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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