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Russia is already waging a war – one of propaganda and disinformation

Though the world has been distracted by images of tanks and troops moving across land borders, Ukraine’s struggle with Russian state-sponsored destabilisation has been waged online for many years

Hanna Hopko
Wednesday 23 February 2022 16:13
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<p>The Kremlin has scattered around the world an array of falsehoods about Ukraine</p>

The Kremlin has scattered around the world an array of falsehoods about Ukraine

Last December, when my 10-year-old daughter requested a pet guinea pig I suggested she wait until after the new year. In the last month, faced with the ominous spectre of 140,000 Russian troops massing on our country’s border, we have discussed the logistical challenges of evacuating a guinea pig to western Ukraine in the event of invasion. Such is the existential farce that ordinary life has become when under siege.

Earlier this week, there was cautious optimism expressed at the prospect of a pullback of Russian forces from the Ukrainian frontier. Much analysis interpreted this as Putin “blinking first” and a victory for western resolve. While the rallying by Ukraine’s allies has been commendable, for many weeks Putin’s regime sowed panic, disrupted the economy and was given a global stage to amplify his propaganda. Given the stakes, the whole world has an interest in supporting Ukraine’s efforts to counter this disinformation game.

Though the world has been distracted by images of tanks and troops moving across land borders, Ukraine’s struggle with Russian state-sponsored destabilisation has been waged online for many years. Utilising its extensive toolbox of domestic and international state media outlets, troll farms and useful idiots, the Kremlin has scattered around the world an array of falsehoods about Ukraine. This deluge has meant that many throughout the world believe that Kiev and Nato are the aggressors and any response by Russian forces would be a justified defensive measure.

Another strategy adopted by the Kremlin is whataboutism, cynically holding a mirror to expose perceived western hypocrisy. You question our bombing Syria? What about your invasion of Iraq? It does not seek to defend Russian actions, instead the aim is to convince that ultimately there is no difference between an illiberal regime and a liberal democracy, except at least the former does not pretend to be otherwise. In a Ukrainian context, this tactic appears frequently when Putin expresses concern over Kiev’s alleged human rights abuses against Russian speakers.

During the invasion of eastern Ukraine, a series of gruesome stories claiming the death of children at the hands of the Ukrainian army were disseminated by Russian state media channels. They were fabricated solely with the intention of fuelling hatred and continue to this day. Hysterically, English-language news network Russia Today wondered if Kiev would build concentration camps in the east. Putin himself has written at great length on how he does not recognise Ukrainian identity or statehood.

One needs only look at Crimea, annexed in 2014, to witness how the major threats to Russian speakers occur in areas where Russia has occupied. Dozens of the indigenous Crimean Tatar minority have been convicted on bogus extremism charges; dozens more languish in detention. Their cellmates include journalists like Vladyslav Yesypenko, a contributor to Radio Free Europe, who alleges torture by electric shock and faces up to 18 years imprisonment. Hundreds more detained without due process in the dungeons of occupied Donetsk and Luhansk serve as a warning as to the level of protection provided by Russian “liberators”.

Ukraine’s ongoing democratisation process is a marathon, not a sprint. Reform of the public service and judiciary, strengthening the rule of law, cracking down on corruption and breaking the domination of oligarchs remain key objectives. Nevertheless, Ukraine is quickly establishing herself as a leader in countering disinformation, hybrid warfare and cyber-attacks. Homegrown news organisations and media initiatives like Euromaidan Press and StopFake.org have flourished since the 2014 Maidan protests.

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A recent petition with over 25,000 signatures was filed on the presidential office website calling on the government to urge Google, YouTube and Facebook to open offices in Kiev in order to counter information security threats emanating from the moderation of social media content from Russia. If some of Ukraine’s allies are reluctant to send heavy weaponry into the country, then assisting the burgeoning scene of anti-disinformation activists would be a worthwhile contribution. In addition, international sanctions must be widened to include Russian propagandists like TV hosts and directors, as well as pressure on international brands whose advertising revenue is being used to wage war against democracy.

Even if some Russian battalions return to base in the coming days, parts of Ukraine will remain occupied. And we will endure threats to our way of life and questions over our very right to exist. Perhaps another invasion was prevented – perhaps it was never intended. But to cast this as a win seems misguided. Russia will keep Ukraine and Europe on the edge of their seats with constant, unpredictable military manoeuvres, the weaponization of social media, and the expansion of their propaganda ecosystem. Real de-escalation means the restoration of the territorial integrity of Ukraine (and Georgia, and Moldova) and the temporary occupation of Crimea and areas in the Donbas should not be normalised.

Russia should be recognized as a state sponsor of terrorism, in solidarity with Ukraine’s charges against Russia in the International Court of Justice. In particular, the “Wagner Group” – a Kremlin-linked Russian mercenary organisation said to be operating in multiple countries, including Ukraine – should be recognized as a terrorist organisation.

President Biden recently warned that American democracy is facing its greatest threat since the civil war. The United States may want to look to Ukraine – on the frontline, physically and digitally – for examples of how to defend liberty and reality.

Hanna Hopko is an expert in advocacy, media and political communications, and head of the Board of National Interests’ advocacy network, Ants

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