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Russian propaganda’s main message to Ukraine: you’re under “external governance” – study

Russian propaganda’s main message to Ukraine: you’re under “external governance” – study
The Ukraine Crisis Media Center’s Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group (HWAG) has compiled a report on major operations of Russian information influence in Ukraine in the first half of 2021.

Titled “Overview of the major Russian information influence operations in Ukraine for the first half of 2021,” it breaks down the information operations, identifies key local actors engaged in them, and analyzes Ukraine’s internal vulnerabilities that made such activities possible.

During this period, Russian propaganda doubled down on the Ukrainian vaccination campaign, escalation in hostilities in the Donbas, revising history, and undermining relations between Ukraine and the West, with the metanarrative of “external governance” being the “glue” tying it all together.

The report’s authors conclude that the informational influence of Russia on Ukrainian society remains “relevant and systemic,”

“the Kremlin shows a high degree of adaptability, increasingly relying on local agents of influence and responding to changes in the Ukrainian media landscape,” the report goes.

After Ukraine’s ban of the TV channels linked to Putin’s crony Viktor Medvedchuk, the TV channel NASH became more prominent in the Ukrainian media landscape.

NASH is affiliated with Yevhen Muraev, another openly pro-Russian politician who had left with his allies Vadym Rabinovych’s Za Zhyttia (‘For Life’) party in 2018 after the latter had merged with Medvedchuk’s Ukrainian Choice organization and awaited merger with Yurii Boiko’s Opposition Bloc — the largest remaining chunk of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions that had disintegrated in 2014.

The report says that online media with Telegram playing a special role among them were focusing on pushing the “Ukraine’s external governance” narrative, which became

“a meta-narrative and is used to strengthen various information operations, given relatively high effectiveness of its impact on Ukrainian society.”

The study found that key information operations of the first half of 2021 were thematically linked to four main clusters of propaganda narratives:

  • campaigning against COVID-19 vaccination;
  • frontline escalation narratives;
  • Remembrance and Reconciliation Day and historical narratives in general;
  • undermining relations between Ukraine and Western partners.

COVID-19 anti-vaxxer campaign

The first cluster of the Kremlin’s information operations comprised promoting and supporting antivaccination sentiments in general, which included conspiracy theories to present Ukraine as a “failed state.” The persistent “failed state” narrative set this time focused on denigrating the country’s health care system and discrediting its reform.

The attacks on the healthcare system exploited a low level of trust of Ukrainians in authorities. The study mentions as an example that in the spring of 2021 only 19% of Ukrainians trusted the country’s health minister.

Also, throughout the first half of 2021, the Russian propaganda continued criticizing all vaccines but the Russian Sputnik V, which received a lot of promotion and encouraging rapprochement with Russia in general.

The Sputnik V promotion efforts went as far as an attempt to register the Russian vaccine in Ukraine as the Kharkiv-based pharmaceutical company Biolik officially applied to the Ministry of Health for registration of the vaccine hoping to produce and sell it locally.

According to the report, the most intense propaganda campaign was carried out against the CoviShield/AstraZeneca vaccine. This campaign was mostly based on the fabricated claim that India supplied a worse batch of the vaccine to Ukraine.

Blaming Ukraine for escalation in the Donbas

The second set of thematically related information operations had to do with the war simmering in the east of Ukraine for the seventh year now. Among the particular topics were accusations of Ukraine of escalating hostilities on the frontline or its alleged intentions to do so soon.

Another major goal was covering up the Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian northwestern borders and in the south, in Russian-occupied Crimea in March-April 2021. First, propagandists used the Russian Zapad 2021 military exercises planned for months later as a pretext for deploying troops, then they presented it as a response to “NATO’s aggressive policy.”

The report calls an attempt to discredit Ukraine and its Armed Forces using an altered story of a child killed in the occupied territories “the most notable operation.” A five-year-old local boy died in Russian-occupied Oleksandrivske, Donetsk Oblast on 2 April 2021 as an explosive projectile that was stored in a nearby garage blew up.

The propaganda machine turned the tragic incident into an extensive anti-Ukrainian campaign stating that a Ukrainian drone dropped an explosive device in the residential area where the boy picked it up triggering the detonation. The fake story received a lot of press in Russia and was also massively disseminated in pro-Russian Ukrainian media. The reports differed as to the child’s age or sex, yet “Russian and pro-Russian actors quickly and synchronously disseminated information about another ‘provocation’ of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.”

In June 2021, the Sea Breeze exercises in Ukraine became an “epicenter of disinformation” as the Kremlin denigrated the drill while actively intimidating both the Ukrainian population and the West.

Targeting history

The information operations of the third type targeted various anniversaries of historic events. The tendency was to crank up anti-Ukrainian propaganda on the dates of the events associated with World War II.

“The Kremlin and its agents of influence use every opportunity to once again promote the image of Ukraine as a fascist state, as well as to actively provoke the polarization of the population on issues related to commemorative practices,” the report reads.

For example, the propagandists put together significant efforts to discredit Ukraine for its way of celebrating Remembrance and Reconciliation Day (8 May). Ukraine was accused of “forgetting” the victory over Nazism.

Pro-Russian actors also resumed the practice of holding the so-called “Immortal Regiment” marches, which became one of the Kremlin’s tools of historical revisionism starting from 2015-2016 when the Russian authorities established control over the initiative and exported it abroad.

Eroding Ukraine’s foreign relations

The study established that the fourth most active type of information operations was an effort to undermine Ukraine’s relations with its international partners. This cluster falls into two main categories: weakening bilateral relations and undermining the West’s trust in Ukraine with boosting the anti-Wester sentiment inside Ukraine.

The relation weakening part could be situational and often resorted to historical revisionism and exploited existing issues between the two parties.

For example, Russian propaganda has been promoting distrust and hatred between Ukrainians and Poles, picking up minor criminal incidents that involve Ukrainians in Poland and presenting them as ethnic-hatred-induced crimes. Such information operations involve Russian agents of influence in both countries for promoting the Kremlin’s narratives locally.

The activities aiming at eroding trust in Ukraine “followed three lines concerning the EU, NATO, and the IMF.” The propagandists attempted to convince audiences of the alleged uselessness of Ukraine membership in Western alliances and the futility of cooperation with them. In demonizing this type of cooperation, “the narrative of external governance plays a special role,” according to the study.

Pro-Russian agent ring in Ukraine and exploiting weaknesses

A significant number of pro-Russian politicians are rather popular in the country’s south and east, as well as experts, journalists, and even one of the most popular churches – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate).

The authors of the report argue that despite the fact that some Ukrainians get their news from Russian media, the implementation of the Kremlin’s information campaigns in Ukraine was largely possible thanks to a local “wide and powerful network of pro-Russian actors, especially in the media sphere.”

Instead of direct promotion of rapprochement with Russia on its terms, Moscow takes advantage of this network to polarize public opinions, discredit authorities and the very idea of Ukrainian statehood.

The authors believe that such activities decrease national resilience and facilitate the alienation of Ukraine from the West and increase Moscow’s capabilities to press on Kyiv.

Additionally, the study lists a number of Ukraine’s vulnerabilities on which a number of the Russian information operation relied. Such vulnerabilities contribute to the “effectiveness of Russian disinformation and its deeper penetration into the Ukrainian information space.”

For example, a low level of public trust in authorities was actively exploited in the anti-vaccination campaign, notes the report. Among many other vulnerabilities listed, there is a low level of public media literacy that enables easy manipulations, a high level of corruption that contributes to promoting the “failed state narrative” and turns local elites to Russia, and insufficient presence of Ukraine’s voice on international platforms.

What makes Russian propaganda effective? Not only the above-mentioned availability of local networks of agents and exploiting local issues and vulnerabilities for better reach and justification of the narratives.

The major narratives of Russia’s anti-Ukrainian propaganda campaigns remain the same since 2014. However, the general guidelines of the narratives have often been adapted to current events and agendas.

The report mentions that the two main features of Russian disinformation are its “systematicity and adaptability.” The propagandists achieve systematicity through the long-lasting informational influence and repeated promotion of key narratives via all available communication channels.

Meanwhile, the adaptability manifests itself through the exploitation of “newsworthy information, changes in the agenda and political situation, assimilation of new communication channels, evaluation of the effectiveness of influence and its appropriate modification.”

Read the full text of the report “Overview of the major Russian information influence operations in Ukraine for the first half of 2021” in English on the Ukraine Crisis Media Center website.

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