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Ukraine’s Weapons in the Information War

Boston Mail

June 17, 2014

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How a small country was able to answer the Kremlin propaganda machine

In recent months, the attention of many Europeans has focused on Ukraine, where nine months ago, political stability gave way to economic and social crisis. Reports from the Donetsk region, where the Kiev authorities are trying to suppress a pro-Russian militia, have become commonplace for European newspapers and television channels – the whole world is watching the progress of the military conflict. However, at the same time, on the internet another war has developed – an information war. In Europe, it is of interest only to a narrow circle of specialists, although it is progressing much more rapidly than the armed confrontation in the Donetsk region. Without stopping for a second, it affects a lot more people, and the financial burden of its execution may exceed the costs of Kiev’s anti-terrorist operation. Its features, tools and key players are covered in detail in a confidential report by the German consulting company Mediasoprotivlenie, which has been obtained by this editorial office.

The authors of the document provide detailed analysis of the actions of the Ukrainian side, which has allowed one of the poorest countries in Europe to lead an active propagandistic role in the Russian blogosphere, by using Russian bloggers. The financial assistance provided to Euromaidan by Ukrainian oligarchs and U.S. government funds USAID, NED, IRI and NDI has been of considerable help in backing this goal. Via these channels, organizations have conducted funding to liberal journalists, opposition members and whole parties that are popular in the Russian segment of the Internet. Ukrainian businessmen have entered into a kind of pact to achieve this goal during the political crisis.

The conveyors of Euromaidan’s values in Russia are an already existing network of Internet experts and influential speakers, whose names are also listed in the document. At the same time, the most influential figures in this group are not always known to a wide range of internet users. Thus, the name of Oleg Kozlovsky means little to an ordinary Russian citizen, but it it appears in the report as one of the central elements of the propaganda machine. A small informational note reports that he has been actively cooperating with the IRI fund for several years, and was one of the most important mayoral campaign activists for Alexei Navalny last summer. It reports that his resource Stopfake, which reveals Russian “propaganda,” also received a grant from the American foundation, beating out competitors’ projects. According to experts, the effectiveness Stopfake is at a relatively high level, although in Russia demand for it and its popularity are much lower than in Ukraine. In addition, some “fakes” denounced by the project’s experts are apparently provocations themselves created by Euromaidan activists.

As noted above, in the struggle for a counter-propaganda grant, Kozlovsky outperformed his competitors, and at this point pops up the name of another campaigner for Navalny. Maxim Katz was previously known around the world as a poker enthusiast – he was an active and successful player, and then became a backer who sponsored capable players’ participation in tournaments. However, in 2011 he became interested in politics and he began consistently promoting liberal views and criticism of Russian authorities on his blog. Since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, Katz has taken an openly anti-Russian stance, and even for a time ran the Antipropaganda project. Using Katz’s own methodology, it determines the amount of informational distortion in news materials from Russian and foreign media. Antipropaganda’s research results have repeatedly been criticized by pro-Kremlin bloggers – according to its research, Ukrainian journalists did not allow themselves to manipulate the facts while stories in the Russian media studiously avoided the truth. The moment the Russian Federation’s authorities adopted amendments that impose restrictions on anonymous funds transfers, Antipropaganda suddenly closed as quickly as it had opened. Currently the opposition is considering opening a Kiev branch of its urban initiative City Projects, the funding for which is likely to have already been made by European figures.

Another name mentioned by American experts more often than others is Vitaly Shushkevich. This opposition internet technologist makes no secret that he receives funding from the IRI and is a regular at events organized by the foundation in European countries. In March this year he was one of the most aggressive critics of the annexation of Crimea, calling on Ukrainians not to repeat the mistakes of Saakashvili and kill “Russian agents” on the spot. According to information given in the report, Shushkevich is now helping to lead election campaigns of several opposition candidates for the Moscow City Duma.

However, criticism of the government by liberal activists is a rather traditional phenomenon for Russia and does not cause any surprise. What did surprise many was the support for the Ukrainian revolution from the right-wing party Democratic Choice headed by Vladimir Milov. Milov called the burning alive of several dozen pro-Russian demonstrators in Odessa “local resistance in the most vividly illustrated form.” Following this, the politician issued an appeal to the people of Donbass, in which he stated that they were “not Russian” and demanded that they “do not entangle Russia in their internal conflict.” It is noteworthy that one of Milov’s party companions – blogger Stanislav Yakovlev – criticized the liberal opposition and in describing the situation in the Donbass took a consistently pro-Ukrainian side.

According to the information provided in the report, the source of financing of Milov’s political party is structures that are close to the new president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko. This explains the sharp ideological turn taken by the party nine months ago.

The report also notes the extreme effectiveness of the opposition movement’s anonymous, humorous Twitter accounts. Due to the lack of actual control over the system of microblogging and anonymous authors, fighting their posts is practically impossible for the Russian authorities, and Ukrainians are actively taking advantage of this in Russia.

Experts note that the increase in the number of blogs and social media users in Russia to a certain point played into the hands of the liberal public, primarily because the middle class had access to it and they tend to be liberal thinkers. However, in the last few years the main growth in this area has been achieved by the inhabitants of the provinces, among whom are high numbers of supporters of the authorities. This phenomenon significantly changed the balance of opinion in the Russian blogosphere, and, according to experts, the promotion of propaganda among this section of the population is currently the most important task of Ukrainian “agents.”

Photo by bloomberg.com