Is Russian Information Warfare Counter-Productive?
Section 8 and Conclusions from “Old Wine in a New Bottle: Russia’s Modernization of Traditional Soviet Information Warfare and Active Policies Against Ukraine and Ukrainians”.
by Taras Kuzio, the Department of Political Science, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, Kyiv, Ukraine
Those watching Russian TV might be surprised to find that it often focuses more on Ukraine than on Russia itself. One estimate claimed that a third of the information on Russian TV is on Ukraine, and 90 percent of this is negative. Of the 9 million Tweets published by Twitter that came from Russia, 755,000 were on Ukraine from over 1,369 accounts.93 The European Union’s disinformation unit found that ‘Almost five years into the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the Kremlin’s use of the information weapon against Ukraine has not decreased; Ukraine still stands out as the most misrepresented country in pro-Kremlin media’.94 Boris Duregger discusses three narratives in Russia’s information warfare against Ukraine.95 The first he calls the ‘Family Narrative’, where Ukrainians and Russians were born together in Kyiv Rus and will continue living together in the Russkiy Mir. The second narrative is of a backward Ukraine, ‘which is reminiscent of the nineteenth century Russian image of Ukrainians as ignorant and clownish in character’.96 The third is the tradi- tional narrative of a ‘fascist’ Ukraine. The second and third narratives are especially at odds with the first during a period of time when Ukrainian identity has been shocked and stunned by Russia’s military aggression in the Crimea and Donbas. Katri Pynnoniemi and Andras Racz describe the ‘One Nation’ narrative as one that ‘mixes imperial mythology with a sense of betrayal (resentment) felt towards Ukraine for failing to follow Russia’s lead’.97 There have been four outcomes to Russia’s information warfare against Ukraine and Ukrainians. The first is that it has led to a major decline in trust in Russian TV, which until 2014 was watched by a large number of Ukrainians. Only 8.9 percent of Ukrainians trust Russian TV, with a high of 80.4 percent who distrust it.98 Two-thirds of Ukrainians believe that Russian propaganda is a threat to Ukraine, including 58 percent and 67 percent in the east and south respectively.99 Among young Ukrainians, of whom only 2 percent watch Russian TV, the collapse in influence of Russian media has been catastrophic. In eastern and southern Ukraine, only 4 percent and 1 percent respectively of young people watch Russian TV, and 7 percent in both regions read Russian websites; 49 percent of Ukrainians watch Ukrainian TV.100
The second result has been that an equal number of Russians view the United States and Ukraine in a negative manner.101 In monitoring three Russian TV channels and 10 websites, the United States, Ukraine, and the European Union were portrayed negatively in 94 percent, 91 percent, and 85 percent of cases respectively.102 This in turn creates a surreal paradox of Russians viewing Ukrainians as both ‘brothers’ in the traditional Soviet sense and at the same time their enemies.
After watching only Russian TV news and reading Russian publications for seven days, Vitaliy Katsenelson concluded that it ‘creates the impression that the whole of Ukraine is overrun by Nazis’, which is bizarre, as ‘Ukrainians who lived side by side with Russia did not just become Nazis overnight’.103 After watching Russian TV, Michele A. Berdy wrote that Russians have a Jekyll and Hyde relationship where they routinely denigrate Ukraine in every television talk show with comments that ‘There is no Ukraine!’ and ‘There won’t be a Ukraine!’ and in the same show talk of bringing Ukraine back into the bosom of Mother Russia.104
The third result is that Russia’s aggressive and defamatory information warfare is viewed as a threat to Ukraine’s national security and has led to official actions to reduce the influence of Russian soft power in Ukraine, which by the end of Poroshenko’s term in office had dramatically shrunk. A presidential decree on the ‘Information Security Doctrine of Ukraine’ condemned Russian information warfare for attempting to ‘inflame national and religious tensions, spread propaganda advocating aggressive war, to violently change the constitutional order or violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state’.105
The fourth result is that Russia’s derogatory information warfare is under- stood by Ukrainians as part of a package of unfriendly actions by Russia. These include allowing former Party of Regions leaders to live in exile in Russia; Russia’s annexation of the Crimea; continued military aggression toward and occupation of a third of the Donbas; economic, trade, and energy blockades; an unwillingness to compromise on the peace process; and deten- tion of 100 Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar political prisoners.
Russian narratives on the Crimea, which are sometimes supported by Western scholars, are that the Crimea was ‘always’ Russian, and its unifica- tion with Russia was just as it had ‘never’ been Ukrainian.106 Russia’s actions toward the Crimea represented a ‘legitimate action’.107 The Crimea had a right to self-determination, and Russia was protecting Russian speakers. Ukrainians do not believe any of these Russian arguments, and
Ukrainian society is not ready to accept any initiative towards ‘normalization’ of relations with Russia if the Crimea is separated from the entire complex of Ukrainian-Russian relations. It is worth pointing out that this attitude has not changed at any time in 2014–2018 … .108
Nearly three-quarters believing Ukraine and Russia are in a state of war do not believe that what is taking place in eastern Ukraine is a ‘civil war’.109
StopFake, a Ukrainian NGO, describes Russia’s Jekyll and Hyde approach to Ukraine as a ‘value and ethical inversion’ where ‘a criminal is depicted as the victim and the victim is blamed for committing the crime’.110 Russia is presented as the peacemaker assisting its ‘brother nation’ that has been dragged into a ‘civil war’ by the West.111 These narratives distract attention from Russian military assistance to the DNR (Donetsk Peoples Republic) and LNR (Luhansk Peoples Republic) and blame Kyiv for violating the Minsk accords and the Ukrainian army for human rights violations.112
The aim of this article has been twofold. The first is to show the Soviet origins of Russian information warfare. Putin has not re-invented the wheel, as most of his narratives are re-hashed from the Soviet Union. Putin has been fortunate in reviving Russian information warfare at a time of expanded technological opportunities and social media that allow its reach to be greatly expanded.
The second aim is to explain how Russian national identity has regressed into utilizing Tsarist-era views, which denigrate and ridicule the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian people. While Russian nationalism was officially permitted in the USSR from the mid 1930s to the 1980s, there were limits what could be said about Ukrainians, limits that have been discarded under Putin, thus making the possibility of Russian-Ukrainian reconciliation and achieving peace far more difficult.
93‘How a Russian Troll Factory Tried to Influence the Ukrainian Agenda’, Vox Ukraine, 11 December 2018, https://voxukraine.org/longreads/twitter-database/index-en.html.
94‘Ukraine Under Information Fire’.
95 Duregger, Similar but Not Equal.
97 Pynnoniemi and A. Racz, Fog of Falsehood, p. 93.
98‘Index of Russian Propaganda Efficiency’, Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 14–24 February 2015, http://www.kiis.com.ua/?lang=eng&cat=reports&id=510.
99‘Opportunities and Challenges Facing Ukraine’s Democratic Transition’, National Democratic Institute, December 2017, https://www.ndi.org/publications/support-democracy-remains-high-ukraine-trends-ukrainian-public-opinion.
100 Hayday and K. Zarembo, Ukrayinska Pokolinnua Z: Tsinnosti ta Orientyry (Kyiv: New Europe Centre 2017), http://neweurope.org.ua/analytics/ukrayinske-pokolinnya-z-tsinnosti-ta-oriyentyry/.
101‘Relationship to Countries’, Levada Center, 20 March 2019, https://www.levada.ru/2019/03/20/otnoshenie-k-stranam-3/.
102How Russian Media Foments Hostility Toward the West (Bucharest and Kyiv: Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation, German Marshall Fund of the United States and Ukraine Crisis Media Centre, September 2018), http://ucmc.org.ua/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/TV-II-n.pdf.
103 Katsenelson, ‘I Just Spent 7 Days Watching Only Russian News and Reading Pravda — Here’s What I Learned’, Business Insider, 18 November 2014, https://www.businessinsider.com/russias-showdown-with-west-will-worsen-2014-11?international=true&r=US&IR=T.
104 A. Berdy, ‘Let’s Talk About Ukraine’.
105‘Information Security Doctrine of Ukraine’, Presidential Decree 42 (25 February 2017), https://www.president.gov.ua/documents/472017-21374.
106 Kuzio, ‘Russia–Ukraine Crisis’ and ‘Euromaidan Revolution, Crimea and Russia-Ukraine War’.
107K. Pynnoniemi and A. Racz, Fog of Falsehood, pp. 94–98.
108‘Povernennya Krymu, Analitychna zapyska do rezultativ opytuvan hromadskoyi dumky’, Democratic Initiatives, 22 October 2018, https://dif.org.ua/uploads/pdf/4518162075bd218f183bd99.88415525.pdf.
109‘Poshuky shlyakhiv vidnovlennya suverenitetu Ukrayiny nad okupovanym Donbasom: stan hromadskoyi dumky naperedodni prezydentskykh vyboriv’, Democratic Initiatives, 13 February 2019, https://dif.org.ua/article/poshuki-shlyakhiv-vidnovlennya-suverenitetu-ukraini-nad-okupovanim-donbasom-stan-gromadskoi-dumki-naperedodni-prezidentskikh-viboriv.
110‘Fakes Debunked by the StopFake Project Between 2014–2017: Narratives and Sources’, 20 September 2018, https://www.stopfake.org/en/fakes-debunked-by-the-stopfake-project-between-2014-2017-narratives-and-sources/.
111 Vinogradov, ‘Nedostrana’ i ‘grazhdanskaya voyna’.
112‘Fakes Debunked by the StopFake Project Between 2014–2017’; and K. Pynnoniemi and A. Racz, Fog of Falsehood, p. 109.
Taras Kuzio email@example.com
Department of Political Science
National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy
2 Skovoroda Street
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