National Identity Issues in the Ukrainian-Russian war
Introduction 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 from the Department of Political Science, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, Kyiv, Ukraine, where he discusses links between Tsarist, Soviet, and Russian narratives in Moscow’s contemporary information warfare. Messages in Russia’s information warfare are not only traditionally Soviet; they are also Tsarist when referring to Ukrainians.
If you continue visiting our Blog page you’ll be able to read further five chapters to find out about: 1) the Soviet origins of Russian information warfare; 2) the recurrent themes in Russian information warfare against Ukraine and Ukrainians; 3) how Russian information warfare seeks to belittle reforms and democratization in Ukraine since the Euromaidan Revolution; 4) a study of the use of Russian information warfare to distract blame from Russia; 5) whether Russian information warfare is counter-productive.
Russia’s information warfare has been analyzed by a large number of Western scholars and think tank experts.1 A small number of scholars and experts have pointed to the Soviet origins of contemporary Russian information warfare;2 even fewer have analyzed how it is heavily targeted against Ukraine and Ukrainians.3
This article fills a gap in the literature: First, it shows the links between Tsarist, Soviet, and Russian narratives in Moscow’s contemporary information warfare, and second, it investigates why Russian national identity explains why Ukraine and Ukrainians are at the forefront of Moscow’s information warfare.
The importance of Russia’s information warfare is not always highlighted by Western scholars because giving it prominence would prevent the use of a narrative that blames Ukraine and the West for the war. For example, Anna Matveeva’s4 extensive treatment of the war in Ukraine’s Donbas barely mentions Russia’s information warfare targets in Ukraine, in what Brian Whitmore describes as the Kremlin’s ‘weaponization of information’.5 Russia’s information warfare has an impact on Ukrainian-Russian relations and domestic Russian audiences in a ‘domestic culture largely untroubled by concerns of truth’.6
The weaponization of information had, and continues to have, deadly con- sequences for human rights, prisoners of war, and the prospects for reconciliation and peace in the Donbas. Russia’s information warfare is a mixture of hate and feelings of superiority consisting of ‘Hate for fellow citizens who hold a different opinion. Hate for Ukraine. Hate for the West. This hate, mixed together with the most shameless of lies, is nurtured by Russian television’.7 Viktor Alanov, a resident of Donetsk, stated: ‘What’s taking place in the heads of some Russian residents today is the result of Russian television propaganda.’8 Peter Pomerantsev calls it ‘a sort of terrorist attack on the infrastructure of the mind.’9
The use of high levels of vitriolic language, which mixes fantasy and de- humanization, includes painting a picture of a terrible Ukrainian enemy who has no humanity with ‘an image of seeking evil for the sake of evil’.10 Designed to increase emotions of aggression and hatred, fake news reports of children being raped, ‘crucified’, and tortured are ‘the sort of information they get that fuels hatred that drives this war’.11
International organizations have expressed on many occasions criticism of the use of inflammatory language. In the Donbas War, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned political leaders to refrain ‘from using messages of intol- erance, or expressions which may incite violence, hostility or discrimination’ because ‘rhetoric of hatred and propaganda fuels the escalation of the crisis in Ukraine’.12 The Council of Europe reported that ‘propaganda and biased reports’ ‘contributed to a deterioration in the security situation’ with ‘unsubstantiated’ media reports on human rights violations raising ‘tensions and fears’, which ‘thereby in fact provoke such attacks.’13
The pervasive lying of contemporary Russian leaders is one of the many cultural attributes they have inherited from the USSR and central to Russia’s information warfare. Mette Skak makes a convincing case that Russia, a country dominated by the siloviky (security forces), has a ‘strategic culture’ inherited from the Soviet KGB (‘Chekists’) and other security forces. 14 This ‘strategic culture’ influences its belief that revolutions such as the Euromaidan are the work of US and Western intelligence agencies. Lying was an ‘operational KGB tactic’, Luke Harding writes, and Putin is a ‘specialist in lying’ with a ‘habit of deceit’ that is ‘pathological’. 15 Russia is ‘a place where lies reign supreme’ and where after coming to power in 2000, Putin ‘modified and made it all the more powerful’.16 Lying to this degree has strategical consequences because it leads to an environment where Russian leaders do not themselves know ‘where reality and fiction are, when he was lying and when he was speaking the truth’.17
National identity issues are largely absent from Western writing about the Ukrainian-Russian war, with other explanations used, such as blaming NATO and EU enlargement, geopolitical competition between the EU and Russia for Ukraine, and the ‘Chekist’ nature of Putin’s regime.18 Without bringing in Russian national identity, however, it is impossible to answer the question of why Russian information warfare heavily focuses upon Ukraine and Ukrainians.
Russia’s information warfare and disinformation has been relentless and shrill in its castigation of Ukraine and Ukrainians; it exceeds anything the Soviet Union undertook during the last three decades of the USSR. Ukraine is the most misrepresented country in the Russian media, representing half of the 5,000 entries in the EU Disinformation data base. Ukraine is a ‘laboratory for Russia’s information warfare tactics’.19 ‘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.’20 Ukraine by far tops the EU’s Disinformation Base ‘as the most frequent target, with 461 references among a total of 1,000 disinformation cases reported in the course of 2018’.21 In 2018, a third (60) of the 212 fake news reports in the Russian news outlet The Insider were about Ukraine and the Crimea.
Russia penetrated Facebook and Twitter many years before it became an issue for the United States and Europe, although Ukraine had raised the issue of Russian misuse of social media in 2014. Facebook acted with surprise and seemed unable to grasp the complexity of the Russia undertaking, which had been in ‘full swing’ from early 2014. ‘We tried to monitor everything, but it was a tsunami’, Dmytro Zolotukhin recalled of Ukraine’s Information Analytical Centre at the National Security and Defense Council (RNBO). Russian imposters would act as Ukrainian officials, posting inaccurate, ficti- tious, and inflammatory information and participating in discussions seeking to spread confusion and discord.22
In May 2019, Facebook removed 97 Facebook accounts, 10 Pages, and 25 Groups. About 34,000 accounts followed one or more of these Pages, and about 86,000 accounts joined at least one of these Groups. These accounts, Pages, and Groups ‘were involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior as part of a network emanating from Russia that focused on Ukraine’. Facebook explained:
The individuals behind this activity operated fake accounts to run Pages and Groups, disseminate their content, and increase engagement, and also to drive people to an off-platform domain that aggregated various web content. They frequently posted about local and political news including topics like the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Russian politics, political news in Europe, politics in Ukraine and the Syrian civil war.23
Russia has often used Ukraine as a testing ground for new tactics, and in the 2019 elections, Russian intelligence had sought Ukrainians from whom it would buy, open, and rent Pages and Groups for political advertisements and fake news.24 In earlier elections, Facebook Pages and Groups had been created by trolls operating out of Russia.
1See the bibliography in T. Kuzio, Putin’s War Against Ukraine: Revolution, Nationalism, and Crime (Toronto: Chair of Ukrainian Studies, University of Toronto 2017) pp. 379–88.
2M. Snegovaya, Putin’s Information Warfare in Ukraine: Soviet Origins of Russia’s Hybrid Warfare (Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of War 2015), http://www.understandingwar.org/report/putins-information-warfare-ukraine-soviet- origins-russias-hybrid-warfare; P. N. Tanchak, ‘The Invisible Front: Russia, Trolls and the Information War Against Ukraine’, in O. Bertelsen (ed.), Revolution and War in Contemporary Ukraine: The Challenge of Change (Stuttgart: Ibidem 2016) pp. 253–82; and T. Kuzio and P. D’Anieri, The Sources of Russia’s Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order (Bristol: E-International Relations 2018) pp. 25–60, https://www.e-ir.info/publication/the-sources- of-russias-great-power-politics-ukraine-and-the-challenge-to-the-european-order/.
3K. Pynnoniemi and A. Racz, Fog of Falsehood: Russian Strategy of Deception and the Conflict in Ukraine (Helsinki: Finish Institute of International Affairs 2016), https://www.fiia.fi/en/publication/fog-of-falsehood; B. Duregger, Similar but Not Equal. Contemporary Representations of Ukraine on Russian News Web Sites, MA Thesis (Leiden: University of Leiden 2017), https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/51478/ma%20thesis;%20def.pdf?sequence=1; and Tor Bukkvoll, ‘Why Putin Went to War: Ideology, Interests and Decision-Making in the Russian Use of Force in Crime and Donbas’, in E. Gotz (ed.), Russia, the West, and the Ukraine Crisis (London and New York: Routledge 2018) pp. 19–34.
4A. Matveeva, Through Times of Trouble: Conflict in Southeastern Ukraine Explained From Within (Lanham, MA: Lexington Books 2018).
5B. Whitmore, ‘A Comprehensive Threat’, The Daily Vertical, RFERL, 28 January 2016, https://www.rferl.org/a/daily- vertical-comprehensive-threat/27516526.html; T. Kuzio, ‘Russia–Ukraine Crisis: The Blame Game, Geopolitics and National Identity’, Europe-Asia Studies 70 (May 2018) pp. 462–73 and T. Kuzio, ‘Euromaidan Revolution, Crimea and Russia-Ukraine War: Why It Is Time for a Review of Ukrainian-Russian Studies’, Eurasian Geography and Economics 59 (2018) pp. 529–53.
6‘Once Considered a Boon to Democracy, Social Media Have Started to Look Like Its Nemesis’, Economist, 4 November 2017, https://www.economist.com/briefing/2017/11/04/once-considered-a-boon-to-democracy-social-media-have-started-to-look-like-its-nemesis?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ed/onceconsideredaboontodemocracysocial mediahavestartedtolooklikeitsnemesislesseuromaidanmoregamergate.
7C. Neef, ‘Fortress of Nationalism: Russia Is Losing Its Political Morals’, Der Spiegel, 31 March 2015, https://www. spiegel.de/international/world/russia-recedes-into-nationalism-and-political-immorality-a-1026259.html.
8‘Letters from Donbas, Part 2. Do You Understand What Is Going on Here?’ RFERL, 2 January 2015, https://www.rferl.org/a/letters-from-donbas-day-to-day-life-in-eastern-ukraine/26773671.html.
9Interview with Peter Pomerantsev, Ukrayinska Pravda, 31 March 2015, https://www.pravda.com.ua/articles/2015/03/31/7063251/.
10Slova ta Viyny. Ukrayina v Borotbi z Kremlivskoyu Propahandoyu (Kyiv: Internews 2017), https://internews.ua/project/words-and-wars.
11‘Reports of 10-Year-Old Killed in Ukraine “Made up”’. BBC, 8 April 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-europe-32137302/reports-of-10-year-old-killed-in-ukraine-made-up.
12UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, 15 May 2014, p. 33, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/UA/HRMMUReport15May2014.pdf.
13Situation in Ukraine. Report of the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, Council of Europe, 2 April 2014, https://www.refworld.org/publisher,COEMINISTERS, COUNTRYREP,UKR,534258f84,0.html.
14M. Skak, ‘Russian Strategic Culture: The Role of Today’s Chekisty’, in E. Gotz (ed.), Russia, the West, and the Ukraine Crisis, pp. 76–93.
15L. Harding, Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House (London: Guardian Books 2017) p. 82.
16B. Browder, Red Notice: How I Became Putin’s No.1 Enemy (London: Transworld Books 2015).
17P. Pomerantsev, ‘We’re All Putin’s Useful Idiots’, Politico, 21 July 2015, https://www.politico.eu/article/putin-useful-idiots-media-propaganda-cold-war-pundits-television/.
18T. Kuzio, ‘Russia–Ukraine Crisis’ and ‘Euromaidan Revolution, Crimea and Russia-Ukraine War.’
19N. Jankowicz, ‘Ukraine’s Election Is an All-Out Disinformation Battle’, The Atlantic, 17 April 2019, https://www. theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/04/russia-disinformation-ukraine-election/587179/.
20‘Ukraine Under Information Fire’, EU Disinformation Review, 7 January 2018, https://euvsdisinfo.eu/ukraine-under- information-fire/.
21‘Year in Review: 1001 Messages of Pro-Kremlin Disinformation’, EU Disinformation Review, 3 January 2019, https://euvsdisinfo.eu/year-in-review-1001-messages-of-pro-kremlin-disinformation/.
22A. Bourg, ‘Facebok Is Trying to Stay on the Side-Lines of the War Between Ukraine and Russia’, Washington Post, 28 October 2018.
Taras Kuzio firstname.lastname@example.org
Department of Political Science
National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy
2 Skovoroda Street, Kyiv, 04070
The opinions expressed on this Blog page are not necessarily those of British-Ukrainian Aid.
Coming up soon: the next section will focus on the Soviet origins of Russian information warfare.