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

shutterstock_​Sergey Kamshylin

Im Rahmen unseres Pro­jek­tes „Öst­li­che Part­ner­schaft 2.0“ ver­öf­fent­li­chen wir eine dritte Arti­kel­reihe über die drei EU-Asso­­­­zi­ie­­­­rungs­­­­­­­staa­­­­ten. Die Autoren aus der Region (Mikheil Benidze, Volo­dymyr Yer­mo­lenko, Victor Gotisan) ana­ly­sie­ren die Aus­wir­kung der Rus­si­schen Soft power (fake news, Medi­en­pro­pa­ganda und Infor­ma­ti­ons­krieg) in der Ukraine, Geor­gien und Moldau aus zivil­ge­sell­schaft­li­cher Perspektive.

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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