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Deception, Disinformation, and Doubt: Hybrid Warfare in Eastern Ukraine

Deception, Disinformation, and Doubt: Hybrid Warfare in Eastern Ukraine
The world is undergoing a seismic shift in the speed and availability of information, changing prior rules and norms, and maybe no more so than in Ukraine. Under an onslaught of “fake news” and disinformation, Ukraine is the first battleground in this fast-paced war on truth. The following conflict analysis examines this battle—what makes this conflict unique? Why is this conflict worth studying? What are the lessons we can learn? The analysis is underpinned by the following questions regarding the Ukrainian conflict:

  • What conditions existed to permit open warfare?
  • How were these conditions manipulated by Russian hybrid warfare?
  • Are there methods to strengthen communities against manipulation?
  • Is this type of manipulation exportable beyond the immediate near-abroad for Russia?

Conflict Context

To start, the Euromaidan—the initial flashpoint from which armed conflict became possible—was not simply a response to the failures of the Orange Revolution in 2004, but a larger movement against structural failures that have plagued the nation since independence in 1991.

Yushchenko’s reign was compromised:  government reforms failed, corruption was rampant, inclusivity between east and west was ignored.  During this time, heavy Russian propaganda was continually broadcast to the eastern part of the country.

By 2010, many had tired of the fallacies of Yushchenko, and Yanukovych returned to power, capturing many of the same communities and oblasts he carried in 2004.  He swiftly reversed the few democratic gains and turned more and more towards Russia.

Events moved quickly at the end of 2013 when Yanukovych signaled that he refused to sign the EU Association Agreement.  Protesters manned Independence Square in Kyiv and sought greater cooperation with Europe.  Eventually, the protesters demanded the resignation of the Yanukovych government; this led to violent confrontations between protesters and counter-protesters and the special police force.  The protests continued throughout the winter, eventually overthrowing the Yanukovych government.

The interim government was ineffective and somewhat captured by the better-organized nationalists from western Ukraine—leading to divisive law promoting Ukrainian language over Russian. Russia condemned the ousting of Yanukovych, promulgating the idea of a violent coup by “fascist” forces from western Ukraine, and using their vast disinformation network to spread mistrust of the intentions of the Kyiv government.

Read also: Stages of Russian occupation in a nutshell

Counter-government protests flared up in the eastern and southern regions, including Odesa, Kharkiv, and the Donbas. The government was late on offering amnesty to the occupiers who would eventually become separatists.

In March, Russian special forces were inserted into Crimea as “little green men”—soldiers without insignia who effectively overtook the peninsula in a matter of days.  Immediately, communication in Crimea became dominated by Russian media, and news from the peninsula was distorted as neutral journalists were denied entry into the region.

During this time, violent protests against the new Kyiv government occurred in the Donbas.  By April, these protestors coalesced into true separatist groups supporting the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). The Ukrainian government engaged in open warfare against the separatist forces in mid-April, and the fighting continues to rage till today.

That this conflict erupted, that the conditions were met to enable actual separatist movements within a population are the crux of this conflict analysis.  The Ukrainian communities in the Donbas were prepared by a concerted effort of disinformation and provocation to distrust the Kyiv government, to support (or at least be neutral) towards pro-Russian separatists and groups.

The initial entry of Russian special forces into the Donbas would not have been possible, nor would separatism gain such traction, without a continued diet of false information, misdirection, and biased reporting.

This new form of hybrid warfare is incredibly powerful—combining a “grooming” of the population, training in military tactics for varied groups, and violent agitation and provocation.  Hybrid warfare of this nature needs to be understood and analyzed to understand the best method to combat its power, as the Ukrainian situation may be repeated in other states.

Conflict Analysis

This analysis employs three separate tools with regards to the Ukrainian conflict:  The Onion, Timelines, and the Force Field. These tools are processed through a larger FAST framework, as FAST helps create an early-warning/prediction method that can further understanding of the conditions that allow hybrid warfare to negatively influence already tense situations.  Key actors are introduced through the “Onion” tool, which allows the analysis to evaluate actors and positions within the conflict through a FAST framework.   The Timelines then illustrate the divergent narratives that exist in this conflict, and the Force Field helps expose the various factors that hinder or help resolution of the conflict.

The tools were chosen for these specific reasons:

Onion:  To understand the deeper reasons for this conflict, the onion tool will expose the core needs of the Ukrainian government, DNR/LNR separatists, the West, and the Russian government.  This tool will also introduce the key stakeholders in the conflict, without getting too lost in the military nomenclature of various hybrid groups that are currently fighting in Ukraine.

Timelines:  A timeline can illustrate the events of the conflict as they occurred, but more importantly—especially in a context of competing narratives—how these events were interpreted by the opposing sides.  Included within this timeline are not only varied views of events from the Ukrainian government and separatist viewpoints but also that of the Russian state.

Force Field:  This tool will be useful in assessing how varied actors positively or negatively affect completion of the objectives of defeating disinformation and strengthening communities.  This tool can then inform possible recommendations to avoid future conflict.

A. Key Stakeholders

A Visual “Onion” Representation of the Ukrainian Government amid Russia's hybrid warfare use
A Visual “Onion” Representation of the Ukrainian Government

Ukrainian Government:

The Ukrainian government has several outward positions that they proclaim—the return of Crimea, a cessation of fighting in the east, recognition of sovereignty of the nation—which are in line with their interests.  The government does want an end to the fighting, but also sees a successful conclusion to the conflict as essential to ascension into the EU and NATO.  The government wants these things due to their worry over an increasingly belligerent and aggressive Russia on their doorstep.  Their needs are centered on the idea of legitimacy and recognition—if they are seen as a failed state, or a state that allowed chunks of the nation to be ceded to separatist movements, they may not last long in power.  For all the strong rhetoric about the return of Crimea, the Ukrainian government may be willing to let it go if that is necessary for a workable peace in eastern Ukraine.

DNR/LNR Separatists:

The separatists are somewhat more obscure in their needs—their positions are quite open:  They seek either a full union with Russia or to be autonomous, independent states aligned with Russia, and will not accept the government in Kyiv—though they say they support the Minsk II Protocol.  What they want may be more autonomy to the region, or a recognition of historical, linguistic, and economic ties with Russia, or simply a return to power in the Ukrainian government (under Yanukovych, Ukraine’s government was mostly representative of eastern and southern Ukraine).  Their need is tied to Russia—without the support of the Russian government at this point in time, the separatists cannot sustain the conflict.  They need either amnesty from Kyiv or the slow freezing of the conflict to a mutually negative peace.  If given enough time, the conflict may fall off the international radar, and the separatists will have a de facto autonomous region with Russian support in eastern Ukraine.

Read also:  Policy shift shows Russia preparing to recognize its puppet republics in Donbas

The West:

Within this analysis, the West is used to refer to the broader, generalized grouping of liberal democracies that are opposed to Russian intervention in Ukraine.  This group includes the United States, the European Union, NATO, and other liberal democracies in the region (and similar nations such as Georgia).  The West’s positions are clear:  Respect for Ukraine’s international borders and sovereignty; a return of Crimea to Ukrainian control; cessation of armed conflict in the east; and a stop to the arms traffic from Russia to Ukraine.  The interests of the West vary, from wanting Ukraine as a physical buffer between Russia and the EU to a necessary strong stance in the face of Russian aggression in Europe.  Some in Europe truly want to see Ukraine as an on-track viable candidate for EU membership, and some would like to see NATO ascension occur.  The needs of the West are less varied—they are truly focused on avoiding a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine while also staying out of direct military confrontation with Russia, yet challenging the Russian government enough to keep it from reaching out to destabilize or annex other states.

The Russian Government:

The Russian government is referred to within this analysis at times as simply Russia, though the government may not represent accurately the wants and needs of the Russian people.  Russia’s positions are straightforward—they state the impeachment of Yanukovych was a coup d’état, they support the Minsk Protocol and work towards peace, they are dedicated to protecting the Russian Compatriot in their near-abroad.  Their interests, however, are quite different:  Russia may be using Ukraine as a proving ground for its new approach to disinformation and hybrid warfare; they want a destabilized Ukraine to balance Western interest in their sphere of influence; they want the ability to turn on and off the conflict in the east as best benefits their immediate and future positions; they want to continue a campaign of disinformation that leads to a general distrust of the media in both Ukraine and the West.  The Russian state itself needs the support of the Russian population, and wartime patriotism stirs that support, which they have used to great effect, including issuing false news to their own people.  Russia must avoid open military confrontation with the West, but retain control of Crimea and the access to the Black Sea.  Russia also must have (or desperately wants) a return to a larger Slavic-run sphere, with a near-abroad that protects the heartland from potential threats.

The Ukrainian People:

The population of Ukraine must be included in the key stakeholders, though they represent an amalgamation of views and ideas that may be in direct opposition to one another.  However, their position in the east is bent towards peace and an end to the conflict.  However, many in the east have been exposed for so long to both disinformation and violence, they may be unsure of what peace might really look like.  Vulnerabilities of a population must always be considered when discussing an end to the conflict—are the Ukrainians robust enough to avoid future conflict if a peace is made, or will this simply be a momentary cessation in hostilities?  Ukrainians will need to be free of disinformation to truly make measured decisions, though this will require strong communities and knowledge bases that are able to fight back against “fake news.”

B. FAST Assessment

Root Causes:

The conflict in the Donbas and Ukraine’s concurrent susceptibility to forms of hybrid warfare has multiple causes.  The nation itself is young, forged from the collapse of the USSR, replete with imperfections in the base metal.  Transparency International consistently ranks Ukraine in the bottom quarter of perceived corrupt nations worldwide.  The nation has suffered multiple currency shocks and governmental scandals, and unemployment since the fall of Communism has hovered near 10% (World Bank).  This all occurs within a context of language and ethnicity—30% of Ukraine’s population are Russian-speakers, concentrated mainly in the east.  Numbers vary, but around 15-17% of the nation identifies as ethnically Russian (a term itself in dispute)—this cohort is then cited by the Russian government in its Compatriots Abroad policy, which has legitimatized Russia’s use of force to protect the compatriot “diaspora”.  Furthermore, Russia historically has viewed Ukraine as both a necessary line of defense of the “Heartland” and an integral piece of Slavic Civilization.  Ukraine, especially the east, has deep ties economically, historically, linguistically, and geographically with its larger neighbor, while the ideas of the West have—whether rightly or wrongly—never been as inviting.

But to consider susceptibility to disinformation, one must examine deeper cultural relations with the truth.  Under multiple occupations from a host of nations, including Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, Ukrainians are understandably reluctant to believe the mouthpieces of authority.  Ukrainian television (which 96% of Ukrainians watch for news weekly) is not dominated by Russian media, but in Russian-language areas, the four major TV channels are Russian broadcasters [sanctioned by Ukraine in October 2016 – EMP] — owned outright by the state or state-connected conglomerates.  Furthermore, the emergence of social media has cast doubt on what are truly facts—74.5% of youths report using [sanctioned by Ukraine on 17 May 2017 – EMP] for news, a Facebook-style site renowned for huge amounts of fake news.

Proximate Causes:

Immediate changes in the laws for Ukraine built upon the root causes of the conflict:  The Ukrainian language law, put into place upon the ousting of Yanukovych, exacerbated tensions in the population.  In the east, the Euromaidan was reported (especially among Russian-backed media outlets) not as taking back power from a corrupt regime, but as a fascist power grab from nationalist Ukrainians, including the paramilitary Right Sector.  As the new Kyiv government made misstep after misstep, a technologically advanced and capable disinformation campaign was waged from Russia aimed at disrupting governance in eastern Ukraine.  Social media and television were the vehicles for this campaign, which went from one easily disproven news item to another, not with the aim at increasing belief in the false news, but to “instill doubt in all news”.

In-fighting at the national level led to the nascent Ukrainian government’s inability to secure its borders with Russia.  Russia, for its part, mobilized a large number of forces to the border, where report after report of build-up was denied, furthering a palpable sense of distrust.  Western inaction did nothing to calm the situation, nor did Ukrainians believe the West would honor any commitments to the sovereignty of the nation.

Negative Intervening Factors:

Within a context of government incapacity and disinformation, Russian special forces mobilized to Crimea as “little green men,” or soldiers in uniform but without insignia of their origin.  Ostensibly there to protect the Black Sea Fleet, within the course of days, Russian forces secured the Crimean Peninsula, expelled the Ukrainian armed forces, and held a referendum on unification with Russia.  The lack of response from Western democracies may have emboldened separatists and the Russian government to take a similar approach in the Donbas.  Special forces intervened in the Donbas to excite and confuse the population and mobilize separatists.  These forces were much less visible than those in Crimea, but their presence pushed the separatists closer to armed conflict.  Ukraine’s ease of access to small arms/light weapons increased the potential of lethality within the conflict, as did the rhetoric from both the Ukrainian government and the DNR/LNR separatists, referring to the other as “fascists,” “terrorists,” “invaders,” and “dogs”.

Positive Intervening Factors:

Perhaps the greatest single factor that has kept the current conflict at low levels is the lack of prior conflict between the parties—dividing “ethnic Russians” from Ukrainians is a relatively recent creation, and there is little long-standing grievance between the actors.  Frustration at the failures of reform from the Orange Revolution to the Euromaidan have been felt in both camps.

Ukraine may have problems with disinformation, yet there are signs of positive progression.  There is little state influence or censorship of Ukrainian media, Ukrainians are bilingual media consumers (able to read multiple sources and points of view in both Russian and Ukrainian), and only 4% of Ukrainian media consumers actually trust Russian-sponsored news sources.

Furthermore, all parties—including Russia and the West—seek a certain legitimacy internationally.  The Ukrainian government does not wish to be seen as a junta or anti-human rights, and the DNR/LNR separatists are anxious to be recognized as autonomous and/or independent—which will require more than the simple backing of the Russian state.  Therefore, peace treaties and appeals to outside organizations have been moderately successful in curbing the most egregious violence.  The current ceasefire arrangement, the Minsk II Protocol, calls for a full cessation of violence, and has led to various short-term slowdowns in the conflict, though it has yet to produce a workable peace.

C. Further Tools


FAST necessarily relies on a methodology that takes into account qualitative and quantitative analysis.  Qualitative analysis stems from multiple sources such as constant monitoring, local and expert information, and fact-finding missions; quantitative data is centered on event-data analysis—specific incidents that can be codified and examined as to their effect on conflict likelihood.  According to one research paper, in the 2013-2014 crisis (from Euromaidan to the outbreak of armed conflict in the Donbas) there were at least 293 conflict events identified.  These events are viewed differently by the actors and occur on almost divergent timelines that track the conflict between the Ukrainian government and the separatists, Russia and the Ukrainian government, and Russia and the West.  For example, the February 22nd, 2013, ousting of President Yanukovych is seen by the current Ukrainian government (and allies in the West) as a needed overthrow of a corrupt, kleptocratic government, while the separatists viewed this event as an illegal seizure of power; Russia’s government stresses the anti-constitutional nature of the takeover.  Therefore, a comparative timeline from the Ukrainian government and the separatists helps frame the conflict and gain a broader understanding of the conditions that precipitated the armed conflict.  Necessarily, in a short paper, this timeline will be abridged and unable to note every event or cover the breadth of time needed to fully understand the conflict, but it will help the reader understand the immediate proximate causes of the conflict when viewed through a FAST lens.

Timelines of the Donbas conflict. Hybrid warfare was actively used

The timelines above are simply an acknowledgment of how events can occur and yet have completely separate interpretations by the different sides in a conflict.  Throughout these timelines, it should be noted that “fake news” sites on the Internet are producing daily articles aimed at discrediting the Kyiv government, the West, and the conflict.  Some of these articles are reported on mainstream Russian news channels beamed into Ukraine such as RT, and others are simply left online to saturate the discourse with potential falsities.

Force Field:

The goal of this tool is to understand through the Ukrainian conflict how to strengthen communities in order to defeat disinformation.  The prior tools and framework demonstrated the duality of narratives, and the interests varied actors have in the conflict—and why Ukraine is susceptible to disinformation—yet the force field can help the reader understand methods that may change future outcomes, or make recommendations when confronting disinformation.

Objective: Strengthening Communities to Defeat Disinformation

Objective: Strengthening Communities to Defeat Disinformation (hybrid warfare)


As seen above, there are various factors that can weaken or strengthen a community with regards to disinformation.  Not all disinformation is aimed to weaken a society to the point where actual special forces or agents provocateur can enter and destabilize the existing government.  As noted, most disinformation is simply created to foster a lack of trust in all media, to promote an environment in which the truth can be ignored or used as one sees fit.  Within the context of the Ukrainian conflict, disinformation weakened the structures and institutions that supported peaceful transitions of power, and which emboldened the separatists to take up arms.

Defeating disinformation is incredibly difficult, but the following recommendations can shape an initial strategy:

  • Build trust in news organizations and media
  • Support a free and fair press
  • Rapidly respond to initial fake news
  • Ensure clarity in reporting
  • Educate citizens to tell false news from real research
  • Allow open discourse around issues, yet avoid being dragged into false arguments
  • Recognize the danger of disinformation and fund counter-programs accordingly

In answering the questions posited at the beginning of this analysis, the conditions that permitted the transformation of the conflict from rhetoric and dissatisfaction with the government to open violence and warfare are found in the discrediting of institutions through both disinformation and years of corruption and failure.  This was then compounded by the entry of special forces into the region—forces which were able to move and hide among the population, training and abetting the separatists as needed.  The eventual entry of unacknowledged fighting groups into Ukraine provided the initial backbone of the separatist army, and made the conflict that much deadlier and more intense.  But these forces could never have found a foothold in Ukraine without a population that was primed to fear the Kyiv government, to see Russia as stable and prosperous, and to support the fight against the “fascists.”

This priming is an example of the new hybrid warfare that Russia conducts in its near-abroad.  Disinformation is a powerful tool, and made even more powerful when the agencies involved are also capable to producing a massive amount of “fake news” that can be slickly and smoothly promoted through a number of channels.  The success of this tactic in Ukraine makes it highly likely to be used again in the near-abroad, and communities must be strengthened against the acceptance of disinformation.

Truth should not be malleable, yet in situations where the press has limited access, where governments run massive media empires, and where the freedom of speech is under threat, disinformation can take root.  Throughout the Euromaidan and subsequent conflict, eastern Ukrainians were barraged by story after story of the danger in Kyiv; these stories did not exist in a vacuum, but against a background of institutional failure, corruption, poor governance, and perceived inequality and injustice.  Within that environment, false stories take root, loosening a community’s hold on the truth, and widening their acceptance of the “maybe, it could be…”

This new form of hybrid warfare is necessarily limited within the armed conflict context.  Disinformation can be slick, but the introduction of special forces to push a community to actual violence requires porous borders, ineffective militaries and police forces, an ability to blend into and become part of the community, and—at a minimum—barebones supply and logistic lines.  Therefore, hybrid warfare on this scale is likely limited to Russia’s near-abroad, especially in regards to those states looking towards the West and potential NATO partnerships.   Likely targets would be the Baltics, especially the large Russian-speaking population in Latvia (Russian Compatriots in Moscow’s eyes), the Caucasus region, and perhaps Central Asian nations, if they trend towards liberalism.

Yet, disinformation can spread much easier.  By creating doubt in liberal democracies and the trustworthiness of their press, Russia can influence the politics of those nations.  Disinformation can be consumed by citizens of every country, including the United States.  While the extent of Russia’s role in the recent US Presidential election is still being investigated by intelligence services, it is quite clear that Russia waged a proxy disinformation war against the American public.  A public that no longer believes in the truth is far more susceptible to the lies that illiberal democracies and authoritarians need to sell to survive.  Ukraine may simply be the first victim in the long war on the truth.  The real question is who will be next?

This is the short version of  “Deception, Disinformation, and Doubt: Hybrid Warfare in Eastern Ukraine” by  Travis Burke, Rotary Peace Fellowship – Group 22. Read the full text (PDF)

Travis Burke
Travis Burke

Travis Burke was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine from September 2005 to December 2007 in Rayhorodok, a tiny village near Sloviansk in the Donbas, Eastern Ukraine. Since then, he worked mainly in conflict and stabilization around the world, including Somalia and Afghanistan. Travis Burke graduated from the Georgetown University’s Masters of Science in Foreign Service program in 2011, and upon return from Afghanistan in 2013, he has been working as an independent consultant. Travis was a Rotary Peace Fellow in 2017.

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