By Taras Kuzio
Although much has been written about Russia’s information warfare one topic has been absent in these analyses and that is why Moscow is so obsessed with Ukraine. Besides a lack of research there is also a tendency among some Western scholars writing about Russian nationalists to downplay the influence of nationalism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Of the 8223 disinformation cases in the EU data base collected since January 2015, a high 3329 (or 40%) are on Ukraine. This figure is higher than the 2825 disinformation cases collected for the European Union (EU), an organisation that unites 27 countries. As the EU’s Disinformation Review writes, ‘Ukraine has a special place within the disinformation (un)reality.’ The Ukrainian NGO StopFake has collected 500 stories from Russian disinformation on Ukraine.
Mikhail Zygar in his book All the Kremlin’s Men. Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin writes that Putin was obsessed with Ukraine almost from day one of his presidency. ‘We must do something, or we’ll lose it’, he is quoted as saying. ‘Ukraine is by far the most misrepresented country in the Russian media. Out of over 5000 disinformation cases registered in the EUvsDisinfo database since 2015, almost half target Ukraine.’
Putin’s obsession with Ukraine became noticeable in his response to the 2004 Orange Revolution when Viktor Yanukovych, the winning candidate whom he supported, was defeated by protestors forcing a re-run that he lost. The election of Yanukovych in 2010 brought ‘normality’ to Russia’s relations with Ukraine that Putin sees as the way things should be between ‘two fraternal peoples.’ This natural state of Russian-Ukrainian affairs was again undermined when Yanukovych fled from power during the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution.
During the Euromaidan and since, Russia’s information warfare has gone into overdrive when covering Ukraine. ‘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.’ This coverage can only be explained by Moscow’s Jekyll and Hyde view of Ukraine as both hostile to Russia and at the same time very close. While denigrating Ukraine at a level that would make Soviet Communist Party ideologues blush, Russian leaders also continue to display warm feelings towards their close ‘Ukrainian brothers’ and point to the inevitability of Russian-Ukrainian unity.
The roots of this Jekyll and Hyde view are in long-standing Russian nationalist views of Ukraine as an artificial construct made up of Crimea which was wrongly given to Ukraine and in an act of justice returned to Russia, New Russia populated by ‘Russians,’ Little Russia and Galicia. This view of Ukraine was evident as early as 2004 when tens of Russian political technologists working in Ukraine for Yanukovych’s election campaign produced a poster of Ukraine divided into ‘Three Sorts’ with Eastern Ukraine depicted as the worst of the three. The aim was to frighten Ukraine’s Russian-speakers about a possible election victory by ‘fascist’ Viktor Yushchenko who is married to a ‘CIA agent’ (because she worked at one time in the White House) and grew up in the Ukrainian nationalist diaspora.
In this Russian nationalist world view, New Russia and Little Russia always strive to be in unity with Russia. This is not possible, Putin and Russian leaders believe, because west Ukrainian ‘fascists’ took power in the Euromaidan ‘putsch’ and they are propped up by the West.
The aim of the West is, as always, to keep Russia down and deny its right as a great power to have a ‘privileged exclusive sphere of influence’ in Eurasia. Putin has decried the fact that Russians are the most divided people in the world, with ‘Russians’ here defined confusingly as including Russian speakers living outside the Russian Federation and sometimes including (Little Russian) Ukrainians. Galicia was never included within the Russian-Ukrainian union because of its alleged Russophobia and is viewed as lying outside the Russian World. Igor (‘Strelkov’) Girkin, who led Russian special forces in their April 2014 invasion of Ukraine, supports Russia (which he conflates with the USSR) returning to its 1939 borders; that is, without western Ukraine.
Putin’s and Russian nationalists’ views of Ukraine have no basis in reality. This was clearly seen when Russian speaking Ukrainian patriotism defeated the New Russia project in 2014. This has even less basis in reality since the election last year of Russian-speaking and Jewish Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelenskyy for whom six out of seven western Ukrainian regions voted. Nevertheless, Russia’s information warfare against Ukraine has continued to use the same themes as those promoted against former President Petro Poroshenko.
What has been ignored in analyses of Russian information warfare is how Putin’s rehabilitation of the White Guard movement and reburial of its officers and philosophers in Russia has influenced his chauvinism towards Ukraine. Ivan Ilyin, for example, who was reburied in Russia in 2005, denied the existence of a Ukrainian nation.
In the USSR, Russians and Ukrainians were viewed as having been born together and always seeking to live in union but nevertheless they were separate peoples. Ukraine was a founding member of the UN and had a separate seat to the USSR. Tsarist and White Guard views, which are now influential in contemporary Russia, deny the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians.
Russian information warfare propagates ten themes which are discussed below. The first six have their roots in Tsarist and White Guard nationalism and the last four are from the USSR. Following is a list of the ten narratives followed by short descriptions of each.
- Ukraine is an artificial country and bankrupt state.
- Ukrainians are not a separate people to Russians.
- The Ukrainian language is artificial.
- Ukrainian nation was created as an Austrian conspiracy.
- Belittle, ridicule, and dehumanise Ukrainians.
- Foment disillusionment in Ukraine’s reforms and European integration.
- Ukraine is a Western puppet.
- Ukraine is run by ‘fascists’ and ‘Nazi’s.’
- Anti-Zionism and Ukrainian oligarchs.
- Distract attention from accusations made against Russia.
Firstly, Ukraine is an artificial country and failed, bankrupt state. Putin first raised this in his April 2008 speech to the NATO-Russia Council at the Bucharest NATO summit. Then, and since, Putin repeated the false claim that New Russia is inhabited by ‘Russians.’ In his December 2019 annual press conference, Putin called this region Prichernomorie (Black Sea coastal lands) [a term going back to the pre-revolutionary period and used ever since, including throughout the Soviet period] saying, ‘When the Soviet Union was created, ancestral Russian territories [such as] all of the Prichernomorie and Russia’s western lands, that never had anything to do with Ukraine, were turned over to Ukraine.’
Secondly, Ukrainians are not a separate people. Putin and Russian leaders repeatedly say Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one people.’ Ukrainians are a ‘brotherly nation’ who are ‘part of the Russian people’ and reunification, Putin told the Valdai Club in October 2017, will happen. ‘One people inhabits Ukraine and the Russian Federation, for the time being, divided (by the border)’ Security Council Secretary Nikolai Petrushev said in 2016.
Thirdly, the Ukrainian language does not exist and what is spoken are dialects of Russian. Although the USSR promoted Russification, it recognised the existence of the Ukrainian language. The Russian information agency Rex published an article claiming the ‘Ukrainian language is a weapon in the hybrid war’ and promotion of the language in contemporary Ukraine is ‘artificial’ and hybrid ‘brain programming’ political technology.
Fourthly, claiming the existence of a Ukrainian nation is a conspiracy against Russia. Putin has revived Tsarist and White Guard nationalist views suggesting that the Austrians created the Ukrainian nation. Putin said during his long interview by Tass in February, ‘The Ukrainian factor was specifically played out on the eve of World War I by the Austrian special service. Why? This is well-known – to divide and rule (the Russian people).’ His statement builds on the idea of the West always seeking to divide the ‘Russian nation.’
What is astounding is that Putin has taken on board views earlier espoused by extreme Russian nationalists. Four years prior to Putin talking about an Austrian conspiracy lying behind the Ukrainian people, leader of the Russian Imperial Movement Stanislav Vorobyev said the same.
Ukrainians seeking to live outside the Russian World are separatists breaking up unity of the Russian people. Girkin, who is a member of the Russian Imperial Movement, believes ‘The real separatists’ are not to be found in Russian-controlled Donbas but they ‘are the ones in Kiev, because they want to split Ukraine off from Moscow.’
Fifthly, the Russian media and information warfare routinely de-humanise Ukraine and Ukrainians by belittling the very idea that they can exist without external support, whether Russian or the West. The strategy for denigrating Ukraine in the Russian media is to belittle, ridicule and dehumanise. One example of this strategy was mocking and ridiculing Ukraine possessing a navy during the Russian-Ukrainian naval confrontation in the Azov Sea in late 2018.
Sixthly, spreading disillusionment in Ukraine’s reforms and European integration is an outgrowth of the previous theme. Ukraine and Ukrainians, because of their artificiality, are simply unable to introduce reforms and fight corruption to join the European Union. Ukraine is plagued by corruption and rule by oligarchs. To hammer this home, a final point is made that nobody is waiting for Ukraine in Brussels and that eventually Kyiv will understand this and return to Russia’s bosom. One important reason for propagating this theme is the potential threat of the success of Ukrainian reforms and their destabilizing influence on Putin’s authoritarian system. Ukraine is already a hub for anti-Putin opposition activities by exiled journalists and political activists. Some anti-Putin Russian nationalists are even fighting with Ukrainian forces in the Donbas.
Seventh, Putin believes Russia is fighting a war with the West in Ukraine and not with the majority living in New Russia and Little Russia who desire to be part of the Russian World. Ukraine is always portrayed as a country without real sovereignty which only exists because it is propped up by the West. As in Soviet propaganda and ideological campaigns, Ukrainian ‘nationalists’ are depicted as the West’s puppets and since 2014 are doing the West’s bidding by dividing the ‘Russian nation.’
Eighth, drawing on Soviet ideological campaigns against ‘Nazi collaborators’ in the Ukrainian diaspora, Ukraine is depicted as a country ruled by ‘Nazi’s’ and ‘fascists.’ Soviet propaganda and ideological campaigns attacked dissidents and nationalist opposition as ‘bourgeois nationalists’ who were in cahoots with Nazi’s in the Ukrainian diaspora and in the pay of Western and Israeli secret services. The claim was based on a Soviet understanding of ‘Ukrainian nationalist’ as anybody who opposed Soviet rule over Ukraine or Soviet nationality policies, whether he or she was a national communist or integral nationalist. Today, a ‘Ukrainian nationalist’ in Moscow’s eyes is anybody in Ukraine who supports its future outside the Russian World. With President Zelenskyy continuing his predecessor’s support for EU and NATO membership, Russia has begun criticizing him as a ‘nationalist.’ Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, Chairman of the Russian Historical Society, Sergei Naryshkin, commenting on the statements of the Ukrainian president during his visit to Poland said ‘It is clear that Mr. Zelensky is more and more immersed in the ideas of Ukrainian nationalism.’
A common theme in Russian information warfare and diplomacy is the claim that with nationalists ruling Ukraine there is an existentialist threat to Russian speakers. Putin refuses to countenance the return of Ukrainian control over their joint border because of the threat of a new ‘Srebrenica’ genocide of Russian speakers. This claim ignores Ukrainian opinion polls which always show that most Ukrainians do not believe such a threat exists while ignoring the high levels of Russian speaking patriotism in Ukraine. The highest number of casualties of Ukrainian security forces from a Ukrainian region are from Dnipro (Dnipropetrovsk) and the highest number of veterans from the war in the Donbas are to be found in Dnipro, Kharkiv and Poltava.
Indeed, with Putin and Russian nationalists convinced New Russia is inhabited by ‘Russians’ and wrongly assuming these are pro-Putin (which is synonymous with pro-Russian) they are unable to fathom the very concept of a Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriot. This theme became particularly bizarre last year when Ukraine was the only country outside Israel with a Jewish president (Zelenskyy) and Jewish Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman. Mocking Russia’s obsession with searching for ‘fascists’ in Ukraine, Jewish-Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomioyskyy began wearing tee-shirts emblazoned with ‘Zhydo-Banderivets’ (Yid-Banderite), a sarcastic reference to his status as an alleged Jewish supporter of nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.
Ninth, Soviet anti-Zionism, which was always a camouflaged form of anti-Semitism, has been revived in Russian information warfare against Ukraine and more broadly. Ukraine’s oligarchs, such as Kolomoyskyy who took a decisive stance against Russia as governor of Dnipropetrovsk in 2014, are pillorized as being in bed with Ukrainian nationalists. Ukrainian nationalists and Jewish oligarchs are Western puppets. Ukraine is being colonized by the EU, US and the West as part of a liberal elite conspiracy that promotes globalization to destroy the sovereignty of nation states. Globalization, with George Soros used as a favourite target, is synonymous with the older world-wide Jewish conspiracy. Anti-Zionism using such themes are found in Russian-controlled Donbas.
The tenth theme has its origins in the USSR and is also a product of Putin’s undeclared war against the West. The USSR long practiced the covering up of crimes it had committed against its own people and those by its security forces and assassins abroad. The 1933 Holodomor in Ukraine, for example, was denied by the USSR until 1990. Those who wrote about the Holodomor in the West, including diasporic Ukrainians and well-known historians like Robert Conquest, were castigated as anti-Soviet ‘Cold War warriors.’ Denial of the Holodomor has been revived in Russian disinformation and in the writings of some Western academics. Sputnik International, an important weapon of Russian disinformation abroad, published the ‘Holodomor Hoax. Anatomy of a Lie Invented by the West’s Propaganda Machine’ nearly three decades after it was last seen in the late 1980s in Canadian communist Douglas Tottle’s book Fraud, Famine and Fascism: The Ukrainian Genocide Myth from Hitler to Harvard.
In 2015, work by Polish Jewish scholar and lawyer Raphael Lemkin who developed the concept of genocide after World War II and wrote about and testified on Stalinist crimes against Ukrainians as a series of acts of lethal and non-lethal nature, with the intent to destroy them as a national (state-aspiring) and ethnic (culturally distinct) group, was included as number 3151 in Russia’s Federal List of Extremist Materials.
Russian information warfare distracts blame from Russia over major international crises such as the July 2014 shooting down of the civilian airliner MH17 with the loss of 298 lives and covering up the existence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. Distraction of blame, as in the case of the shooting down of MH17 from Russia to Ukraine and the West, has through over 200 disinformation stories and conspiracy theories entered into academic writing and journalism. In 2018, the prestigious Manchester University Press published Flight MH17, Ukraine and the New Cold War. Prism of Disaster by Kees Van der Pijl, which blamed the shooting down of MH17 on a Western-backed Ukrainian plot.
Russia has always denied the existence of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine and when these have been caught has blamed soldiers ‘getting lost’ or ‘being on holiday.’ Nearly two thirds of Ukrainians (65%) believe Russian troops are in Ukraine whereas only 27% of Russians believe this. 63% of Ukrainians and only 25% of Russians believe their two countries are at war.
Russian information warfare propagates a multitude of themes. Nevertheless, forty percent of its output is directed at Ukraine and this should therefore become an important component of our research and analysis.
Taras Kuzio is Professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and Non-Resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Putin’s War Against Ukraine (2017) and joint author (with Paul D’Anieri) of The Sources of Russia’s Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order (2019).