Why Russian soft power is a threat for both Ukraine and Europe

shutterstock_​Sergey Kamshylin

As part of our project “Eastern Part­ner­ship 2.0” we publish a series of arti­cles about the three EU asso­ci­a­ted states. The authors from the region (Mikheil Benidze, Volodymyr Yer­molenko, Victor Gotisan) analyze the impact of Russian soft power (fake news, media pro­pa­ganda and infor­ma­tion warfare) in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova from a civil society perspective.

When Euro­pean trav­ellers came to Ukraine in the 18th – 19th cen­turies, they were usually told the Russian version of the history of the Ukrain­ian lands. In this version of the story, one would hear little or nothing about Zaporozhian Cos­sacks, hetman-led Ukrain­ian state­hood in the 17th century, the dif­fi­cult but pro­duc­tive Ukrain­ian Ortho­dox-Catholic dia­logue or a Ukrain­ian her­itage of Rus’, a pow­er­ful Medieval state with the centre in Kyiv. Instead, one heard only a story about the glory of the Russian empire, or about a pan-Slavic idea that was des­tined to erase the dif­fer­ences among Slavic nations in the vast Russian state.

When Stal­in­ist col­lec­tiviza­tion and terror killed about 4 million Ukrain­ian peas­ants in 1932–1933, the Western world heard little about the tragedy (with the excep­tion of a few voices, like that of Gareth Jones). It heard about the “great terror” in the Soviet Union only around 1937, when it was tar­get­ing people in Moscow and Leningrad, though the major­ity of the Ukrain­ian intel­li­gentsia and mil­lions of ordi­nary Ukraini­ans had already been killed or sent to Soviet camps by that time.

Today, when you hear the Russian nar­ra­tive about the World War II, it tells you that Rus­sians suf­fered most during this tragedy and that they played the most impor­tant role in the victory over Nazism. You rarely hear that between 8 and 10 million inhab­i­tants of what is now Ukraine died during the war (a quarter of the pop­u­la­tion) or that about 7 million Ukraini­ans fought in the Red Army against the Nazis or that 3 to 4 million of them died in that fight –together with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of other nation­al­i­ties of the Soviet Union. Instead, Russia tries to monop­o­lize the history of the World War II and victory over Nazism.

You don’t hear all this because Russian soft power does exist – and it is capable of chang­ing the nar­ra­tives of entire nations, making them invis­i­ble to the world – and even to themselves.

Today the power of Kremlin-led Russia is not only about tanks and mil­i­tary inva­sion, of the kind seen in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Apart from expan­sion­ist hard power, Kremlin also has soft power, a power that influ­ences minds, emo­tions and stories. This soft power is much stronger than people in the West tend to believe.

In Western coun­tries, there is a wide­spread idea that the goal of Russian soft power is to divide and polar­ize. Ukraine’s expe­ri­ence shows that this is only part of what these tactics are aimed at.

Indeed, the soft power of author­i­tar­ian regimes is usually focused along two main tracks: divide and conquer. In the Western world, which Russia finds dif­fi­cult to conquer, the empha­sis is on the “divide” track. This is why it is so con­cen­trated on polar­iza­tion there, the use and abuse of exist­ing con­flicts, the rad­i­cal­iza­tion of oppo­nents on all sides.

In Eastern Euro­pean – and par­tic­u­larly in Eastern Part­ner­ship – coun­tries, includ­ing Ukraine, the approach is much more ambi­tious. There, the Kremlin’s ulti­mate goal is to conquer (or re-conquer), not merely to divide. “Divide” tactics are employed as a part of this wider approach. But other com­po­nents are at work as well: cre­at­ing trust to gain an audi­ence, pro­duc­ing ani­mos­ity in order to then rad­i­cal­ize it, shaping the image of an enemy and, finally, shaping the image of a pos­si­ble protector.

Indeed, every “conquer” starts with  “divide”. And every act of divid­ing follows certain acts of prepa­ra­tion: “cre­at­ing trust” and gaining sup­port­ers. Trust must first be gen­er­ated for it to be used to promote divi­sions and to produce ani­mos­ity towards other groups. Once ani­mos­ity has been spread within society, it can be used to create an image of an enemy. And the final step is the cre­ation of a “pro­tec­tor” to defend one against the enemy. The example of Ukraine in the past years pro­vides an excel­lent case in point.

Let’s recall the story: in late 2013 – early 2014, Ukrain­ian society rose up against corrupt pro-Russian Pres­i­dent Victor Yanukovych in a protest that we call “Euro­maidan”, or the “Rev­o­lu­tion of Dignity”. After Yanukovych’s violent attempt to shut down the protest camp on the Maidan, which left to over a hundred dead, he left Ukraine, fleeing to Russia in Feb­ru­ary 2014. The Kremlin, exploit­ing the weak­ness of the Kyiv gov­ern­ment, ille­gally annexed Crimea in March 2014 and sent its proxies to launch the war in Donbas.

Under­stand­ably, pos­i­tive atti­tudes to Russia among Ukraini­ans fell dra­mat­i­cally: from over 90% to 30%. But signs of a Russian strat­egy to re-conquer the Ukrain­ian lands were present from very early on. A few infor­ma­tion chan­nels with unclear finances (112 Ukraine and NewsOne, for example) were created in 2013 and 2014. Rumour linked them to members of the entourage of the ousted pres­i­dent, Yanukovych, who still answered to Russia. Whether that was true or not, these chan­nels were ini­tially very inclu­sive in terms of their infor­ma­tion policy. They made room for all pos­si­ble sides and speak­ers: they were gen­er­at­ing trust and gaining the audience.

In late 2018, word came out that these chan­nels, together with a few other ones, had been pur­chased by an MP close to Victor Medved­chuk, Putin’s key ally in Ukraine. From that moment onwards, their strat­egy shifted from “gen­er­at­ing trust” to “divid­ing”. They worked against the Maidan legacy, anti-cor­rup­tion reforms and Ukraine’s pro-EU vector. They con­tributed a great deal to the emer­gence of a feeling in Ukrain­ian society that the post-Maidan reforms were taking the country down the wrong path.

After the 2019 pres­i­den­tial and par­lia­men­tary elec­tion, which rad­i­cally changed the power equa­tion in Ukraine, bring­ing young come­dian Volodymyr Zelen­skyi and his party “Servant of the People” to the heights of power, the strat­egy of these TV chan­nels and of other media with pro-Russian and anti-Western rhetoric changed again. The climate of ani­mos­ity and polar­iza­tion having already been created, they started build­ing the image of the enemy. The general concept of this image was “exter­nal gov­er­nance”; the key sym­bolic figure: George Soros; and the key insti­tu­tional symbol: the IMF. Although Soros’ foun­da­tion – the “Inter­na­tional Renais­sance Foun­da­tion” – had been active in Ukraine since 1990 and had con­tributed to major pro-Euro­pean reforms in the country, Ukraine had never before seen “anti-Soros” pro­pa­ganda on such a large scale.

The primary goal of this approach is to equal­ize dangers in the minds of Ukrain­ian cit­i­zens. After 2014, Russia had become a danger: in 2009 59% of Ukraini­ans had a pos­i­tive atti­tude to Putin, in 2019 only 8% did. The actors behind Russian soft power under­stood that it would be dif­fi­cult to change this neg­a­tive image very quickly, but they saw a pos­si­bil­ity to create an “alter­na­tive” enemy: the West. Today, the pro­pa­ganda of the Kremlin and its proxies por­trays the West and “exter­nal gov­er­nance” as posing no less a danger to Ukraine than Russian aggres­sion. By so doing, it is helping to con­struct the myth that Ukraine is under threat from two direc­tions, which then will lead to the idea that the Russia does not actu­ally pose a real danger at all. Then it will all be the fault of the West, for having insti­gated a quarrel between the “broth­erly peoples”.

To under­stand the scale of the problem, it helps to look at some numbers. From January to June 2020, we (Internews Ukraine) spotted 79,811 mes­sages attack­ing Soros and his “agents” in 708 sources on the Ukrain­ian inter­net. Most of them were posted by pro-Russian actors; some orig­i­nated in pro-oli­garchic circles. We also tracked 12,678 mes­sages in 484 sources con­demn­ing the “exter­nal gov­er­nance” of Ukraine by the West.

The primary goal of the polit­i­cal and infor­ma­tion actors spread­ing these mes­sages is to under­mine Ukraine’s pro-Western vector. Apart from the war that Russia and its proxies are waging in Eastern Ukraine, Russia is also trying to win the hearts and minds of Ukraini­ans, to make them dis­ap­pointed in Euro­pean inte­gra­tion, and to win them back into the orbit of the “Russian world”. In many ways, it is succeeding.

History teaches us that despite the emo­tional enthu­si­asm of Ukrain­ian upris­ings and inde­pen­dence efforts, Russian influ­ences can easily come back. It also teaches us that Russian expan­sion never stops at Ukraine. In the early 18th century, Ukrain­ian hetman Ivan Mazepa joined forces with the Swedish king Charles XII but was defeated near Poltava by the forces of Russia’s Peter I, marking the end of Ukraine’s auton­omy within the Russian Tsardom and opening the way for Russian expan­sion to the Black Sea and further west. In the early 19th century, the Decem­brist revolt in Saint Peters­burg had sub­stan­tial Ukrain­ian element; and its sup­pres­sion strength­ened the reac­tionary rule of the Russian tsar, who became one of the key leaders of the reac­tionary powers in Europe. In the early 20th century, Ukraine enjoyed a few years of inde­pen­dence but failed to defend it, unlike Poland and some of its other neigh­bours; when Stalin’s regime grew stronger after the victory over Nazism, Soviet/​Russian rule extended much further westward.

We don’t know whether Ukrain­ian state­hood, had it sur­vived, would have kept Europe safer from these reac­tionary dangers. It might have, though.

Today, Europe should be aware that the pos­si­bil­ity of a U‑turn is a very real one for Eastern Part­ner­ship coun­tries, even a country as advanced as Ukraine. And that the adver­sary is employ­ing vast resources, knowl­edge and infil­tra­tion to achieve just that. To prevent it, more action is needed. Pri­mar­ily in the form of giving Ukraine and other Eastern Part­ner­ship coun­tries a clearer and more tan­gi­ble per­spec­tive on their Euro­pean inte­gra­tion path. And making the Euro­pean inte­gra­tion of these coun­tries much more visible and tan­gi­ble for ordi­nary people.

Belarus protests show that Eastern Part­ner­ship is becom­ing a region where soci­eties increas­ingly want freedom and Euro­pean future. A process which started in Georgia and Ukraine in early 2000s, spilled over to Moldova and Armenia, and now to Belarus. All these rev­o­lu­tions are dif­fer­ent – but they have common traits. The whole region has changed – and Kremlin will obvi­ously not be willing to give it away. But despite its increas­ingly strong infor­ma­tion warfare, I do hope that history in this region is no longer on the Kremlin’s side.

Volodymyr Yer­molenko is a Ukrain­ian philoso­pher and jour­nal­ist, direc­tor for ana­lyt­ics at Internews Ukraine and chief editor at UkraineWorld.org

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