war” against Kremlin propaganda. Although Ukraine appears largely squeezed out of international coverage by the Russia media machine, the March 2014 launch of StopFake, a crowdsourced initiative of journalism students, professionals, and Ukrainian and international Internet users, marked a turning point. It was the start of a shift for Ukraine going on the offensive and at the grassroots level.
Given Russia’s shutdown of social media and its control over the Internet in the occupied areas of Ukraine, the arrest of journalists like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Stanislav Aseyev by Russian military entities in Ukraine, and the flow of unfiltered information — or at least Ukraine-serving communications — becomes even more impeded and critical. Increasing Internet- or mobile-phone-based access and competition to Russian television broadcasts with large audiences in the eastern and southern regions could be an area for exploration, with such efforts already being made by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty remotely from Kiev.
Information Warfare: The Best Defense is a Good, Long-Term Offense
Soviet-era propaganda grossly benefited from a one-way street and fact-checking limited by time, lack of alternatives, and punitive measures. The advent of social media and the rise of alternate news and information channels comes with the potential to break Russia’s “bottleneck” of control over international perception of Ukraine. More promising still is that cyberspace is an area where even traditionally non-defensive institutions, such as the European Union, and initiatives could act proactively to counteract Russian propaganda necessary for its soft power strategy minus the use of physical force. While modern academics debate whether or not Russia’s soft power projections via its messaging manipulation are expansionist-oriented, stability-focused or targeted ultimately toward the West, many agree that the Kremlin’s own hard power deployments in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) are undermining its self-branding as a benefactor.
Ukraine could perhaps borrow from Estonia’s pro-active example of developing “Russian-language,” but Estonian media to reach that part of its constituency will most likely to be targeted and persuaded by Kremlin media and propaganda efforts, as part of a slow war effort to better assimilate this audience. Such a model could help smooth over patriotic but misguided post-Maidan efforts which in part marginalized Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population, already bombarded with a counter-identity narrative from the Kremlin. It could also help journalists and other “truth-seekers” to avoid a degree of confrontation with those harboring conflicting interests within Ukraine.
Militarily, Ukraine cannot outpace Russia or push it out of the East without external support. Though Russia has since the early 2000s began a significant investment in state control over media within its own border and in the near abroad, it is not unreasonable to anticipate that Ukraine could not only catch up but get ahead, given that the “colored revolutions” accelerated Russia’s quest for control which the Kremlin viewed as an insurance policy for domestic stability and “friendly” neighbors, and Euromaidan and Russia’s invasion to the East compelled Ukraine to lay the foundation of its defensive information operations. With international overt or covert support, Ukraine’s strategic political communications efforts could be significantly improved.
Admittedly, information warfare would benefit significantly from appearing as an organic enterprise, whether through local stations or newfound international associations providing Ukraine-narrated fact-based coverage of Ukrainian news and events within its borders, particularly those involving the conflict with Russia. It is also an area where subtle international support through funding, technical expertise and best-practices education could potentially make significant inroads toward Ukrainian gains in this particular theater of war.
Though Ukraine is starting late with its own brand of information warfare (with or without support from the West), Ukraine has the potential to not just fact-check fake news or kompromat, but to outflank and rewrite the Ukraine-Russia script altogether for an international audience, one with potential backers, allies and bankrollers for its domestic and international objectives. After all, as Joseph Nye observed (and Rotaru reminds us), “Information is power.”