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How communicators in Ukraine are engaging stakeholders in the face of propaganda

1st June 2015


Propaganda and disinformation are well established methods of undermining clarity and confidence in opponents and history has shown us how effective it can be. Immediately before the start of World War Two, Hitler used it to create local networks of supporters who could act as spies and fifth columnists in Eastern Europe countries, long before his tanks invaded Poland, the Baltic States and Russia.

Today, with 24/7/365 media and ubiquitous communication channels, the ability to create and sustain an effective propaganda campaign is, in some ways easier, and in other ways more difficult.

Creating the material you need to start a rumour on social media, doctor a picture or edit and then post a video so that it goes viral and becomes a ‘fact’, has never been easier…  the audiences are used to getting information superficially, lapping it up and spreading anything that they feel is worth sharing. Creating outrage is easy… and we all think that we can spot the fake from the real … but if we don’t, who cares? It gives us something to talk about in the pub, at work, on the bus or around the meal table…

But the line between harmless fun, gossip and serious harm is easy to blur – as anyone who has been the victim of cyber bullying has found out to their cost…

Take it a step further and professionalise the creation and dissemination of disinformation and propaganda as part of a communications campaign with targets, aims, objectives, measurable outcomes and you begin to see it move into the realm of information warfare.

Combine it with cyber-attacks on corporate or government networks and follow it up with subversive military or paramilitary operations and you have entered the murky world of non-linear or so-called, hybrid warfare.  The stakes are high and the outcomes threaten the survival and security of communities, nation states and international peace.

Stop thinking about IT geeks sitting in their bedrooms and hacking for fun. It is international and it is at the cutting edge of information technology with teams of military and security experts launching and defending attacks in military grade cyber warfare and cyber defence centres.

So should we care about this manipulation of data, the manipulation of the web, the threats to our IT systems and the manipulation of the media and their audiences? Yes - we should.

Recent news stories have shown that our border defences are being tested. The navies of Sweden, Finland, Norway and the UK have all detected unidentified submarine intrusions off their coasts.

NATO jets are regularly being scrambled to escort Russian military planes flying along our national borders. In Ukraine their communities have been torn apart by hatred, fear and military conflict.

But why is Ukraine a target? Looking at the map of Eastern Europe, overlay it with the map of the gas pipelines that transport Russian gas through the region to both Eastern and Western Europe.

The sale of that gas represents a significant annual income for Russia – so having influence over the control of the pipelines is important. Apart from a pipeline that runs through Belarus – which has a pro-Russian government, all the rest of its gas goes through Ukraine. Having Ukraine on side is therefore important.

In February 2014 Ukraine’s pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted following the shooting of protestors in Kiev’s Maidan Square. The new government that took over was pro-EU and pro-Nato… and with Ukraine’s history of issues over gas pricing and transport of Russian gas through its key terminals, the Russian government apparently felt the need to gain greater control over its assets.

In terms of strategy, General Valery Gerasimov, chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces had already published an article about non-linear warfare in the Russian defence journal VPK. He wrote about the use of “political, economic, information, humanitarian and non-military measures, supplemented by firing up the local population as a fifth column and “concealed” armed forces.”   He added that “mobilisation does not occur after a war is declared, but unnoticed, proceeds long before that.”  

What that means in practice can been seen in the events that unfolded in eastern Ukraine, where the local population being pre-dominantly Russian speaking, get much of their news from Russian broadcasts. Their general feelings of discontent with the government changes in Kiev were supplemented by a host of concerning stories that suggested that the new Ukraine government saw them as a threat.

Within weeks, anti-government militia were seen in various areas and the infamous ‘little green men’ in unmarked uniforms began to appear initially in Crimea and then near key installations.

Edward Lucas, senior editor of the Economist summed up what happened next “The Russians had so corroded and confused the decision-making capabilities of Ukraine that even though the Ukrainians had thousands of troops, lots of ammunition, lots of weapons and bases in Crimea, those soldiers were left leaderless and confused and didn’t know what to do. Crimea fell, almost without a shot.”                     

After Crimea, the campaign flared up in eastern Ukraine where key gas terminals and transport intersections are situated. ‘Volunteers’ from the Russian military came across the border with a variety of advanced military hardware and on one fateful day someone, somewhere fired a missile that hit a Malaysian airline passenger jet killing everyone on board. Not one of the dead was Russian or Ukrainian – but now the rest of the world had a stake in finding out who had killed the innocent passengers and the world’s media spotlight shone onto what was really going on.

The disinformation and propaganda continued, with pictures of the body bags from the airline crash doctored and used to suggest that the Ukrainian military had committed a massacre of Russian speaking villagers. It became clear that Ukraine’s reputation as well as its borders were under threat.

As the new Ukrainian government in Kiev were struggling to get a clear message out about what Ukraine was doing and what external support they needed,  a team of Ukrainian journalists and PR professionals came together to form the Ukrainian Crisis Media Centre. It acts as a hub for independent information, providing press releases and broadcasting statements and speeches by key individuals from both within Ukraine and the international community.

They targeted the propaganda and disinformation being spread by the Russian media in eastern Ukraine and more widely amongst the international press, researching and finding the source material to show how images are doctored and videos edited to create fear and outrage in their target media audiences. Their website and infographics have become the first port of call for journalists seeking information or help to cover the story and for politicians visiting the region, looking for explanations and briefings about the issues in the region. It is a great example of what other regions should do when faced with the need to fight against propaganda and re-engage their communities when hatred has been stirred up.   

One recent and vivid example of the issues came from Donetsk. After the ceasefire was agreed, Russian media reported the case of a young girl being killed in a village by Ukrainian army shelling. The story was followed up by a brave BBC correspondent who went to visit the area and speak to the family who had lost their daughter. The reporter spoke to the morgue and to the villagers. No shelling had taken place and no one knew of the girl or the incident. Eventually a Russian language TV reporter was directly asked about it. “She does not exist” he confirmed. “But you reported it!” said the BBC reporter “We were told to!” Was the reply. It seems the disinformation and propaganda war in Ukraine continues.

But what of the rest of Eastern Europe? The Baltic States are well aware of the threats. In 2014 an Estonian border policeman was captured by Russian police who had crossed the border into Estonia. He is currently held in a Moscow jail awaiting his trial. The Russian government declared that they no longer recognise the border agreement with Estonia – something that has caused the Estonian government sufficient concern to start clearing a border area through the forests that run along their Eastern border, putting in high tech security measures to detect any intruders. Their president Toomas Hendrik Ilves said “We are in much bigger trouble than we recognise, and when someone says that it is time to loosen sanctions because Putin has weakened his tone, it means that they do not understand the situation.”

In Lithuania, national conscription has been restarted as they see the threat of military invasion as a clear danger that is worth preparing for.  NATO and its partner countries have responded by stepping up their resources in the countries that flank Russia, with tanks, ships and aircraft operating joint exercises around Poland, the Baltics and Nordic countries.

The communication war continues. Russia has applied for or has declared its intention to apply for licences to broadcast its ‘Sputnik’ radio in each of the countries along its western border. Russia Today continues to broadcast Russian TV news and views across Europe and Russia and cyber warfare attacks continue on a daily basis with regular attacks on key European IT infrastructure.

The threat is recognised by the UK Government. Michael Fallon MP, UK Secretary of State for Defence in February said “There is a clear and present danger of Russia trying to destabilise the Baltic States” and the UK is sending 1000 troops and four RAF typhoon fighter jets to supplement the “high readiness” NATO force in Eastern Europe.

One hopes they will never be used – but whether they are, will depend upon the success of those engaged in exposing disinformation and propaganda, in fighting off cyber-attack and those Governments in Eastern Europe who are working so hard to keep their own Russian speaking communities engaged, valued and secure, in the face of the disinformation that targets them.

 If they fail, eastern Ukraine stands as an example of how things could develop.    

Written by Warwick Partington, Managing Director, MTM Centre for Leadership and Development


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