JBANC, Mikelis Berzins, August 15, 2014
JBANC graduate summer intern Mikelis Berzins has been working on a report on the worrisome increase in Russian disinformation and antagonism in eastern Europe. This report focuses on these issues since the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine. The paper intends to designate, analyze, and dispel some of the most pervasive themes that make up the focus of current Russian propaganda.
Russian influence and hostility in East and Central Europe has significantly increased as the crisis in Ukraine has become embroiled in violence. Consequently, the conflict has spurred the resurgence of a massive Russian state-sponsored disinformation campaign, not seen since the days of the Cold War. Russian disinformation and hostility in the context of Ukraine is inextricably linked to efforts against Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This relationship to the Baltics is clearly demonstrated by the fact that this conflict was ultimately predicated on the ramifications of the Ukrainian government’s decision to either strengthen ties with the European Union or Russian Federation. This report covers some of the most prevalent themes that constitute the focus of current Russian propaganda efforts. Recent history reveals that Russia prefers its neighbors to be unsecure, unstable, and at the mercy of Russian influence. The crisis in Ukraine is a testament to the intentions of these subversive schemes.
The resurgence of Russian influence and aggression in East and Central Europe has markedly increased as the crisis in Ukraine has become embroiled in violence, particularly following the ascent of the current pro-European Ukrainian government. These events have spurred the return of a massive Russian state-sponsored disinformation campaign, the likes of which have not been seen since the days of the Cold War. The Russian Federation reportedly devotes anywhere between € 100 million to € 300 million annually to government-funded media outlets intended to shape global and domestic perceptions of their actions in Ukraine and abroad (Spiegel International, 2014). Some stories published by Russian media sources are dismissed as lunacy or deliberate distortions of reality in the West; however, success of these activities is evident extensively within Russia and modestly internationally. Due to the unprecedented use of these propaganda and disinformation tactics, there are serious implications regarding the dissemination of blatantly false information. This fact is especially relevant since the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. This report intends to designate, analyze, and dispel some of the most pervasive themes that make up the focus of current Russian propaganda.
Russian disinformation and hostility in the context of Ukraine is inextricably connected to campaigns against the Baltics. The conflict was ultimately predicated on the Ukrainian government’s decision to either sign an association agreement with the EU or join a Russian-headed Eurasian Union. The competition between Russia and the West over public perception, economic access, and trade in Eastern Europe weighs heavily on these events. Fortunately for the Baltic countries, being active members of NATO is a critical of aspect of security and defense from potential Russian aggression. However, current events have revealed the unpredictability of Russian President Putin, and reinforce the call for awareness of the threat posed by Russia and to support other vulnerable countries. As stated by Edward Lucas, Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, the reality for the Baltics is that they are “frontline states” (Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, 2014) and of vital importance to the continued legitimacy of NATO. This designation is a blessing, but also makes the Baltics all the more vulnerable to the geopolitical circumstances and reliance on Russia for resources and trade.
The list of deplorable and fabricated stories published by Russian media sources is extensive and continuously growing. Ruptly, its parent organization RT (formerly known as Russia Today), and numerous questionably funded internet bloggers make up the brunt of these Kremlin-sponsored media actors. Their activities are particularly problematic due to the often delayed response by western governments and media to counter and increase awareness of Russian disinformation (National Interest, 2014). Although the majority of western democracies condemn Russian activities in Ukraine and its amped up aggression across East Europe, they remain divided on the best course of action to specifically approach these issues. Russian news media feeds on this uncertainty and is in large part the reason for the relative success of these tactics. A united western front in opposition of these behaviors, as outlined in Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt’s landmark speech at the Atlantic Council in July, is crucial to affectively addressing the unlawful Russian intervention in Ukraine and its antagonistic activities elsewhere (Atlantic Council Transcript, 2014).
The influence of domestic propaganda within Russia is readily apparent. By tweaking facts and putting a favorable spin on the illegal annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula; the Russian media cast this unacceptable breach of international law as a great triumph by Vladimir Putin and the Russian government. This misrepresentation increased President Putin’s domestic approval rating to a six-year high of 87 percent (Boston Globe, 2014); confirming the effectiveness Russian propaganda has for shaping the perceptions of its own people. Prevalent domestic approval of Putin’s actions is especially worrisome due to the prospect of escalating tensions in eastern Ukraine and the threat of incursions into other vulnerable Soviet former republics. A sufficiently financed and dedicated counter-response to Kremlin-funded disinformation efforts is vital to informing both Russian citizens of the serious economic and political implications of its government’s actions, and to supply the international community with a more reliable recounting of events that drastically influence the geopolitics of this region.
One of the first strategies employed by Russian media outlets during the transition from the Yanukovych regime to the current administration was to frame pro-Western and pro-European groups as radicals. This sentiment was the topic of numerous publications by RT and others. These stories characterized the movement as being associated with anti-Semitic and radical fascist groups. The storyline produced unauthentic accounts and framed independent events as being connected to the new government and pro-European movement. Reports from RT cite multiple incidences of vandalism and attacks on synagogues, claiming Jewish Ukrainians feel as though they are being “pushed to leave” (RT ‘Pushed to leave’, 2014). Russian President Vladimir Putin furthered these claims. He asserted in a speech following the illegal referendum in Crimea that “Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup” (Washington Times Transcript, 2014); when referring to the Maidan protests and removal of the former government.
The U.S. State Department researched these false claims by reaching out to Jewish groups in southern and eastern Ukraine. They have reported no increase in anti-Semitic incidences since the transition from the pro-Russian Yanukoych government (U.S. State Department Report, 2014). Furthermore, the mere existence of any ultra-nationalist group within the borders of Ukraine does not equate to its alleged influence within the government. The Verkhovna Rada, the most representative institution in the Ukrainian government, comprises no members from ultra-nationalist rightwing parties. Furthermore, this publicly supported representative parliament gives no sign of pursuing discriminatory policies; in fact they have openly indicated they intend the exact opposite (U.S. State Department Report, 2014). By falsely connecting anti-Semitic stigmas and ultra-nationalist groups to the new Ukrainian government, the Kremlin intends to justify its incursion in Ukrainian territory on the grounds of an invented humanitarian crisis, to destabilize the new government’s tenuous grasp on their eastern territories, and to defame Ukraine’s standing both internally and abroad.
Statements by both the Russian government and media assert that ethnic Russians and the use of the Russian language are under threat in Ukraine. This is a contentious issue and the topic of starkly conflicting reports. A sizeable minority of Ukrainians, many of whom do not consider themselves ethnically Russian, speak Russian as their first language (Reuters, 2014). Of this segment of the population, approximately thirty-percent identify Russian as their native language, with the vast majority of these Russian-speakers concentrated in Ukraine’s eastern territories (Radio Free Europe, 2014).
The concern that the Russian language is in danger due to discriminatory policies is completely unfounded. Current Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has levied support for policies proposing that the responsibility for determining the status of minority languages belongs with regional governments (Reuters, 2014). Previously, the Ukrainian language was the only official language of the state; with some constitutional protections of the Russian language. This new policy intends to facilitate peace and cohesion amongst Ukraine’s ethnic groups, granting municipalities autonomy over language preference based on the clear regional concentrations of Ukrainian citizens. However, this legislation reached a deadlock in parliament due to the former ruling party, The Party of Regions. This political group refused to support the policy; instead demanding equal legal status for Russian and Ukrainian (Reuters, 2014). Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin established a troubling precedent by declaring the right for Russia to protect the interests of Russian speakers outside of their borders. President Putin and the Russian media assert that is one of the reasons for legitimizing the annexation of Crimea. It was also a veiled effort intended to destabilize the nascent Ukrainian government. What's more, this policy agenda is of especial concern to the Baltic countries, especially Estonia and Latvia with their significant Russian minorities, of being on the receiving end of unwelcome Russian intervention on their national sovereignty.
Perhaps the most egregious example of Russian propaganda, and a tactic clearly aimed at disguising the Kremlin’s true intentions in Ukraine, regards the matter of the origin and background of “separatist forces” in eastern Ukraine, including the so-called “security forces” involved in Crimea. Pro-Russian demonstrators and the “separatists” are depicted as being comprised solely of Ukrainian citizens operating without guidance, incentives, or aid from the Russian military. This line of non-involvement was also displayed during the Russian annexation of Crimea. The lack of insignia on the uniforms of “independent citizen defense groups” in Crimea did little to hide the fact that they were indeed a highly organized force from the Russian military. The Kremlin later retracted its claims that Russian units were there only to ensure the protection of Russian military sites in Crimea (RT ‘Putin’, 2014). However, the supposed efforts that were only intended to protect Russian military sites is further contradicted by the aggressive takeover of Ukrainian military bases and seizure of Ukrainian Navy ships by Russian military personnel.
The reality of the situation is not at all what the Russian government and media display. It is no coincidence that the “separatist’s” tactics in eastern Ukraine are redolent of the undeniably Russian operations in Crimea. Like the actions in Crimea, armed militants seized government offices in an organized and professional operation in six eastern Ukrainian cities. As detailed by the United States Department of State; these activities are a “well-orchestrated Russian campaign of incitement, separatism, and sabotage of the Ukrainian state” (U.S. Dept. of State Report, 2014). Furthermore, Ukrainian authorities have arrested and continue to apprehend “highly trained and well-equipped Russian provocateurs” across eastern Ukraine. The stories published, however, intend to create an air of confusion and uncertainty which contribute to disinformation permeating public opinion, thereby helping the Kremlin falsely justify its illegal incursion of Ukrainian sovereignty.
The fog of war tactic used by the Russian government to conceal the reality of their extensive military support of the “separatist” rebels in eastern Ukraine was epitomized by the recent rebel shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines Flight-17 on July 17, 2014. As of this point, the Russian Federation and “separatists” continue to deny and deflect allegations of their involvement in this tragic event. Furthermore, the “separatist” command has released conflicting reports regarding the possession of air-defense systems capable of such an act (RT, 2014) (Reuters, 2014). In fact, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, these groups maintain that fault for the attack on Flight MH-17 rests solely with the Ukrainian government (RT, 2014). The Russian media and government also accuse the Ukrainian government of masterminding “conspiracy theories” (RT, 2014) which the majority of western governments, including the United States and European Union, acknowledge as the accurate series of events. This disinformation campaign is clearly positioned to cast doubt on the true nature of these events. This is further demonstrated by the reluctance of “separatist” forces to allow independent and impartial investigation of the wreckage, seizure of the black boxes, and barbaric treatment of the crash site (removal of passenger’s possessions, treatment of bodies, etc.).
The U.S., EU, and other governments blame the terrible loss of life unequivocally on the “separatists” and the Russian Federation, which has been extensively covered in the western media. This claim is further evidenced by the continuous flow of arms through the porous Russian-Ukrainian border, including the BUK missile system suspected of being used in this catastrophe (Reuters, 2014). Other evidence implicating the Russian-backed rebels are Twitter posts and intercepted conversations about the seizure of BUK missile systems, and the lauding of the shoot-down of what they seem to have believed were Ukrainian military aircraft (CNN Interview, 2014). The thinly veiled denials by the Russian officials and “separatist” commanders have been further discredited by the downing of another two Ukrainian military fighters jets in same area only days after the Malaysian airliner was shot down (New York Times, 2014). These incidents have led the EU, US, and other governments to outrightly label the “separatists” as “Russian-backed terrorists”, and to consequently expand sanctions on the Russian economy (U.S. State Department, 2014) (EU-UN Delegation, 2014).
Russian antagonism against East Europe has become a dangerous recurrence with far-reaching impact. As the Russian Federation and the West exchange economic sanctions, the crisis in Ukraine is escalating. The threat of a full-blown Russian military invasion of eastern Ukraine has never been greater. From the Baltic point of view, these events are also extremely worrisome. Edward Lucas also states that NATO without a more significant military presence in the Baltics “has only a token presence in the region” (Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, 2014). Like Ukraine, the Baltic countries are particularly “liable to Russian pressure especially in natural gas, where they are 100% dependent on Russian supplies” (Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, 2014). Global public awareness of the true nature of these events is vital to halting the current political climate of Moscow’s aggression and intimidation.
Recent history reveals that Russia prefers its neighbors to be unsecure (opposition to NATO enlargement), unstable (Georgian crisis, Ukraine crisis, etc.), and at the mercy of Russian influence (manipulation of energy prices and supply and trade bans). The misrepresentation of events and the subversive interpretation it can cause are at least in part an objective that Russian state-sponsored media intends to accomplish. Mr. Lucas further emphasizes the need for tougher sanctions and a permanent military commitment to the NATO member states in this region to dissuade further Russian aggression, and prove to the world that NATO is not the toothless alliance as President Putin seems to treat it. NATO enlargement in 2004 did not mark the end of Russian hostilities in East Europe, as recent events clearly reveal. Governments that value stability, peace, and national self-determination need to remain vigilant and united against Russian aggression and disinformation.
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JBANC Report on Russian Propaganda Efforts